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Opinion: Two cultures and games
Opinion: Two cultures and games
July 9, 2012 | By Raph Koster

[There is a rift in the game development community between the extremely engineering-focused game makers, and the ones who are extremely art-focused. That divide isn't helping the craft advance, says industry veteran Raph Koster. (Reprinted with permission.)]

In which I act like a crotchety old man urging the kids off my lawn.

Between this piece at Gamasutra by Neils Clark (and especially Keith Burgun's comments in the discussion thread), and this blog post that caught my eye, "Designing for Grace," I am struck once again by the way in which the gap between two cultures is causing strife in the game design community. I mean, take a look at what Jonas Kyratzes says in "Designing for Grace":

To say that story is a form of feedback rather than a game mechanic is not so much to make an incorrect statement (well, it is, but let's not go there now) as to make a statement about a different matter in a different language on a different planet in a different universe... [emphasis mine]

Holy Cow. Talk about a culture gap. Now, he goes on to discuss what it is he aims for, which is "grace," and which he defines as something very real, but that the engineering-minded cannot grasp.

This is temper-tantrum-inducing for me, because I have been working hard on being an artist for a period approximately equal to the time that Jonas Kyratzes has been alive.

But I have no beef with him overall, really, because Jonas Kyratzes is reaching for the value of games. Oh but wait, let's look over at Keith Burgun's comments:

Raph's theory of fun is not a theory. It's an attempt, like so many game design books of our sad time, to wrap up the totality of video games into some kind of all-inclusive "summary."

The problem with all of these design books is that they are specifically NOT theories. They basically all say the same thing: "sometimes this works, sometimes this works, sometimes this works, I don't know, just try some stuff." ...

There can not be any real game design theory until we're prepared to divvy up "videogames" into smaller, useful categories. A contest is not the same as a fantasy simulator. A puzzle is not the same as interactive fiction. A toy is not a game.

Theory of Fun is ten years old. I would certainly hope that the field has developed since then. But clearly, I am not being engineering-minded enough. It's also a little grump-inducing to see this coming from someone who caused quite a stir with an article that essentially restates almost exactly something that Chris Crawford said thirty years ago.

But that's OK, really, because at least Keith Burgun is trying hard to reach for the truth of games.


So look, I am not just trying to call out people who are poking at things I have said. This isn't an act of defensiveness. It's to point out that the more people fail to look beyond their entrenched viewpoints, the less likely we are to get at the truth or the value of things.

I submit that the issue is that some designers are thinking in terms of some fellow designers as "purely engineering-minded" and other designers are thinking of fellow designers as artsy freaks.

(And it is worth pointing out that this entire debate is also a tempest in a teacup as regards the larger game industry, which is mostly trying to just make enough money to pay the rent during a recession.) I don't know any "purely engineering-minded designers." I definitely do not know any successful ones. If anything, design happens to be a profession that very strongly favors people who straddle disciplines, who can have an engineering mindset and an artistic one. I also strongly agree with Keith's statement that people seem to get offended when we point out that something is not a game.

I like Anna Anthropy's work, but I also try to be clear-eyed about the fact that a lot of Dys4ia could be built in PowerPoint and isn't a game. That's not a value judgement. My value judgement of the piece as a work of expressive art is pretty high.

The pendulum swings, in terms of culture. That results in those of us who have pushed for the artistic mindset getting told that we are mechanistic engineering-mindset people. This is a sign of success for those who advocated for more art.

Of course, it also means that now we have hipstery, self-indulgent, artsy, self-referential, slight, pretentious work all over the place that people are claiming as the One True Way or the best way to push the boundaries of the field.

We're also getting more done on the science front than ever before, leading to greater understanding of game mechanics and player psychology than ever before.

Of course, this also means unethical exploitative mindgames that sacrifice our audience to the almighty dollar.

Everyone is passionate about their poles, and from the opposite side the other end always looks like something puerile and evil. And yup, both ends have excesses.

I suggest that what needs to happen is that more people need to stand in the middle, a foot on each side. Narrative designers should try making a game with nothing but counters and dice and no story. System designers should try making a game that is about telling a story. Monetizers should try making something that people care deeply about. And (grump grump) all the theorists should try actually reading the theory that is already out there.

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Kelly Kleider
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I feel you, brother.

My only critique is you have diffused your rant. I suggest breaking off one piece, gnawing on that for a rant, then break off the next piece and gnaw some more. A good rant can become a rallying cry. Oh and a photo with big wide grin really kills rant potential.

unethical exploitative mindgames <-- rant on this next...rant!...rant!...rant!

Ken Williamson
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A really revealing piece exposing the mercenary psychology we all hate.

Raph Koster
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I should point out that there is an excellent discussion happening in the comment thread on the original blog post, and Jonas and I have definitely buried any hatchets. ;)

Lars Doucet
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Wow, that's a great read. Just got through with it now.

Lars Doucet
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Preach it, Raph! The "Two Cultures" reference is especially apt - should be required reading for this debate.

Jeremy Alessi
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In all reality both artist and engineers are after the same thing. It's simply the way in which they describe "elegance" that differs. Engineers measure elegance with facts and figures, artist measure elegance by the look and feel. When it comes right down to it though they are both attempting to efficiently deliver excellent experiences.

Personally, I think that artists simply view things from a more abstract perspective.

It's sort of like Moneyball where you've got the Yale grad cracking statistics working with traditional talent scouts. The Yale grad is looking at the raw stats while the scouts are admiring the players' body, speed, and form. At the end of the day both stats cracking and observation are doing the same thing. However, sometimes the abstracted view misses something that the numbers describe clearly and sometimes the numbers can't see something that's clear as day in the abstract.

Overall, I think it's important to be comfortable thinking in terms of engineering and art. Games are both.

I've seen engineers face palm themselves when an artist points out something obvious and I've seen artists go into a tizzy because they can't quite untangle a problem caused by the interaction between two incompatible abstractions.

Forest and trees problem really... The funny thing is that engineers look at the forest when attempting to deliver project infrastructure and details when problem solving while artists look at the forest when using tools but the trees when pumping out content to fill the infrastructure.

They really fit, the problem is trying to distinguish the boundaries between disciplines. With every team those boundaries will be different. Some teams might have really artsy artists and really techy engineers while others might have pretty technical artist combined with engineers that are comfortable creating some content.

Interesting topic!

Michael DeFazio
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guilty pleasure: whenever i see the title of a gamasutra blog post centered around a new "universal theory" in video games, a new definition (of "fun", "game", "play",...) and there are plenty of comments (> 20) i immediately
1) click on it
2) skip to comments
3) enjoy

... (i sorta feel like i'm reading a tabloid magazine, but sometimes the debate is interesting)

models, theories, and contextual definitions are great to help you communicate the ideals of "fun" or "game" (within a team, or on a project to specify goals). but sharing a theory or definition (and trying to defend why ALL games and ALL people/developers should strictly follow this stringent definition or theory) often devolves into a "my model is better than yours semantic death spiral".

Keith Nemitz
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What five books can I read that cover the top theories in game design?

Scott Sheppard
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Rules of Play
A Theory of Fun
Reality is Broken

Raph Koster
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That would really depend on what you mean by "top theories."

Academic theories?
Craft theory?
Cultural study stuff?

Stephen's list has several books which are not really about games: Flow, Form + Code, Learning from Las Vegas.

Neils Clark
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Raph's correct, there's a lot out there. Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games, IMO, does the best job of laying out the breadth of academic ideas. It's not an easy book, however, making Theory of Fun (also IMO) the best place to start.

If we're talking about craft? A whole lotta that comes from just doing it. Fail faster, a good friend once told me. Do it with the right tutorials and manuals, whatever's appropriate to the project. Just keep your hands dirty.

If it's the Cultural Studies, I'd recommend Thomas Malaby (Beyond Play), Dmitri Williams (Who Plays, How Much, and Why), Richard Bartle, Henry Jenkins (Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture).

I did this following list for a blog, awhile back. It emphasizes Raph's point that depending on your interest, recommendations can be vastly different. In the last few thousand years a lot's been written on Art, and a lot of Art's been made. Inspiration and direction can come from unlikely places.

Introduction to the art and science of design: Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Paraglyph, $16.15 on Amazon

Textual immersion: J.R.R. Tolkien's On Faerie Stories, Del Ray, $7.99 on Amazon

Relationship of text to image: Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, William Morrow, $15.63 paperback on Amazon

User Interface: Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think , New Riders, $22 on Amazon

The brain's processing of text: Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, Viking, $11.56 paperback on Amazon

Writing: Stephen King's On Writing, Scribner, $10.88 paperback (or 2 bucks at Goodwill, common book)

Physiology of vision, from the eye to the brain: Anne Marie Barry's Perception Theory, in Handbook of Visual Communication

Relationship between mediums: Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage, $7.68 paperback on Amazon

Characterization: Constantin Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares, $16.64 paperback on Amazon

Academic sweep of meaning and process: Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games , MIT Press, $17.86 on Amazon

Games culture: Jim Rossignol's This Gaming Life $19.37 paperback on Amazon

Raph Koster
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I realized my post is not that helpful, so here's a list of the books I most often recommend.

For "what games are" I would start with Rules of Play. If this is too academic for your tastes,

For "how games work" I would start with Game Design Workshop or Ian Schreiber's online game design course (collected as a blog).

For "how games REALLY work" I would go to the newly available Game Mechanics plus Crawford's On Interactivity.

The above three are biased, I suppose, by my personal position on what games are. But see the block below on "how games mean" for more on that.

For "why games work" I would humbly go to my own book Theory of Fun. The original subtitle was "why games matter."

For "how games mean" you have a choice of schools of thought including Janet Murray, James Gee, Ian Bogost, Jesper Juul, Espen Aarseth, and many more. These then force you to revise your position from Rules of Play on forward. These are all academic texts and will open up a thicket of debates.

Then I would go a level deeper for specific areas of craft:

- controls: Game Feel by Swink.
- characters/avatars: Katherine Isbister's book
- social/online: Bartle's Designing Virtual Worlds
- culture: This Gaming Life

For some disciplines you have to leave game writing altogether. The best books about interface, architecture, sound design, filmic storytelling, and so on are not from game developers. Tufte, Alexander, etc etc etc.

Keith Nemitz
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A bit late for a reply, but this is what I meant, in Raph's own words, "...all the theorists should try actually reading the theory that is already out there."

What theory? I'm guessing, from his reply to my request, he means both 'what games are' and 'how games mean'. The rest is functional craft stuff.

You see, I grew up with the GDC. CGDC! I attended every Laurel, Crawford, Moriarity, and Adams lecture. I live for new '400's. They were the forefront theorists of the day. I read 'A Theory of Fun', years ago. I can hardly wait to crack open, Michael Mateas' Narrative Intelligence', after I ship my epic narrative game later this year.

Curtiss Murphy
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The best game design books are not about games.

* Flow
* Why We Do What We Do
* The Paradox of Choice
* Mindset

Except for Raph's classic, A Theory of Fun, which is.

Michael Joseph
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This "debate" seems a bit exaggerated or even... completely disconnected to me.

If there are two cultures, or two schools of thought it's NOT about science vs art. It's about exploitation, lack of ethics, and greed vs responsibility, honesty and integrity.

Raph Koster
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Oh, those debates are there too. We have room for LOTS of debates in the gaming world! :)

E McNeill
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No we don't!!!


Gary Penn
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Feels like a lot of insecurities desperate to be definitive - to be right. None of this bickering has ANY obvious practical value WHATSOEVER - other than column inches :)

Ole Berg Leren
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I love these pieces, especially when they connect with other pieces on Gamasutra. My only complaint about this piece is that I wish it was longer :D Thanks for weighing in, Raph! I gotta see if I can find your book now.

I don't get why people are so against some structure in Game Design, tho. I mean, they are just tools that you *can* use if you want to. I really liked Keith Burgun's piece, because it gave me "shelves" to sort games into, making them easier to compare and see how they differ. Another "tool" I found here, would be the Core Diagram from Charmie Kim's blog:

Tadgh Kelly's piece on player characters/dolls resonated with me, as it really articulated a feeling I've had while playing my favorite games. "Play, don't show" indeed!

Then again, I am absolutely new when it comes to Game Design, so I am "malleable". Just trying to orient myself, get an overview of sorts, and further my interest in the subject. Gamasutra has been a great source of inspiration in that regard, so keep them coming :)

Duong Nguyen
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I would say there are 3 cultures. The artists who create game as works of art, the entertainer who create games for entertainment without much higher motivation and the innovator who creates games as exploration and study of play. Even the earliest games culture had this dynamic. The hipster game creator has always existed, it's not like they sprung up suddenly, so has the academic theorist and the generalist.

Mark Ludlow
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I'd say there are at least 4, with the fourth being the businessman who creates games purely to make money, such as Zynga.

Duong Nguyen
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I agree the "money" guy has always been in games as well. I personally don't consider them "creators" but they are part of the system. They do know how to monetize games with their laser focus for maximum profit.

Keith Burgun
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Hey Raph, glad to see that my comments sparked some discussion here. And thanks for being gracious. To be totally clear, I enjoyed your book. I think that it has value for game designers in being sort of a catalyst for thought on the topic in general. However, "A Theory of Fun" is not a constructive theory. It doesn't have any solid, reproducible explanatory power.

Anyway, there is a big gap between something meeting the standards of "being an actual theory" and being "The One True Way". I want people to understand that my definitions are proposed ones, only to help us better understand the difference between different types of interactive systems.

I've cleared it up before, but I am familiar with Crawford's definition, and I like it. But my writing deconstructs other interactive systems as well, which is of critical importance right now. The term "Video game", I argue, actually contains several *fundamentally different* types of interactive systems, and until we can come to terms with this fact, we cannot advance our craft. This is (one reason) why things have largely been in a kind of near-stasis for digital games for the past 15 years.

Side note: I've got a short book coming out in a few months about my theory. People might disagree with it, but no one will say that it is not a clear, bold statement.

Raph Koster
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I think ATOF does have reproducible explanatory power, but YMMV -- it is treated relatively superficially in the book, really. Of course, the quest to make it MORE reproducible is what led me down the road to game grammar and so on.

I actually think the term "videogame" is where a lot of the issues lie. It's the place where "digital interactive art" and "game" meet, and blur into each other. I agree people are mashing together different things when they use the term, but I haven't been able to get anyone to give me a definition for it that doesn't include every piece of software ever written. :) (*tosses grenade*)

That said, I don't think that has been the reason we have been in near stasis. For one, I don't think we HAVE been in stasis, thanks to the rise of the indie movement, online, and so on. For another, using "videogame" as a term of art in the way you describe is something pretty recent -- last few years. It did not have all this baggage 15 years ago or even five years ago.

Keith Burgun
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I think we're in agreement. I'm curious if you've read any of my work? To summarize, we start with "interactive systems" - which are very broad (toys or sandboxes are words which often describe these well). Examples would be

Then, you add a Problem, or goal to the interactive system, and now you have what I call a "puzzle" (a Portal level, a math problem)

Then, you add Competition to that "puzzle" and you get a "contest" (Dance Dance Revolution, Pie-Eating Contest).

Finally, you add ambiguous decisions to that "contest", and you get a "game" (Tetris, Street Fighter, Chess).

This does not, and is not meant to cover *every possible kind of interactive system*. Instead, it covers some common types of interactive systems which are building blocks of what I call "games".

I've been wanting someone to poke some solid holes in this, but almost all responses I get are sort of meta-arguments talking about whether or not I should even be doing this, so I'm hoping you'll address this directly.

Raph Koster
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I have not read all your stuff, but I have read a few of the Gamasutra articles that got attention. :)

I view all games as having an "opponent," in the form of a systemic model, so I would take issue with the "contest" level you define versus "game."

I did a breakdown of DDR in reply to a Theory of Fun review, it's in a comment on Grand Text Auto:

This in part because there are so many different competitive structures: parallel, symmetric, asymmetric, synchronous, asynchronous. For more on what I think about on that, I would point at

I think I have a decent overview of why I see it this way structurally, from a game grammar point of view, I see it this way in the first few slides of "Games Are Math."

We're in agreement that puzzle is a game with only one answer, and games demand ambiguous decisions, I think. I think Portal is liminal though, because sometimes you can solve them in more than one way.

End of the workday, heading home, or i would write more. :)

Keith Burgun
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Also, to address the main point of this piece:

"That results in those of us who have pushed for the artistic mindset getting told that we are mechanistic engineering-mindset people."

There is no difference between an "artistic mindset" and an "engineering-mindset". Both are about solving problems. Art still exists inside of causality, it is not a magical process. The way that art affects people may be mysterious, but that doesn't mean that we cannot use science and engineering to get better at it. In fact, this is what we've been doing in all of the arts since the dawn of civilization.

But perhaps I could have you, or someone else define "artistic"?

Raph Koster
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I do believe that you are posing the question from what the artistic-minded would consider an engineering-minded framework! ;)

I'd suggest reading the comment thread over at Jonas Kyratzes' blog for a better look into this gap.

Keith Burgun
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From the article you linked:

>No, grace in the sense of transcendence, in the sense of something being more than the sum of its parts, in the sense of a salvation or elevation that comes into being even though all our flaws mean it shouldn’t. You can say it’s a theological concept, though I’m not religious.

This is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of something useful. I'm glad he brought up theology, because this is just as useful as a theist's claim that "God" is an explanation for the creation of the universe.

You cannot explain a mystery with another mystery. Again, maybe we don't have the answers, but what this person, Jonas, is advocating, is a throwing-up-of-our-hands and saying "I don't know, therefore MAGIC!"

It's OK to not know. A reason exists. It is too easy to just say "magic" and go to lunch.

I think if anything the divide we actually have here are rationalists and the lazy.

Raph Koster
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No, please do try to see from their POV. It's a gap between those seeking the ineffable and those seeking the effable.

It is only useless to those who only speak effable.

I realize, it seems like an alien language, but it is not nonsensical. If I had to translate it into engineery-speak, he is saying he is seeking synergies. The mere act of deconstructive analysis works against his being able to see synergy because my its nature it is about creating discrete entities rather than seeing the gestalt. So his point is about a *perceptual* issue that arises.

I have sympathy for this position, see

E McNeill
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Thank god for you, Raph Koster.

There's plenty you say that I disagree with, but I appreciate your attitude in these discussions so very, very much.

Mike Lopez
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"Narrative designers should try making a game with nothing but counters and dice and no story. System designers should try making a game that is about telling a story. Monetizers should try making something that people care deeply about. And (grump grump) all the theorists should try actually reading the theory that is already out there."

Shouldn't Theorists try some practical application (i.e. to make an actual game)? There seem to be a lot of those who do not. Many of the prolific design writers do not ever go into actual application of technique, which has always been a pet peeve.

Also, I actually feel that practicing game designer skills fall into four main categories (the first 2 more technical and last 2 more creative):
- Level Design / Environment Design / Mission Scripting
- Systems / Mechanics Design
- Creative Gameplay Content Design
- Narrative Design

Many designers with less than 6-8 years of experience tend to have focused skills in one of those four areas. Even amongst very experienced designers (I have 20+ years) few of us can excel in 3 of those categories and I have not ever seen any one that is great at all 4.

So I would amend your conclusion to say that these designers should look outside the perspective of their own specialty and also consider both technical and creative applications to any discussion.

Jay Anne
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I want to agree with Raph's point, but I must strongly disagree because I am reminded of evolution. The seclusion of animals in the Galapagos is why strange new species evolved. The spatial and cultural distance of countries allows unique cuisines, music, aesthetics to form. The explosion of modern European art came from a variety of small isolated cliques who declared their aesthetics to be the new prevailing way to look at art in the new century.

"Separation" is good because it leads to "different". I want games like SpaceChem and Dear Esther to coexist. They don't have to agree. In fact, not agreeing is what gives their creations potency.

Raph Koster
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Evolution is about adaptation to particular niches. I think a case could be made that one of the issues with games over the last ten years is that they over-adapted to a very specific niche: the teenage guy.

Me personally, I like cross-fertilization in my creativity. Mashups of old and new, of disparate thing leading to new flavors and new colors. I think that left alone, things tend to stagnate.

Jay Anne
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Yes, creative products inherently become creatively obsolete in the hands of its most loyal customer, which creates the conditions for specialization in order to adapt. Yes I agree that overspecialization happens often and you make a very solid case as to why it's bad in your talks. But aside from the fact that it's often bad for a business or even an industry, it is at least an agent of change. It may not be the best kind, but it's often the only one that happens on a semi-regular basis. I believe that many game design innovations were accidents that came from this form of specialization. I don't think any of the game industries manage a very high rate of success when it comes to true intentional research and development. To continue the evolution analogy, yes the dodo died out, but some of its ancestors went on to become eagles.

Though I strongly agree with you that the last ten years of over-adaptation has been bad and we are going to pay HARD for that.

Yes, cross-fertilization is a good thing, and it tends to want two different things to mashup. And those two things are often specialized things, I think. It seems unlikely that Gardens of Time would have come about on its own. It required a specialization of the point-and-click adventure genre to create the hidden object genre, and the specialization of the city simulation genre to create the Farmville genre. But yes, I see your point that it is the hybrids that will create these mashups, which are hopefully stronger than the sum of their parts.

Raph Koster
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Yeah, it's actually a bit more than that, for me... most of the research on creativity seems to show that it arises out of unexpected juxtapositions, particularly across disciplines.

So while I agree with you that there's a degree of specialization that does lead to innovation as entities adapt, it does seem like inventions happen at times when things collide with one another rather than being separated -- and the separation leads instead to *elaboration* which is not the same thing.

Then again, I am a bit of a neophile, so I prefer freshness to the rococo. :)

Jay Anne
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Yes, unexpected juxtapositions and the good kind of specialization. Maybe these are just two different ways to explore new solution space, and both can be valuable.

Historically, the juxtapositions that have been most valuable have been not mashups between two game mechanics, but when a non-gaming concept was mashed together with game design. Bug collecting (Pokemon), dollhouses (Sims), forest exploring (Zelda), etc. In evolutionary terms, it's a very exotic addition to the gene pool. Which definitely points to the value in hybrid designers.

Darren Tomlyn
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The fact that the people making and designing games can be split between the functional and aesthetic groups is nothing new at all - many things we create for a specific function that can also have aesthetic appeal, (and also/then use specific forms of art) can have such a split - (e.g. cars, consumer electronics etc.).

Learning and understanding how to co-ordinate the two is one of the things we just have to learn to do.

(EDIT: was going to put this as a reply to a post above, but thought I'd add it here instead, and is based on my blog:


There is a difference between the overall goal between the art and function of a game, and this is where the emphasis of each different group causes conflict:

Art: creative story-telling
Game: structured, competitive story-writing

The functional aspect of a game is about enabling a story to be written (and its application - providing the rules and competition). Creating a work of art, however, is about telling a story. The two are not the same thing, and this is what can cause conflict - in order to create a consistent game, the art must be subordinate to the function, or you're not really making a game in the first place - (which is a problem we have these days - many games arn't a game at all - instead being puzzles or competitions mislabelled, (because people don't know any better), or mishmashes of all three, often in an inconsistent manner, (and at the expense of the game itself).

Knowing and understanding what games are, is, of course, the main reason we have problems - if you have teams of people designing and building a car - they'll all have a good idea of what a car is, to begin with, and so know what to expect - whether it's to design and create an engine or gearbox, or design the interior or bodywork and paint-job etc.. What is being designed and created determines the type of person and skills required to do so...

JB Vorderkunz
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Artist vs. Engineer reminds me of the shambling undead monstrosity that is Narratology vs. Ludology: Stories aren't games and Games aren't stories, but hybridizing them creates something new and wonderful: the caveat to "new" being that it's been happening since Colossal Cave Adventure.

To the point about Chris Crawford having covered this ground in the dim forgotten past, I think there will continue to be those who want to circumscribe "THE" definition of 'game' and thereby deduce "THE" official rubric for design. Let them rail and thunder against the pagans and philistines, meanwhile works like Art of Design and ATOF will continue to be invaluable pieces in the toolkit of gamebuilders, talewrights and imagecrafters everywhere.

Darren Tomlyn
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You really mean narrative rather than story - (the two are not the same) - but the two, in themselves, even combined, arn't new - what IS new, is the medium of a computer.

I suggest you read my blog:

Joseph Cassano
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"I like Anna Anthropy's work, but I also try to be clear-eyed about the fact that a lot of Dys4ia could be built in PowerPoint and isn't a game. That's not a value judgement. My value judgement of the piece as a work of expressive art is pretty high."

And that's where you lost me.

I am always wary of people saying "this isn't a game" to works that were created as games (e.g.: Dear Esther, Heavy Rain, Dys4ia, visual novels, etc). If anything, that only furthers the divide between the "two cultures". We will be at our healthiest as a medium when we are comfortable with games coming in all shapes and sizes (just as films can range from run-of-the-mill blockbusters to barely coherent art films, or as literature can range from novels to haiku). Only then will things truly cross-pollinate, and new games will emerge with things and ideas we've never even thought of.

And also, you are making a value judgement on Dys4ia by saying that it's not a game. You're pushing it out of the games discourse, saying "that's all well and good, but that's not what *we're* discussing". It's especially odd since the game took a lot of its gameplay style from WarioWare (short interactive segments), and I have yet to hear anyone say that WarioWare is not a game.

Darren Tomlyn
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(All replies are based upon my blog:

Saying something is one thing - (whether intended or not) - when humanity considers it to be something else, is of course a problem, because it's a failure to use the language properly.

The root of the problem we have, is that games, puzzles and competitions are NOT being fully recognised and understood in a manner that is consistent with either how the words are used in general, or the rules of the language itself - (and if we ignore the latter at this (most) fundamental level, the language cannot function and therefore even exist) - just because of the medium being used - a computer.

If you do not understand why this is a problem - why the basic rules of language are so important for its functionality and very existence - then you're part of the problem, and the reason why it's getting worse...

Joseph Cassano
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@Darren Tomlyn

"If you do not understand why this is a problem - why the basic rules of language are so important for its functionality and very existence - then you're part of the problem, and the reason why it's getting worse..."

If you do not understand that, in the realm of entertainment/expression, definitions are very fluid things that can and should be challenged, then I can argue that you are also part of the problem. For further explanation of what I mean, I refer you to the grand debate of "what is art".

Raph Koster
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What I said in this post is "a lot of Dys4ia could be built in Powerpoint and isn't a game."

Not "Dys4ia isn't a game."

I could go into a screen-by-screen analysis of Dys4ia and we could have that discussion -- and it'd be an interesting one -- but it's not the point I am making at all.

Further: If we took a hypothetical game that isn't Dys4ia and it had no win/loss, no choices, nothing but a a player clicking a button with a guaranteed result to get from screen to screen, something literally built in PowerPoint -- and said "this isn't a game" -- that doesn't mean we exclude it from games discourse. We didn't exclude ProgressQuest from games discourse, after all.

No one challenges WarioWare because it fits squarely in conventional definitions. You have a problem to solve, you can solve it well or poorly, you can succeed or fail, etc. Dys4ia is a more complex statement than that.

Joseph Cassano
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@Raph Koster

Re-reading that sentence, I see that, yes, you are saying that "certain parts of Dys4ia aren't a game", not that "Dys4ia itself isn't a game". I misinterpreted the wording the first time around.

So then to address your initial point: is that a problem? You could make that very statement about any game (that "certain parts of [insert game here] could be built in Powerpoint and isn't a game"). Cutscenes, menus, text, music could all be argued as "not a game", just as one frame of a film can be called "not a movie".

I guess I'm struggling with why you mentioned it. In my initial interpretation, it sounded like you were making a point, but now I'm unsure what the point is. A game including those things can still very much be a game. It's the piece as a whole, not the parts.

Raph Koster
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I mentioned it because it's a great example of a liminal title, like Dear Esther, that people get all up in arms about whenever people try to do either of two things:

- claim it as being in one group
- claim it as not being in one group

What I was saying was "people need to quit reacting like this is religion." Don't get "offended" or feel "excluded" or whatever. The furor that results basically precludes all useful discussion about what the heck it is and what that means.

I want to -- we NEED to -- be able to discuss a work like that IN THAT WAY. Both the "it's out" argument (which ignores the clear commonalities, use of game mechanics, clear cultural ties, obvious presence in the discourse) AND the "it's in" argument (which generally broadens the term "game" to the point of uselessness in a very non-rigorous way) are bad for us.

Clearly, I could have expressed that statement better (hey, this was a quickie blog post I dashed off). But the reaction to that one sentence in particular kinda demonstrates what I was getting at.

If I said definitely that it was or was not a game, that's not a value judgement, it's a taxonomic evaluation. If people flip out over a taxonomic evaluation, oh boy are they in for it when REAL art critique and workshopping shows up, because it takes no prisoners and spares no one. We're gonna need a lot thicker skin to function as artists.

Joseph Cassano
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@Raph Koster

Art stopped having a definition since Dadaism. That was kind of the point. To echo McLuhan, "Art is anything you can get away with."

The reason I get uppity about people claiming what is and isn't a game is that I think wasting time declaring what is and isn't a game is bad for us. It's like arguing over art; if you're trying to define "art", you're doing it wrong.

The better, more interesting discussions, in my opinion, are about the experiences. How does this mechanic convey this? Was that intentional? Do I like it? Do you like it? Why or why not?

Arguing about definitions wastes time better spent on talking about the piece itself. If one needs a definition of "game" to have a meaningful conversation about it, then I pose that the conversation isn't as meaningful as it could be since it will always bend to the definition, and that definition will never be wholly agreed upon.

Morgan Ramsay
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A conversation without shared definitions would be hard to understand.

Joseph Cassano
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@Morgan Ramsay

This isn't a new problem in the realm of entertainment/expression. Again, I point to what Dadaism did to the world of "art".

The "humanities" are inherently messy/gray (like humanity itself).

Darren Tomlyn
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Without rules, a language DOES NOT EXIST - it is one of the primary elements of its very definition - the structure by which the means of communication happens to function.

Any and all subjectivity governing what information a language is used to represent HAS to obey its rules, or it is literally meaningless, and is no longer a single, consistent language in the first place.

What a language means and how it is used is supposed to be subjective, BUT ONLY WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK OF ITS BASIC RULES - change those, and it's no longer the same, or even a single, language.

To try and say that the basic rules of a language are supposed to be (individually) subjective, is to deny its very existence!

This applies to any and ALL languages - even those such as C and C++ for computer programming, for example. Many languages have various dialects - different ways of building upon the same basic rules - (which could be applied to C and C++, depending on your perception) - but, again, it's the basic rules that matter - change/break those, and it's no longer a dialect, but a different language altogether.

This is the problem affecting the English language at this time - (of which the word game is merely a symptom) - too many words are being 'allowed' to become subjective and break the basic rule(s) of the language itself, because people do not know or recognise any better.

If all language was so subjective it would never/could never have existed in the first place, because there would be no consistency at all to allow it to function...

P.S. figuring out what the words art, game, puzzle and competition etc. represent is simply a matter of linguistics - and one which people have consistently failed, (due to the problem above), to fully recognise and understand as part of the English language as a whole - instead generally looking at the words for what they represent in ISOLATION, based solely on their subjective APPLICATION, which is IMPOSSIBLE to do, consistently... (And is the reason why the definitions and applications of many of these words have become confused for each other - breaking the basic rule of the language in the process, (since it's not being recognised.))

The basic rule of the language governs the relationship between how words are used, and what concept they represent/belong to. But the basic concept that the words game, art, puzzle, competition, work and play (when used as nouns) belong to/represent is NOT CURRENTLY RECOGNISED TO EXIST - even as obvious as it should be to recognise in the first place, if the basic rule is recognised and applied to how the language is USED.

Since that is how words are related to the rest of the language in the first place, there shouldn't be any surprise as to why we have problems...

(The fundamental problem we have, is that we recognise and apply the rule based on how the language is STUDIED/PERCEIVED instead of how it is USED, therefore our inconsistent study, leads to inconsistent teaching, which then leads to inconsistent use - (which further informs its study, and round-and-round we go, and have been going, for possibly millennia...))

Joseph Cassano
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@Darren Tomlyn

If you really think that the rules of language have always been objective, then I don't think you've taken a close look at how language evolves over history. The rules are subjective as well, and they always have been.

To be clear, I'm not against the idea of definitions for everything, but certain definitions in relation to entertainment/creative works. Definitions are fine for things that exist outside of humans (e.g.: scientific phenomena, numbers). But for things that only exist/have meaning with the presence of humans (e.g.: entertainment/expression, ethics), definitions are not really useful since these things are extremely subjective.

If you have the evidence to back it up, we can agree on things like "how fast does light move", but asking things like "what is a game/art/the good" inherently asks about what one does or does not like (one's opinions), and that varies from person to person (and can even vary over time with the same person).

Like it or not, subjectivity is a major part of the human experience. Which I suppose factors into the divide between the "two cultures".

Darren Tomlyn
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If you honestly think the basic rules of a language can change without it turning into another, completely different language, then I have a bridge to sell you...

The problem people have, is in understanding WHAT the basic rules are, and are not.

Spelling, pronunciation, the definition of individual words - even the alphabet itself - are not part of the basic rules of the English language, literally the basic rules of English grammar - (let alone punctuation etc.)

ALL of the differences between modern English, and old English are covered by those above - the basic rules, however, have remained consistent - which is why it's merely a different version of the same language.

Now, I know what you're thinking, that how words are used HAS changed - after all, sentence structure does appear to be different between modern and old English - except for one thing - that BOTH methods are consistent with the basic rules themselves, which is why even the older structure would still be consistent and understood today, even if it is not currently used. It's not about the actual RULES, just their subjective application - which is a completely different matter, and is also part of what is causing so many problems for everyone at this time, including yourself from what I can tell.

There is a difference between being subjective on behalf of PEOPLE, as languages MUST BE, in order to function, and being subjective on behalf of an INDIVIDUAL, which is what everyone, including yourself, has been trying to turn this problem into, which it is not.


I can recognise and believe that 3+3=9 as much as I'd like, but if it is NOT CONSISTENT with the basic rules governing such a numerical system, then it will ALWAYS BE WRONG - and so saying that '3+3=9' is just a subjective use of numbers, and it doesn't matter if it's not consistent, betrays the very nature and existence of such a system in the first place...

This the the problem with all such replies at this time - they betray a lack of understanding and recognition of the problem itself.

Joseph Cassano
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@Darren Tomlyn

Very convenient that you compare related languages to say that their rules are the same. Of course they would be; English spawns from old English. Instead, compare languages that have no common backing. For example, English and Japanese. The rules of these languages are very different. Hence, language is subjective. However, both an English and Japanese scientist would be able to agree, given the proper evidence, on a scientific matter (e.g.: "the speed of light") because such a topic, while being filtered through humanity, is still outside of humanity. Human language, on the other hand, does not exist without humans.

So, again, your analogy is flawed because I already acknowledged that maths and such are able to be defined. My issue is with human things. Also, consistency is not the same as objectivity. Consistency is context sensitive; if the context changes, what counts as "consistent" changes. Correlation does not equal causation. Two events may consistently happen together, but it does not necessarily mean that those two are related to one another (the possibility exists for coincidence, or a third factor that is related to and influences both).

But I feel that since neither of us is going to convince the other, this could go on forever. Which is the crux of the idea of the "two cultures". How about we agree to disagree?

Darren Tomlyn
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You understand we're talking about words and rules within a single language, right? We're not talking about different words in different languages...

Languages are defined on a subjective behalf of PEOPLE - and are merely USED on behalf of a person.

The problem we have is that the RULES governing the English language, have, in part become so INDIVIDUALLY subjective - which is a massive problem, because a language cannot function in such a manner.

The reason WHY the rules have become so subjective, is because they're not being fully recognised and understood at the most fundamental level.

Words such as game, art, puzzle, competition (in addition to action, activity, event, state, flight, movement, speech, work and play etc.) are merely symptoms of this - in their own, unique, and ultimately, inconsistent manner... If it was recognised that they all represent/belong to a single, consistent, concept - (which they must according to the rules of the language), then that would not be the case - even if the overall concept might not be recognised, they would still then suffer from consistent symptoms...

As I said, the basic rules of the English language are not being fully recognised, and then taught and informed to people, which is directly affecting our perceptions and definitions of the words game, art, puzzle and competition etc. in a manner that is inconsistent with such rules.

So - you tell me - what concept do these words represent/belong to, in a manner that is consistent with the basic rules of the language, and the words it contains that can be used to describe such a thing?

(Note: if you've read my blog then this will be easy - if you haven't, then I'd like to hear your full opinion...)

Joseph Cassano
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@Darren Tomlyn

If you're talking about definitions, you have to talk about language in general. You can't say "we're just talking about English" when we're defining "what is a game". If so, you're being a dictionary, not actually trying to define a term. A true objective definition of something is not bound by the language it's in (see: math, science), or else it would be subjective. Which is kind of entirely my point.

The very fact that we disagree on what constitutes "rules" and both have reasoned arguments for it shows that the rules are not objective. Very similar to debates on art, ethics, etc.

But again, I keep reading your words and am not convinced, just as you read mine and are also not convinced. I do not see us reaching an agreement on this; we seem to have inherently opposing viewpoints. So, again, I ask, can we agree to disagree?

Darren Tomlyn
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Unfortunately, you're the one who has the problems and is inconsistent and failing to understand and recognise the problem.

The reason for this is simple:

You are viewing, recognising and perceiving everything as though it exists and is defined as being INDIVIDUALLY SUBJECTIVE.

Essentially, viewing everything as a matter of (individually subjective) philosophy.

And this is a problem.


Because LANGUAGE is NOT *INDIVIDUALLY* subjective.

Language is about communication between PEOPLE.

Language only exists and functions, therefore, when it is COLLECTIVELY subjective - (on behalf of people, not a person).

Since humanity is a collection of individuals, each with their own subjective perception, we have a problem - but this is WHY a sizeable institution is necessary to enable a language to function and exist, especially at the scale of the English language, itself.

This is why, trying to make out that English is individually subjective is a BETRAYAL of everyone within such an institution, aswell as the very existence of language and linguistics - (and human society which created it) - in the first place...

Joseph Cassano
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@Darren Tomlyn


I thought we could end this amicably, but I guess not.

Just as you say:
"Unfortunately, you're the one who has the problems and is inconsistent and failing to understand and recognise the problem."

I could just as easily say the same about you and have reasons to back it up (reasons that I have stated already). Which is why I recognized that we were going nowhere and wanted to agree to disagree. To end amicably.

In life, people are never going to agree on everything. Accepting that fact is important, but you don't seem to want to do that.

I'm done here. Goodbye.

Darren Tomlyn
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If you do not recognise and understand the difference between sheer inconsistency (100% subjective), pure consistency, (no individual subjectivity), and being consistent ENOUGH - (not purely individually subjective, but collectively - usually based on some consistent rules and means of communication (sounds/symbols, even some words) - then you can NEVER UNDERSTAND OR RECOGNISE LANGUAGE ITSELF - because it is the latter that enables it to function and exist. (100% consistency would be nice in some respects, but is impossible, due to our innate subjectivity).

100% subjectivity is the ENEMY of language - which is why it has to be TAUGHT in order to exist.

If it is NOT taught consistently enough - it has problems - and this is the matter directly affecting the words game, art, puzzle etc.. And this has only happened, because the study of the language that is used to inform its teaching, is inconsistent with its USE.

If you do not recognise and understand the relationship between the rules of a language and its means of communication (sounds/symbols etc.), its teaching, study and use, then you can, and will, NEVER understand and recognise the problem(s) we have, because you cannot possibly understand and recognise language itself.

Trying to say that everything is 100% subjective and therefore nothing matters is simply a cop-out - (the equivalent of saying that the universe can do anything at any time, and therefore studying it means nothing).

Paul Marzagalli
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Hey Raph, interesting analysis, as always. I just touched on this topic with Karin Skoog (whose recent articles on games and awards are excellent reads, and you can find them here on Gamasutra). I am leery of academic definitions and standards of practice regarding games, because as others have said above, the industry flourishes in the arena of ideas. The more we standardize and streamline, the worse off we are. I especially liked the Galapagos analogy above, which pretty much pegs my thinking on the matter.

Now to track down that original article's comment section, and see that discussion you were talking about...

Katharine Neil
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"theorists should try actually reading the theory that is already out there"

Well put. I get the impression that many people want to have it both ways - they want to be able to safely write off and ignore past theoretical work as "too academic" while blithely continuing to produce a theoretical Groundhog day of wheel-reinventing articles and blog posts with the intention of advancing our craft. But we actually won't advance unless we read and learn from and attempt to build upon what's already been done. Just like we expect to do in game design itself.

And after all, we disdain those outsiders who do this kind of thing in reverse - i.e. people who haven't bothered to educate themselves about the depth and breadth of existing game design past and present before giving themselves license to bemoan the lack of innovation/artistry of games (a problem that they as a film maker or an artist or an academic are eminently qualified to help us resolve).

Ken Williamson
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The thing that amuses and bemuses me about all this discussion - including my own part in it - is that while many of us have made livings designing, and thinking, and talking about games, few of us (present company excepted) have made anything that has added to the discussion in any significant way. Then a guy like Notch comes along and builds his own game, and hits creative and fiscal paydirt without doing anything but following his own sense of enjoyment.

I'm all for discussion, and the best thing for me about reading these recent discussions is that it has provoked me to start reading about design and taking it seriously intellectually again. But I'm terribly uncertain of the end value of it all. I maintain that as with all creative enterprises, the core of it is intuitive. Notch and so many others have proven that. My instinct as a player says the same thing.

Darren Tomlyn
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Because it's all about being able to design and create the very best games we can, consistently - at least it should be, afterall, that's what this site is for and about.

But we're NOT making games, consistently, in the first place. Minecraft, for most people, is not a game, but a toy - a giant virtual construction set, that just so happens to have a game attached to it, that you can eventually pretty-much ignore if you so wish.

Since we don't fully understand what a game is, we are a long way to making them to their full potential - especially as far as this particular medium, (a computer), is concerned. Sure, we might have figured out some basic types of game - (the game equivalent of a sit-com etc.) - but, unlike forms of art, this can merely be the basic building blocks for games, as much as a framework.

Ken Williamson
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See, so much of this discussion seems like an exercise in semantics and pedantics. You say toy, I say game. You say tomahto, I say tomayto. It isn't important what we call things, but what they are - and Minecraft as an example is a stroke of intuitive brilliance and clever execution. The millions playing don't care what you or I, or Raph, or anyone else call it. Even if there was a framework of understood and carefully agreed upon language for games, they would still be obliviously enjoying the game, and such a language would have had no impact upon its creation or otherwise. So what is an inevitably restrictive and inadequate set of theories really worth in the end? I'm not suggesting we shouldn't talk about it, and that it isn't useful to posit the questions, but to put such emphasis on coming up with one "universal view" seems misguided to me, and misses the point.

Just because none here can agree on a definition for what a game is theoretically doesn't mean even children can't recognize one when they experience it. Fun and enjoyment are not formulae or theories, and this is really my only point. In the very act of deconstructing them you lose them. That is the nature of art and creativity.

Darren Tomlyn
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"See, so much of this discussion seems like an exercise in semantics and pedantics. "

Yes, because the foundation of which EVERYTHING THIS SITE IS FOR AND ABOUT, is what the word game itself represents.

"The millions playing don't care what you or I, or Raph, or anyone else call it."

Is NOT the problem we have - the problem is in understanding HOW and WHY. And that can ONLY be fully understood with the CONSISTENT recognition and understanding of WHAT.

In order to design and create/manufacture ANYTHING that has a specific identity and representation within the language itself - as do games, competitions and puzzles - (if they didn't the words themselves would not exist!) - we need to know and understand what it is such words represent. Without that, the language itself is simply NOT FUNCTIONING.

That latter is the true underlying problem we have at this time.

Understanding HOW and WHY games can be fun, is MEANINGLESS without the context of WHAT GAMES ARE.

And that is a matter of linguistics - and is ultimately where the failure lies... Inconsistent study -> inconsistent teaching -> inconsistent use.

How can you possibly make the best car if you don't know what one is? You might make a brilliant vehicle that people like, but if it's not a car, you will almost certainly have trouble understanding exactly how and why people like it in the first place - which will affect what you are trying to make and design in an inconsistent manner, and then start to affect the word car in a manner that it loses all of its meaning and relevance.

Language is ALL about CONSISTENCY - being able to transfer information that can be perceived in a CONSISTENT manner.

The word game has become INCONSISTENT for a few very specific reasons. Anyone who thinks that is a GOOD THING, is then part of the PROBLEM, and not its solution.

Just because we can create an enjoyable ACTIVITY, (or a computer program to enable such a thing to take place), does not mean it's automatically a GAME...

What makes an ACTIVITY enjoyable is NOT the same thing as what makes a GAME...

Minecraft may be enjoyable - but that has very little (based on what people consider to be enjoyable within the activity) to do with it being a game...

Game != play (noun)

Chris Crawford
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Raph, here's some irony for you: a piece I wrote twenty years ago about the Two Cultures war:

Curtiss Murphy
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Neil Clark's piece ends with this:

"Speak to me, you theorists, in the sexy language of games"

What am I supposed to do with that? I'm a practical guy. I've a wife, kids, and 2 jobs. I read everything I can, but I'm looking for ideas I can use right now! Raph's book was tangible - useful immediately. He gave me a stepping stone that led me to discover, 'Why Games Work - the Science of Learning' (google is yer friend).

Define 'game' as precisely as you like. But in the end: a rose, by any other name ... is still a rose...