Innate games and constitutive norms

It’s absurd to say that the game of soccer is innate. Why? Because it’s silly to think that the information encoded in our genes gives expression to phylogenetic traits on minimal triggering and which track the complex set of rules that make up ‘soccer’. Similarly, it is absurd to talk about most games as innate — chess, badminton, Uno, and so on.

Indeed, you’d expect this point to apply to all games. But maybe it doesn’t. For, here’s a proposal: a game isn’t much more than a set of playable tricks. And some tricks are, plausibly, innate under some general description. Example. When my dog plays catch, the ‘catch-and-return’ instinct seems like an innate trick, because it comes too quickly and too easily to too many dogs with a similar genetic makeup. Furthermore, the trick itself is pretty much all there is to say about the rules of game.

I’m cheating a little. Granted, the particular manifestation of the game that my dog (Sammy) plays cannot be reduced to its natural components. Typically, the game he plays is best done under a richer description — “Catch the Monkeyman”, owing to the fact that his chew toy was (in better days) vaguely monkey-man-shaped. And of course it would be weird to attribute to him a monkey-man-toy-responsive trait, given that I’ve seen other dogs play a similar game of catch without the need for monkeymen. Still, if you fudge the edges of the example, it looks like catch-and-return is a case of a game that is innate for the species.

That doesn’t mean that all games are innate. Presumably, few are. What is interesting to me is that there is a predictable structure to games, as many of our games correspond to assemblages of these favorite natural tricks. Moreover, the rich description of a game probably far exceeds what you would get if you cobbled together all the natural tricks it takes to play it, in the same way that the “Monkeyman” description exceeds the catch-and-return game.

That said, if you could describe the essential or enduring structure of a game in terms of its natural tricks, you might have a stronger basis for talking about which norms are truly constitutive of the game. So, e.g., despite its name, “Catch the Monkeyman” is not really about the Monkeyman. Similarly — shifting examples to one that is more philosophically interesting — if we want to talk about truth as the constitutive norm of the game of assertion, we should be ready to talk about a truth-directed representational trick in our minds, and which provides structure to the activity.

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