A Vocabulary Problem

Lately I fear if I knew the great swordsman Inigo Montoya he’d have taken his rapier to me repeatedly and without restraint.

inigo-montoya_that-wordIt’s true, I thought the word ‘reactionary’ referred to a person quickly and readily prone to knee-jerk reactions about any given thing, instead of the definition of the word being as it is a euphemism for being of a conservative bent with regards the status quo. I also, and examples can be seen many times in this very blog, mistook the definition of ‘ludology’ to mean, well, something it doesn’t actually mean.

It’s the study of play, right? Correct. However, it appears that the accepted definition of the term differs from what my understanding has been:


The study of where games fit into culture. I’m afraid that’s not my area of interest, in general or on this very blog. In fact, there doesn’t exist a word to describe exactly the area I personally wish to study and develop, and from that I conclude that videogame study has something of a vocabulary problem. I shall elaborate on this.

The definition above infers that ludology, or the study of “play” seemingly takes play to mean less “rules and constraints of games” and more “cultural let’s pretend“. That is to say that the systems in place that form to make a game’s interactivity play second fiddle to the where the game fits in a larger socio-political culture jigsaw. How we play is largely ignored as the focus shifts to what we play and what that means. In essence, that which makes a game a game is deemed less-important than its apparent role in the culture the consumes it. Personally, I think this is not in perspective.

It is said that “games don’t exist in a bubble” and that they are the sum of that which influences their creators and in turn, the games themselves. Although completely true, I assert that the nature of games could be better studied by isolating them; in essence, the analogue of a controlled scientific environment; before we can find what makes them tick.

But, back to that vocabulary problem. This is something that has been clear to me for a while, that definitions of terms may differ depending on who is asking, and what they mean. To bring up an example, if someone were to say “these controls are bad” of a game experience, to what do they refer?


Are the controllers (items once known as joypads to some) poorly-designed or implemented? Furthermore, are the individual controlling elements (buttons and directional controls) at fault somehow? Alternatively, is the configuration of mapped buttons to game actions not satisfactory? Moreover, is the technical application of such unresponsive and/or prone to erroneous feedback?

Another example phrase: “I don’t like Shadow Warrior’s graphics” — to what exactly does this statement refer?


Are the game’s “graphics” the sum total of visual elements in composition, or the isolated sprite/texture elements in and of themselves? Or does the term mean the more classical definition of graphic design, and as such refers to the presentation wrapper?

I admit to have given an example with the latter, that seems to grasp at straws; people clearly mean the totality of a game’s graphics, surely? I’m not personally taking that as given, it would be disingenuous to assume this without hard data. That vocabulary problem in full effect, then. And I’m not even getting into the non-discussion about the term “gameplay“; something most gamers ‘know’ the meaning of but few can actually agree on when pushed for an answer.

The rook, a pawn in its path

Enough digression. This vocabulary problem is precisely why there is no word for the study of innate game mechanisms; “game studies” exists as a synonym for ludology and as such is cultural in nature. “Game theory” exists but covers a much broader gamut of the verb ‘to game’, including the gaming of real-world systems, for example Prisoner’s Dilemma or Parrondo’s paradox.


I propose, albeit tentatively, virtual kinesthetics. By which, I refer to the virtual moving parts — the objects interactions and space navigation/manipulation that really are the beating heart of the videogame as a form. Not quite as ambiguous as a term derived from a word meaning ‘to play’, hopefully for now this will describe that which I have been attempting to dissect with my own (currently-ongoing) Games as a manipulation of space series of posts, and hopefully will continue to study. After all, we’re often reminded how young this medium is and as such there’s a lot of work to be done here.

But for now, I think Inigo Montoya can put the sword away for a while.


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