Yorke on Games #6 – Magic in Utopia


“Let us imagine, then, that all of the instrumental activities of human beings have been eliminated. All of the things ordinarily called work are now done by wholly automated machines which are activated solely by mental telepathy, so that not even a minimal staff is necessary for the housekeeping chores of society. Furthermore, there are so many goods being produced so abundantly that… yachts, diamonds, racing cars, symphonic performances, mansions, and trips around the world are as easily plucked from the environment as breadfruit is in Tahiti.”

— Bernard Suits

Today we’re going to discuss life in a certain type of utopia, a society wherein all of humanity’s needs are met and people are left with nothing to do but spend their leisure time pleasurably. Canadian philosopher Bernard Suits thinks that improvements in technology are trending towards the production of such a utopia, and that future utopians will do nothing but play games1In his now-classic book The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia.. But what kind of games will Suits’ utopians play? Here’s a hint — Magic: The Gathering is one of them.

Some Caveats

Suits does not discriminate between the types of games his utopians would play; he leaves the range of potential games wide open. Therefore, this article constitutes an exploration on a theme that Suits may not necessarily endorse. Also, due to nature of the post-political, post-instrumental, post-neurotic utopian world that Suits envisions, it may be difficult to exposit what utopian life would be like, and thus what utopians themselves would act like, think, prefer, or how they would otherwise interpret and judge phenomena. The experience of being a utopian may be as dissimilar to the experience of being a pre-utopian as the pre-utopian experience is to that of being an extraterrestrial or a demigod. Nevertheless, in the spirit of intellectual exploration, I think it’s worth an attempt. That being said, let’s begin our speculative investigation with an examination of the negative case: the games utopians surely won’t be playing.


Games Utopians Won’t Play

Utopians won’t play games if they’re boring: because if you’re bored, you’re not in utopia. I say this with some degree of confidence because I have already worked out a thought experiment which proves it. Imagine World 1, where no one is bored. Now imagine World 2, where some people are bored. Which World is more deserving of the name ‘utopia’, i.e., which is better than the other? World 1 wins hands down, unless you can make a convincing case that being bored is a virtue. You can’t, because it isn’t. So boring games are out in utopia. The following is an incomplete list of the kinds of games that utopians won’t play on account of their being boring:

• Solved Games (e.g.: Tic Tac Toe2See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tic-tac-toe)
• Games of Pure Luck (e.g.: Snakes & Ladders)
• Games of Pure Skill (e.g.: Chess)
• Immoral Games (e.g.: Diplomacy)

Solved games, like Tic Tac Toe, are games with dominant strategies which, once known, vitiate all other possible lines of play by revealing them to be suboptimal. While solved games retain some value as pedagogical tools in a world where it is still instrumentally valuable to hone one’s skills as a game designer, in utopia they will be useless even for children, who will have better games available to them in abundance from birth. Unsolvable games (those enjoyed by utopians) must contain at least one stochastic (random) element which prevent them from being perfectly predictable, or contain a magnitude of inherent complexity so deep that it successfully resists definitive computational analysis.

A different kind of solved game which is also does not merit replaying is a puzzle, such as a crossword or jigsaw puzzle. A puzzle, once its solution is arrived at, it is of no further interest to its player(s). We don’t, for example, see people erasing the numbers on their completed Sudoku puzzles so that they can fill in the same matrix yet again. We can assume that Suits’ utopians would not waste their attention on disposable games when durable games of lasting interest would be within their reach.

More Snakes! More Ladders! No Strategy!
More Snakes! More Ladders! No Strategy!

Games of pure luck are equally unexciting because they do not allow for the exercise of player agency, i.e., the players cannot make any meaningful choices. Looking at the board, watching two computers playing Snakes & Ladders against each other is indistinguishable from two humans playing Snakes & Ladders against each other, in that the moves either can make rely solely on the outcome of the dice rolls and nothing more. Gameplay consists of mechanically arranging the pieces on the board in line with whatever random results are generated. Whether or not these seemingly random games are actually deterministic on the quantum level is an interesting question, but the phenomenology of playing them as competent adults is boring.

Other the other hand, games of pure skill, such as Chess, are a bit trickier to analyze. While it is a complex game, due to the complete absence of stochastic elements, Chess is considered to be partially solved (up to around 50 moves). Thus the only exhibitable skill for well-versed players in the early game is the skill of rote memorization. For this reason, Chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer got bored with playing traditional Chess at the height of his career, and instead invented his own variant wherein the pieces in the back row were randomized at the beginning of each game.3See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess960 One could imagine further Chess variants played on randomly-generated asymmetrical boards (call this ‘Adventure Chess’) which would allow for creative play while retaining the function of its pieces, or introducing new pieces with unique functions on a rolling basis (call this ‘Evolutionary Chess’).4An interesting array of candidate pieces for Chess variants can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairy_chess_piece While variants like these could be played in utopia, it is unlikely that traditional Chess would be played there, as the outcomes of games of pure skill are a direct function of who the stronger player is. Once one’s skill ranking is established, there is little left to enjoy or discover (except arguably playing against others of the same or similar rank). The real game being played here is outside of Chess in particular — it is a general contest of who can build their skills the fastest and most reliably between matches, or the study of how and when player skill deteriorates. If a science of this were established and understood by all, as it presumably would be in utopia, Chess would cease to be replayable in an entertaining fashion.

Finally we turn to the much smaller subset of games I refer to here as ‘immoral games’, which can actually refer to two things: games which require the player to engage in actual immoral activities in order to win them, or games which require the player to simulate immoral activities in the game in order to win them. These sound similar, but are actually quite different. In the first category, we have games like Diplomacy that effectively require you to actually lie to and betray other players to win the game, and which cause enmities between players which outlast the games themselves.5 You could play Diplomacy without lying, but you would certainly lose unless everyone else at the table was similarly committed to honesty. In the second category, we have games like Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer wherein you must roleplay as a sociopathic torturer in order to ‘win’ or complete the game, but these have no direct ramifications for player behavior outside of the game. The popular press pays far more attention to the second category, but the first category may be equally (or more) pernicious. I contend that utopians would play neither of these games, first because they would see that a game that encouraged actual immoral behavior is a kind of trap that it would be irrational to voluntarily take part in, and a game that simulated immoral behavior is the kind of crass entertainment that would only appeal to those with a pre-utopian mentality, fraught with neuroses.

Games Utopians Will Play

By looking at the kinds of games utopians would be expected to shun, we can derive a hypothetical list of the types of games that they would presumably enjoy:

• Insoluble Games (e.g.: Magic: The Gathering)
• Games Well-Balanced Between Skill and Luck (e.g.: Axis & Allies)
• Moral Games (e.g.: Dungeons & Dragons)

The reason that I consider Magic to be a paradigmatically utopian game is that its cards are designed to be tools in an ever-changing environment where new elements are constantly introduced and old elements constantly removed. The experience of playing Magic thus need never lose its novelty, as it is always in a state of flux and can never be truly solved. The rules of the game are ‘living’ rules that change with every expansion, and whenever a dominant strategy seems to be cropping up, the key cards that enable that strategy are banned or restricted by the DCI. That is not to say that Magic is the only possible utopian game: in fact, because there needs to be fairly large design and production teams in place to keep the game running smoothly, it clashes rather dramatically with the whole ‘utopia of leisure’ motif espoused by Suits. To fit Suits’ vision of post-instrumentality, in utopia we could have all the Magic cards that exist simply be randomly reassembled into new sets, and thus once an optimally large set of cards existed, no one would ever need to toil to make more of them. This could happen if the game somehow naturally reached a state of perfection or completion, or if computers could be taught reliable Magic card design algorithms. The designers of the game would then simply become players, like everyone else in utopia.

Like Magic, Axis & Allies has a high novelty and replayability factor because you get to rewrite the history of WW2 with every game you play. Although the initial set-up is the same, no two games are identical. There’s enough of a skill element that you can effectively execute your strategies on the board, but the dice introduce enough of a luck element that you can’t guarantee the success of those strategies, which means you often have to innovate on the fly and play in a truly creative manner. It occupies an interesting space between the polar extremes of the luck-skill continuum, which is to say it is neither dull nor arbitrary.

With 318 map spaces and 18 unit types it’s hard to get bored...
With 318 map spaces and 18 unit types it’s hard to get bored…

The last desideratum of utopian games seems to be that they have some sort of moral basis, or at least moral limitations on how players should behave or what they are expected to do (e.g.: no Russian Roulette in utopia). While one might criticize Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks as being too value-laden or heavy-handed, in that if you make a choice the author implicitly disfavors, you may be penalized, they do constitute a simple and solvable form of a more complex choice-driven game which utopians would certainly enjoy, Dungeons & Dragons. A D&D game, being only loosely scripted and completely open-ended, has a lot more latitude for creative storytelling (and less for peeking ahead) than the CYOA narrative form, whilst retaining stochastic elements, high replayability, and insolubility (if done well). With utopian citizens as our ‘dungeon masters’, then we can be sure that the players would be guided to morally correct actions in their games, and perhaps outwith their games as well. The game itself could be adapted as a medium for teaching utopian values. Once again, I ask the reader to remember that the moral content of D&D games as we experience them in the pre-utopian world is of course very different than those that would take place in utopia. Unfortunately, I must be somewhat vague here, for as Theodor Adorno has pointed out, it is much easier and safer to say what utopia cannot be, than to non-controversially describe what it actually is.

From Here to Utopia

“It behoves us, therefore, to begin the immense work of devising these wonderful games now, for if we solve all of our problems of scarcity very soon, we may very well find ourselves with nothing to do when Utopia arrives.”

— Bernard Suits

Suits says that it is our pre-utopian duty to design and store games, as one would food for a long winter, in order to ensure the entertainment of our future utopians. Interestingly, Hasbro happens to own all the copyrights for the intellectual properties I identified above as the kinds of games that utopians would happily play and replay in perpetuity: MTG, A&A, and D&D. So the short answer of how to attain Suits’ utopia of leisure is to keep playing the games you love. Buy Hasbro, and know that with each product you open, you’ve invested in your share of utopian real estate.

Pictured: Utopian Real Estate
Pictured: Utopian Real Estate

References   [ + ]

1. In his now-classic book The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia.
2. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tic-tac-toe
3. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess960
4. An interesting array of candidate pieces for Chess variants can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairy_chess_piece
5. You could play Diplomacy without lying, but you would certainly lose unless everyone else at the table was similarly committed to honesty.