The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

What is something so unimportant doing on our list of great ideas?

Though not present on  Mortimer Adler’s list of great ideas in the Syntopicon, we decided to add game to the list of concepts we would discuss in the Great Conversation series. It’s natural enough that Adler omitted it; at first glance, games are just a form of play, something casual and trivial. But there is more here than meets the eye.

To begin with, games and sports do play an important role in culture. Board games are at least five thousand years old; Homer includes detailed accounts of funereal games (then a standard element of Greek burial customs) in the Iliad. In our own day, all kinds of sports afford not only entertainment but employment to countless people, like the Olympic games being held this year in Japan. And games and sports have influenced the course of history—throughout the Roman and Byzantine imperial periods, rival factions in chariot racing affiliated themselves not only with the colors flown by each team (green, white, red, and blue), but with political and even theological movements. The infamous Nika riots, the bloodiest uprising in the history of Constantinople in which tens of thousands of people were killed and the Emperor Justinian narrowly avoided being overthrown, started as a quarrel between the Blues and the Greens.

A more significant contribution to the Great Conversation, however, is the idea of game theory. Game theory is essentially the study of decision-making: under a given set of circumstances, with a specified goal in mind, what strategy gives the game-player the best chance of reaching their goal? Game theory thus ramifies into a multitude of sub-fields, drawing on disciplines from psychology to ethics to statistics.

A number of games (like the Monty Hall problem and the infamous and much-memed trolley problem) and expressions from game theory have found their way into popular culture. Among the most famous is the term zero-sum. A zero-sum game is one in which there is a finite amount of available, un-shareable resources; cutting up a cake for a room full of people who all want a slice is a zero-sum game—however much cake you give to one person, that same amount of cake is not available to the others. However, non-zero-sum games also exist. The Cold War is sometimes analyzed as such a game, because besides the ordinary possibilities of one side or the other winning, it was also possible for everyone to lose (if both sides used their warheads and plunged the planet into a nuclear winter) or for everyone to win (if no one used their warheads at all).

And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

Another major problem in game theory is that of perfect versus imperfect information. A game in which every player knows all the “moves” of every other player as soon as they are made—checkers, for instance—is a game with perfect information, while games with imperfect information involve making guesses about what other players are doing. The famous prisoner’s dilemma is a game with imperfect information. Two prisoners must decide whether to betray each other: if one betrays and the other is loyal, the traitor goes free and the loyal party gets the longest possible sentence; if both betray each other, they both receive a mid-length sentence; if both are loyal, they receive a short sentence. The catch is that neither prisoner knows what the other has chosen until they decide themselves. The “rational” prediction is that, since treachery results in a shorter sentence no matter what but loyalty can result in a longer sentence, a rational person will always choose treachery; however, experimental research suggests that the human instinct to cooperate makes real-life results much more complex.

Besides their connections to history, philosophy, and mathematics, games also play a role in the study of language. The Austrian scholar Ludwig Wittgenstein, who taught at Cambridge University for nearly twenty years, suggested that language itself is a type of game. While it is not what we’d call “meaningless,” a ball does not have an inherent and immutable “meaning”; whether we may pick it up with our hands depends on whether we are using it to play soccer or dodgeball. Likewise, according to Wittgenstein, the meaning of words depends on their context and usage; what game are we playing? He used the example “Water,” which, without context, could signify any number of things: a request, the answer to a question, an exclamation, a command, even a password. The meaning of any term or phrase is dictated by the language game it is being used in, just as the “right” way to handle a ball is dictated by the sport we are playing.

Suggested reading:
Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, III.233-241
Thomas Bayes, Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-glass
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Robin Farquharson, Theory of Voting
John Maynard Smith, Evolution and the Theory of Games


If you finished reading this sentence, you just lost the game. To distract yourself, why not check out some of our other posts here at the Journal, like this author profile of Geoffrey Chaucer, this “Great Conversation” piece on the idea of law, or this student essay about the strange nature of the number zero? And be sure to check out our weekly podcast, Anchored—just in case.

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