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The whole of philosophy can be understood as conceptual investigation -- as attempts to explore how the concepts of language (and those behind language) are deployed, as enquiries as to the relationship between our concepts and what we term reality, and as rigorous examination of the consequences that concepts and systems of concepts produce. The British moral philosopher Mary Midgley has suggested that one can appreciate the purpose of philosophy by a comparison with plumbing (2005).
Most of the time, we just accept that our conceptual plumbing is doing its job, but every now and then we detect weird smells from underneath the floor boards and must take them up and examine what's going on behind the scenes. It is time to take a crowbar to the floor of game studies and find out what lies underneath.
In her 1974 philosophy paper "The Game Game", Midgley became only the second philosopher to tackle the question of "what is a game?" This paper, I'm sad to report, is largely unknown in both philosophical and game studies circles, despite its relevance to the foundational question in the latter domain's area of exploration.
The first philosopher to explore this space, Bernard Suits, initially approached the subject in a 1967 paper actually entitled "What is a Game?" which he later revised and expanded into his 1978 book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia.
Sadly, Sarah Hoffman (2009) has suggested that among the philosophical community Suits' work remains largely unknown, and Midgley's paper is similarly quite obscure.
This is unfortunate, since Midgley and Suits between them have much to offer that is useful in decoding the game concept, and interestingly both of their approaches involve something of a swipe at another philosopher who is far more well-known -- Ludwig Wittgenstein. Indeed, Thomas Hurka in his 2005 introduction to Suits' The Grasshopper has suggested that Suit's book is "a precisely placed boot in Wittgenstein's balls."
Working towards a deeper understanding of language in his magnum opus, Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein specifically singles out games as an example of what he calls family resemblance. He observes that the vast variety of games -- board games, card games, ball games and so forth -- have nothing specific common between them, but instead are tied together by a series of commonalities and relationships.
He relates this to the way in which members of a family display common traits -- a similar nose, or build, or hair color, for instance. It is precisely Wittgenstein's claim that "you will not see something that is common to all [games]" that Midgley and Suits take task with.
Suit's complaint is that Wittgenstein asks us to "look and see" if there is anything common in all things we call games, but then doesn't do so himself. Suits thus objects that Wittgenstein had "decided beforehand that games are indefinable", and indeed accuses Wittgenstein of believing in the "futility of attempting to define anything whatever".
Alas, Suits seems to have thoroughly misunderstood Wittgenstein's purposes, for despite the explicit reference to games it is a point about language that the Austrian philosopher was trying to make, namely that the way words come to be used does not originate in definitions; definitions are post-hoc justifications for the way words are used, and it is this usage that Wittgenstein insists is the genuine meaning of the word, not any definition we might propose.
Midgley accepts Wittgenstein's main point, but disagrees with his use of family resemblance to characterize the underlying concept. As she noted to me earlier this year (2010), words such as 'game':
...have neither a single, fixed meaning (which was what Wittgenstein pointed out) nor merely a vague string of resembling meanings (as his idea of family resemblance suggested) but a definite shape, an underlying organic unity which is often mysterious but must be present in the background to account for e.g. their being usable as metaphors.
She observes, indeed, that Wittgenstein is quite dependent upon understanding the word "game" in a particularly subtle way, for without this he cannot make use of his idea of a "language game" which is a central concept in his later philosophy. This is only possible because we do have a general grasp of the concept of a "game" and can thus understand appeals to this concept in a wider context, such as in the case of Wittgenstein's language games.
In "The Game Game", Midgley (1974) draws from the work of Julius Kovesi to develop her argument. Kovesi had very similar issues with the apparent nebulosity of Wittgenstein's concept of "family resemblance", and his argument can be felt resonating in Midgley's paper. In his book Moral Notions (1967), he had been pursuing a rigorous argument counter to the attacks on moral philosophy by A.J. Ayer and G.E. Moore and others that had attained considerable notoriety in the first half of the twentieth century.
Kovesi demonstrated the relationship between needs and concepts by the example of particular kinds of furniture, claiming that provided you understand the need that (say) a chair embodies (i.e. to support a person while sitting), you know what characteristics are relevant in distinguishing a chair from other kinds of objects. This example generalizes to other cases. As Midgley observes (directly following Kovesi) "in general, provided you understand the need, you know what characteristics to look for. To know what a chair is just is to understand that need."
Thus -- despite disagreements over the details concerning games -- we are all perfectly able to deploy the concept of a game precisely because there is an underlying unity to it. It is because games meet human needs (and, for that matter, animal needs), and because human nature has its own structure, that we can identify what constitutes a game. Those needs that a game meets are precisely what is involved in understanding what the concept 'game' must mean.