Wittgenstein famously claimed that game could not be defined, since it is a “family resemblance”. His argument is embarrassingly anorexic. Nevertheless, he announces it with characteristic grandiosity: “Don't say there must be something in common or they would not be called 'games' - but look and see whether there is anything common to all.”
The late University of Waterloo philosopher, Bernard Suits, ignored the bull—I mean this word in the papal as well as the fecal sense—but took the advice. He took a look and found a common element, a philosophically interesting structural feature of games. (See The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, 1978; republished by Broadview in 2005 with an Introduction by Tom Hurka. The title is for Aesop’s grasshopper, who plays all summer—Suits thought he was on to something.)
Observing the rules is “the lusory attitude.” The value of playing the game, and of winning, derives from trying to achieve the goal in the difficult rules-prescribed way—using legal clubs to stroke the ball, moving chess pieces according to the rules from a starting position. As Hurka says in his essay, “Games and the Good,” Suits proposes, as a guiding principle for ethics, that when all instrumental goods are provided, the good life consists of playing games.
Lately, thinking about the evolution of art, I came to realize that art has a structure similar to that of Suitsian games. The artist produces works to evoke an aesthetic response from the audience—for instance, to evoke pleasure in the contemplation of beauty. This, however, is not all that there is to art. Artistic appreciation properly includes awareness of the means the artist uses to create a positive aesthetic response. The artist seeks to evoke this response in a way that includes an awareness of how this response was evoked.
This is illustrated by the role that styles and genres play in art. Almost always, a work of art mostly respects the rules of a rigidly codified style. (It may violate these in small ways, and sometimes it will modify style, or even create a new one thereby.) Artistic appreciation of music essentially includes how musical form and performance are deployed. A story aspires to art only when it is a part of the goal that the audience should appreciate not just the tale, but also how the telling exploits the rules of language, the structure, and the genre.
Art respects formal rules that make its goal more difficult to achieve. In “Games and the Good”, Hurka makes the point through Nozick’s “experience machine.” The experience machine gives one the experience of having achieved one’s lofty goals—it simulates the satisfaction of discovering a cure for cancer or of climbing Mount Everest. But life on the experience machine has no value. Pleasure and satisfaction are valuable only when they arise from actually achieving worthy goals. Pleasure is not good unless it is achieved in the right way—in this case, by achieving great goals.
The artist does not seek to induce aesthetic pleasure in the most efficient way. Putting an audience on the experience machine would not be art; the audience’s aesthetic pleasure must be achieved through its appreciation of the means by which the artist evokes that pleasure. This, I have argued elsewhere, is why pornography is different from erotic art. Pornography seeks sexually to arouse the consumer. It is beside the point how. Pure erotic art would have to arouse its viewer through his awareness how certain formal elements of the work are being used to arouse him. The nearly self-defeating character of such an aim demonstrates why pure erotic art (as opposed to pornography) is close to, if not completely, impossible.
This brings me in a long arc to evolution. Art is a cross-cultural universal. Every society has a very wide range of all art forms–decorative art, music, story-telling, poetry are all universal. But, as Noël Carroll has written, “it is improbable that this can be explained in terms of art’s originating in a single location at one time and then being disseminated gradually therefrom.” Art-production and art-appreciation are innate in humans—parts of human nature. This implies that art is a product of evolution.
How did art evolve? This is a question for a different occasion. But what I have said implies that we cannot address the problem by considering only the primary intentions of the artist—i.e., to evoke a positive aesthetic response. Any treatment of the evolution of art must account for the reflexive goal of evoking this pleasure in part by understanding how it is done. This means that to explain the evolution of art, it is not enough to say that art aids the appreciation of human nature, or that art strengthens social cohesion by common enjoyment. The question is how the reflexive goal contributes to the selective value of art.
And here’s a surprise. Much the same goes for the evolution of game-playing.