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]ety​mon​line​.com. 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]ety​mo​lo​giebank​.nl.

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 (http://​nideffer​.net/​c​l​a​s​s​e​s​/​2​7​0​-​0​8​/​w​e​e​k​_​0​1​_​i​n​t​r​o​/​C​a​i​l​l​o​i​s​.​pdf). 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’: http://​blog​.ihobo​.com/​2​0​1​2​/​0​7​/​t​h​e​-​t​h​i​n​-​p​l​a​y​-​o​f​-​d​e​a​r​-​e​s​t​h​e​r​.​h​tml.

      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’ http://​sfy​.co/​b​Dpz #storify

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