The Grasshopper: Triflers and Death in Iraq

Last week we introduced Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper, which is a philosophical exercise in defining games. It’s useful for our chat about video games, because it helps us think more clearly about the thing we’re talking about. There’s going to be a few in this vein, because there’s lots of interesting stuff to dig out from this book (despite it being only 160 pages: never confuse depth for detail). This week, we’re talking about cheats and triflers.

So Suits is busy defending his definition of games, and he draws a distinction between the ‘institution’ of a game and the actual game itself. ‘Institution’ is a weird word, but what he’s kinda getting at is the idea that you can have the rules and the board and the pieces, but that’s not necessarily the game per se. He uses the example of chess – you can take a piece and describe what it does and how it moves, but that’s not playing chess. You can set up all the pieces in a checkmate position to explain how the end of the game works, but that’s not playing chess either. It’s operating within the ‘institution’, but not necessarily playing the game.

As a concept, it’s actually way easier to understand if you think about it in terms of video games. Imagine you load up Call of Duty, having never played it before, and then a friend takes you round a private server, showing you how the guns work, how the map’s laid out, how to crawl and run etc – so you’re in the level, and in what we would colloquially call the game, but you’re not actually playing the game per se – you’re just operating within what Suits would call the institution of the game. You’re in the program, but you’re not playing the game. This also highlights a key distinction for us: in common usage, Call of Duty is called a game, and if somebody’s taking you for a private tour in a closed multiplayer server, we’d still call that ‘being in the game’. We need the term ‘game’ to do a very specific job though, so we’re going to avoid that common usage, and only use ‘game’ to mean the game according to this very precise technical definition supplied by Suits. Moving on!

So the main point to this distinction between the institution of a game and the game itself is that you can exist within the institution of a game without actually playing the game. Suits keeps going with the chess example, but we’re going to stick to video games, because it’s super clear. Imagine a regular game of Call of Duty, where everyone’s playing happily – except one asshole who’s just trying to get on top of a certain rock. That asshole’s not actually playing the game Call of Duty like everybody else – they’re within the institution of Call of Duty, but they’re not playing the game. These people are ‘triflers’, according to Suits: people who are acting within the institution of a game, but not actually playing the game seriously. They’re not trying to win, they’re just fucking around. Sometimes they can be playing different games (for example, King of the Rock), but it’s not a prerequisite. If they’re just fucking around, it’s the same thing.

We can illustrate this concept really nicely with reference to a performance art piece called ‘Dead In Iraq‘ – it’s one of those pieces you never hear the end of if you study games professionally. There’s a guy called Joseph DeLappe who does performance art, and one of his things back in 2006 was to go into a game of America’s Army, stand around doing nothing, and every time he got killed he’d post the name, rank, and date of death of an American soldier who died in Iraq. You can see the point: it’s a protest against violence but also pointing to the propaganda function of these government-sanctioned war games designed to inculcate users into the militaristic neo-imperial American empire – we can go on for a while here. By Suits’ definition, DeLappe is a great example of a trifler. He exists within the institution of America’s Army, because he’s not breaking any of the rules (ie he’s not hacking or whatever), but he’s not taking the game seriously – he’s not actually playing to run around and kill the opponents, right, he’s making a protest.

There are a couple other examples Suits pulls out to illustrate his point here. We’ll delve into them briefly, but they’re not really important. This is just for your own edification. Cheaters, then, are people who break the rules but’re still trying to win the game – so they exist within the institutions of a game but are willing to step outside those institutions in order to illegitimately achieve their goal. Spoilsports are the worst of both worlds: they care about neither the rules of the game nor the goal of the game, and they’re just there to fuck people around. Together with triflers, these three types of players illustrate the distinction between the institution of a game and the game itself, which is really all that I’m trying to get across today. It’s going to become particularly important next week, when we talk about those weird borderline cases like The Walking Dead and Dear Esther. Today’s post is a bit shorter sorry – the concept was too big to do justly within next week’s article, but not quite big enough for its own post altogether. Ah well.

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