Tuesday, August 07, 2007

How to Ensure that Discussions are not only about Definitions

The Problem

Raph Koster, in Theory of Fun for Game Design defines games, art, and fun in rather specific ways. Raph's book is full of useful and interesting insights as to how the brain works using games, what games do for you, games in society, and so on.

Yet, many people get hung up over his definitions. When he says that "fun" is the brain's way of absorbing patterns until you're done with the pattern, he's saying a whole lot about what happens in games and other activities, but, really, very little about what fun is. The definition he uses for fun in simply a placeholder for what he wants to talk about.

This is a problem. Not only does everyone have their own ideas as to what the definitions of these terms are, but real-life always provides counter-examples. Raph has to spend time including the fun things he considers fun, and excluding the fun things he does not consider fun.

There's nothing wrong with arguing about definitions, but it always seems to overshadow the rest of the discussion.

It doesn't make a bit of difference to his discussion about what is happening when someone is playing a game whether or not you call this "fun" or not. It is a whole lot more important that it is or isn't happening, not what it is called.

The problem is, how can we concentrate on what is being said and not argue so much about the terms used?

The Solution

Use Greek letters.

Instead of games, we can use definitions like the following:
  • alpha are activities
  • beta are interactive activities
  • gamma are interactive activities with goals
  • delta are interactive activities with goals that are perceived as fun
  • epsilon are interactive activities with one or more winners and losers

Now, instead of trying to define what is or isn't "fun", let's call the brain's way of absorbing patterns until you're done with the pattern "theta".

Now we have a proposition that theta is one of the reasons that people are drawn to, and benefit from, activities such as gamma, delta, and epsilon.

Ta da. Now we have a discussion about the issues that matters, and no one comes barging in and says, "wrong, that's not what a game is" or "that's not what fun is".

Furthermore, the subject matter of the discussion is now no longer forced into talking about "games". Any activities that meet the criteria for gamma and delta, whether the currently call them games or not, are subject to the same discussion.

We shouldn't get trapped into thinking that everything that is associated with the words "game" in our minds has to be associated with everything that is produced by a game company.

For instance, your brain may be stuck on the idea that a game has to be fun. But you may define "game" as an interactive activity with rules and goals.

Instead of calling an interactive activity with rules and goals a "game", let's call this "gamma". Gammas are interactive activities with rules and goals.

Clearly, gammas don't have to be fun. That's not part of the definition of gammas. When we called them games, you were hung up on the idea that these were "games". They had to be fun.

Gammas, on the other hand, have no such associations. Gammas can be taking a math test or getting a driver's license.


Defining things is a high and noble pursuit. Unfortunately, life always throws exceptions at us, and definitions are almost never complete. There are usually a few things that straddle definitions.

It is a shame to always come back to the definitions, which carry so much baggage, than discuss other underlying issues.



Chris said...

The problem is language. We can never count on common definitions of terms, so one must define them for clarity. Unfortunately, the usual way this is done is by narrowing their scope - thus creating a greater mismatch between what is meant and what will generally be understood.

I usually prefer to create new terms, which avoids the prior assumptions problem, but it makes it harder for people to read me, as adding new words always adds to the difficulty of reading something.

Best wishes!

thcrawford said...

But isn't creating new terms like gamma (and associated definitions) just changing the problem. Now we've got additional terms with additional definitions that no one understands. I'm not for semantic wars either, but creating new terms just seems to make new battle grounds.

Yehuda said...

Tom: No, what it's doing is separating the discussions into two.

If I define gamma precisely the way I want to define it, then the conversation is about those things I defined.

Whereas, if I use an already existing term, the conversation always ends up being about how I've misapplied the word, not the things I want to say about what I think the word is referring to.

Created words are rigidly defined, whereas evolved words are colloquial and mean whatever people believe they mean in different cultures or time periods.