17 November 2008


**what follows is an extensive definition of the word game, written by me for my 'Theories of Media' class (taught by Professor Tom Mitchell & Professor Mark Hansen), which was not accepted into their elite definition collection (we should come up for a name for that), but was, i think, worth looking at...

“. . . Games are popular art, collective, social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture. Games, like institutions, are extensions of social man and of the body politic, as technologies are extensions of the animal organism. Both games and technologies are counter-irritants or ways of adjusting to the stress of the specialized actions that occur in any social group. As extensions of the popular response to the workaday stress, games become faithful models of a culture. They incorporate both the action and the reaction of whole populations in a single dynamic image.”(McLuhan, 235)
classic german board game

The modern English word ‘game’ comes from the Old English (and Middle High German) word gamen meaning ‘joy, glee’ and from the Old Norse word gaman which means ‘game, sport, merriment.’ The word may also derive from the Gothic term gaman which means ‘participation, communion.’ The common prefix for all these sources is ga- which means ‘together.’

The Oxford English Dictionary has as its definition of the word game, “1.Amusement, delight, fun, mirth, sport” and “3.a.an Amusement, diversion, pastime” (OED). While these definitions account for the enjoyment and pleasure generally associated with games, it fails to recognize the fundamental connection that games have with rules. Marshall McLuhan says games are “contrived and controlled situations, extensions of group awareness that permit a respite from customary patters” (McLuhan, 243). This definition encompasses both the diverting nature of games and the imposition of the structure of rules on the players. McLuhan also calls games ‘contrived,’ emphasizing the artificiality of the structure of rules. When the OED does address the subject of rules in the fourth definition it describes a game as “4. a. A diversion of the nature of a contest, played according to rules, and displaying in the result the superiority either in skill, strength, or good fortune of the winner or winners” (OED), connecting the rules of the game with competition. Of course, competition is as much a part of games as their diverting, amusing nature, though non-competitive games (cooperative or solitary games, for instance) exist just as surely as games that aren’t enjoyable do. What is essential to a game is an agreement by the players to abide by the artificially imposed rules and structure of the game, to play by the rules.

The verb ‘to play’ is fundamentally entwined with games. This connection serves both to keep the game in the realm of the amusement and to associate the playing of games with the act of a child’s play. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud describes a very young child’s invention of a game. The child would throw his toys out of sight and say ‘gone’ which Freud “eventually realized…was a game and that the only use he made of any of his toys was to play ‘gone’ with them” (Freud, 599). The difference between the child simply engaged in the act of playing with his toys and playing a game with them is the imposition of a set of rules for playing. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘language-games’ provide another useful example of a non-traditional way to think about what a game is. Wittgenstein imagines the naming of objects, without providing a context for the use of that object (for example, telling a non-chess player that the king is called ‘king,’ but not what that piece does on the board) as a kind of language game. He then extends the idea of this primitive language as a game to “also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, a ‘language-game’” (Wittgenstein, 4). Language itself is a collection of arbitrary rules, a code, that speakers of common languages must agree to abide by for communication to be possible.

A player must follow all of the rules of that particular instance of the game (‘house rules’ may apply, but these, too, must be determined before the game) or they are not, strictly speaking, playing that game. “There is, then, a sort of passion that binds the players to the rule that ties them together—without which the game would not be possible” (Baudrillard, 131). Baudrillard argues that it is a passion for the rules themselves that draw people to play games. He goes on to draw a distinction between the rules of the game and the law of the land. While laws are based on a supposed moral consensus, rules are arbitrary and have no meaning outside the confines of the game. “Because the Law establishes a line, it can and must be transgressed. By contrast, it makes no sense to “transgress” a game’s rules; within a cycle’s recurrence, there is no line one can jump (instead, one simply leaves the game)” (Baudrillard, 131-2). Laws can be broken or bent and they change through the course of history. While the rules of games may evolve over time, they do not change for the players during any one occurrence of a game.

In pointing out that in transgressing the rules a player ‘simply leaves the game,’ Baudrillard also reveals another limitation of games. “All board-games are limited as to time and space” (Murray, 5). In fact all games are temporally and spatially limited. Another fundamental feature of games is an object or goal at the end of them. A game ends upon completion (or failure to complete) the pre-determined goal. A game also takes place within a certain area, on a board or field or within certain boundaries. A single game cannot take place everywhere at once, but must be confined. In discussing why war is not a game, even though it shares many of the features of games, Marshall McLuhan says that “what disqualifies war from being a true game is probably what also disqualifies the stock market and business—the rules are not fully known or accepted by all the players. Furthermore, the audience is too fully [a] participant” (McLuhan, 240). The audience is in danger of becoming part of war, because unlike a game, it has no respect for its boundaries. Gilles Deleuze calls chess a “game of state…each [piece] is like a subject…of enunciation, that is, the chess player or the game’s form of interiority” (Deleuze, 352). Chess is a game-form of war, though Deleuze argues that the game Go may be a better game of war, because the board (just as the field of battle) grows as the game goes along.

There are virtually endless varieties of games, including: board games, card games, sports, video games, role-playing games, word games (puzzles), online games and gambling. Each of these groups also has its own sub-sets and variations. Archeologists have discovered Sumerian board games dating back to as early as 2600 B.C. and images of ancient Greeks and Egyptians playing earlier versions of games still played today (Avedon, 21). Marshall McLuhan, in his chapter on games in Understanding Media, discusses the differences in the perception of gambling in tribal and individualist cultures. What is deemed a vice by many Western cultures is seen as “mocking the individualist social structure” (McLuhan, 234) because the competition is brought to the extreme. “This further motive is the desire of the anticipated winner, or the partisan of the anticipated winning side, to heighten his side’s ascendancy at the cost of the loser” (Veblen, 277). Whether money is at stake or not, competitiveness is often at the center of games.

McLuhan claims that games are extensions of social man and as such, the competitive nature in games is a logical extension of individualist social structures. But there are also cooperative games, such as role-playing games and their digital offspring multi-player worlds online. Role-playing games are essentially storytelling games, where one player creates a world for the other players to explore, narrating as the game progresses. Multi-player online worlds are similar, where each player plays the part of some character in a larger narrative, but the world is made up entirely of computer code. While there is some competing and fighting within these games, because players can simply narrate their actions and do what they want, the games are generally structured in such a way as to make it necessary to form a group of players to complete the assigned tasks.

One way that games have extended beyond their basic existence is in the creation of game theory. Perhaps most famously exemplified by the Prisoner’s Dilemma, “game theory is concerned with the actions of decision makers who are conscious that their actions affect each other” (Rasmusen, 9). Game theory is a branch of economics that studies the affects that competitors who are aware of each other have on each other. Game theory takes as its ‘rules,’ players, actions, payoffs and information. These four elements go in to determining possible outcomes for real-world economic situations.

Works Cited

Avendon, Elliot M & Brian Sutton-Smith. The Study of Games. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1971.

Baudrillard, Jean. Seduction. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1990.

Deleuze, Gilles. A Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Freud, Sigmund. The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1964.

Murray, H.J.R. A History of Board Games Other Than Chess. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951.

The Oxford English Dictionary. (http://www.oed.com/)

Rasmusen, Eric. Games and Information: An Introduction To Game Theory. Blackwell, 2001.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class: an economic study of institutions. New York: Macmillan, 1899.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a revised English translation. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Malden: Blackwell, 2001.


Anonymous said...

hi RNJ. this is very interesting and i like your reading list. would have a few more questions..

seeger said...

who would have a few more questions? Me? You?

Anyway, thanks... on further review, i'm not sure it's my final thoughts on the matter, but it's a start... and at least it's better than... this

Sarah said...

Joel, you are such a nerdpants. But I love it! ;)