Monday, March 28, 2011

Accidental trademarking

The one-sentence summary: "constituative" and "metability" are not words.

I've been reading an excellent book, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. It is very much in line with the sort of study and analysis of games that I'm interested in.

But in the book, the authors describe three kinds of rules (as you can imagine, rules are an important feature of games). The three kinds of rules are constituative, operational, and implicit. And to me, the "constituative" rules are exactly those rules that I would call "constitutive".

Now, I wouldn't make a big deal about this if it were an incidental thing, but it's a big component in one of the big ideas of the book. And even then I wouldn't post about it if "constituative" were actually another spelling (or another word entirely). So I googled it.

Turns out that every use of "constituative" related to game rules is a reference to this book, either directly or indirectly. And I wondered, is the field of game studies going to use this and pretend it's a new word long enough that it actually becomes one?

"Constituative" is not a completely uncommon misspelling of "constitutive". (Google gets 6,650 hits, vs. 8,040,000 for constitutive.) But it's pretty clear it's a misspelling. There's a kind of gene that's called a "constituative promoter" (441 results), but the exact same definition appears for a "constitutive promoter" (217,000 results). One of the top hits for "constituative" is about a "constituative equation". But search Google for "constituative equation" (or "constitutive law") and Google won't just suggest the other spelling -- it just gives you the results for the conventional spelling.

When I looked up "constituative rule", and insisted that Google show you that and not "constitutive rule", seven of the ten front page results are related to game studies. The top one is the Google Books result for this very book. The other six either directly or indirectly refer to the book. Perhaps surprisingly, a search of "constitutive rule games" turns up several philosophical works, which use game rules as an example of "constitutive rules". But many games studies people are getting exposed to this idea through the Salen and Zimmerman book, and the spelling error is propagating. Eventually, it's possible that "constituative" will become an alternate spelling, used by game study people.

The viral spread of a new term is perhaps Betty K. Garner's intention: in her book Getting to "Got It!": Helping Struggling Students Learn How to Learn , she coins the word "metability", meaning "the ability to learn, create, and change". I personally hate this word, not least because "meta" gets used too much and usually wrongly (see this charming description of "meta"). Nonetheless, I understand the motivation.

There's a natural desire to condense your main point, the concept you want to convey to the world, into a little digestible morsel that your readers will remember, retain, and repeat. If you can encapsulate your idea into a word or little phrase, it could carry your little meme across the world, and perhaps across the ages.

But sometimes the dream of an immortal idiom runs ahead of the concept itself: I've often come up with clever acronyms for a concept that I'm just not willing to put the time and commitment into making a real thing. I once told a class to use SPEED (Solve Problems Each and Every Day). But this was a catchy phrase, not a system or an idea, and I never referred to it again. I'm sure no one else did, either.

Back to the original case, I'm pretty confident that Salen and Zimmerman had no intention of generating game studies-specific jargon by misspelling "constitutive". But in a small way (I daresay the field of game studies is fairly small, overall) I think this is happening. So I urge them to correct it, in the next edition.

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Sarah said...

"Antineologism" only gets 9 hits on Google.