The Game Of Life

If life were a game, what game would it be? Certainly not the game of all possible games. And not Magister Ludi 's Glass Bead Game: the aesthetic athletics of the intellect.[1] It must rather be either war or race; in either case, it is a contest.

These games are played on a field. The abstract field of contest is a schematic representation of the territory beneath our feet: a map of the world. It is at once a field of combat as an un-owned commons, an empty space, and the territorialized space of land as possession, with all places and possible positions marked out. The map of play is divided and made discrete.

What is needed for play is the grid. Against this grid the move is made; the move is measured. In a grid, the pieces find their places. Their states are known. Their relations are established. Two illustrious gaming genealogies descend from this basic form: the wars and the races. One gives us Chess and checkers, the other Backgammon and its ancient predecessors Nard and Senat as well as Parcheesi and Snakes and Ladders.

The archeological evidence of Mesopotamian versions of the race games date as far back as 3000 BCE.[2] In the Pali cannon (Brahmajala Suttra, 1st Century BCE) there is a list of games from which Buddhists should abstain (life may be impermanent, empty, and full of suffering, but for them it is not, apparently, a game). Mentioned are the Dasapadaa ten by ten board whose original rules are lost, but whose moralizing descendent Mokshapat is a progenitor of Snakes and Laddersand the Ashtapadaan eight by eight board that provides the probable basis for the game of chessas well as nine by nine, seven by seven, and five by five variants.

What distinguishes the race from the war is not simply the violence of the metaphor, but also the epistemological scenario. The race is governed by chancethe die is castand strategy is subordinated to luck. A player knows neither the opponent's strategy nor either of their fates. While in war, it is only the strategy of the other which is unknowable prior to their action. In the most fatalistic variants of gaming, there is no strategy at all, and players are wholly dependent on the weather of destiny (as is the case in Snakes and Ladders).

If the game board and its rules are an allegory of a cultural field we must measure the strength of its implication in units of metaphorical perversity: the force of forced metaphors. There is a brutality here, a symbolic violence in the reductive gesture that is matched by what is referred to, by what happens in the social spaces, by the violence of political fields. The iterative in-turning of rules on themselves reproduce bitter morphologies. Attacking them unravels us more than it undoes the rules. Rulemaking is corrosive only in so far as it shows rules to be mutable. What is killing, is the immutable rule.

[1] See Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.

[2] "Backgammon History,", <>.