The Player of Games is a clever science fiction novel, but here I want to treat it as a contribution to Socratic Political Theory (recall here and here). The action starts in an imperial, utopian somewhat anarchic (there are few laws) society with little scarcity (nor money) and not much death full of semi-clever drones that serve and keep humans alive. This intergalactic human society is surrounded by an, in part, hidden machine-culture in which super smart machines and networks reveal consciousness and intelligence that outstrip anything we are capable of. Jointly these two societies inhabit the Culture, which is extremely powerful in the galaxy. Its ruling ideology (it's called a 'philosophy' by themselves) is 'Strength in depth; redundancy; over-design." (239) This is an ideology of precautionary principles. In this volume of the series, we never learn what keeps the machines from killing the humans they outsmart. Perhaps the humans are thought the useful redundancy of the Culture.
The Culture is committed to a Whorfian thesis about language, and its language has been designed to facilitate the flourishing of the Culture. The Culture itself is governed by the ruling machines in the manner of Government House utilitarians. The humans kind of know this, but they can never be quite sure what the machines are up to. This turns out to be an important, structural element in the novel. The Culture is resistant to creative innovation (at least among the humans).
Prior to the start of the narrative of the novel, the Culture encounters another technologically skillful civilization, the Empire of Azad. This is a militant and hierarchical meritocracy. This society has not solved the problem of scarcity, and so it is based on property (or "ownership" 114); it both needs conquest abroad and material inequality, which has severe consequences for the quality of life of those at the bottom of the hierarchies. (It has abolished formal slavery -- something they are said to be proud of, but there is wage-slavery.) Part of the fun of the novel is that the Empire of Azad seems a lot more familiar than the Culture to us readers, but that the representatives of the Culture finds it disorienting and (despite all the glitter and color) inferior.
The meritocracy of Azad has two important characteristics. A game, conveniently also called 'Azad,' (which means 'machine, or perhaps system' ) is the main selection mechanism of status within the hierarchy. The game (Azad) reflects (like a "model" (76)) the social reality of Azad, "whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance." (76) But because the game, Azad, is such an important social institution, it also structures social reality: "such is the pervasive nature of the idea of the game within the society that just by believing that, they make it so," (77; emphasis in original.) It is to Banks's credit that he does not merely characterize such reflexivity, but also shows the ways such reflexivity can be both extremely robust (the game Azad and the Empire so structured have co-evolved for a long time) and quite fragile--if the idea can be undermined in the right way the whole society can collapse rapidly. Interestingly enough, from the point of view of political philosophy, is the observation that in such a (partially hereditary meritocracy), the opinion of the people is still vital to the survival of the hierarchy--propaganda precisely consists in giving the people what they want to hear.
The second characteristic I just mention, but deserves fuller discussion. The Empire of Azad has three sexes: males (with testes and penis), and two kinds of females: one with a reversible vagina and ovaries and one just with a womb (74). This sexual division of labor facilitates a social hierarchy with the first kind of women on top and the other on the bottom. The novel was first published in 1988, and one can see that Banks has thought through some of the potential implications of surrogacy and genetic engineering which were then becoming common among our wealthy.
The novel is structured around a subtle distinction between a mere game player and a game player that is a 'true gambler.' (21) The former, presumably, enjoys play and the thrill of winning, and does not concern us here. However, the latter "needs the excitement of potential loss,even ruin, to feel wholly alive." It is not obvious one needs to be a true gambler in order to be a great or greatest game player. In fact, the novel is most interesting on this very point. The main protagonist (Gurgeh), who is the best game player of the culture and also among its leading game-theorists, discovers that he is such a true gambler.* There is a revealing, seemingly unconnected detail that illuminates this point. Gurgeh's sexual and personal identity is remarkably un-fluid given the society he inhabits. (Sex changes and sexual preferences are very fluid.) He is one of the very few in his society who has not never changed sex, or (being a man) has slept with a man (24). That is, it's clear his identity is tied up with both extreme loss aversion and treating loss as existential. But in the right circumstances the true gambler is willing to risk all.
As an aside, the narrator of the novel, who turns out to be one of the super-smart drones who are part of of the machine network that runs the Culture, explains at one point that in the ruling ideology, dubbed 'dynamic (mis)behaviorism' (a species of consequentialism) that identity is less important than humans think: "We are what we do, not what we think. Only the interactions count." (231) The logical problems such a view encounters are not confronted.
But it turns out the fluidity of identity in another sense also accompanies the true gambler (who is both risk averse and eager for existential games). For, as it happens to be a true gambler, and to know it about oneself, involves playing games that one knows may change who one is--a so-called transformative experience: "he would change; he would be a different person at the end of it; he could help but change, take on something of the game itself; that would be inevitable." (82) That is, if a true gambler plays a game in which one can suffer great, existential loss (and I am leaving that un-defined in this post) then by definition she can know in advance of the game that she can come out transformed without knowing the content of the transformation. The point of playing the game is not to be transformed, it's feeling the thrill of being alive in the right sort of way; but the transformation is a known by-product if and only if one survives. (Of course, this is compatible with the existence of all kinds of other transformative experiences.) The game of Azad can also generate transformative experiences for those players who don't expect it.
Let me wrap up, Gurgeh has been trained up, we may say, on playing many different kind of games throughout his life. Even so, in his game playing he represents the Culture. As it turns out, however, this is sufficient to beat the very best folk in Azad at their own game. He is more adaptable than they are and this somehow represents a feature of the Culture. However, it turns out, as he gradually becomes aware, that he himself was a pawn -- even a pawn that could be sacrificed -- by the machine-network that runs the Culture. It is worth reflecting on this momentarily.
In the Culture, something we learn early, the study of game theory and the study of philosophy are sharply distinguished (p.15) This is significant, as I hope to suggest in (closing in) what follows. Gurgeh is very good at the former. We only get hints of the game theory, but among the humans of The Culture it seems to be a mixture between the craft involved in the study of positions in the matter of say Chess and Go, and the more formal kind of apparatus we find in say our (Earth) game theory used in economics or political science.
Again, Gurgeh is notable for being good at playing games and theorizing about it. He also recognizes that games and society are intimately linked. But strikingly his contributions to game theory is all about games one can play and not the society in which they are embedded and (can) model.* This lacuna in his theory, perhaps even a consequence of the way the discipline of his culture is structured [recall the Whorfianism], is especially striking in virtue of the fact that his very own game theory involves a metaphysics in which "reality is game" because "physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance." (41)
So, one of the indirect points of the book is that only the insertion of what I have been calling Socratic Political Theory, a meta-theory in which the games and structures of societies are analyzed in comparative fashion [More and Le Guin (recall) are astoundingly good at this], completes the proper union of philosophy and game theory. (That's an ideal game theory.) We learn that Gurgeh is fascinated by the subject matter (see the quote above), but that he lacks skill in it. Absent such political science one is, for example, slow to recognize, as Gurgeh is, that one can be a pawn in a game played by hidden powers behind the scenes, that is, the invisible ruling powers of the Culture.