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Fun and Games

When Kant is explaining how aesthetic judgments are made, he contrasts them with cognitive judgments in which the imagination is, as he puts it, "in the service" of the understanding. In effect, he thinks of cognitive judgments as tasks in which the imagination is attempting to see whether some given item falls under a concept or rule provided by the understanding. If the rule is reasonably specific-separate the cubes from the spheres-there is not much room for the imagination to determine whether a particular shape falls under the rule: it either does or it doesn't and we simply have to work at the task which is, therefore, not much fun.

If the rule the imagination is supposed to follow isn't very specific - select a gift for your spouse- there is more room for the imagination to come into play and the task becomes more interesting though more difficult. The task might even be fun if it weren't for the fact that the rule you are trying to follow has an outcome that is going to matter to you and your spouse so that there will be no way in which you can avoid the responsibility for selecting a gift that you both would deem as inappropriate.

So wherever there are cognitive judgments to be made, when the outcome matters and the task is within your powers, there is work to be done.

Kant pointed out that in the case of aesthetic judgments, the relationship between the two faculties changes: the imagination's fundamental role in cognition is to look out for patterns and sometimes it spots a pattern which the understanding does not recognize -for which it has no concept. When this happens there ensues that free play between the imagination and the understanding we recognize as the experience of beauty. In effect, this play amounts to the imagination saying to the understanding: here is a pattern being displayed, could you suggest a rule that would articulate the significance of the pattern. Usually some metaphors result from this play but the play is a free play because it is disinterested . It is disinterested because there is no constraint on the outcome of this interaction between the faculties. No rule is governing the play which would determine whether a given metaphor was an appropriate outcome. Kant declares (and we can agree) that this free play of the imagination with the understanding is a pleasant experience, hence the delight we take in the contemplation of beautiful things.

Now there is another relationship that can occur between the two faculties and this is the relationship involved in playing a game. Here there are rules supplied by the game which the understanding takes on board and the imagination's task is to play the game in accordance with the rules. Now the distinctive feature of the games we play for fun is that although the outcome matters, it also doesn't matter. If the game is to be fun to play and not work, the outcome must be such that we can achieve some rational detachment from the outcome, such that it doesn't really matter who wins or loses. And this leads to Marshall McLuhan's definition of fun: Fun is the amusement born of rational detachment. The obvious question then is: what provides the means of rationally detaching ourselves from the outcome of the game we are playing and thus allow us to have fun playing it?

My suggestion is that the rational detachment will be provided if we can understand that there is an element of chance or contingency involved in the play of the game which, to a greater or lesser extent, determines the outcome. This rational acknowledgment of the contingent element in the play of the game detaches us to a degree from the responsibility for the ultimate outcome of the game and so makes it amusing or fun to play.

The most immediate indication that McLuhan is on to something here is found in the child's complaint that the game she is involved in has gotten too serious and is no longer any fun, and in that perennial failure as a cheerer-upper to the losing player: "Hey, relax it's only a game". In pukka, the cheerer-upper is saying: "You can't take responsibility for an outcome that you know ultimately turns on a contingency, so why are you forgetting this obvious fact?"

What I would like to do now is look at a number of examples of games in order to see how the contingent element affects the play and to tease out some principles which, taken together, determine the fun quotient of any given game: the puzzle to be solved by these principles is: what makes some games more fun to play than others?

To see how this works let us begin with the case of a game that is no fun at all.


Consider the game of chess. In chess there is a complex play between the imagination and understanding so far as formulating strategy is concerned but the success/failure of any given move is not affected by contingencies: there is no equivalent in chess to the 'bounce of the ball' or the 'roll of the dice'. Since no contingencies affect the outcome, I cannot detach myself rationally from the outcome. There is no way to evade responsibility. If I win, it is because the other person made a mistake. If I lose, it is because I made a mistake. If no one makes a mistake the game ends in a draw. (Not fun.) In chess, these mistakes are sometimes called 'blunders', as if my mistake was due to my clumsiness-as if I moved the piece to the wrong square due to some lack of physical coordination. But, sadly, there is no such physical contingency involved which would explain away a bad move. If there were, this would make the outcome of the game deeply uninteresting. What goes wrong is simply that I failed to consider some set of possibilities but the failure is not due to any contingency that could be identified. The 'contingency' is simply that I didn't happen to see the consequence of move number 12 but I could never say why it was that I failed to see it. I should have seen it, I should have because that is the whole point of playing the game. I might as well not bother playing if I thought that it was just luck whether I could spot the fatal move in advance. Imagine someone saying after losing: "Boy, that was fun. I didn't see the consequences of my 12th move!" Or, after winning, "Boy that was fun, my opponent didn't see the consequences of his 12th move and I won!" Clearly you can't play chess for fun because you cannot rationally detach yourself from the outcome via an appeal to contingency.

Compare this with a game in which contingency is virtually everything.

Snakes and Ladders

Here contingency is all there is to the game. The rule for winning is clear - get your counter to the last square on the board, one step at a time. Moves are executed in accordance with the role of the dice: roll a six, advance six places. The imagination has nothing to do except!!! to imagine that the dice will fall the right way so as to climb a ladder or avoid sliding down a snake. We then wish hard that this should happen, i.e., we engage in a special kind of hoping ( "I need a five to get that ladder") that we think will (magically) have some effect on the dice. Hence, this is a game for children whose 'will ranges more widely than their understanding' so to speak. Here the triumphs and disappointments - the fun of the game-are the result of the child's understanding of 'luck'. It is an understanding that makes the luck that comes her way not a pure contingency: the child thinks/imagines that she can do something about how the dice will fall by wishing- so an effort (of the magical-willing sort) is required if you are going to win. The fun lies in seeing whether the results accord with your wishes (I understand that I need a six to win and imagine the dice falling the right way and they do/don't: Hurrah! /Ooooh!). Such wishing is magical in that there is no rule to follow as you shake the dice that will help bring about the desired result. You just hope as hard as you can. Snakes and ladders is very revealing since it shows that the fun involved is a function of a dim semi-magical understanding of the way the world works, one which allows for a mix of directed effort and contingency that allows us to be rationally detached when our 'strategy' -wishing for a six-works (or doesn't). Adults can't have fun playing such games because they can't believe that wishing makes a difference to the fall of the dice. (This makes you think: What about gamblers? They are all adults. Are they having fun?)


Games of chance can't be fun on the model of board games for children because the adult cannot believe that the outcome is affected by his hoping. If he does, he is, in this respect, a child and no more need be said about the fun of gambling for such a person. But if the adult understands the laws of chance, there can be no point in gambling except for the sudden thrill involved in winning or losing. This experience could not be characterized as 'an amusement born of rational detachment' but is instead a physiological thrill (which occurs whether you win or lose). The thrill cannot be achieved if you don't care whether you win or lose, so the bet must be of a sufficient size to make the outcome matter. Thus playing poker for matchsticks is not thrilling and it is not much fun either if -as an adult-you can no longer do any magical willing (i.e., actually hope for the card that will fill an inside straight and imagine that the hoping might make a difference).

( So we come to our) First principle: If the game is going to be fun, I must be detached from the outcome, yet I must be able to affect the outcome of the game to some degree (in the face of contingency) via an action that is in accordance with my strategy (which emerges from my attempts to imagine how I could mitigate the contingencies that stand in the way of my achieving the object of the game).

So there is no fun to be had playing chess, a lot of fun to be had playing snakes and ladders if you are a child. And none to be had gambling.

Free and competitive games

Now a look at two sorts of games that I will call free and competitive: The dividing feature is whether or not the strategy whereby we attempt to mitigate the contingencies can be rule-governed in which case the game is competitive or whether our strategies must remain intuitive.


This is a game in which the players make up definitions for real words whose actual meaning none of the players happen to know. The fun is generated through the mix of the two factors: the first is that the task set involves the imagination in creating a little work of art in which the player can take a certain disinterested delight. It is like a work of art because to make up a definition that your fellow players will believe is the real meaning of the word engages the imagination in a relatively free way since the rules provided by the understanding are very general: the definition simply has to sound like a dictionary definition but that is all. Thus to follow this general rule each player cannot help creating a work of art in which they privately delight. But the actual fun of the game is the way in which the second factor, the contingency, manifests itself: the contingency turns on how the offered definition strikes the other players: each votes for the definition that they find most plausible and the scoring is based on these votes. (The real definition is included and you score if you happen to get it and the others score if you vote for their fake definitions.) The contingency is not mechanical but, if you like, autobiographical: each person has a 'mind-set' which determines 'what sounds plausible' to them and this varies so subtlely from person to person that you never know when you are going to tap into another's mind-set with your definition. This allows children no older then about eight or nine to play with adults on the same footing and with equal enjoyment- an almost unheard of phenomenon.

These different mind-sets allow for the rational detachment that gives birth to amusement: your successes and failures are dependent on the 'cleverness' of your creation but this cleverness happens to be 'clever' only because it has found a 'fit' with a particular fellow player. It is very seldom that the 'honours' are not distributed in a more or less random fashion so that the play that occurs when you try to guess which definition is the most plausible is, uniquely, a play between your understanding and someone else's imagination or vice versa, : a literal rational detachment that produces a very high level of fun for the players involved. A similar set of factors in influence the fun involved in.


Here the rational detachment is, as it was in Dictionary, a function of the contingencies which arise from the other person's understanding fitting with your imagination: your charade will either click or it won't and the fun of it is equal which ever way it happens. What we get such a kick out of is the fitting or the not fitting of the play of our faculties with those of another person. To play any game we must play within the rules and the less specific the rule the more room there is to play. Thus the imagination gets the fullest exercise where the rules are very general like the dictionary game. (There is no ideal definition or ideal charade where the ' expert' player might construct by following such a general rule).

In such games we get the freest exercise of the imagination (the rule to be followed allows us plenty of leeway) and the 'winners' like the winners in an art show, are a function of the particular mind sets of the persons doing the h judging. We are amused by these 'outcomes' because we can appreciate the contingencies involved in particular mind-sets and yet the outcomes are not dictated by pure chance: they have a value since they somehow reflect the natures of the persons involved. As a consequence there is a sort of recognition between us when we click/ win/ are fooled: there is something nice about this mutual recognition which is hard to sustain in competitive sport where the winners are often the winners because they have mastered the rules i.e., worked hard. Where, we might wonder, is the fun in that?

(Our second) Principle.

The fun quotient of such games depends on the imagination being left fairly free (guided only be a general rule) so as to take delight in the uniqueness of its own and other's solutions to the problem generated by the subtleties involve in obeying the general rules governing the game. The principle involved might read as follows: The more general the rules of the game, the more scope for creativity involved in obeying them, and the greater the amusement at the outcome which will always be thought amusing due to the rational detachment that we all enjoy vis a vis the results of our or another's creative spontaneity. This principle explains the fun involved in 'free' games but what of

Competitive games

These are games where the strategies/skills ramify to cope with specific contingencies involved in the play of the game. In these games, expertise can be acquired, but not through a free exercise of the imagination; we must work to acquire expertise and the notion of a competitive game's being fun only if you win begins to emerge (after all you have worked so hard to improve your skills you deserve to win!). In the face of this transformation (away from the idea that we are playing the game to have fun) we start to hear the mantra "Its only a game" as an attempt to restore the sense of detachment that makes games fun to play. In competitive games, the idea of its being fun to play but only with equals becomes an important factor since it allows our attempts to cope with refined contingencies encountered at the edge of our more or less equal skill to re-enter the play and detach us from the outcome. Thus, so long as we are more or less equally skilled, when the outcome is determined by our imaginative/intuitive responses to refined contingencies (which no amount of expertise can prepare us for) we will be able to detach ourselves from the outcome and have fun playing whatever the result. Since a contingency or an intuitive response to a contingency determines who wins, this leaves honour intact on both sides and so when Australia loses 26 to 20 against France, the game has been fun to watch and fun to play for both sides- it has been 'close', which now means: determined by contingencies which cannot be mitigated through expertise. When the All Black beat Wales 41 to 6, hmmm . . . . we can certainly appreciate the skills involved but it is not fun to watch or to play. Hence the crucial importance of grading such competitions to try to ensure relative equality between competitors and thus a sense of fun in the close games which result.

Test case: Rugby

Here the strategy for winning the game is constantly being blocked by an opposition following its own rules for defence. The rules can never be sufficiently explicit to dictate all movements so the imagination must be used to determine the action as the game unfolds. This can only be done in real time, as it were, so that the 'imagination' of the players, as they respond to contingencies, seems a function of their natural abilities to dodge, side-step, anticipate, etc., Watching the play, we find it impossible to understand how players are able to deliberately respond to fresh contingencies- there is no time to think- so the moves of the great players come to seem like amazing natural phenomena. In such games 'stars' emerge whose place in the firmament is a function of our inability to understand how they cope so fluently with contingencies.

According to McLuhan's definition, The fun of playing and watching rugby would be obscure if we did not remain rationally detached from the outcome. This detachment is afforded in Rugby by our appreciation of the players' intuitive coping with slippery conditions, sudden openings in the defence, the bounce of the ball , etc., This spontaneous coping with contingent factors allows the responsibility for the result to be mitigated in both directions, win or lose, since we cannot control and hence take responsibility for the spontaneous play that makes the game fun.

The paradox of games being both competitive and fun is that though you have to care about the outcome you have to remain rationally detached if you want to have fun playing the game.

The general principle for competitive games is: The greater the control over contingencies, via strategy, the more competitive the game, and the more the fun will depend on imaginative coping with the 'finer' contingencies.

Recalling the earlier comment about playing with equals: knowledge of how to play and skills must be equal to allow the imagination to come into play at the edge of the skill level so that the game can be played intuitively(as opposed to be worked at) Only thus can the success or failure of our intuitive encounter with the finer contingencies yield the amusement born of rational detachment. We have fun under such circumstances whether we win or lose.

This principle provides A clue here as to why we must try our best to win if the game is going to be fun: only if we try our hardest will we get to the point where our imagination/skill is exercised intuitively (not in accordance with some specific rule) and only then±-at the edge of our skill-can we thus begin to play (within the scope provided by the finer contingencies) and have fun whatever the outcome

General principle covering both free and competitive games

The thesis that now emerges is that the level of detachment from the outcome is related to the calculability of the contingencies. It is the possibility of our control over them that determine the outcome and this relation determines the fun that the game affords : the fun only comes when it is the imagination that does the calculating intuitively for only at this point -where the play is intuitive-are we able to rationally detach ourselves from responsibility for the outcome of our coping efforts.


Principle: the level of detachment/fun /amusement is related to the calculability of the contingencies that the game involves (and hence the degree of our control over them).

Either physical contingencies (chance) or mental contingencies -mind-sets (or both) affect the calculability of the contingencies.

So the fun quotient of the game is related the calculability of the contingencies as follows:

The physical contingencies

a) Pure chance: lottery, roulette, snakes and ladders, etc:

Where pure chance is involved, the contingencies (e.g., roll of the dice) reveal no apparent patterns. Thus not even general strategies are available to guide our play. There is no room for the imagination to employ strategies or cope intuitively. The fun must then come from employing fallacious strategies, gambling 'systems' or that most general strategy-wishful thinking. There is a high degree of rational detachment since the evidence: random matches between our 'strategy' and success or failure - relieves of us of any sense of responsibility: this kind of game can only fun for the child whose limited powers of reasoning allow a degree of rational detachment that allows them to think they are coping intuitively with the contingencies.

b)  cricket, rugby, most team sports that are played out-of-doors

The physical contingencies - the state of the wicket, the bounce of the ball-are such that the contingencies encountered will obey general patterns: under such conditions we must employ intuitive coping because any strategy we could form on the basis of general patterns within the contingencies is too vague. Here there can be a certain limited amount of fun coping intuitively with the contingencies but the coping itself is not very interesting because when, e.g., rain makes the field of play slippery, the rain falls on the just and the unjust equally so to speak and the results of intuitive coping with the conditions just seem lucky: if conditions deteriorate to the point that even the general patterns within the contingencies are no longer evident there can be no intuitive coping and, the game is spoiled . e.g., When the light fails in cricket, the game is called off.

 c) Snooker. Bowling, curling, darts

Here the physical contingencies are strictly limited: only a small level of contingencies can be attributed to the physical conditions. Quite regular patterns characterize play within the contingencies. The fun begins only where subtle physical contingencies affect the outcome and this, as usual, inspires intuitive coping with appropriate detachment and subsequent amusement at the outcome on both sides. These games are interesting because when they are played by real experts, only the afficianado can appreciate the subtle differences between the competitors capacity to cope intuitively. There are plenty of wry smiles from the expert competitors when someone copes or fails to cope with a subtle contingency whose subtlety occasions these smiles - expressions of the players rational detachment from the outcome . These games raises interesting questions about whether it is worth it to put that much practice into such a sport in order to compete at the highest levels and so be able to explore intuitively coping strategies which are subtle enough to be only appreciated by a few.

Baseball is interesting in this respect. So far as I know it is the only game in which errors in play are so unusual that they are listed on the scorecard and are a significant part of the game as they often result in a win for the opposition. The interest lies in the failure of an expert player to cope and in such cases a fine judgment must often to be made by the scorekeeper as to whether the contingencies involved are such that the player ought to be charged with an error. If the contingency is sufficiently subtle , the error is amusing and part of the fun of the game, but if the player ought to have caught the ball then there is nothing funny about the error involved.

The principle that governs the fun quotient of competitive games:

The more calculable the patterns that govern the contingent factors, the more important it is that the competitors should have an level of expertise which allows them to both be competing at the intuitive level of coping. Only then will the game be fun to play or fun to watch being played.

Question :Are such games more fun to play as the level of mutual skills involved increases?

Clearly some level of skill is required simply to be able to play, i.e., develop strategies/skills such that you can engage imaginatively in dealing with the contingencies that arise. But probably there is as much fun to be had at any level so long as this initial threshold is surmounted and the competitors have an equal level of skill.

The mental contingencies

a) Pure contingency: Trivial Pursuits, The Quiz

What you happen to know determines the outcome of the game: no play involved since the imagination cannot be usefully engaged: you know the answer or you don't; E.g., Trivial Pursuits. The saving grace that makes such games fun-up to a point-is that the competitors are all on the same footing re the contingency of what they happen to know due to the random character of the knowledge involved: a certain amusement born of rational detachment results due to the sheer contingency of the matches/mismatches successes/ failures on all sides: the players can take no responsibility for knowing or not knowing the answers (since they cannot exercise their imagination in order to cope with the contingency) and thus the game's fun quotient suffers because no actual play can be involved due to the pointlessness of exercising the imagination without a strategy save the general strategies we employ when trying to remember some fact- "Now what was that actor's name ..... he was the same guy that played the villain in etc, etc.,"

b) Roughly even mix of contingency and intuitive coping.

Here it is partly what you know and partly what you can actually work out using your imagination to deal with the contingencies ( e.g., cryptic crosswords, scrabble).Such games involve a fine line between work and play. Scrabble is worth discussing in more detail.


Here the rules are explicit: the configuration of the words on the board (with its arbitrarily placed double and triple word scores, etc.,) and the blind draw of the letters by the players provide the contingencies .The imagination is in the service of these rules but it has a fair amount of room to play within the possibilities the rules allow. The charm of the game lies in creating an imaginative solution to the problem which is always stretching towards the perfect seven letter word on the triple-word/triple letter combination, a goal which is achievable occasionally, given some luck. So the rules constrain and the contingencies vary as the play progresses and the imagination is thus aided or impeded in its endeavours. A further subtler contingency, which involves the different capacities of the players, is the amount of time that each player is prepared to/allowed to spend on the solution to each problem. This is a delicate matter for it must be 'just right' for each player or the game either becomes boring as work replaces play( as I try out systematically, every possible combination of letters and available spaces) or trivial: I haven't enough time to think of anything but simple words. For the game to be fun, we must set the time limit so that our imagination has enough time to create something you can value to some degree. Thus you have to care about getting a good word, but not too much. The degree of rational detachment required to make the game fun, while aided by the formal contingencies-is itself a function of the time limit that I must place on myself/others which must be negotiated without referring to any rule: in a sense I must allow enough time for each player to get an answer that is better than other possibilities if not the actual best which might take an infinite amount of time: Scrabble has its fans and its detractors because of this subtlety: it is a social game that involves a special kind of negotiating that is related to the contingency that is the other player's native ability. Adults and children playing together reveals this implicit negotiating more clearly: the game will only be fun for if the adults are careful to balance this contingency so that the child will have just the right amount of time so that they can get the sense of competing as an equal. 


In Bridge, the rational detachment is provided by the complexity of the distribution. Bridge involves a partially unknown set of facts; you know thirteen of the cards and where the rest are distributed is the great contingency. You can mitigate this contingency-via the bidding system- so the understanding has rules to follow and the Imagination is there to consider the various strategies that the unknown distribution calls for. When it comes to the play of the cards, (how could I get that extra trick ? should I try the finesse?) the fun is a function of the rational detachment dictated by coping as best I can with the contingencies which dictate the outcome whatever we strategy we choose to follow. The understanding is sufficiently engaged that the exercise of the Imagination is not undirected. A lot of fun is thus to be to be had as I invent solutions to problems with the safety net - absent in chess - of being able to attribute failure to a contingency viz., the random distribution of the cards. A nice balance is thus struck between our developing expertise which guides us through the contingencies and the sheer complexity which these ramifications involve which permits us to be amused by the outcome when we are fooled or succeed in coping with the complexity. The other contingency is the time limit which in duplicate involves bidding and playing in five to seven minutes. This time pressure affects the mental contingencies of remembering appropriate strategies under pressure and again allows some rational detachment from the outcome and thus some amusement when you forget' to act upon a rule you know my heart


c) No contingency, plenty of imagination

The strategies in such games are very general and usually mastered by all the competitors. As consequence, the imagination, in following these general strategies, will be likely to produce a solution which is unique to the individual involved. It is then the slight subtle difference in individual mind-sets that determines the outcome and we are amused, chiefly, by the subtlety of the mismatches- the 'puns' involved when similar imaginations, left fairly free, invent, similar solutions to a common problem. The mutuality generated- the matching and subtle mismatching of minds- seems to be the key factor in elevating the fun quotient in such games- dictionary, charades pictionary, etc.

And, of course, we play games that depend on this sort of contingency in the daily exercise of our wit.

The fun quotient principle applied to games involving mental contingencies:

Good mental games- those that afford the most amusement-are games that turn on individual attempts to cope with general problems, attempts that involve only intuitive coping. A good part of the fun lies in the post game discussion where the outcomes are found to turn on intuitions matching or mismatching and the match/mismatch being understood/explicable due to inherent ambiguities in the 'languages' involved.

Question: why should the maximum amusement be related to that contingency which turns on human similarities/differences in the exercise of intuitive powers?

Because in a game determined by mind-set contingencies, we discuss the miscalculations in order to appreciate what the fine differences were that divided us. We then discover that these subtle differences have allowed a pun to emerge (through taking the same sign/gesture to have different meanings) and this is what we find so funny/amusing about the outcome of playing the game when we discuss it. We come to understand how the errors could arise due the sheer complexity of our individual understanding of 'language' which involves, inevitably, various individual interpretations relating to the meaning of various gestures and terms. Thus, for each of us, our intuitive powers to cope with subtleties are more or less the same but due to the generality of the problem set in a game like charades or dictionary, our powers yield subtly different outcomes when exercised. We recognize that our strategies in coping with this level of generality are all intuitive: we hope to read the other's mind and we sometimes do and sometimes don't succeed but when we fail or are fooled we are always tripped up by a 'pun'. So though ' the pun is the lowest form of humour it is the basis of all humour'. And no mistake would be amusing if it were not an imaginative mistake that is blindly made (hence my rational detachment) as I try my best cope with contingency by intuiting a solution.

A special case of mental contingency accounts for the fun in the childrens' play of 'Let's pretend"

The fun involved in pretending with dolls or toy cars is special. The key here is that the contingencies which make the play of the imagination and the understanding fun are introduced by the players in a series of 'let's suppose' hypotheses which keep altering the potential moves of the pretend game and add fuel to the speculations about what would happen 'if'. The child makes it up as she goes along and the play has no end since it has no object: there is no way to win or lose and its only as a child that you can take seriously the rule changes, i.e., play in the right spirit by accepting the ad hoc rule changes and playing on seriously where the serious part is your enjoyment of the challenge of the changes to the ongoing interplay of your imagination and your understanding: i.e., keeping things coherent as new possibilities are integrated into the ongoing scheme. In a curious way the play is absorbing for the child due to the steady engagement of its faculties and the rational detachment that makes the game amusing is provided by the contingencies which constantly alter the direction of the game. My unwillingness to be amused by these ongoing rule changes marks the end of childhood and is signalled by the famous deflating response to such a proposed rule change in play , viz., "Let's not and say we did".

A game where mental and physical contingencies play a more or less equal role


The engagement between the understanding and the imagination and the mental and physical contingencies is very complex. The perfect swing is achieved from time to time but without an adequate understanding of how the trick was done. Repeating the perfect swing deliberately - i.e., in accordance with a rule, is impossible since the rule is so complex . This means that you can only deliberately follow one aspect of the complex rule and this leaves room for contingencies to arise. Every shot is preceded by a hope/intention that is either disappointed or realized. One's sense of being in control is both undermined and enhanced by the relatively slow speed at which a portion of the swing can be executed. But the crucial moment - the moment of impact-lies outside our powers of temporal discrimination: we can never see what happens at impact so the fun of golf- the rational detachment -is built so clearly into the action of the swing that every golfer soon becomes philosophical - i.e., rationally detached-about the distance between intention and result: it can be vast or tiny and once in a while 'the hole in one' the fit is perfect. Most of the fun of golf is the constant imaginative diagnosing of what went wrong or right in the previous shot. It is never conclusive since the source of the success or failure is always relatively obscure. A vast literature attempts to solve the various problems which are set by the fact that my intentions and my actions are impeded by contingicies which are incalculable yet calculable. Also the fun of the outcome has an especially clear relationship to the idea of amusement born of rational detachment: when things go right you see the result as a miracle something wonderful which you have produced intuitively but which you could never claim total responsibility for.

What makes games fun to watch

What makes it fun to watch makes an interesting test case for the theory in particular for all the comments people make to 'justify' victory or defeat in competitive sports. These comments are interesting because they attempt to address the paradox involved in the opposition between trying desperately to win and having fun playing the game.

Spectator sports

The fun of watching a game - the actual fact that you are not playing it- that you are physically detached from the action- lends rational detachment re responsibililty for the outcome. The spectator can do nothing to cope with the contingencies which face the players - nothing, that is, except to cheer their favourites-a kind of wishful thinking-out-loud whose efficacy ("The crowd is behind them now") will be based on an empathetic causality- something akin to magic . Thus if I am to have fun watching the game, I must get involved, must identify with the players, must imagine coping with the contingencies, constantly second-guessing the player's moves and agreeing or disagreeing with the sports commentators who are publicly engaged in this second-guessing. So what sort of games are going to be 'Fun to watch'? First and foremost they have got to allow the spectator time to participate in an imaginative anticipation of the unfolding of the action. (Ping pong/darts will never be fun to watch- it all happens too quickly.) The imaginative acts of the spectators must be constrained by the possibilities inherent in the situation. However, the spectator is less constrained because the scope of the spectator's imagination is always larger than that of the players simply because they can imagine moves based on an overview of various contingencies which cannot be possessed by the participants who are in the thick of the action.

Thus a part of what makes a game fun to watch is the rational detachment that arises from an overview of the possibilities that is always wider than that possessed by the participants. The spectator is a kind of god who pities and praises from on high. There is a kind of 'more in sorrow than in anger' appreciation of the failures which beset the athletes as they struggle in the grips of their finitude, not able to see what they might have done to achieve success. "If only he had looked to his left at that moment" etc., etc. The particular character of our fun as spectators is determined by the character of trhe source of our rational detachment: our detachment is emphasized by our powerlessness due to our physical detachment and augmented by our relative omniscience: our awareness of the possibilities that lie beyond the ken of the participants, a combination that yields a unique capacity for play between these two forms of rational detachment. This can be illustrated in terms of the play between the imagination, the understanding and these two sorts of contingencies. The contingencies of finitude (the players being restricted in their view of the action) combined with the spectators' overview and the contingency of the spectators being powerless to affect the outcome yields a unique element for the spectator: the knot in my stomach that forms as the clock runs down and my team is ahead by a single point.

Commentary on competitive sport

Given these contingencies, and the importance of winning, there is a kind of complex 'joke' implicit in our judgment on the outcome of competitive games in which contingencies are both recognized and not recognized. The joke turns on an ambiguous attitude towards what determines the outcome and what merit we should attach to it as a consequence. On the one hand we recognize that if the teams are equally matched and that, therefore, the outcome will turn on mere contingencies, we would have to acknowledge the game is always decided simply by the bounce of the ball. But that would make the fact that our team won, massively uninteresting. We might as well just toss a coin and get it over with so that interpretation of the role of contingencies in determining a competition can't be right.

So we seem to also need to recognize that the contingencies are such that they serve to equalize the equally skilled teams' chances of winning thus making the outcome of the game turn on the difference between the opposing players' intuitive coping with these equally distributed contingencies. Whether this intuitive coping will be forthcoming is something we don't know until the players have to cope with the contingencies. Hence the profound post-game comment: "The better team won on the day". What work is the qualification 'on the day' doing here? Does it detract from the merit of the victory in some fashion?

I think it does detract in that it is an implicit reference to a fundamental presumption, namely, that a game between equally matched competitors will result in a draw unless something unpredictable intervenes. But, again, if the purpose of the competitive play within a framework of contingencies issimply to allow an unpredicatble element to emerge which decides the match, why not toss a coin. After all, On this interprettion , apparently all we are doing when we watch the game is to see which -of two apparently equal teams is, in fact, the better due to some unpredictable factor. "Oh, that's interesting: Canterbury beat Otago: their intuitive coping -quite unpredictable- was better on the day". So, what made it fun to watch? Just finding out each week which team was better?

No: the apparent detraction implicit in " the better team won on the day involves a presumption about what made the better team better; viz., that their is a moral psychology of a special kind that can allow effort to make a difference and earn true merit for the winning team. This moral psychology, is widely understood by commentators and it s essence is that that putting a 100% effort( sometimes we are told 110%) into your play can make a difference ( the difference on my theory being that by somehow increasing your effort, your power to cope intuitively with contingencies will be augmented), so that "the team who wants it most" will win and that this wanting is something that the team can freely decide to do. Then a proper victory is a seen as a 'moral 'victory: our team deserved to win because they tried harder. But, what if, despite the trying ( "The boys did their best") the team that wanted it most, loses: then the built in contingencies that determine the outcome "on the day" can be summoned ( by the home town commentator) to explain away any moral failing on the part of the home team and allow the winners to take but a modest pride in their victory which was, after all, partly due to their effort-but of course-and partly due to the bounce of the ball. Think now of the complex set of assumptions that allow me to play the game 'in earnest' but at the same time be a 'good sport' and enjoy the game whether I win or lose.

Number one: I must assume the team has a chance: the outcome cannot be a foregone conclusion due to an acknowledgement on both sides of an imbalance in skill between the participants.

Number Two: I must assume that the outcome will not be simply a matter of chance. If I thought that, I wouldn't be able to play the game in earnest.

Number Three: I must assume that by doing something-viz., trying harder than my opponent, my team can prevail. This is the vital element- the moral factor that allows the victory to be deserved.

Number Four: There must be a contingent element in the game that may reduce my moral efforts to naught. Without such an element, losing would be too hard because I would have to be blamed (morally) for not trying hard enough. How else could I explain my loss? After all, we were equally matched! Without some contingency to fall back on to explain my losing, engaging in the game would be too risky: the results of losing would be morally catastrophic: it is no fun losing when there is no one to blame but yourself for not trying hard enough, e.g., losing at chess. So what I am assuming overall, when I engage to play a game in earnest, is that the game will be fun whether I win or lose, thanks to the fact that the outcome will rest partly on chance so that I can both take modest credit for my win-I after all tried my best-and be a good loser since I can partially explain my loss via some contingency. Thus I can continue to get credit for trying my best and can explain why "my best was not good enough". This quite complex set of assumptions explains why competitive games can be fun to play and to watch, whether you win or lose.

The Game of Life

These assumptions also explain how hard it is live as if life were a game. This is evident in Nozick's characterization of self-esteem where all values born of achievement are relative: I always acquire my self-esteem in competition with others and-since my self-esteem is at stake- it matters desperately how I do. I can't excuse myself via contingencies. By comparison, Rawls thinks that the realization of your unique potential is not a value dependent on comparisons with others so the self-esteem associated with self-development is not gained through comparison.

In a Rawlsian society, games would simply be a distraction since you would be unwilling to waste your precious time on them when you could be generating greater happiness exercising your realized capacities in accordance with the Aristotelian principle. But in the Nozickian world, they would be hugely popular as they temporarily disengage us from the risky game of life.

Thus in a game we can play the game 'in earnest' without risk thanks to the contingencies that make it possible to fail to win the game and yet not be a failure as a person.