Play and games: An opinionated introduction

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Philosophy has a schizophrenic relationship with games. On the one hand, philosophers love using games as model, arguing that phenomena as diverse as linguistic meaning, meta‐ethics, normative ethics, applied ethics, law, and aesthetics can be illuminated via an analogy with games. On the other hand, there is scant focused discussion of the concept of a game as such. This is problematic; the appeal to games as a model to clarify philosophically puzzling questions has limited utility if games themselves (and the concept of a game) are poorly understood. Moreover, playing games plausibly is an important element in a good life; anyone interested in the theory of welfare, a traditional philosophical topic, should be interested in games. We play games, but if anything, play itself has been more neglected by philosophers than games. This neglect is unwarranted. Historically, philosophy has investigated foundational questions about human nature, and a disposition to play plausibly is a deep part of human nature. Moreover, play is an important concept in evolutionary biology and psychology, yet those working in those fields struggle to define the concept to their own satisfaction. E.O. Wilson went so far as to remark that “no behavioural concept has proved more ill‐defined, elusive, controversial, and even unfashionable than play.” One might have hoped philosophers could help here. In this paper, I provide an opinionated introduction to the philosophy of play and games.

Some time ago, an innocent bystander, after glancing through a copy of Mind, asked me, ‘Why do philosophers talk so much about games? Do they play them a lot or something?’ (Midgley, 1974: 321)
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12573
JournalPhilosophy Compass
Issue number4
Early online date20 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019


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