No, Wittgenstein Didn’t Think You Can’t Define Games
One of my pet peeves in game studies is the claim – repeated in published articles again and again – that Wittgenstein thought you can’t define games, games are impossible to define or some other variant of this idea.
I’m not sure why the idea is so persistent. Perhaps game scholars have a hard time coming up with definitions and feel better when they think that an esteemed dead philosopher let them off the hook: “I’m failing to define games because Wittgenstein told me it’s impossible, not because I’m not very good at this kind of theorising.”
Whatever the reason, it’s both commonplace and wrong. Wittgenstein didn’t think you can’t define games. All the game studies scholars repeating that claim are simply wrong, probably haven’t read Wittgenstein, and have learnt that from their more senior colleagues, who probably also haven’t read Wittgenstein.
If you think that, wait, wasn’t there a paragraph where he says so in Philosophical Investigations, I can understand where your confusion comes from. There is an oft-cited paragraph in the book, where he uses games as an example:
Consider, for example, the activities that we call ‘games’. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, athletic games, and so on. What is common to them all? – Don’t say: ‘They must have something in common, or they would not be called “games”’ – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them, you won’t see something that is common to all, but similarities, affinities, and a whole series of them at that. (§66)
So Wittgenstein does write about games and does say that they don’t have “anything common to all”. But thinking that this is a claim about games is confused about why Wittgenstein is writing about games in the first place: he is using games as an example when he tries to explain how language works. The paragraph uses games as an example, but it is about language, not about games.1
Elsewhere in the book Wittgenstein uses different examples. He writes at length about workers building a wall and how they can do so without needing a complex language, because the context makes their expressions understandable. If I look at another worker and say “brick”, they might rightly deduce that I want them to hand me a brick – especially if we’ve been building a wall for some time already and have formed a routine on how to do it.
I haven’t seen anyone read that example and exclaim that Wittgenstein thought that manual laborers are idiots who can’t use complex language. Yet that is exactly what scholars are doing when they say that Wittgenstein thought you can’t define games. They’re reading an example about games literally, when it should be read as an example in a larger argument about how language works.
Wittgenstein probably wrote about construction because he was trained as an architect and about games because he apparently liked games. But his book is about neither and game studies should stop claiming it is.
If you want to see what Wittgenstein actually thought about games and don’t have time to go through Philosophical Investigations, you can read Laas’ “On Game Definitions”. It is the best summary on the topic I know of. If you just want to know how to write that definition section in your next paper, you can look at my article “How to Define Games and Why We Need To”.
Arjoranta, Jonne. 2019. ‘How to Define Games and Why We Need To’. The Computer Games Journal 8 (3–4): 109–20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40869-019-00080-6.
Laas, Oliver. 2017. ‘On Game Definitions’. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 44 (1): 81–94. https://doi.org/10.1080/00948705.2016.1255556.
okf pointed out that I’m oversimplifying here: Wittgenstein is also writing about games here. Guilty as charged – I’m oversimplifying to make a point, which I think still stands: reading this paragraph in isolation as a thesis about games misses the important thing he is trying explain about how language works.
There is a famous example of someone doing exactly that. Bernard Suits read this and thought, “wait, that seems wrong” and wrote an eloquent answer in “The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia”, which sets out to do just that: to show what is common to all games. It also shows how understanding that leads to a vision of society where we do nothing but play games. It’s also written as a stage play, where the characters from Aesop’s fable discuss these things. It’s an absolutely gem of an book, and anyone aiming to misunderstand Wittgenstein should aim for the high bar set by Suits. ↩