Residing in a household where there are diverse reading preferences, I sometimes find myself catching enthusiasm for a book I would have never come across on my own. Thus it was that I picked up The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia by Bernard Suits. It is a book of philosophy – a very strange book of philosophy – wherein the speaker is, surprisingly, Aesop’s grasshopper (from “The Ant and the Grasshopper”). Now, Aesop’s moral was that we should work hard like the ant to prepare for winter and not play around all summer like the grasshopper. Suits’s Grasshopper, however, thinks that play is the thing – or, specifically, games are the thing. And Suits spends much of the book on proofs and definitions concerning games, all of which are more interesting than you might think, though not the parts that fascinate me the most.
What I am most interested in is Suits’s chapter on utopia (as he defines it). What would we do in a world where all our needs are met? Basic physical requirements met, no need to earn a living, no need to prove ourselves? Here is what Suits says:
For I suspect that playing (genuine) games is precisely what economically and psychologically autonomous individuals [read adequately housed, fed, and medicated without working] would find themselves doing, and perhaps the only things they would find themselves doing. (165)
Now, the Grasshopper admits that people might do things like chop down trees or till gardens for the “fun of it,” but claims that our relationship to those things would change. They would become games or play, and we would be happier for it.
Bear with me. If a sufficiently funded retirement (and I mean sufficient to cover the basic costs of life sustenance, and not necessarily six cruises a year) can be thought of as a kind of utopia, what would it mean to think of our lives in terms of games, in terms of play? Believe it or not, I think this is a serious question. Would you be happier if you didn’t take life so seriously? I’m talking about the day-to-day stuff here; this is not an argument for trivializing climate change or anarchy.
When we “play” games, we win and lose and still look forward to the next game. It is not the end of the world if my husband beats me at gin rummy or a grandchild beats me at the very first level of a video game (as grandchildren always do). I accept the terms of the game, including the fact that I might not win, and still enjoy playing it.
Camus said that the fundamental question in the face of life’s (seeming) absurdity was whether to commit suicide. And once we decide to live (and he assures us that is what we should decide), we must somehow create meaning in a (seemingly) meaningless or absurd life. Isn’t this what we do with games, with play – create some kind of pleasure and meaning from defining the terms under which we will play and then viewing the game in a positive manner? Mightn’t life be easier if we could think of it as some kind of game?
When I was working, I always regretted that I could not take my work life less seriously – I could have worked longer and enjoyed it more. But in work, one is less able to define one’s own rules, decide which games to play. I have more latitude now, but am not sure that I am really taking advantage of it.
Now I am aware that while all work and no play can make Jack a dull boy, the reverse is also true. That is why it is not just play, I am talking about, but games, where there is the pleasure of striving, but perhaps in a more joyful sense. Think about playing a board game with friends. You know it is not serious, but you lose yourself in the play of the game within the limits of the rules. You don’t consider cheating to win; you don’t stay up at night over misplayed cards (unless you are a championship bridge player) or think you are a better person because you won. You take the game as it comes and do your best and enjoy the experience.
The theologian John Dominic Crossan says that games are like life in that they have limits. In life we have all kinds of limits – death being the major one:
I would suggest… that game is a very serious practice session for life and death, or, more precisely, for life towards death…. It is the joy of finitude and the laughter of limitation…. Game teaches us to enjoy the limitation posed by the game itself. To destroy the limitation is to destroy the game. Imagine baseball with as many balls as the pitcher wanted and as many strikes as the batter chose. (5) The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story
The laughter of limitation. I am reminded of Spinoza, my favorite philosopher, who says that “cheerfulness is always good and can never be excessive.” Cheerfulness comes from joy and brings joy. And looking at life as play would seem to be a joyful exercise.
The other interesting exercise that The Grasshopper stimulates is that of thinking about what exactly utopia would look like for us? In his book, Suits somehow assumes that the government would be straightened out in utopia (which should be enough to worry us about his hold on reality, but he is – one must acknowledge – Canadian and that might make a difference). What would utopia in what’s left of our lives look like? What would constitute the best life we could live? Old folks have lived a long time; we should have some idea of what makes life… joyful. Suits says utopia would be people playing games. I do not entirely agree (after all the grasshopper dies because he has not prepared for the winter), but I think if I could see life as more game-like, I might be happier.
Rituals are one of the games I play in my old age; I create “rules” within which to live my life in such a way to meet at least some of my goals. You might look at my short story, “Ritual,” to see one example of ways in which structure can add to life and what happens when it is interrupted.