Friday, October 29, 2010

Rules and Games

Games have rules. Given any particular game, it is obvious that if some set of its rules are changed, that game will cease to exist, giving rise to a new game. For example, if the rules of chess change to allow unmoved pawns to move three spaces, queens to move only three times per game and knights to move only diagonally, a new game is created: call it “chess-β.”

However, some rules of a given game can be changed without thereby creating a new game. For example, one could change the rules of baseball such that only the use of wooden bats is permissible, yet not thereby create a new game.

A few days ago, some friends and I attempted to answer the following question: If the rules of baseball were changed such that an umpire’s call could be overturned by video evidence, would a new game, call it “baseball- β” be created?

One side argued that it is just part of the game of baseball that the ruling of the umpire stands. More strongly, this side argued that there is no criterion, say, for a strike, outside of the umpire’s call. On this view, a thing isn’t a strike until the umpire says so. By allowing video evidence to overturn an umpire’s call, this side argued, we would thereby change the definition of strike in baseball, essentially creating a new game.

The other side (Black Socrates's side), argued that there just have to be criteria for the correctness or incorrectness of an umpire’s call which are independent of the umpire’s judgment. Otherwise, it would make no sense to say, for instance “The umpire made a bad call,” or “The umpire got that one wrong.” If it does make sense to say these things, then there is a standard of correctness for the calling of a strike outside of an umpire’s judgment. If this is the case, we would not create a new game in allowing an umpire’s call to be overturned by video evidence. The video would simply serve as a better umpire. It would track more accurately what the umpire seeks to track: the facts about whether something was a strike or not (or, better, whether someone threw a strike according to the rules of baseball).

I think my side’s argument is absolutely right. And it’s interesting to contrast baseball with a game in which the referee’s judgments are more closely tied to facts about whether something counts as something according to the rules of the sport. Take, for example, wrestling. A wrestler scores two points for a takedown and a wrester has taken his opponent down when he as established control. Now, obviously, establishing that a wrestler has control isn’t as easy as establishing that a football player is down, or that a pitcher has thrown a strike. Two people could watch a perfectly clear recording of a match and disagree about whether one wrestler established control.

In this sport, the judgments of the referee are essential to establishing the fact of the matter about whether a wrestler has established control. While we may disagree with a referee’s call, that the referee makes the call he does, in a sense, makes it the case that a wrestler has control. We hear wrestling fans say things like “That was a questionable call,” or “I wouldn’t have given him a takedown,” but rarely “The official just got that one wrong.” If we were to establish more clear criteria for takedowns, replacing “control” with a more technical and objectively verifiable definition, we would, I think, thereby change the sport of wrestling, creating a new sport “wrestling- β.”