Going through the motions

Obviously, we are never merely playing a game. Or, to say it another way, we are never playing only one game. We are always conscious of the game's relation to the world in which we live, the world in which that game is one small part.

How much of this context could a non-human "understand"? Is a racehorse "playing the game" of horse racing or merely responding to the urgings of the jockey? Is Deep Blue "playing" chess or merely making moves on a chessboard according to a particular algorithm? Is either trying to win?

If not, they are not playing the game in any meaningful sense. As I see it, to perform the skills and behaviors associated with the game without consciously pursuing the object(s) of the game is not equivalent to playing the game. We might be practicing the game or pretending to play (as with pro wrestlers or actors in a movie about a sport) or exercising our muscles, but there is no game without the attempt, on the part of at least one of the players, to achieve the statable object of that game. (Could dolphins ever be taught to pursue such an object, or would they merely go through the motions of play? And how would we know?)

In addition, it is not possible to pursue the object of the game independent of the key prescriptions and proscriptions. Built into the object(s) of any game is the manner in which it/they must and must not be pursued.

The primary object of a football game, for example, is not to cross your opponents' goal line while carrying a football; it is to score a touchdown. An equipment manager carrying a bag of footballs through the end zone of a football field has not scored a touchdown. These are profoundly different events, and perceiving the difference between them is a key to understanding the game. Thus, not understanding the difference between them is tantamount to not understanding the game of football. Could any non-human ever make this distinction?

"Time in"

Perhaps the single most important "rules" that are literally unstatable, then, are those that define the context of the game and answer the question, "When is the game being played?" None of us can say how we know that we are in fact playing a particular game (rather than, say, just practicing), but we generally have no trouble knowing that we are. That suggests that there are many subtle cues we give and receive about what play activity we are engaged in, what "counts," when time is "in," when the game has started, when play is suspended, and when the game has ended.

Let me offer a personal example.When my buddies and I play tennis, we meet each other at the court at a prearranged time, take out our tennis racquets and some balls, warm up for 15-20 minutes (hitting ground strokes, volleys, overheads, and serves), and eventually someone asks, "Ready?" or perhaps "Ready to play?" If anyone says no, we continue to warm up. If everybody says Yes (or nobody says No), we toss away all but three balls. At this point, I (and presumably the others) understand that the actual game is going to begin with the next serve. There is never a formal announcement that play is about to begin. At most, the server will hold up a ball and the others will nod or wave.

None of us has ever acknowledged that this is our practice, none of us has stated any of these behaviors as "rules," none of us would be able to say how we arrived at these customs, yet none of us, I assume, would have any doubt when the game has started.

Could I program a computer or teach a dolphin to operate with the same certainty? Could I specify all the variations in our ritual so that non-humans (or non-sports fans) could identify the boundary line between warm-up and play?

On your mark . . . get set . . .

Players and fans and officials of any game or sport develop an acute awareness of the game's "frame" or context, but we would be hard pressed to explain in writing, even after careful thought, exactly what the signs are. After all, even an umpire's yelling of "Play Ball" is not the exact moment the game starts. (And think how confused a new fan of baseball would be when some dignitary threw out "the first pitch"!) We must rely on our intuition, based on our experience with a particular culture, to recognize when a game has begun.

We cannot, in other words, program a computer to understand all the conditions that must be satisfied for humans in a particular culture to say that a game is underway. If the computer is turned on and the software for that game booted up, the computer is, by necessity, playing the game, even if its "opponent" is a two-year-old, a monkey, or an accidental jiggling of the keyboard.

In addition, the computer will go on "playing" until it is turned off, even if its opponent moves on to other activities or drops dead. This phenomenon is the premise of the movie, Wargames, in which a supercomputer, WOPR, cannot distinguish between a "game" of Thermonuclear War and the real thing. When told it is involved in an actual battle, not a simulation, WOPR's reply is "What's the difference?"

By contrast, a human being is constantly noticing if the conditions for playing the game are still being met, continuously monitoring the "frame," the circumstances surrounding play, to determine that the game is still in progress, always aware (if only unconsciously) that the other participants are acting as if the game is "on."

For example, in our tennis game, a player will occasionally say, after failing to return a serve, "I wasn't ready." If the others decide that the player is serious in that announcement, the point is usually replayed. How we determine whether or not the player is joking is beyond my understanding (although I'm perfectly capable of making such a determination) and certainly not in my power to express in words.

"Time out"

But there are other reasons, still more difficult to explain, why a particular serve in our game does not "count," i.e., is (usually) replayed. If the players on the receiving team decide that the server's concentration has been "unfairly" disrupted after serving a fault (because, for example, someone from another court has asked us to retrieve their ball or something else has caused "too much" time to elapse), they generally tell the server to "take two," that is, to try his/her first serve again. In effect, they have made a ruling that the server has been inappropriately distracted between the first and second serve and "deserves" a second chance at two serves for that point.

But what exactly is an "unfair" disruption of play according to the etiquette of our game? Can any one of us spell out precisely what situations warrant a second chance and which do not? After all, we are making no effort here to follow the practices of some official tennis game, so we have no rule book to appeal to, even if we wished to. (Actually, I would feel silly consulting one for such a petty matter.)

I assume that we are all just following a tradition of hackers' tennis that has been passed down over the generations, almost always by imitation rather than by any explicit explanation.

I also assume that our behavior is based on our own notions of "fairness," not on something we could explain in detail.

As a result, I'm not even certain that the other players in my game have the same reasons for telling someone to "take two" as I do, but I have noticed a reasonable consistency over the years.

Occasionally, we facetiously (I assume) debate about whether we should give the opposing player another first serve, but our discussion itself is usually seen as a sufficient distraction to settle the matter in the server's favor. Incidentally, I have never heard the server request a second chance, except in jest (I have assumed), regardless of the circumstances, and some servers will not accept the receiving team's ruling unless it is insisted upon.

Below the surface: Who's the best sport?

A kind of sub-game is going on "underneath" the more obvious one called tennis. Many hackers, myself included, try to one-up each other in politeness and thoughtfulness, so this aspect of our tennis matches can be thought of as a kind of game-within-the-game in which the object is to come off as the best sport.

Of course, no one ever acknowledges this game and no winner is ever announced. My guess is that this practice gives us hackers a chance to feel successful on some level, regardless of the outcome of the match.

Keep in mind that I have never discussed any of these customs with my tennis buddies and probably never will, but I can say that almost every hacker I've ever played tennis with (including those who are fierce competitors and those who are impolite and inconsiderate in other ways) has practiced this non-professional courtesy, and I'm confident that if I played in a friendly game in Oklahoma or Maine or Florida or Arizona, I would see this same tradition being followed.

Yet what chance does a computer, a dolphin, a non-native speaker, or even a non-player have of understanding this game of "Who's the best sport?" It's the kind of thing you have to learn from experience, observation, and inference, not from a set of statable rules.

"Unwritten Rules" by Stephen Sniderman2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

The Life of Games
No. 1 (October 1999)
©1999 Kadon Enterprises, Inc.