Domination Games // Risk

On language-games and fundamentalists.


Doesn’t the analogy between language and games throw light here? We can easily imagine people amusing themselves in a field by playing with a ball so as to start various existing games, but playing many without finishing them and in between throwing the ball aimlessly into the air, chasing one another with the ball and bombarding one another for a joke and so on. And now someone says: The whole time they are playing a ball-game and following definite rules at every throw. … And is there not also the case where we play and—make up the rules as we go along? And there is even one where we alter them—as we go along.

            Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953)

[E]very utterance should be thought of as a “move” in a game. …to speak is to fight, in the sense of playing, and speech acts fall within the domain of general agonistics.

            Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979)

This begins on the Fourth of July. The lake water laps at the dock just down the hill from the kitchen where the four of us are seated. It’s after midnight. We have a board game spread out on the table, some plastic soldiers scattered across a map of the world, a set of dice which are sitting still. We have stopped playing the game. We’re on to a new one: the one which deals in shouting and death-glares, loud arguments – a game in which the rules are constantly being reworked and “winning” is a difficult category to define.

Risk has for years been one of my favorite games to play. In high school, despite each game lasting notoriously for hours, my friends and I would play one game after another from dusk to dawn, disregarding sleep for the pleasure of that simulacrum of violent world domination. The object: to conquer all the territories on the map before anyone else can.

Maybe you can imagine how certain diverse tensions might be wrapped up in a game motivated by our darkest imperializing tendencies. We’re out for blood – blood and land – but since the thing is, after all, only a board game, we work in dice-rolling and fast-talking. We pray for good luck, and meanwhile, we labor to secure our own fates by manipulating our friends out of razing our armies to the ground. Some of us are worse than others at maintaining couth during this process (two thumbs says it’s this guy), and sometimes the process can go bad, as it did that contentious night at the lake house. This, however, is not going to be a tabloid exposé of bad blood. Instead, as I’ve reflected during this aftermath of the skirmish on why it all happened, I’ve realized that at least one miniscule part of it has simply to do with the nature of games.

In playing particular games, we follow particular rules. In the case of a game like Risk, many of these rules are enumerated in the game’s manual. We read how the set-up must be done, how each turn is meant to unfold, how the players win and lose. But something we don’t often take into account is the unwritten rules we also play by. Back in the day, I used to play the game conservatively for the first half-hour or so, and I knew I was doing it. It’s an unwritten rule I used to play by in order to make the game last longer and to keep everyone playing involved for a while. There are other types of unwritten rules here as well, such as my personal objective for the game. It would be odd to say that I played the game only in order to have pieces of one color placed on forty-two regions of a piece of cardboard. It is for something else that we play games, and not everyone plays a game for the same reasons.

The pleasure of winning, of succeeding against the efforts of the other players – that would be a likely personal objective. However, sometimes people play games in which they know they cannot win, and they still have their unwritten objectives. A newcomer to a game may know, given her lack of experience in the game, that she cannot beat the veterans who are teaching her how to play, but she can still enjoy the game. She must find other ways of getting pleasure or satisfaction from the game (assuming those are her general ends) without winning. In my experience with the game of Risk, the route such a person often takes is of a more sociopathic nature, by finding her satisfaction in watching the strongest powers in the simulated world burn to the ground. Chaos can be fun. Such a chaos gets amplified when multiple people ostensibly playing the same game are actually playing different games – when they are playing by an altered set of rules toward different objectives.

Wittgenstein famously used the concept of games to analyze the nature of language. He coined the term “language-games” to describe different sorts of discursive activity: how we talk when we’re commanding someone, how we talk when we’re expressing affection, how we talk when we’re writing a poem, and so on, and so on. These activities only connect to one another in that they use language, but the language in each looks very different, making it difficult to say exactly what language is. Just as, when we look at tennis, bowling, Call of Duty, dodgeball, and Risk, we can say that these are all games, but what makes them similar is tricky to nail down. This type of similarity has been called “family resemblance.”

What I find interesting is considering how rules work in language-games. Oftentimes language-games are different from one another because they work according to the different sets of rules. The language-game in which the technical writer is engaging works according to different rules than the one in which the slam poet is engaging. Now imagine if you brought a technical writer to a slam poetry show. If the technical writer is unable or unwilling to adapt, then there will be significant breaches in communication between her and the slam poet. A certain sort of chaos may bubble up.

Language-games can turn insidious when the players manipulate the communal rules of the game in order to serve their own ends. You see this in political rhetoric all the time, especially among the talking heads. For instance, one of my Facebook friends recently posted a video from Fox News, in which pundit Megyn Kelly chastises President Obama for remaining silent on the murder of Kate Steinle by an illegal immigrant. She compared the case to the deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown but said that Obama chose to remain silent on this one as opposed to the others because to speak on Steinle’s death would conflict with his agenda on immigration.

She then began a pseudo-debate with Richard Fowler and Marc Thiessen on the issue. She turned to Thiessen, who merely parroted back everything she had already said. However, when she turned to Fowler, the left-leaning member of the discussion, he tried to say that Obama has spoken many times about the need for comprehensive immigration reform – after all, the point of her discussion, presumably, was to get at the need for immigration reform. Instead of hearing Fowler out, she silenced him by returning to the matter of Obama’s silence on Steinle’s death. No matter how much Fowler attempted to make a reasonable explanation, Kelly obstructed his communication, saying, “Give an answer. You can’t, because there isn’t one.” The discursive context takes on the form of rational debate between mutually respectful opponents aiming at reaching some political or moral truth, but in reality, the whole pageant is really a puppet show to get a single opinion into the air. The game’s rules are set up only for this.

At one point in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein asks, “But what does a game look like that is everywhere bounded by rules? whose rules never let a doubt creep in, but stop up all the cracks where it might?” I believe such a game would look like the many familiar versions of fundamentalisms: political, religious, skeptical/empiricist, or moral. One way of understanding a fundamentalism is as, depending on the context, a collection of particularly rigid beliefs about something. A readily accessible example would be a religious fundamentalism which interprets a scriptural text thoroughly literally and holds very strong substantive beliefs about metaphysics, the nature of God, the purpose of humankind, etc.

However, another way of understanding fundamentalisms is as a discursive form – a language-game. Fundamentalism in general is a language-game which is everywhere bounded by rules, clearly delineating what can permissibly be said, how it must be said, and to what end. There is a very limited supply of freedom for transgressive thought or altered understandings. There is no room for doubt. The problem often is, though, that fundamentalists will posture themselves as engaging within a different language-game than the fundamentalist one they’re really working within. They will preach sermons with ancillary quips about how rationally justified their beliefs are, but they will not permit voices of dissent or even actual engagement with other perspectives, with hard science, anthropology, or philosophy. Justifications are exactly that – ancillary, no more than a buttress of a preconceived idea and no part of the actual process of forming beliefs.

Chaos occurs in a game when the players are playing by opposing sets of rules while feigning that they are playing the same game. When they realize that this disparity is taking place and yet continue subverting the rules in order to manipulate the situation for their own gain, they have wandered into morally dark terrain. It is the same modus operandi used by political despots, traitors, robber barons, and cult leaders to dominate their sphere of influence, whatever way the reward cashes out for each of them. Yet in a system of shifting communicative norms and fluid rules, we might worry that avoiding the will to dominate is exceptionally difficult. Simply in desiring to engage, to figure out how this game works, requires getting a strong grasp on the rules. And once we’ve grabbed onto the rules, it takes a careful hand to make sure we don’t bend them.

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