Year Alpha

Game Thinking

By March 6, 2020 March 8th, 2020 No Comments

Getting Serious about Playful Thinking


“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of knowledge lay all undiscovered before me.” (Issac Newton)


Dear students, thinkers, players…

Welcome to the world of game thinking and the realm of playfulness! In this letter you will find a few introductory ideas about the course and its purpose, a few reading suggestions and a pre-class assignment.

How to approach the topic?

Indulge me for a moment or two in this very busy and too short life and let us play again on the seashore and perhaps find some curious objects…This course, part of the curriculum of the School of Thinking is designed to explore the application of play to thinking and how it may augment if not entirely transform one’s thinking in addressing a very broad range of problems and life situations.

If to indicate a somewhat more concise goal to this endeavour, it is becoming a seriously playful thinker or a playfully serious thinker, and ultimately a player of games in the unique sense that I hope will become clearer at the conclusion of the course. On the onset, it would seem paradoxical how could one be both serious and playful at the same time? Indeed it is a paradox, one that hides, I would argue, a profound insight as to the manner of how thought develops and how thinking might be conducted consciously. To address such a paradox we need to understand first what ‘being serious’ and ‘being playful’ mean and whether these are indeed opposing perspectives or attitudes as they are commonly believed to be.

A second paradox that came to my attention in the course of designing this course is that there is probably no methodical way to “change one’s mind”, that is, profoundly changing one’s already established habitual practices of thinking. Whatever is methodically deliverable, it is already processed and judged by the very same mental-cognitive machinery that we wish to change. Venturing into meta-thinking or meta-cognitive practices is indeed a well-known approach yet it is limited in its efficacy because inasmuch as one would like to, one can hardly ‘go out of one’s mind’, to paraphrase on the ‘out of the box’ metaphor.

Insight, I believe, can be hinted at, or perhaps its onset can be catalysed but not methodically delivered. So this very brief course is not methodical (though it might seem to be so) and not about a method but rather an attempt to stimulate and bring about circumstances of mind whereas the participants may discover for themselves, within their unique mental-cognitive ecosystem, how to become seriously playful in their thinking. This will be enacted via a more or less guided and playful exploration of various facets of play and game playing and where the primary ’homework assignment’ is dedicating a few moments (and then a few more…) to reflect how these various facets may apply to one’s life situations and problems in all dimensions, personal, social, professional, psychological, emotional, and physical just to name a few. Even one’s dreams and visions are game for the seasoned player.

What are games?

As we aim primarily to encourage an intuitive understanding of games we will avoid at this point attempting to provide a single definition of what a game is. We will start with the very broad notion of play as an activity that organisms with complex cognitive abilities engage in. What makes play unique is that a) although the activity of play seems to be purposeful, such purposefulness does not seem to be rooted in necessity, and b) that play actions often (but not always) seem to not signify what such actions conventionally do. Further, as a preliminary notion, by game, we will mean any structuring of play.

Wittgenstein was the first philosopher to address the problematic of the concept game. He coined the concept of language-game to address the multifarious ways any word in a language gets its meaning depending on a certain pre-existing contextual structuring. Wittgenstein was interested primarily in the mechanism of language. His underlying idea was that the way we interact in the world, the way we address reality mediated by language is a kind of a game, that meaning is determined via such games so that there is no direct and fixed correspondence between a word and what it may signify in the world. Rather meaning is conceived and depends on a certain structuring of activities which is purposeful but not necessary. In other words, when we interact in language, we play. It is interesting to note that when this understanding is applied to the concept game itself, it does not mean that the concept is vague to the point that any attempt of defining is bound to fail. It means however that there is no single essential characteristic or set of such characteristics that equally apply to all instances of the concept. Rather the case is that various instances of games are connected by diverse similar features but these are not common to all instances.

Wittgenstein had probably chosen the concept game to discuss his ideas about language because among other concepts it is perhaps unique in the vast diversity of contexts in which it can make sense and hence the fluidity required to make sense of it. Lastly, games can and often are played recursively, that is, games played within other games which are played within yet other games etc. This feature of recursiveness adds yet another dimension to an already vast space of possibilities.

Kinds of Games

It is common knowledge that games have many forms. To mention just a few major categories of games, there are games of skill and competence where players compete to demonstrate superior competence or mastership like Chess, Go or the whole family of sports games. There are games of chance where players stake against each other and where risk is an essential element of the play e.g., various card games. There are of course games that involve combinations of both skill and chance like Backgammon, or games where the third factor of incomplete information is an additional challenge. In games of incomplete information, the players have access only to part of the information that determines the game situation. Compare for example Chess or Backgammon which are games of complete information to Poker where a player knows only his hand but not the hands of other players. Combinations of skill, chance and partial information are characteristic to many real-life situations and are researched extensively in mathematical game theory. Another general characteristic of games is competitiveness versus cooperation. In competitive games, each player is considered purely self-interested while in cooperative games players may team up to achieve mutual goals or even diverse goals. Complex games can again combine competitive and cooperative dynamics.

Simulation games form another important category of play activities that come to replace actual states of affairs in order to better understand or prepare for them, or, alternatively save resources e.g., war games, rehearsals, thought experiments, etc. One of the most common simulation games that all of us play is when we try to understand the thoughts and feelings of another person or anticipate her behaviour. We do that by simulating other minds using a theory of mind based on our own experiences. In the social realm there are complex social, behavioural and psychological games played among individuals or groups of individuals such as courting, negotiation and diplomacy, and a related family of games involving children’s play, pretence and imitation, make-belief and role-playing which can be spontaneous or formalized in activities such as theatre play or ritual.

Worth mentioning also is a relatively new and rapidly growing category of computer games among which RPGs (Role-Playing Games) and MMORPGs (Massively Multilayer Online Role-Playing Games e.g., World of Warcraft) are of special interest as they become vast hubs of complex human interaction often involving computer-generated virtual agents whose level of sophistication and intelligent interactivity is ever-growing.

Finally, the powerful combination of computer technology, internet supported social media and games has also given rise to the new concept of gamification – “the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. It can also be defined as a set of activities and processes to solve problems by using or applying the characteristics of game elements.” (for those interested see also items b,c in the suggested books for reading). Gamification can be considered as a limited derivative of game thinking.

What is a game thinking and why?

Game thinking is the idea of adopting a lusory attitude (from the Latin ludus, meaning game) as a style of thinking. This involves a few aspects. The first and easiest to grasp aspect is using the concept of game as a thought vehicle – a powerful method of describing, framing and understanding complex problematic states of affairs, defining proper goals, (winning/losing conditions), identifying the relevant agents (the players), formalizing systems of constraints (rules of the game) and degrees of freedom (permissible moves) and finding how to move from actual states of affairs to desired ones (strategy and tactics). Game theory is an elaborate mathematical discipline whose focus is just that. We will address part of the course to game theory.

As our preliminary definition goes, a game is a structuring of play but critically, play as a complex activity exceeds and goes beyond any specific game. This brings us to the second and more difficult to grasp aspect, that is, game playing as a means to approaching, breaking through and going beyond the limits of one’s thinking. In other words, game thinking as a means of cultivating and achieving playful, open-ended, creative thinking. In contrast to the so-called ‘serious’ thinking which is conducted within a definite set of assumptions and boundaries i.e., within a definite game, playful thinking – not less serious – places the thinker on the boundary between the game being played and another game, greater in scope, or just different, so that she can not only play according to the rules but also play with the rules. In becoming playful, thinking can be developed not only to excel but also to exceed itself.

Acquiring and cultivating a lusory style of thinking amounts to the individual making a continuous effort to reflect on all life situations as a game and about herself as an active participant in that game. The primary difficulty one may encounter here is, of course, the habitual and often subconscious distinction one makes between game and nongame life situations. This distinction, as we shall see, is not warranted and not always necessary. It is rather to do with the limits of one’s boundaries of identity and autonomy as an agent. As long as such distinction is kept sharp and rigid, it will seriously limit if not entirely inhibit the application of playfulness (and therefore game thinking) in all life situations believed to be of the nongame kind.

The third aspect of game thinking is to do with the psychological dimension of playing games. Specifically, the psychological and behavioural factors that influence the creation and assignment of distinctions between game and nongame situations, between different game situations and different games, especially in the sense of social roles being played, and most importantly the relative fluidity or rigidity of such distinctions. In game thinking, playfulness does not mean that anything goes. Being playful is being very serious about the game (the structuring) being played. Otherwise, the very activity of playing a game is rendered impossible. Playfulness is rather to do with the kind of distinctions being made, how they are maintained and why, all this given that such distinctions are seldom arbitrary but are made to express values, knowledge, beliefs, expectations, preferences, etc.

There is a strange reflective loop implied here: values, knowledge, beliefs and preferences are primary elements of what one would describe as constituting the experience of reality as such. But all the same, they can be considered as the building blocks of a universal game one is immersed in. The player does not only play a game but is also being played by the game he plays. Here we touch on the universal and metaphysical aspect of game thinking – life or existence as a grand all-encompassing game. As we shall see there are quite a few cultural references to this idea. From a metaphysical perspective, there is an important relation between play and game as reflecting reality: while play always exceeds any specific game, it is the game that actualizes play, in a sense embodies it and brings it forth as an actual meaningful activity. There is no play other than playing a certain specific game (or a few), and there is no game unless it is being played.

In summary, game thinking encompasses (at least) four dimensions or perspectives: the formal, the generative-creative, the psychological and the metaphysical/universal. In the course, we will explore these dimensions and make some connections among them.

Course Structure 

This course is given for the first time and I plan it to be a harmonious combination of knowledge transfer, interaction, conceptual experimentation and fun play. The class meeting time we have is pretty short for covering the vast extent of relevant materials. Therefore I am already preparing an article that reasonably covers the subjects we will discuss in class, so there is no worry if not everything is covered in our class meeting. According to my current plan (that might still change by the time we meet) there will be 3 modules 1.5 hours each.

  1. Introduction, games in myth and legend, the paradoxical boundaries between game and nongame.
  2. A brief introduction to game theory, strategy, utility, risk, rationality, Nash equilibrium, game theory in the wild, is game theory playful?
  3. Finite and infinite games
  4. Life as radical gaming
  5. Game thinking – conclusion

Before Class

  • Mandatory reading/watching

    1. watch lectures 1-7 plus the introduction in Game Theory 101 (8 short videos, about 1 hour altogether). This is exceptionally important since we will have little or no time in class to cover this subject. (it is fully covered in an article I will share after the course)
    2. Bateson, G. (2000). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. University of Chicago Press. (pp. 14-20)
    3. Carse, J. (2011). Finite and infinite games. Simon and Schuster. (pp. 3-32…)
    4. Can you step in the same river twice? Wittgenstein vs. Heraclitus
  • Suggested fun reading

The students are suggested to read at least one of the SF books listed below. They all present different aspects of playing games. Reading these will greatly enhance the course experience.

    1. The Player of Games 
    2. Ender’s Game
    3. Daemon & Freedom (2 volumes)
  • Films (mandatory)

Watch at least one of the following films about games.

    1. The game
    2. In search of Bobby Fisher

Both films are accessible from the following link. The link is provided for the use of the students only.

  • Assignments

Answer in writing assignment a and two out of assignments b-d (½ to 1 page each) to your choice. Please send the completed assignments to my email  no later than March 29 2020.

    1. Based on the letter and reading materials write a 1-2 p. (at most) short essay about one aspect of game playing which you find most interesting, puzzling, attractive or problematic.
    2. Is there a particular game(s) (or kinds of game)  you like to play? Give a short description of the game. What is it that you find enjoyable in playing this (kind of) game(s)? What do you like the most? Winning? Losing? Other? Or just playing? (use the kinds of games mentioned in the letter or suggest other kind(s))
    3. How do you react  to the ideas expressed in this letter and the reading materials (including the films)? Do they correspond to  your understanding of life both individually and generally? If so, how?
    4. On a scale of 0-10, are you a playful individual in your life? How so and why?

After class

An extended (yet unpublished) paper elaborating all the course materials will be made available to the students after class.