running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira.


Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira. Robin Turner Bilkent University

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira.


Abstract This paper uses the Brazilian sport of capoeira as a way of investigating what is and is not a game. In particular, it tests two approaches to defining games: the classical definition provided by Bernard Suits and a model which attempts to combine classical and prototype-based methods of categorisation by drawing a distinction between defining and typical features as first proposed in Turner (2006) ‘How do you know she’s a woman?’ Problems in defining games across different languages and cultures are also mentioned. Keywords: games, categorisation, capoeira

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira.


Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira. The word “game” is hard to define, as Wittgenstein (1958, pp. 7-8) famously pointed out. Wittgenstein denies that games (or indeed, most things) can be defined precisely; rather, they form a loose category in which the members are linked by “family resemblances” (p. 7). It does not matter that there are no characteristics that all games share; they simply “form a family” (p. 7). The advantage of this view is that it allows categories to be “blurred” (p. 8), an advantage it shares with the prototype view of categorisation first proposed by Eleanor Rosch (1973). Just as a robin was a prototypical bird in Rosch's example, chess would be a prototypical game. The disadvantage of such approaches is that resemblance (whether to a prototype or within a “family”) does not enable us to say why some things are members of a category and others are not (Wierzbicka, 1990, p. 350). We know intuitively that playing chess is definitely playing a game and playing the stock market is not; what we need is a definition that tells us why this is so.

The definition of games which has attracted the most attention from philosophers is that provided by Bernard Suits. In The grasshopper: Games, life and utopia (1978 / 1990) Suits is as

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira. precise as Wittgenstein is vague. He defines a game as an “activity directed toward


bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity” (1990, p. 34). While this may be an excellent definition for the purposes of investigating the philosophy of games, its very precision leads to a risk of misclassification and naturally prevents us from saying that an activity is “kind of a game” (which Wittgenstein presumably allows). As a compromise between the vagueness of Wittgenstein and the strictness of Suits, I propose to construct a definition of games based on a method I previously applied to terms for women and girls in English and Turkish (Turner, 2006). This theory is based on the features of a category, like both Wittgenstein's and Suits' approaches, but divides them into defining features, which identify members of a category, and typical features, which they tend to possess (and which may sometimes be more salient than defining features). For lack of a more elegant term, I shall call this the defining-typical model. Since peripheral members of categories provide a way to test the suitability of definitions and indeed the validity of theories of categorisation, I shall use capoeira as a peripheral member of the GAME category to examine the relative merits of Suits' classic definition and the defining-typical model as applied to games. In doing so I hope to shed some light not only on capoeira and games in general, but also on the nature of categorisation and definition.

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira.


Lewis (1995, p. 222) succinctly describes capoeira as “an acrobatic, AfroBrazilian martial game, played in a circle with musical accompaniment in which two players try to take each other down, or otherwise dominate each other, while demonstrating mastery of movement.” While the majority of capoeira practitioners (capoeiristas), would concur with this view of capoeira as a game, whatever else it may be, Lewis goes on to note that “some players insisted that it was a martial art, purely about self-defense, and that other aspects (such as music) were simply masks covering this essential truth from the uninitiated. Others saw capoeira primarily as an amusing pastime (folguedo), an exhilarating form of expressive, dance-like play, and for a few it seemed to constitute a sacred path to proper living” (p. 222). 1 A problem in classifying capoeira is that it involves several practices, including straightforward fighting at one extreme to pure dance at the other. When I showed video-clips of these two activities to students were unfamiliar with capoeira, they were unanimous in denying that the participants were playing a game, but when I showed a typical capoeira roda (circle), some agreed that it was at least a game of sorts, while the rest still thought it was not quite a game. A further problem is linguistic. Brazilian capoeiristas obviously have no problem in classifying capoeira as a game because that it is what it is called in Brazilian

1 The best-known exponent of the last view is Bira Almeida (Mestre Acordeon). Merrell (2005, p. 1) describes capoeira as “playfully practicing philosophy” and also regards it, along with candomble, as a practice of cultural resistance.

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira. Portuguese: jogo. Outside Brazil, capoeiristas naturally follow this by translating jogo into the word for game in their own language (e.g., Turkish capoeiristas use oyun). However, jogo is not identical to “game”. The verb jogar can be seen as having more competitive or risky, and less playful, connotations than English “play”, as shown by these example sentences provided as a response to my query on an online forum:


As crianças estão brincando. Os homens estão jogando cartas (tonytraductor, 2008)

(“The children are playing. The men are playing cards.”) We cannot therefore assume that capoeira is a game simply because capoeiristas call it a game.

Suits' Definition
To apply Suits' definition of “game”, we need to break it down into its components, since although it is phrased as a sentence, it is a set of features, so we may consider them in turn. If a game is an “activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs” (Suits, 1990, p. 34) then we need to establish what state of affairs the capoeirista is trying to bring about. Lewis' aforementioned statement that the “players try to take each other down, or otherwise dominate each other” goes some way to describing the goal of capoeira, but is problematic, and not only because take-downs are less common than this would suggest. The typical capoeira move involves one player kicking and the other evading, and how hard the first player makes it for the second to evade varies: an

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira. experienced capoeirista playing with a beginner would make it easy for them to escape and counter-attack, not just out of kindness but because continually dominating their opponent would spoil the game. Then there are the floreios (“flourishes”), acrobatic movements which seem to serve no purpose other than looking (and feeling) good. It appears then, that rather than there being “a specific state of affairs” that must be achieved (like capturing the king in chess), a capoeirista has a degree of choice in what they try to do. Suits' second condition is that games must have rules which limit the means available to the players, and which force the selection of inefficient means; for example, the most efficient way of putting a ball in a hole is not to stand at a distance and hit it with a stick, but this how we play golf (Suits, 1990, p. 23-24). Since we are not entirely clear about the state of affairs that capoeiristas are trying to achieve, we may not be


entirely certain about the efficiency of the means employed. Nevertheless, it is clear that capoeira has rules which constrain the players' actions quite severely; while capoeira may look very free, the movements in fact follow a complex set of both formal and unspoken rules. More interestingly, players may select what appear to be inefficient means even when the rules do not oblige them; for example, the most efficient way to kick someone in the head is not to stand on your hands and wave your feet in the air, yet this move is often chosen, even though the rules do not require it, simply because it is more fun than more efficient kicks. Finally, according to Suits, the rules must be accepted simply because they make the game possible, not for any moral or practical reasons. He gives the example of

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira. escaping from a labyrinth (1990, p. 32). If the walls are impenetrable, then we do not have a rule but simply a physical constraint, and it would be impossible to tell if the person escaping the labyrinth were doing so as a game or in earnest. If, however, the walls are made from paper and the person refuses to simply burst through them, then


we have rule-governed behaviour, but not necessarily a game. If the person does not tear the walls out of respect for property or consideration for other people who use the labyrinth, then “Do not tear the walls” is a moral rule, not a game rule. On the other hand, if the aim is not simply to escape, but to escape the labyrinth “labyrinthically”, as Suits puts it, then the rule becomes a game rule. While capoeira has a number of rules, it is questionable how many of them are game rules in this strict sense: most of them simply concern etiquette or safety, such as “Salute your partner when you enter and leave the roda” or “Don't kick someone while they are performing acrobatics.” These are like rules in martial arts, gymnastics or even dance, none of which would be normally classed as games. There is one way, though, in which capoeira is like the labyrinth example, and this again refers to the way capoeiristas kick; we might say that the player does not simply want to kick the opponent but to kick “capoeiristically”, that is, using certain prescribed moves, avoiding hurting the opponent and, most characteristically, looking good while doing it. However, I would argue that even this does not constitute a game rule in the strict sense, because similar rules apply in dance; in the jitterbug, for example, the man must throw the woman around in certain ways, make both of them look good while he's doing it, and above all not break her neck.

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira. Applying Suits' criteria leads to the conclusion that capoeira is not a game,


whatever capoeiristas may say, since it lacks a specific objective and, while it has rules, it does not really have game rules.

The Defining-Typical Model
In “‘How do you know she’s a woman?’ Features, prototypes and category stress in Turkish kadın and kız,” I developed a model for categorisation which attempted to combine the feature-bundle approach of traditional semantics with more modern, prototype-based views.2 The basic distinction is between defining features and typical features, with the former determining category membership (especially in hard-to-place cases) and the latter determining centrality in the category. I also subdivided them into strong and weak, so that in some cases a strong typical feature could make up for the lack of a weak defining feature. For example, the category GIRL in traditional semantics has the features:

These are what in the defining-typical model (henceforth DTM) are called defining features, in that we are what we would invoke if we had to say exactly what made an item a member of a category. Of these, though, only +HUMAN and +FEMALE are
2 I am not claiming this is an original approach; in many respects it is similar to Lehrer's (1974) distinction between “obligatory” and “optional” features, Coleman & Kay's (1981) “weighted feature-bundle” and Jackendoff's (1992) combination of features with preference rules.

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira.


absolutely required and are thus termed strong defining features (men and animals are only referred to as “girls” metaphorically). -ADULT is a weak defining feature, in that while it is normally a requisite, it can be over-ridden, as when a seventy-year-old woman still talks about “going out with the girls” (Turner, 2006, p. 220). Other features of girls, such as having pony-tails or lacking facial hair are typical features, since although we view them as “girly” things (and often use them to identify someone as a girl at first glance) they are by no means necessary. Like defining features, typical features can be divided roughly into strong and weak; as a general rule, one or a combination of strong typical features can over-ride a weak defining feature. Turning to games, at first sight it looks like Wittgenstein is right in claiming that there are no characteristics that are common to all games, and thus, in the DTM, no strong defining features. However, Wittgenstein misses what is perhaps the most important feature of games, which is that they are separated from normal life. Kramer (2000, 4.5 para. 1) puts it quite strongly: “Whoever plays, leaves behind reality and dives into the world of the game.” While such absorption in the game is not required, a sense of separation from the rest of the world is. It is a feature not just of playing games but of play in general that the normal rules do not apply. Thus we can also say that all games have at least one rule, the rule which says “This is a game.” In the following table, I have attempted to list some of the defining and typical features of games. I should emphasise that this list is incomplete and a little arbitrary, particularly with regard to weak typical features.

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira.







Looking at capoeira, we can see that it has both of the strong defining features (note that in the DTM, it is not necessary for the rules to exist only for the activity they allow; it is enough that they exist only in that activity). All games have a temporal separation from normal, non-game life, in that there is a time the game starts and stops.4 Many games also involve a spatial separation, provided by a playing field or game
3 Some may object to this feature on the grounds that gambling games may have very serious consequences; however, I would draw a distinction between gambling on the result of a game and the game itself. Even in poker, where the stakes are in important part of the game, the in-game stakes are abstracted from real-life money. 4 A possible exception would be the case of someone playing a game while simultaneously holding a non-game-

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira.


board, for example. In the case of capoeira, the roda, or circle in which the activity takes place, provides a very clear, physical boundary. The capoeiristas look in at the action and consequently turn their backs on the world. (During the long period when capoeira was illegal, it also served the purpose of hiding the activity from the police.) We have already seen that capoeira does not have a specific objective; however, in the DTM this is a weak defining feature, the lack of which can be made up for by possession of strong typical features. Role-playing games games are similar in this respect: is the aim of Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft to get gold, win fights, complete quests, raise your character's level, or play according to your character's personality? Different players prioritise different objectives, as in capoeira. Turning to strong typical features, capoeira has all but the most obvious one of winning and losing; one cannot “win a game” of capoeira. It may seem strange to talk of a game having rivalry but no winner or loser, but this is partly because the rivalry is often purely nominal, and partly because moments where the rivalry flares up constitute micro-games, and here one person may be thought of as having got the better of their opponent, even though there is no formal winner. What the DTM suggests is that capoeira, when played in the roda with at least a slight degree of rivalry (and hence strategy) is a game, but it is on the periphery of the

category. It frequently steps out of the category, so to speak, and becomes a

martial art or a dance. The interesting thing is that without both the martial and dance

related conversation or performing a repetitive manual task. However, in these cases the person is multi-tasking and is still performing two very different and distinct activities.

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira. aspects, the game of capoeira would not exist, which is why one of its most revealing epithets is dança-luta, or “dance-fight” (Lewis, 1995, p. 224).


Both Suits' definition of “game” and the DTM have their advantages, just as formal and fuzzy definitions do in their own ways. Suits' virtue is his precision; he is able to say exactly what games are for the purposes of investigating some philosophical questions that games raise. This means, however, that he may exclude some peripheral members of the GAME category on the one hand, while treating some peripheral members as equally a game as central members; for example, in the chapter where he presents his definition (1990, pp. 22-41), we see well-known games like chess, poker and golf alongside motor-racing and high-jumping, with no indication that one is any more or less of a game than another, or that many people would class the last two as sports but not games. The advantage of the DTM is that it allows a certain fuzziness at the edge of the category, so that activities like capoeira can be “kind of a game”, while at the same time explaining why games like chess or golf are more central to the category. It can even handle metaphorical uses of “game”. Its disadvantage is that it requires that every concept be studied exhaustively to determine what features will be included and how they will be ranked. Whatever definitions and theories of categorisation we adopt in the future, one thing is certain, which is that animals like the platypus and games like capoeira will

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira. continue provide productive headaches.


running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira.


Coleman, L. & Kay, P. (1981). Prototype semantics: The English word lie. Language, 57, 26-44. Jackendoff, R.S. (1992). Languages of the mind: Essays on mental representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Kramer, W. (2000). What is a game? The Games Journal. Retrieved from Lehrer, A. (1984) Semantic fields and lexical structure. Amsterdam: North-Holland. Lewis , J.L. (1995) Genre and embodiment: From Brazilian capoeira to the ethnology of human movement. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 10(2), 221-243 Rosch, E.H. (1973) Natural categories, Cognitive Psychology 4: 328-50. Suits, B. (1990). The grasshopper: Games, life and utopia. Boston, MA: David R. Godine. (Original work published 1978). tonytraductor (2010, February 2) Re: jogo. [Online forum comment]. Retreived from Turner, R.H.M. (2006) ‘How do you know she’s a woman?’ Features, prototypes and category stress in Turkish kadın and kız. In June Luchjenbroers (ed.) Cognitive linguistics:  Investigations across languages, fields, and philosophical Boundaries.  Amsterdam:  John Benjamins.

running head: Game, dance or fight? Testing two definitions of “game” with capoeira. Wierzbicka, A. (1990) ‘Prototypes Save’: on the uses and abuses of the notion of ‘prototype’ in linguistics and related fields. In Savas L. Tsohatzidis (ed.) Meanings and prototypes: studies in linguistic categorization. London: Routledge. Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical investigations (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.


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