03 March, 2006

The Great Chain Game

Today, a game I invented—well, sort of—and played a few times with various people. It's named after Arthur Lovejoy's classic 1936 book, The Great Chain of Being, which is about Greek hierarchical cosmology and its ramifications in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Yes, really!

The Great Chain Game involves two persons, but not in direct competition; rather, they operate in an unsettled sort of partnership. The basic premise is this: the first man, X, asks the second, Y, which of two objects, a and b, Y prefers. Y can answer either a, b, or 'I don't know', but not 'neither of the two'—and he must answer truthfully, and with consideration. When B has given his answer, X asks Y the same question, either about two new objects, c and d, or about c and either a or b. It is required only that Y be consistent; if he picks a over b and b over c, he must pick a over c. The process continues for as long as is desired.

By this means, a hierarchy of values is gradually established. If discussing novelists, for instance, a short exchange might end up with:

Jane Austen (best)
Virginia Woolf
George Eliot
Thomas Hardy
Rudyard Kipling
Marcel Proust
Franz Kafka
James Joyce (worst).

The ultimate aim of the game, necessarily played over many sessions (called elenchi), is to work towards creating a ranking of all the items in the world, both material and intellectual, concrete and abstract, in mutual relation. One wants, really, to reduce the complexity of the entire universe to a single line, a scale of perfection, from the best to the worst—a 'great chain of being'. This, I contend, would be a beautiful product.

Note well: the game takes as axiomatic the principle that one can evaluatively compare 'red' to 'juniper', and both to 'reply', and 'justice'. Note also that the elements being ordered are things, not words (words can be elements, but only qua things). Any verbal ambiguities must therefore be clarified: if asking about 'round', clarify whether 'curved' (round body) or 'set/group' (round of ammo, round of drinks), if asking about 'marble', clarify whether you mean the stone or the glass ball. The words 'round' and 'marble' are also acceptable. Homonyms must be separated.

Like all good games, the Great Chain Game possesses strategies, even though there is no winning or losing. It is a dull game if one sticks to favourite novelists; but if, having created the above list, X asks Y, 'George Eliot or Golden Retriever?', or 'James Joyce or Sing Sing?', the situation becomes interesting. X must trust Y to evaluate carefully, weighing up the virtues on each side. Furthermore, there is opportunity for X to ask according to mood: one day fastidiously determining the relative merits of the shades of a particular hue, the next playing all over the conceptual gamut. One might even suggest that the structure of an elenchus corresponds to the structure of a personality—and the Game provides a far better insight into one's personality than any Myers-Briggs test or online quiz.

It is crucial to see the Game not as the conflict of two wills, as with most games, but as the tension or dialectic between two creativities. The Game is ultimately about making order out of chaos, an Aristotelian endeavour; X provides the matter (the items which he picks from the infinite multitude), and Y the form (the arrangement of those items). X is the primary active force in the Game; his goal is to aid Y in plotting the line, to delimit precise areas of Y's taste, but also to foil him, to make him think, to challenge him with new connections and contrasts. X sets up oppositions, and Y demolishes them. Ultimately, as it can go on indefinitely, the game is to be construed as a continuous activity, open-ended and poetic, jovial and desperate also, a struggle with the bacterial growth of useless existents.

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