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Is life a game?

Updated: Apr 18, 2022

The advice “life is a game that one plays according to the rules” or a variation is ubiquitous but it’s meaning is elusive. Take the first part, “life is a game.” A rosy interpretation suggests that life is something that is played for fun, that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Seen more existentially the line might also suggest that one’s actions don’t really matter. Taken most literally the clause suggests that life is a game such as soccer or chess. The last interpretation is most helpful because the first is simplistic and the existential interpretation crumbles in the context of the second clause of the sentence, “one plays according to the rules.”

The second clause of the prompt, “one plays according to the rules,” is redundant since a game inherently has rules. In emphasizing rules the aphorism suggests that rules are key to the identity of a game. In the games mentioned, chess or soccer, the rules define the game and the common subjugation among players to the rules creates a challenge with an ultimate goal. For example, in chess each piece can only move across the board in a particular way, and the end-goal is to checkmate the opponent’s king. If there were no rules then chess would only be an assortment of trinkets on a plate that might look artistic but fall short of creating a universe that invites players to embark on adventure.

Changes to rules may enhance or detract from a game. General enhancements to a game could take the form of increasing all players’ participation in the game, creating enough challenge but not too much or too little, restricting the duration of a game so that players don’t become too fatigued, etc. Declines in quality of a game and cheating would achieve the opposite. Most would suggest that the rules of life are morals, laws, and social conventions. These devices like game rules need to be constantly revisited to ensure that the game flows such as ensuring that players have rights, for example, to life and liberty.

A challenge can be worthwhile in itself but in the context of a game can lead to winners and losers. It is possible that a game could have all winners or all losers too. Regardless, games incorporate a sense of victory or loss. However, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye suggests instead that it is a victory to see life as a game in the first place: Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right—I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.” He explains that life as a game could hold when you are already "winning." If you are on the "losing" side, with a struggling livelihood per se, then life feels far from a game.

Alternatively, it may be that the privileged person plays one game and the disadvantaged plays another. The well-off German boy with a lisp may play a different game from the black southern American senior woman that leads a collegiate philosophy department. While some games may be gloomier than others and there may be many overlapping challenges and rules every person has a unique identity with individual challenges and thus everyone may play their own, customized game, rules included. Even if we take humanity’s common drive for pleasure there is no overarching pleasure but only specific, individual pleasures. Many pleasures among individuals overlap but each pleasure is unique. The pleasure of enjoying an ice cream cone is far from the desire to have a cold shower on a hot day; if you wanted the ice cream but received the shower you might swing on someone! The uniqueness in what brings each person pleasure further proves that each person would be playing their own game.

I asked a good friend once to join me to see a broadway show, and he asked me “Can I win?” I laughed and told him "You sure can."

Suits, Bernard. “Is Life a Game We Are Playing?” Ethics, vol. 77, no. 3, 1967, pp. 209–213. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Aug. 2020.


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