Nathaniel Baron-Schmitt – Games, Make-Believe, and the Value of Achievement

Why do we so often care about the outcomes of games when nothing is at stake? The
outcome of a casual game of basketball may not matter at all, yet the players feel intense
investment while playing. There is a paradox here, much like the paradox of fiction, which
concerns why we care about the fates of merely fictional beings. The paradox is serious,
threatening to overturn much of what philosophers have thought about caring, severing its
connection to value and undermining its moral weight. Recently, I and other philosophers
(Walton 2015, Wildman 2019, Borge 2019, Moore 2019) have argued for a solution that takes
games to involve a crucial element of make-believe: players make believe that the game’s
outcome matters. This make-believe causes a feeling of “simulated caring”, which is
phenomenologically similar to genuinely caring while lacking the normative features of caring.
There is a very similar problem for fans and spectators, and I think the same solution applies to
them: they engage in similar make-believe.

In this talk, I defend the make-believe view and argue against some of the main
alternative views. Nguyen (2019) argues that players want to win because this makes possible a
certain kind of valuable activity, “striving play”. Archer and Wojtowicz (2022) focus on fans:
they give an account of the value of fandom that emphasizes the meaningfulness of belonging
to a community of fans. I argue that these solutions offer the “wrong kinds of reasons” to care: although there are benefits to caring, it is not possible to care on the basis of these benefits, so
the benefits cannot explain why players and fans care.

I also consider approaches that appeal to the popular idea that achievement is valuable,
even when what is achieved has no independent value. The idea is that winning is an
achievement, and thus is valuable. This idea could explain why players care about winning;
winning does matter after all. This is not a general solution: it cannot explain why fans and
spectators care, since they don’t achieve anything themselves. Furthermore, I argue that it isn’t
a successful explanation of why players care either, because it overestimates the disvalue of
failing to win.

Archer, Alfred, and Jake Wojtowicz. 2022. “It’s Much More Important than That: Against
Fictionalist Accounts of Fandom”. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport: 1–16.
Baron-Schmitt, Nathaniel. 2023. “Who cares about winning?” European Journal of Philosophy
31 (1): 248-265.
Borge, Steffen. 2019. The Philosophy of Football. Routledge.
Moore, Joseph G. 2019. “Do you really hate Tom Brady? Pretense and emotion in sport”.
Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 46:2, 244–260.
Nguyen, Thi. 2019. “Games and the Art of Agency”. Philosophical Review 128 (4): 423–462.
Walton, Kendall. 2015. In Other Shoes: Music, Metaphor, Empathy, Existence. Oxford
University Press.
Wildman, Nathan. 2019. “Don’t Stop Make-Believing”. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport,
46:2, 261–275.


I am a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies, “Human
Abilities” Project, in Berlin, and at the Free University of Berlin. I have previously held
positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and before that at Harvard University. I
did my PhD at MIT (2020). I work on a mix of action theory, metaphysics, and ethics. I have a
strong interest in games, particularly in what they can teach us about action, conative attitudes,
and the value of achievement. I have one recent publication on this topic: “Who Cares about
Winning?” (European Journal of Philosophy, 2023).