Thursday, May 15, 2008

The words I wish I got to define

So, a little while ago I posted a query on Curmudgeon Gamer, namely What is Ludology? This was an honest question, but asked with ulterior motives (more on that later). And the answers I got were perfectly reasonable.

But then I had to get all fancy-pants and search the Web. As always, big mistake. Not accidental porn big, but big.

At this point, I will digress by explaining those ulterior motives.

When I was young and naive, I came across a brilliantly excitingly named branch of mathematics called "Game Theory". Naturally I said to myself, "holy crap! Pretty darn smart of me to become a mathematician -- now I'll get to play games for a living!"

In case you aren't aware, "Game Theory" is a bait-and-switch ruse right up there with "Greenland". Somehow they managed to take the field of strategic game-playing and restrict it only to games no one would ever want to play. (Apparently there was some analysis of actual games in there at the beginning, but that was swiftly excised, lest anyone actually enjoy themselves.) Even worse, it turns out Game Theory is actually useful in economics, so there are hundreds of books on super-boring "Game Theory" that are actually not about games at all, just taunting me.

Now, as time went on, my interest in games has actually increased, and I desperately want to make a living from analyzing and studying (and playing) games. Real games, that are fun. But I had learned that "Game Theory" was not that.

So while explicitly I was asking "What is ludology?", implicitly I was pleading "Ludology is the immensely fun and cool analysis and study (and play) of games, right? And someone will pay me to be a ludologist?" I mean, how could it not be? "Ludo" is from the Latin for game (ludus), and "-ology" means "study of", so ludology must mean study of games, which is what I desperately want an official legitimate-type word for, right? (Put your hands down, eager beavers -- we'll get to it!)

Now let's return to that horrible "search the Web" idea.

It turns out "ludology" is in fact a pretty widely used term in the field of "game studies", which is a catchall term which presumably includes analysis of the play of games, but also refers to things like game sociology, game criticism & history, game computer science, and pretty much anything that some academic wants to publish that refers to a game. (How game studies should relate to the design of actual games is a topic of some debate.)

But of course ludology doesn't mean what I want it to mean. Oh no. Ludology is both a field and an ideological position, in opposition to the field/ideological position of narratology. Narratology is meant to encompass the study of essentially anything with a story, abstracted from its medium (so movies and books and soap operas and arguably videogames all use narratives, and can all be understood under the narratology umbrella). Ludology pushes back, saying that games are fundamentally _not_ just narratives. Just like narratives occur in different media, so do games (board games, card games, tv game shows, videogames, etc.) and instead of just lumping them in with the narratives, the ludologists say, the play and rule elements of games set them apart and they should have their own umbrella field that discusses the nature of games (abstracted from the medium) the same way narratology treats narratives. And that field is ludology. (The perspectives with horrible -ology names doesn't necessarily stop there: here's an article promoting a "paradigmological" approach.)

While the five word definition of "ludology" is still "analysis and study of games", the meaning behind that is very different from what _I_ was talking about. It asserts a political standpoint (games aren't narratives), and because of that standpoint it is necessarily chiefly concerned with the ontology of games, which is a fancy way to say trying to answer the question "what is a game?" Furthermore, the conflict between ludology and narratology as disciplines pulls them both further away from usefully relating to actual games, which of course require both gameplay and story.)

I understand that any "-ology" needs to make some effort addressing what they're all about, but that's Chapter One of the Intro to -ology book. (Remember reading the "What is Life?" section of your biology book?) The rest is the interesting stuff. You don't take archaeology and spend the whole time learning about "what is old stuff? what makes this the old stuff we study and that the old stuff we don't study?"

Oh, and am I the only one who's annoyed by taking a random word and putting "-ology" at the end of it? "Narratology" is obviously made up, and the natural counterpart "gameology" is equally stupid (no offense intended). But who thought digging up a Latin word to put before the (Greek) -ology would make it more acceptable?

Thankfully, their failing is my last shot. Someone stole Game Theory, Ludology seemed like a good idea but someone stole that too. However, "pediology" would be more consistently Greek -- although people might think it has to do with studying children and/or feet ("paidia", I am told, means "a childish game or amusement"). Equally confusing would be "scholeology", but perhaps even more appropriate: according to footnote 7 on page 5 of this paper (PDF link), the Latin ludus might have been used as a conscious parallel to the Greek schole, which referred both to leisure time and to school.

So, I coined it, I get to define it: I'm a scholeologist, which means that I analyze and study forms of games and game rule systems, both in terms of objective strategies and results and in terms of entertainment value and human-game interaction. I don't study the role of games in society or the society of gamers (what I would call game anthropology), although we might have useful things to say to each other; and I don't study games solely as vehicles for learning and cognition, although that's exactly what I'll tell the funding bodies when I apply for grants, if they'll buy it.

There might be ludologists who would say what I do is ludology (certainly it's not narratology -- I plan to never use the word "Aristotelian" again, and they seem to like it), and maybe I'll come around, but for the moment it sounds too political and "the nature of game-ness" for me. If the hypothesis "the positive effects of rubber-banding such as in Mario Kart for casual players can be achieved with less negative impressions from competitive players if more information is hidden from the players" isn't ludology, then I'm happy to make it scholeology. (I don't know if it's a true hypothesis or not -- possible future paper? :) )

Just in case there aren't enough links in this post, and/or you got here because of a conjunction of search terms, you might want a summary bibliography of books from various sides of game studies. For that, check out this excerpt from yet another book.

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Thalia said...

Bob, you are awesome.

Bob said...

Wow. I don't know what justifies that compliment, but I'm don't look gift horses in the mouth.

Thank you very much. You're pretty awesome yourself. :)

Sarah said...

This post is the kind of post that makes me proud to share a blog with you, Bob.

Based on Thalia's comment to the post Making Clothes Out of Loops of String, I think this is two etymology fans sharing mutual admiration.

I also credit Thalia's etymology of the knitting swear word "frog" for that post's current status as the most popular thing to look at specifically on the site.