Games and Philosophical Investigations

I managed, at last, to take time to read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical investigations.

Wittgenstein argues:

For a large class of cases — though not for all-in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. And meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing its bearer. (PI, 43)

Thus, when this is taken as a premise, following makes sense:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? […] [I]f you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and whole series of them at that. (PI, 66)

What follows is that in a language there are words that cannot be defined through common denominators. Consider:

Also, meaning of a word is can be blurry without context — like sentence the word appeared in: e.g., king (of England or a chess piece). (PI)

All categories do not have clear boundaries–based on necessary and sufficient condition (odd numbers vs. game); rather categories are fuzzy. After Wittgenstein critique, the nature of concepts has been in under investigation. Some proposed models, based on empirical evidence, are:

  • probabilistic view (prototype, exemplar): people classify the instance based on similarity between instance and category;
  • theory based (schemata): causal knowledge is used to guide categorization along with the information about typical attributes of the members of a category (Kunda, 1999, pp. 15-52).

Wittgenstein also examine the concept of rule; what is a rule, how one learns and follows rules (PI, 143, 185-243.) Wittgenstein comments on the nature of rules:

It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which someone obeyed a rule. […] –To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions). (PI, 199.)

Peter Winch (1979/1958), following Wittgenstein, argues that the concept of rule is inseparable from the concepts of breaking and obeying rule.
If the above premise is accepted, computer games do not have rules; mostly they implement systems that acts like the ‘natural laws’ (see also entry Are video games art). In this sense, there is qualitative difference between “rules” of, e.g., board and computer games; not between board games and role-playing games like Juul (2005, 43-44) suggest (the qualitative difference there is in the customs of obeying and breaking rules).

Juul, Jesper (2005). Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Kunda, Ziva (1999). Social cognition. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958) Philosophical investigations. Basil Blackwell & Mott, Ltd., 2nd edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe.
Winch, Peter (1979/1958). Yhteiskuntatieteet ja filosofia. Transleted to Finnish by Ilkka Malinen from The idea of a social science and its relation to philosophy.

Published by lankoski

Petri Lankoski, D.Arts, is a Associate Professor in Game Studies at the school of Communication, Media and IT at the Södertörn University, Sweden. His research focuses on game design, game characters, role-playing, and playing experience. Petri has been concentrating on single-player video games but researched also (multi-player) pnp and live-action role-playing games. This blog focuses on his research on games and related things.

One thought on “Games and Philosophical Investigations


    Butch Cassidy: No, no, not yet. Not until me and Harvey get the rules straightened out.
    Harvey Logan: Rules? In a knife fight? No rules.
    [Butch immediately kicks Harvey in the groin]
    Butch Cassidy: Well, if there aint’ going to be any rules, let’s get the fight started. Someone count. 1,2,3 go.
    Sundance Kid: [quickly] 1,2,3, go.
    [Butch knocks Harvey out]

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