Monday, May 18, 2020


Most philosophers don’t talk much about games. But games actually highlight one of the really amazing powers of the human being: the power to create norms and to create new forms of well-being.

Lately I’ve been playing this vague game with vague rules and vague non-numerical points when out and about:

  • Gain bonus points if I can stay at least nine feet away from non-family members in circumstances in which normally I would come within that distance of them; more points the further away I can be, though no extra bonus past 12 feet.

  • Win game if I avoid inhaling or exhaling within six feet of a non-family member. (And of course I have to be careful that the first breath past the requisite distance be moderate in size rather than a big huff.)

When the game goes well, it’s delightful, and adds value to life. On an ordinary walk around campus, I almost always win the game now. Last time I went shopping at Aldi, I would have won (having had to hold my breath a few times), except that I think I mumbled “Thank you” within six feet of the checkout worker (admittedly, if memory serves, I think I mumbled it quietly, trying to minimize the amount of breath going out, and then stepped back for the inhalation after the words; and of course I was wearing a mask, but it's still a defeat). Victory, or even near-victory, at the social distancing game is an extra good in life, only available because I imposed these game norms on myself, in addition to the legal and prudential norms that are independent of my will. Yesterday, I think I won the game all day despite going on a bike ride and a hike, attending Mass (we sat in the vestibule, in chairs at least nine feet away from anybody else, and the few times someone was passing by I held my breath), and playing tennis with a grad student. That's satisfying to reflect on. (At the same time, playing a game also generally adds a bit of extra stress, since there is the possibility, and sometimes actuality, of defeat. And it's hard to concentrate on the Mass while all the time looking around for someone who might be approaching within the forbidden distance. And, no, I didn't actually think of it as a game when I was at Mass, but rather as a duty of social responsibility.)

I think the only other person in my family who has gamified social distancing is my seven-year-old.


Bill Wood said...

This is a very charming post that made me smile, Alex. Glad to hear that you and your family are well.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Nice to hear from you, Bill. You can see that I'm a "bit" OCD. :-)

I hope you and yours are well as well.