Ludus Linguarum (This Is (Not) a Game)

Proteus has caused some people to see red, and spots.

It is a discussion that crops up from time to time: what is a game? This would be a fairly academic definition question, were it not that it finds a much larger battleground mostly outside academia, where consumers and critics of video games are the participants.

The direct catalyst for the most recent iteration of this discussion was the release two days ago of Proteus, a game developed by Ed Key and David Kanaga. This work, as I briefly explained in my piece on Noctis, is all about free exploration of an island and its flora and fauna, about building a soundtrack by moving around. It is limited in its interactivity compared to many other video games, and this has sparked the discussion on whether or not Key and Kanaga are right to refer to Proteus as a game. The three main locales for this recent discussion, as far as I could see, are the game’s user forum on Steam, this opinion piece on Gamasutra, and this reply by Key. There are reasons why this discussion — is this (not) a game? — is (not) important to the evaluation of Proteus as a work, but I’ll return to that later. First a purely linguistic excursion, if I may.



Though it is not my specialism, etymology fascinates me endlessly. Please note that I am not in the camp that believes that the original meaning of a word (as reconstructed through etymology) is the true meaning of a word. This is a kind of linguistic essentialism that doesn’t resonate with me. However, the way the meaning of word (semantics) changes through time sheds an interesting light on how it has been used by people.

The word game in English can be traced back to Old English gamen, which has a meaning spectrum that encompasses what we today would call “GAME, joy, pleasure, mirth, sport, pastime”.[1]1· Bosworth & Toller. The Old English word seems to be part of a group of terms common to the Germanic languages, and can be traced back to Proto-Germanic “*ga- collective prefix + *mann ‘person’, giving a sense of ‘people together’.”[2] As an aside, the words Spiel and spel — the German and Dutch/Frisian equivalents of game — have a similar history, with the Old Dutch, Old Frisian, and Old High German words all having meanings involving play, movement, amusement, entertainment and music. It is likely that the original meaning was tied to dancing.[3]

I am ignoring the etymologies of Romance words jeu, juego, and the like, as well as the Latin and Greek words often used in game studies (ludusagôn, etc.) in this essay, because I believe the discussion should focus on the use of English game, particularly as used in daily language.

If anything, the etymologies show that throughout their 2000+ year history, words for game have been open in meaning, being used to refer to a set of activities that all involve one or more of playfulness, mirth, joy, competition, sport. Doubtlessly, as rules for some of these activities were becoming more codified, the word game would continue to be applied to those activities as well. When games could be played using screens, consoles, and controllers, the compound video game was an obvious choice to refer to these activities. The end result is more or less the same: the word game is used to refer to many activities, some of which have relatively little in common, but which are all tied together by history or some of their aspects.



If you’re involved in the science/philosophy of game studies, this linguistic ambiguity can be an obstacle, which is why many scholars have struggled to come up with a more precise and logically bounded definition of what a game is. I don’t want to rehash the academic discussion over a definition of games, and I certainly wouldn’t be the right person to do so. However, if you’re interested, I would definitely recommend a few texts that tackle this topic. In chronological order, as they also respond to the previous texts:

As interesting as I find these academic discussions, I think we have to realise that their relationship to the discussion that sparked this article is tenuous. Surely, there are overlaps, and some participants in the discussion are influenced by academic definitions of what a game is. However, that is only part of the story. Language, unlike definition-seeking science, is not necessarily logical in structure. Rather, I believe it is based on the more open-ended principle of analogy.

It’s time for some necromancy.


Zombie Wittgenstein

Polansky hit the nail on the head last night when she tweeted the above. Wittgenstein has a few famous passages in his Philosophical Investigations, where he argues that different types of games (Spiele) don’t necessarily all have something in common, but that there are family resemblances between them:

Und so können wir durch die vielen, vielen anderen Gruppen von Spielen gehen. Ähnlichkeiten auftauchen und verschwinden sehen.

Und das Ergebnis dieses Betrachtung lautet nun: Wir sehen ein kompliziertes Netz von Ähnlichkeiten, die einander übergreifen und kreuzen. Ähnlichkeiten im Großen und Kleinen.

(And so we go through the many, many other groups of games. We can see similarities appear and disappear.

And the result of this observation is merely this: we see a complicated network of similarities that overlap and cross. Similarities on a large and small scale.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, §66-67. My translation.

While Wittgenstein is speaking about games, it doesn’t really matter if his assessment of the similarities between different kinds of games is correct. It is just an example he uses anyway. Far more important is the point he makes about language. What Wittgenstein shows is that the meaning of a word does not arise from reference to any specific real object, but rather through many such references to many objects, and analogical inference:

Wie würden wir denn jemandem erklären, was ein Spiel ist? Ich glaube, wir werden ihm Spiele beschreiben, und wir könnten der Beschreibung hinzufügen: »das, und Ähnliches, nennt man ›Spiele‹«. Und wissen wir selbst denn mehr? Können wir etwa nur dem Andern nicht genau sagen, was ein Spiel ist? – Aber das ist nicht Unwissenheit. Wir kennen die Grenzen nicht, weil keine gezogen sind. Wie gesagt, wir können – für einen besondern Zweck – eine Grenze ziehen. Machen wir dadurch den Begriff erst brauchbar? Durchaus nicht! Es sei denn, fur diesen besondern Zweck.

(How would we explain to someone what a game is? I think we would describe games to him, and we could add to the description: “that, and the like, we call ‘games’”. And do we know more than that ourselves? Why can’t we just explain to the other exactly what a game is? – But this is not ignorance. We don’t know the boundaries, because none have been set. As said, we can – for a specific purpose – set a boundary. Does the concept only then become useful? Not at all! Unless it is for that specific purpose.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, §69. My translation.

The way we use language in practice, and that includes the term game, is analogical in nature. This means we observe similarities between things, and if we think two things are similar enough, we lump them together in a mental category, such as game. We can expand this categorical concept in ways that suit our practical purposes of reference, as the etymologies above show. Because analogy is not strictly logical in nature, meanings differ from use to use, and from person to person. This makes communication possible and difficult at the same time.

Sometimes, as in the case of Proteus, we witness a particularly tangible clash of meanings. A situation where one person’s use of a word appears to conflict with someone else’s. This is a problem that is ultimately unsolvable by referring back to definitions hashed out for the specific goal of science. It can only be solved by understanding where everyone is coming from, and understanding the social aspect of meaning.


A Social Game

Now, there are a couple of positions when it comes to Proteus. First of all, that taken by the creators. Ed Key thinks along the same lines as I do when he writes:

I don’t call Proteus an antigame* or a notgame. I call it a game, but obviously I am at pains to make it clear that it doesn’t have explicit challenge or “winning.” […]

If you want to narrow your definition of “game” for purposes of academic study or personal taste, then that’s fine, but the vagueness of the term itself has been around as long as things that we call games. “Snakes and Ladders” is my favourite example of this inconsistency: it involves no decision making and therefore is well outside of many of the stricter definitions, but clearly is a boardgame as far as society is concerned. More recently, videogames like The Sims and SimCity are also “not games” according to some.

The stricter the definition of an inherently nebulous concept, the more absurd the implications. Should Dear Esther and Proteus be excluded from stores that sell games? Not covered in the games press?

Key uses linguistic history and Wittgenstein’s ideas as arguments for why we might as well refer to Proteus as a game. I would argue that he sells himself short when he excludes ‘winning’ from the game’s aspects, as I personally feel a sense of victory or achievement when I get to explore new areas of a game I like, such as Proteus.

More importantly, he refers to stores and journalism. Presenting something as a game is a signal that a program belongs in a particular category, even if it is as vague as “art/entertainment in a digital format”. Obviously, stores like Steam and many video game publications agree, because Proteus has been warmly received by many video game critics, and is sold and marketed by sellers as a video game. If, for some reason, you don’t present your digital work as a game, you run the risk of being excluded from these channels.

In other words, game is very important as a word that connects a work to a larger body of works, an industry, sales channels, target audiences, subcultures, etc. Even if you would sell a digital work through these channels but insist as creator on not calling it a game, many people would still refer to it as a video game out of linguistic convenience.

Not only that, but also out of analogy. Whatever your personal definition of a game might be, there is no doubt that Proteus has many things in common with many other video games. There is the control scheme, the simple fact of interactivity: being able to walk around in a virtual world, the response of the world to your movements, etc. And, referring to Bogost’s piece above, there is the more implicit but no less important analogical connection of format and medium. Proteus has in common with (other) video games that it is something you play on your PC.

Enough about the similarities. Those aren’t the problem. The problem is the differences. Some people have argued that because Proteus lacks overt rules and goals, as well as more complicated levels of interactivity between the player and the game world, it is not a game. These people make use of strict definitions such as those posited by Juul, and argue that these should be applied in practice to see whether a particular work may be referred to as a game. Given the discussion above, I obviously do not agree with that sentiment literally. However, I think that the problem these people may have with Proteus is real.

They argue that because Proteus is presented as a game, and it lacks certain aspects that they believe essential to the concept of (video) game, they are being misled in some way. To me, it seems this has to do with the power of the word game — and by extension, gamer as a cultural and social signifier. Many people consider video games a central part of their identity, and as such attach great (positive) value to the word game and their personal definition of that word’s meaning. If this meaning is challenged in some way, not by ‘bad’ games, but by ‘notgames’, this can be perceived as a very real challenge to that identity, by the breaking of certain linguistic ‘rules’. In response, some people will cling to formal definitions of the term game in order to set the ‘boundaries for a specific purpose’ as outlined by Wittgenstein above, namely the purpose of creating an identity with firm conceptual boundaries.

In addition, there is the perspective of the gamer as consumer. Proteus normally costs $10 on Steam, and some people question the value of Proteus if it is not a game. The argument goes that since Proteus is not a game (according to the definition), people might buy it by accident, expecting a game, but getting something else entirely, again being misled in some way. Alternatively, since a playthrough of Proteus lasts for about an hour usually, some people find it is not worth the $10, because one can get many dozens of hours of play from many other games. Similar criticism had been levelled at Dear Esther earlier, and many other games that have found themselves in the center of a the ‘is this a game?’ discussion. Again, this whole argument is based on the same ‘formal definition’ position which is supposedly factual, but really subjective in nature because it revolves around language.

That all this is a very social matter also becomes clear in the Gamasutra piece by Mike Rose mentioned at the start. Rose accepts the existence of games like Proteus, and he enjoyed it to a certain degree, but feels that some games have become symbols for a certain kind of game snobbery.

It’s pretty easy to gush about Proteus and sound intellectual — the imagery, the integration of sound and exploration, the sheer bliss of it all! — and, in turn, dismissing the “I found it boring” argument is a piece of cake too. “You just don’t get video games like I do!”


But what right do I, or does anyone else, have to tell someone who doesn’t like it, or doesn’t want to play it, that they are wrong and/or stupid?

To me, this position (“You just don’t get it”) seems a sign of social positioning more than an attempt to say anything about Proteus as such. Rose is correct in pointing this out, but I think it applies equally to the people who deny Proteus the label of game simply because it does not fit the definition set by them personally. Might it be that some people think Proteus is a game because they like it, and others think it isn’t because they don’t like it? Both might be losing the actual object out of sight, and be arguing about something as intangible and arbitrary as a word, simply because they’ve invested it with symbolic value.


Ludus Linguarum

The social competition between these positions is, though not strictly a game according to the Juulian definition, an interesting rhetorical tug of war, but ultimately one that has little to do with concrete games in question, and more with wanting to seem intellectual, down-to-earth, logical, sophisticated, skeptic, and whatever other positive character traits you can project onto yourself by liking or not liking a game.

In the end we all have to deal with the fact that game in daily life is used as a convenient category for a great many cultural artifacts. We can restrict the definition of the word temporarily for a specific scientific discussion, but we have nothing to gain from trying to extend this definition to daily use. In fact, it is precisely this fuzziness, this indefiniteness that is the lubricant of practical communication. Because people are not logical beings most of the time, they are analogical beings.

Let me end with a few observations, stated in a spirit of freedom, play, mirth, and joy.

  • I think Proteus is a very cool game. You should definitely see if it fits your personal definition of a game.
  • Language can’t be fenced in. It responds to formal logic only in very specific situations. In practice, it is analogical and free. There are only languages, plural. These must always be negotiated in a social context, together with other people. Gamann.
  • This negotiation can be like a game itself, a game of languages, depending on your definition of a game. It can sometimes be hostile, like any competition, but it doesn’t have to be.
  • When all else fails:

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  • John

    I like your level-headed approach to this, but I think your speculation about the motivations of the “non-game” crowd is wrong. For me, at least, it’s not about some “gamer” identity or about the value of a product. It’s just an issue with game design. Something like Dear Esther, for example, in which you just walk around and listen to things and look at things, is either not a game, or it’s a really, really bad game. (Like the Snakes & Ladders analogy; I think that’s pretty commonly believed to be a really bad “boardgame”, and I suspect it would still be considered so even if they released a version with the most beautiful boardgame artwork you’ve ever seen.)

    Proteus might be a beautiful experience for people, but what they like about the game has very little to do with its form as a game (or not). It’s purely about its aesthetics, the music and the visuals, and the interaction as you move through the world. (And interaction is not enough to qualify something as a game, otherwise you’d be suggesting all sorts of things can be games.)

    From a game design perspective, I think we risk undermining games by suggesting these Snakes & Ladders analogues are great examples of games. I think the design of systems and the opportunities they afford players is what makes games beautiful, interesting, and fun things. The only conclusion I can reach from that perspective is that Proteus and Dear Esther, etc, are either not games, or they’re really bad games. But they might not be bad creations, or bad works of art, or whatever, so a better solution would be to call them something they’d be more comfortable with.

    But you do raise some very practical issues in the article, like the lack of commonly shared alternative labels, and the business implications of not calling something a game. So it’s not something that can be easily solved, wherever your preferences lie.

    • qwallath

      Hi John, thanks very much for taking the rime to read and reply.

      You are right that my assessment of the motivations of the ‘non-game’ camp may be off the mark. I wrote that part rather superficially, and indeed you could very well argue the Proteus is not a game from a purely analytical and non-social standpoint. Whether community forums and opinion pieces are the right places for that, I’m not sure.

      Regarding Dear Esther, I would argue that it may be a bad game (I liked it, but have some criticisms of it), but it is nonetheless a game, which you’d probably expect given my article. The same goes for Proteus, and basically any game.

      In your last three paragraphs, you argue from a particular definition of game which absolutely requires something more than interaction. I take it you mean rules, and are therefore arguing from something like Juul’s definition of a game?

      Like I tried to say, this definition -while useful- is by no means the only ‘right’ one. As Jeroen Stout reminded me on twitter yesterday, Proteus and Dear Esther would be games if you take Huizinga’s and Callois’ ideas as points of departure. For example, take Callois ( Although it is not very explicit, I would not go so far as to say that Proteus does not have rules. In fact, the very interactivity of video games is governed by (programming) rules, so you could even argue that interactive worlds are games by default. Beyond that, Proteus has certain rules regarding the response of animals to your action (proximity leads to movement), the functioning of the magic circle (entering it leads to time accelleration), etc. Obviously, these rules are very different and in a way more shallow than puzzles or conflict rules in games, but that’s a difference of degree, not essence. In Callois’ four-way game categorisation, I would say Proteus is mostly mimicry or make-believe.

      I stand by my point that Proteus is a game by most definitions, even Juul’s, if you accept my proposition that there are rules in Proteus. Whether it’s a *bad* game is a completely different matter, and depends on what kind of games you like. Besides, I mainly argue against people claiming it’s not a game. I’m not one of the people Rose mentions who think you’re a shallow person if you don’t like this kind of game.

      As for a design perspective, I’m not sure if I agree. If they’re not bad creations or bad art, why are they bad games? Because they have simple and implicit rule systems? I don’t think that gets in the way of a good experience per se. See also Chris Bateman’s article on ‘thin play’:

      For me a bad game is a game designed poorly, where any element of the game (rules, spatial design, art, narrative, sound, etc.) gets in the way of a pleasant experience. Again, this is very subjective, so I understand if simple rules and lack of challenge may get in the way of someone’s enjoyment of Proteus. That doesn’t make it into a ‘not a game’.

      • John

        Yes, I’m approaching the term game from a rules-based definition like Juul’s. Huizinga’s and Caillois’s are certainly broader, though they are talking more about the activity of play. (Part of that might be a language issue; I think Juul points out that in a few languages there isn’t a distinction between the words for play and game, though you’d know more about it than I do.)

        Within Juul’s definition, it’s possible Proteus could be considered a “borderline case”, like Sim City and other simulations, which lack explicit goals, but in which players can set their own goals. And I definitely agree that there are still rules, which also includes rules like the representation of gravity and so on which impact player movement.

        Another fairly common element in a definition of games is conflict and variable, quantifiable outcomes, which is where Proteus et al struggle a bit. It’s like how bouncing a tennis ball against a wall is “play”, but if you count how many times you hit a certain spot, then try to beat your record, you’ve turned it into a “game”. I suppose we could talk about conflict and outcomes in terms of player psychology (Raph Koster has allowed room for that, from memory), but I think that takes us back to “play” rather than “game”.

        I know an approach like mine, which is more formalist, is annoying for people who would prefer to talk about the player experience, but as I said, my interest lies more on the design side.

        Taking a cue from James Paul Gee and D/discourse, maybe we could simply draw a distinction between an experiential little-g game, and a formal Big-G Game!

        • qwallath

          I can definitely see where you’re coming from. I would also say Proteus is a borderline case according to Juul’s model, for the reason you mention.

          In Dutch, like German, there is indeed no etymological difference between play (spelen) and game (spel); that may also colour my instinct towards the matter somewhat. At the same time, it illustrates that the distinction between the two is not based in everyday language (at least not all languages), but in analysis. Thanks for pointing it out, as I hadn’t thought of it explicitly.

          I haven’t read Gee, but I can sort of get behind your last statement. Maybe Proteus is little-g, but certainly big-P, for play.

    • Darren Grey

      I don’t see anyone clamouring to have Medal of Honour declared a not-game because it has awful design, so I find it hard to take your argument seriously.

      From a design perspective Proteus has some really great use of procedural content generation, reactive music/sounds and passive interaction. These aren’t important to all games, but I think it’s unfair to dismiss them as unimportant to the medium as a whole. There is a lot of really good design in the game. In particular any sound designer should pay close attention to it. As a developer in particular I found inspirational.

      Dear Esther I’m more inclined to agree with you on though – for me it was an example of a game with several design flaws. But since many others enjoyed it I have say it clearly got some things right.

      • qwallath

        I agree totally on emphasising the sound design. Kanaga manages to keep it harmonic while allowing the music to respond closely to the avatar’s position (more interactivity). The base chords and ambiences seem to respond to height and/or type of ground, and of course there are many proximity-based sounds that play when you get near objects, all of which are harmonious too.

  • qwallath

    Also, some comments and an older article by John Brindle that I missed: John Brindle on the word ‘(video) game’ #storify

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