Notes on Quotes
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David Epstein, New York Times Bestselling Author of Range, Shares a Quote

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”


January 6, 2020

Welcome to Notes on Quotes, an interview series in which Stephen Harrison chats with interesting people about a quote that’s meaningful to them.

David Epstein is the author of two New York Times bestselling books—The Sports Gene in 2013, and his most recent work, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.  David was previously a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica. Before that, he was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He has master’s degrees in both environmental science and journalism, and his TED Talk about innovation in sports has been viewed more than seven million times. Malcolm Gladwell said, “For reasons I cannot explain, David Epstein manages to make me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about a subject was wrong.”

This print interview has been edited, condensed, and annotated. The podcast version is available below.

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Stephen Harrison: So what quote are we chatting about today?

David Epstein: The quote I chose is from a book called The Grasshopper, written by a Canadian philosopher named Bernard Suits. This quote is, "Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” And in the book, that quote is actually spoken by the character of the grasshopper.

I'm really happy you picked this quote because it totally surprised me. In your book Range, you quote some well-known figures like Tolstoy and Oliver Wendell Holmes, but I’m not familiar with Bernard Suits. When did you first come across his writing?

I first came across it when I was doing investigative work at Sports Illustrated, because I was writing quite a bit about malfeasance in the sports world and doping. And I would get letters from readers saying, “Why are you doing this?”, “You’re a killjoy!”, and “Nobody cares. Stop writing about these things.” I began to wonder whether it was worth trying to expose the drug use or not. So I began to read about the philosophy of sports.

One thing led to another, and I ended up with this book, The Grasshopper. It’s the reversal of one of Aesop’s fables where the grasshopper plays all summer while the ant is working to store food. When winter comes, the ant scolds the grasshopper for playing around.

In Bernard Suits’s book he has a different take: The grasshopper is playing games all summer and knowingly heading toward the disaster of not storing food. The book is an explication of the grasshopper to his followers of why he’s going to continue doing that, knowing that it means he will die in winter.

The book is an attempt to respond to a previous philosophical debate where Wittgenstein said that games are indefinable. Suits says that’s wrong. There is a core premise that unites games, and that’s this principle of the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles.

Since you picked this quote, I take it that you endorse the Bernard Suits view over Wittgenstein’s?

I do. But there are things in The Grasshopper that I also disagree with. Suits is talking about a purist utopia where nobody has to work for anything and everyone would be engaged in game-playing all the time. That’s sort of an extreme extension.

What do you make of the last two words of the quote? “Unnecessary obstacles”

It’s saying that all games and sports have an end that you could achieve in a more efficient way. In soccer, for example, you could get a ball over a line just by walking there and dropping it. But instead, you put up unnecessary obstacles to make it more difficult. One aspect of falling in love with games and sports is loving the difficulty for itself.

You mentioned that you came across this quote while writing about the doping crisis in sports. How does this quote connect with that issue?

I’m not a purist about doping and I do not think that everyone who dopes is a bad person by any stretch of the imagination. That said, the larger values that we often give lip service to in sports do emanate from that voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles. If you’re not abiding by the same social contract as the other people who are accepting the difficulty—and loving the difficulty for itself—then there’s something that’s taken away from it. The game can still be entertaining, but it lowers the level of achievement and meaning.

One argument you raise in Range is that sometimes a process that seems rather inefficient can actually be much more effective. Do you think that the best games tend to be inefficient?

I think so. If you take something like soccer, the “end” of the game—putting the ball in the goal—can be done much more efficiently. But the meaning of the game emanates from its difficulty.

I think that’s like life in the sense that you take rules and add meaning, basically. And the difficulty has its own value. In that sense the quote has been meaningful to me in other areas of life, even if I am maybe taking it in a direction that Suits didn’t intend.

What are some of those other areas of life to which you extend this quote?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m a very new parent. If this quote were only to apply to sports and games, I don’t think it would mean as much to me. Whether appropriately or not, I extend the quote to any activity where part of the value is its difficulty. For me, right now, that includes raising a kid—part of the shared value is the difficulty of doing it. From talking to other new parents, they feel the same way.

Gamification is popular these days. It’s the application of game designs and game principles to non-game concepts, like a daily step challenge with your coworkers. Do you think this quote has anything to say about gamification?

That’s a really interesting question because I think about gamification sometimes. I think the quote does speak to it, but not perfectly. The game of a step challenge, for example, is being used to motivate people. So they have the goal to be more fit. And there is joy in the process—if their goal is to win but not by cheating, by sharing their Fitbit with someone else. But I don’t think it gets to the core of what Suits was writing about. Because a step challenge is more about finding something to motivate someone than people doing things for the love of the difficulty itself.

In your book, you write about human-computer hybrid team games. What are your thoughts on the future of games as they relate to this quote?

Games are becoming bigger business. We’ve seen that as sports become bigger business, you see people cheating in more ways. I think that violates the lusory attitude where you’re agreeing to this form of social contract. I could see that diminishing the meaning of games in some ways.

But I also think that we will in some ways take a step toward the kind of Utopia that Suits was writing about. It’s a Utopia where everyone’s basic needs are taken care of. If other needs are satisfied, then people would be embracing difficulty for its own sake. It would be more pure in that sense.

We already have a huge number of people who are engaging in an extraordinary amount of gaming. I think games are going to cross domains in lots of new ways. Games will be involved in research. Some interesting AI is going to allow people to create games even if they don’t know how to program. People will become the creators of games who wouldn’t have before, and we’ll see what kind of difficulties they set up.

The core of games will stay similar, but I do wonder what Suits would think about future virtual reality total immersion games—where essentially what you’re doing it just living another life. I’m not sure what Suits would have to say about that.

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Audio version available here