25 February 2009

Language and Games

Found at Paperpools:

Suppose I grow up in a family where people obsessively play Hearts. We switch around between different versions of the game - sometimes we play Black Maria, where the Queen of Spades costs you 13 points and you pass on three cards to the left before you begin play, sometimes we invent twists of our own. I also have four friends: A lives in a family of chess fanatics, B lives in a family of bridge fanatics, C lives in a family of go fanatics, D lives in a family of poker fanatics.

What I see at once is something remarkable. Languages are translatable, more or less; it may be more or less tricky, but it's intelligible to speak of Chinese being translated into Turkish AND Arabic AND English. Games are not translatable. Chess is a game for two players with complete information; you can't "explain" what's going on in a chess game in terms of bridge, which is a game for two sets of partners with imperfect information, a mixture of skill and chance which depends on skilful sharing of information between partners. And you can't "explain" either in terms of poker, which is a game for an indeterminate number of players, a mixture of skill and chance in which sharing of information between players would in fact be collusion and outlawed. A game is intelligible on its own terms - which means, paradoxically, that you can play a game with someone whose language you don't know, provided you both know the rules of the game.

You don't understand a game in terms of some other game, you understand it by learning to play it - but the more games you play, the more you will understand about the radical otherness of games.


Read the entire post and comments at Paperpools.

Hat Tip: Andrew Gelman at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, which also adds some insightful and mathy comments.
Post a Comment