Digital Media & VideogamesLanguages & LinguisticsSocial Interaction & Networks

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: