Tag: The Game, and Why We Play It

The child’s game of tag is simple, universal, and timeless. I’ve seen it from my own backyard to the mountains of East Africa. One person is “it”, and everyone else is a potential target. By a simple touch the targeted person is “got” and the players shift roles. The sting of having been gotten is easily dismissed since the desire to be “it” is much greater than the desire to avoid having lost to the last one. Everyone wants to chase, to pursue, to reach that anticipated goal. Professional sports are all variations of tag. Insert balls and sticks, and change the target into a ball carrier and a net and you only have a complex version of the classic. The latest first-person shooter video games too are virtual versions of tag, with a bullet and a kill substituted for the touch and the goal. On the playground, children invent new games, but the goal always falls into the same tried and true pattern of play: the goal.


The modern scientist may tell you it is a vestige of an animal economy which depends on survival among limited resources. We are playing out our deepest urges to stay alive, yet in a civilized setting. The contemporary philosopher may tell you such games are about power, our fundamental desire to subject one another and rule. Both of these answers include uncontroversial elements of truth. Indeed, our life contains a struggle to survive, the need to succeed in securing adequate resources. That is true regardless of your phylogenetic assumptions. Likewise, Michel Foucault is not the first anti-Christian philosopher to borrow a Calvinist tenet: that man desires to oppress other men to his benefit.

Foucault, unlike the Calvinist, does not have any way of explaining why this is so. The evolutionary biologist is on equally shaky ground in his attempt to account for the goal-directed behavior of humans in particular. Is the human child’s game of tag just a variation of two puppies playing at “bite my jugular” or “you can’t have my stick”? There is a justifiable similarity, but can the scientist explain why the human decides to vary the game into one where the ball must go through a wire hoop, only in one direction, and only under a certain set of conditions governing one’s steps across the floor? The puppies will always play “bite my jugular.” Goal changing is not their pleasure. The uniquely human obsession with goals, from the child’s game to a cooperative adult endeavor to land a probe on Mars, cannot be overlooked if we wish to attempt an explanation of the most basic features of human nature.

The philosophical importance of goal-direction has not been overlooked. It was the center of Aristotle’s metaphysics of potentiality and actuality, which was really a biological physics. The ultimate demise of Aristotelian natural philosophy was that it had used the concept too heavily, giving goal-direction to everything, rather than limiting it to the human, or even animal psyche. In the eighteenth century, the feared outcome of a mechanical physics arrived. With goal-direction removed from physics, it was then removed from biology too, not least of all in the human mind. Without goal-direction, there is no choice, and thus no real freedom. These are all interrelated principles which come and go together.

This question was taken up by the British brain scientist Donald M. MacKay (1922–1987). For those familiar with his involvement with Christian organizations throughout his career, it may come as a surprise that the overriding concern of his scientific research was the nature of goal directed behavior in the human brain. Over his lifetime, he conducted a series of experiments on the visual and auditory systems in his lab at Keele University, testing his model outlined in other more philosophical writings on the nature of information flow in the brain. MacKay modeled the brain, in very mechanical fashion, on a control system like a thermostat. There is a thermometer to measure the air temperature, a heating and cooling system to change the air, and a dial to set the desired temperature. The thermometer checks the temperature, compares it with the set-point, and activates the appropriate system if required. The human brain is like a thermostat, albeit more complex, yet still a machine. Everything you need to know to understand the game of tag is in your thermostat.

Many Christians are uncomfortable with a brain that is a machine since it seems to take away contingency, that is, genuine human freedom. While this question must be saved for another occasion, suffice it to say that a free human brain must at least be a machine, otherwise with no rule bounded physical laws working within it, you might decide to do one thing, but your brain would go ahead and do something else. Mechanical laws still hold in your brain in order for you to act freely. The way MacKay understood this machine brain to be free was that it had the ability to set its own goals. This is where choice, decision, and human freedom breaks into the circle of the thermostat’s life. The rest of our body is a machine, and we generally do not argue when a doctor sets a broken bone, checks our blood pressure, or administers a medication. The brain also has an unsurprisingly mechanical function. It breaks, works better on same days than others, and gets stronger with regular exercise. What makes it different is that it uses its machinery to collect, move, and process information. Information does not have any mass, but you will not find it anywhere without the brain.Your goals are like the dial on the thermostat in their determination of the outcome, but unlike that dial because they exist informationally. So, to answer the question, are we just stuff? Well, yes and no; it depends how you look at it.

The universal human affection for tag reveals this innate goal-directed nature. Without pressing the neuroscientific details for the moment, goal-direction is a fundamental feature of animal, but especially, human brain function. This basic teleology of human nature is also revealed in our equally universal delight and desire for narrative. Stories, history, and films all play on our goal-directed nature as they move us through time and space in their narrative structure. The “story line” is the vector pointing towards a goal. Our whole human sensibility rides along it as a familiar way of life as the plot unfolds before us. Even shocking modern books and films that militate against such narrative cohesion are only able to shock because they cut against our normal human orientation.

Humans and other animals share a great deal of machinery, so much so that we are often fooled into thinking that there is more inside animals than is warranted. Yet part of our affection for them, especially mammals, who are most like us, is exactly in our identity with their inner goal-directed life. (The other part will be the subject of another essay.) While they may not entirely understand us, we understand them and at times pity their limitations.

In the ways that we are less like our animal friends we are more like God. We are created in his image which in this context means that we are engaged in many activities that, analogically speaking, are the kinds of activities carried out by God himself. It is all the more easily seen since God’s revelation of himself to us is in terms accommodated to human life. So all of the divine activities we might list here are given to us in plain human terms. God plans, creates, ordains, judges, destroys, restores, grieves, helps, hopes, speaks, listens, shares—what facet of human existence, save sin, is not in the Bible at some point ascribed to God? This is true because human nature follows from the divine. The professors of religion have it all backwards. Our divine book does not look so human because it was created by humans, but rather looks so much like us because as God comes to reveal himself to us, he uses the language of humanity to describe himself, a relationship which he had already established in creating us like himself.

The nature of God may be described according to the traditional attributes and categories of omnipotence, omniscience, aseity, and so on. These are all on a sound scriptural basis. However, if we are to attempt to identify some most basic central feature of the divine nature, what would it be? Aquinas, following his deeply Aristotelian commitments, said it was his being. To answer this difficult question, we want to take the Scriptures in their entirety, without singling out some particular attribute, which, albeit faithfully represented here and there in the Bible, is not the overarching theme of biblical revelation. To take the Bible as a whole is to read through the most magnificent story of all time, a statement which may be taken literally. The Bible contains multiple narratives, but by following our best biblical theology may also be taken as a grand narrative of creation, Fall, redemption, and glorification. It is impossible to divide these individual themes into parts which might then be divided into chapters since each chapter, it seems, is inundated with ongoing sneak-previews and retrospections into all of the others. Every word of the Bible is goal-directed, either in looking forward towards it, or commenting back from it. This is the highest feature of God’s nature as our archetype. Such a statement does not pretend to comprehend God as he is in himself, but is only a statement about how his nature is most supremely represented in human nature.

In his teaching on apologetic method Cornelius Van Til said one could start anywhere, not least of all in the behavior of the atheist himself. The atheist may decide to do things contrary to God’s Word. In doing so, he is revealing first, his free will to do so, and second that he is an inextricably goal-oriented creature, and especially powerful in his ability to decide what those goals will be. Even the anarchist who loves to spray paint his mark on public buildings is not shy about expressing his desire that society be different than it is now, ironically goal-directed in its hope for pan-directionality. This philosophical catch-me-if-you-can is both sad and comic (as tragedies often go) since God is not mocked and he will bring all things to a definite end decided by him in advance.

Adam was created with explicit goal-direction. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1.28). This was his explicit mission which should not allow us to forget his most basic implicit mission coming by virtue of his creation. The sacramental Tree of Life was separate and special, distinct from other delicious and beautiful trees in the garden. It pointed to something more. Adam worshiped there with the Lord in anticipation of something yet beyond the pleasant place he then enjoyed. The garden was not the end-all and be-all. Human nature has always had a future and other orientation. After the Fall and God’s promise of salvation, the means of attaining that goal changed dramatically, requiring the mediation of a Savior, but the natural goal-direction remained the same.

The revelation of God in the world (Rom 1.20) extends much farther beyond some select philosophical attributes of the divine nature. This colorless natural theology does little to enlighten the mind of both the believer and non-believer. The human nature is just as much a part of creation revealing the divine nature and is, in fact, the most obvious place to discover a richer general revelation. Our affection for tag is a playful indicator of a deep truth about us and about God’s pattern of action. One could note on an even more universal scale (literally) that the unidirectionality of time speaks the same truth. The reality of such directionality in all that God does, and thus in all that we do, is biblically displayed in the vector of creation to consummation.

Understanding this biblical view of God, man, and the world makes us more sympathetic to Aristotle for having based his own natural philosophy on an elaborate system of final causes and ends. Yet his was one built out of nature only, and not from Scripture. It is a reminder that while natural theology is enlightening to the faithful mind, it is insufficient to turn us from our sin and human idolatry. However, we can build for ourselves an even more comprehensive system of thought, but here guided by special revelation. Donald MacKay began to do so in his work in neuroscience and there is no reason why we should not attempt to discover other areas of human activity which are better understood in this light. Furthermore, the universal interest and energy with which we play at tag in so many ways should reorient our attention to the priority of goal directed behavior in ourselves, but also upwards as we consider the activity of God. This fact suggests to us that our theology proper (i.e. Doctrine of God) should not be centered on attributes named according to philosophical properties such as power, knowledge, and even the Trinity, but rather on the religious story of creation, fall, and redemption. This is only a statement regarding emphasis, and not that we should do away with those topics altogether. Yet, such a change of emphasis may be necessary if we are going to advance theology (more broadly speaking) so that it effectively communicates to us truth which will challenge our sin infused ways of thought.