The relationship between “game” and media is multifaceted. Most obviously, games NEST other media (e.g., speech, numbers, graphic images, writing etc.) within themselves. But, as we shall see, games are themselves media that encode information within their structures. Furthermore, a case might be made that all media are, in some sense, games.
The OED gives a variety of definitions for the word “game.” The most commonly understood meanings are: “an amusement, diversion, pastime;” and “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.” But it also includes such contradictory definitions as “the proper method of playing; correct play” and “‘dodges’, tricks.” It is also slang for such professions of ill-repute as “thieving, housebreaking” and “prostitution.”
Marshall McLuhan defined games as “extensions, not of our private but of our social selves… Games are situations contrived to permit simultaneous participation of many people in some significant pattern of their own corporate lives.” (McLuhan 245) While this definition ignores solitary games (like Solitaire or many video games), its emphasis on the participatory nature of game is reminiscent of its etymological antecedent of the word, the Gothic gaman, meaning “participation, communion.” (OED)
At the most basic level, then, all games require participants performing some actions — a game is a practice. Essential to any understanding of game, therefore, is its relationship to “play.” Our primary means of interacting with a game is by playing; it could even be argued that simple observation of a game entails a close identification with the players. It is a matter of theoretical debate, however, whether there is a qualitative difference between “play” and “game.” Is all play game, and are all games play? For example, kittens and babies seem to play, but should their play be considered games? On the opposite side, certain games (such as war games or World Cup soccer matches) may not be “playful,” but are rather deadly serious to all those involved.
One influential theorist on the relationship of play and game was Roger Callois. Building upon the work of Johan Huizinga (who will be discussed shortly), in Man, Play, and Games Callois proposed a useful system of classifying games. Aside from dividing games into four categories ( agon , or competition; alea, or chance; mimicry, or simulation, and ilinx, or the inducement of vertigo), he also outlined a spectrum of ascending complexity of structure. At the zero of the axis is paidia, which he defines as:
a word covering the spontaneous manifestations of the play instinct: a cat entangled in a ball of wool, a dog sniffing, and an infant laughing at his rattle represent the first identifiable examples of this type of activity. It intervenes in every happy exuberance which effects an immediate and disordered agitation, an impulsive and easy recreation, but readily carried to excess, whose impromptu and unruly character remains its essential if not unique reason for being (Callois 27-8)
These most basic irruptions of the play instinct are typically what we mean when we use the word “play.” As we move up the axis toward ludus , however, play becomes more structured, and conventions, techniques, and rules appear. At the far end of the axis, where ludus completely overtakes paidia , these rules and structures become the sole object of play, and “the pleasure experienced in solving a problem arbitrarily designed for this purpose… intervenes, so that reaching a solution has no other goal than personal satisfaction for its own sake.” Thus games such as chess are closer to ludus than paidia on Callois’ spectrum; so we might, as has often been suggested, think of “game” as structured “play.”
This model of ascending levels of structure is echoed by developmental psychologist L.S. Vygotsky. Play is not necessarily marked by joy or pleasure; rather, it springs from the need to fulfill desires or needs that can not be met. To resolve the tension of unfulfillable desires, he writes, “the preshool child enters an imaginary, illusory world in which the unrealizable desires can be realized, and this world is what we call play.” (Vygotsky 93) The existence of an imaginary situation is thus a key defining characteristic of play. In the course of the child’s development, her play becomes more and more structured as it becomes less dominated by the imaginary situation outlined above to being primarily dominated by rules regarding the relationship of meaning to objects and actions. These rules detach the usual meanings from objects and actions and replace them with new ones — thus a stick can become a horse or a hairbrush become a pistol. Rules apply in every play-action, Vygotsky argues: “There is no such thing as play without rules. The imaginary situation of any form of play already contains rules of behavior, although it may not be a game with formulated rules laid down in advance.” (Vygotsky 94) Or, as Johan Huizinga points out, even puppies “keep to the rule that you shall not bite, or shall not bite hard, your brother’s ear.” (Huizinga 1) If all play has structure and rules — however implicit or covert — this would seem to greatly collapse the distinction between play and game into game/play.
The function of the rules of game/play is to provide the structure or skeleton for the imaginary world of the game. According to Johan Huizinga, one of the primary characteristics of play is that it is limited in time (it must begin and end) and in space (it occurs within a “play-ground” demarcated either physically or ideally – the gameboard, the stage, the playing field). These temporal and spatial boundaries are created by the rules of the particular type of game/play being participated in. Inside the boundaries constructed by the rules of game/play, “an absolute and peculiar order reigns,” (Huizinga 10) an order that may or may not resemble the world of not-play. So, for example, certain pieces in the world of chess may only be moved in certain directions, whereas nothing constrains their movement in the world of not-play. In order to play the game, participants must accept and abide by the rules and structures of the imaginary world; or, as Vygotysky would have it, they must separate actions and objects from their everyday meanings and accept the new situational relationships posited by the game.
According to Gregory Bateson, these relationships are essentially ones of paradox. The statement “This is play” means “These actions in which we now engage do not denote what these actions for which they stand would denote.” (Bateson 180) The entrance into the play-world establishes a paradoxical frame, in which map-territory relations are both equated and discriminated. The statement “This is play,” then, is a metacommunicative device which allows the receiver both to distinguish between messages which are are “meant” and those which simulate the action of “meaning” and simultaneously to accept them. (Bateson 188-990)
The world of game/play thus exists within and interacts with the world of not-play. As such, it is also a form of discourse that communicates ideas about the world outside the play-ground, since the structures of a game embody or encode certain assumptions about the way that the world of not-play is (as “Monopoly” recreates a merciless capitalist economy) or should be (the utopia of “Candyland”). In this way games are themselves media for conveying ideas about the world of not-play. Thus games become an important mechanism for the socialization of children (as in “playing house”) and the maintenance of society (baseball as the “national pastime”) — extensions, as McLuhan argued, of our corporate selves.
We might go even further and suggest that not only are games media, but that all media are in some sense games. Huizinga, for example, seems to suggest that nearly all media are rooted in the play impulse. Huizinga discusses language, poetry, art, philosophy, dance, and theater, but I see no reason not to include film, television, radio, and so on in this category. All media seem, like games, to have their own set of structures or rules for interepretating or decoding them. Furthermore, most media seem to establish the paradoxical relation between map and territory suggested of game by Bateson – writing both is and is not speech, graphic representations both are and are not the objects they represent, sound recordings both are and are not “real,” and so on.
History of Religions
Bateson, Gregory. “A Theory of Play and Fantasy.” In Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc.)
Callois, Roger. Man, Play, and Games, trans. by Meyer Barash (New York: Schocken Books, 1979).
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens (Boston: Beacon, 1955).
McLuhan, Marshall. “Games: Extensions of Man.” In Understanding Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).
Vygotsky, L.S. “The Role of Play in Development.” In Mind in Society , edited by Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981) pp. 92-104.