Some general notes towards a lexicon of videogame theory:

paidea – From Caillois: spontaneous, unelaborated, unstructured play activity, either competitive (spontaneous foot-races) or uncompetitive (spinning in a circle, heads or tails).

ludus – Structured play activity; institutionalized; rule-based, requiring planning. Can be competitive (chess) or non-competitive (tightrope-walking, theater). Insofar as any videogame will require a substantial technological development, sophisticated programming, and has a very clearly defined context in the contemporary market, as forms of play videogames are inherently ludic, even if within any given session a player takes a “paedic turn.”

classification of games, from Caillois – he posits four essential rubrics for games, with a theory to explain the possible and impossible relationships between them (a theory that is squarely irrelevant to video games, but which irrelevance is, itself, relevant). Different classifications are populated with games with greater or lesser elements of paedia or ludus.

  • agon (competition) – Paedic: informal wrestling and play-fighting; spontaneous footraces; Ludic: chess, organized sports.
  • alea (chance) – Paedic: eenie-meenie, coin-tossing; Ludic: poker, organized lotteries.
  • mimicry (simulation) – Paedic: children’s play-acting, tag; Ludic: theater, mass spectacles
  • ilinx (vertigo) – Paedic: children’s whirling, energetic dancing; Ludic: skiing, mountain climbing, tightrope walking

Caillois mapped a preference for agon and alea to “societes a comptabilite”, or “rational” (in a Weberian sense of rationalizing ends to means) societies, and a preference towards mimicry and ilinix to the “societes a tohu bohu” or “Dionysian” societies. Of course, this is highly questionable, but it does give a certain sense of the logic of the terms.

game – This term can be left as ambiguous. Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” used the problem of the definition of the (English) word “game” as an illustration of the inadequacies of Aristotelian logical models of necessary and sufficient conditions for definition: any attempt to create a systematic definition will be frustrated by a counter example. (Wittgenstein proposed that semantics was a function of family resemblance to exemplary or prototypical cases – the question is now a matter of cognitive linguistics pursued by George Lakoff, Eve Sweetser, Eleanor Rosch and others.) In a very constrained sense, taken from formal game-theory and AI, a game is a “formalized incentive structure,” a system of (usually) finite outcome-states that are more or less favorable to different agents in the system.

play – ???

intelligent agent – From artificial intelligence, an autonomous system (usually refers to a software system, but can mean biological ones) capable of (variably defined) intelligent actions, including the ability to percieve and identify objects, reason, learn, plan, and develop models, (including agents with combinations of such abilities.)

actor – the textual effect of some agents; the “exteriority” of the agent. the interstice between agent and character. The structure of the relationships between actor, agent, and character may be essential to the distinction between traditional narratives and games that seem to avail themselves of the elements of traditional narratives

mise-en-abyme – directly taken from literary theory, a duplicating of the whole of the text in miniture within the text. Apparent in a straightforward way in mini-games that are framed as games in the episteme of the game: Final Fantasy mini-games that have significant consequences for the game at large.

deixis – from linguistics, the language of relative space – general process by which three-dimensional models of inhabitable space are mapped symbollically.

agency – the ability to act; in game-terms, the ability, of a player or an element in the system, to change game-state.

diegesis – The fictional world, the epistemic world in which the narrative occurs. World-building functions of a traditional narrative – expository information. “Telling,” rather than “showing.”

fabula – From Russian formalist theory, the chronological story suggested by the chain of events referred to, directly, indirectly, or explicitly, in the narrative text. In general game-terms, “arc story” – or that which the simulation models. [Discussion in the making – what kind of distinction should be made between the traditionally fabula as story and the object of simulation, “the real.”]

sjuzet – From Russian formalist theory, the narrated events in the sequence they are presented to the viewer. In a videogame, the elements which constitute the fabula as they are presented to the player – the sequence of game-events.

game-session – Self-explanatory. However, implicit is that the narrative of the game is not the narratives that may or may not be in the game; the actual play-narrative is “I began, and fell off a cliff. I started again, and got eaten by a lion. I started again, and figured out that I need to get the Rod of Light before I go past the zookeeper’s hut.”

game-space – in artificial intelligence and formal game theory, the set of all possible outcomes of a game. If the game is “heads or tails,” there is a game space with two possible states. If the game is rock-scissors-paper, there are nine states in the game-space. In a videogame, it is the theoretical space of all possible game-sessions that could occur, each of which will have a discreet representation in code in the processor.

state – From computer science, the value assigned to a variable is its state. A foundational element to object-oriented programming and part of most any modern program (completely functional or procedural programming style does not have assignment or state as such.) A variable such as “hitPoints” which has an integer as a value; the x/y coordinates of any object at any given moment in the game; any such variable which can be set by call to a method in an object is an example of state. A player often at least partially understands the dynamics of artificial elements in a game towards the player’s avatar as a matter of state.

somatization – Usually refers to the occurance of physical symptoms in response to mental or emotional disorders; here extended to the migration of higher-level game-responses and interactions into loco-motor skills and reflexes. Called “routinization” in some learning models. (The case of Henry M. demonstrated that skill-acquisition type learning occurs even when the brain loses the ability to form new memories; reflexive skill-acquisition is an essentially different type of knowledge from a brain-function perspective.

subitization – In cognitive science, it is the limit of ability to comprehend cardinality at an instant – most people can subitize up to about 5 items without engaging in mental “counting.” The idea can be extended to include the instantenous, perhaps sub-liminal perception of game-material in such a way as to facilitiate a reflexive, “twitch” reaction.

suture – How the player locates himself in the game text, both thematically/psychologically (“You know, I’ve always sort of identified as the ghost in PacMan; PacMan himself reminds me of my mom”) and interactively (“of course, I’m Pac-Man.”)

‘twitch’ – Game-play at a reflexive level. Somatized game-play.


Concepts which either need a lexeme, or actually do have a lexeme and I just don’t know about it yet:

a. the mapping of player activity – button pushing, joystick mashing, key pressing – onto consistent events in the game-environment; the unspoken agreement between game and player that game mediation of player input will be consistent throughout the game-session

b. the assignation of agency and intention to either the system as a whole, or to agents, bots, and other functions within the game system, by the player. Not quite the same as anthropomorphism, because that term fails to respect the sense in which the effect is an intended consequence of game design and development.

c. the provisional, tested models of game-space consciously or implicitly generated by the player through interaction; one model of a game-session could include the sequence of player-generated models for game-space over time. Walter Kim referred me to the idea of intentional space: the apparent range of possible actions that an agent (I would presume, typically, the player, but I also presume that a well-designed agent that simulated a non-completely-informed actor to also make provisional and incomplete models, in order to simulate limitations.) Some way of describing the relationship between game-space, intentional-space, and the testing of hypothetical intentional-spaces in game-play might be helpful.

This is definitely a tentative, student, working document – I welcome any suggestions, additions, corrections, or comments.


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