Road to GDC
My Life as a Fisherman

Intellectual Disharmony

There is a tendency for intellectuals to prefer their own models to other peoples. This, perhaps, is only natural - after all, it is easier to be emotionally invested in one's own ideas than those of others. Furthermore, it is easier to co-operate with people for whom we are emotionally invested than to co-operate with strangers. Sadly, a consequence of this state of affairs is that it can be particularly hard to make progress in certain fields because intellectuals would, to some degree, rather tear down other people's models than co-operate to build better ones.

I suspect that much of the problem results  from the transposition of territorial instincts. Intellectuals tend to carry out their territorial battles in the context of language and ideas rather than in the physical world (sometimes, an intellectual will arrogantly note how they are above petty territorial concerns, while simultaneously engaging in extremely territorial behaviour in ideological terms).

This sublimated territorialism seems to manifest in the battle for control of language. Make no mistake, language is in a state of constant flux - changes in the language can emerge gradually over time, or quite suddenly. Shakespeare, for instance, is credited for contributing an astonishing 1,600 words to the English language, including countless, critical, excellent, lonely, majestic and obscene. In the space of my lifetime I have observed the meaning of the word 'factoid' change from meaning 'unverified or inaccurate information reported as fact' to meaning 'a brief and slightly interesting fact'; dictionaries report this as a 'usage problem'. More likely, the original meaning will end up being tagged as 'archaic' within a hundred years.

If one believes solely in the principle of survival of the fittest, perhaps this intellectual disharmony can be seen as a battle with some merit. However, co-operation seems reliably faster as a means of achieving anything worthwhile.

Intellectuals therefore face a choice as to whether they should 'go it alone' (with an extremely high risk of long term irrelevancy) or attach themselves to a 'school of thought', adopting language and ideas from an existing source. Speaking for myself, I have noticed I find it slightly easier to adopt the ideas of dead intellectuals than living ones, although there are living people whose ideas I have readily taken onboard, such as Stephen J. Gould, Nicole Lazzaro, Toru Iwatani and Mike Moorcock.

Much of my resistance towards my contemporaries rests in language choice. Brian Sutton-Smith's work is top notch, but I cannot see how the term "rhetorics of play" can possibly take off in the long term because it seems (to my ears, at least) such a clumsy construct. Conversely Huizinga's "Magic Circle" is a simple concept, easily understood and easily expressed. Such ideas propagate themselves.

Similarly, while I have great respect for Noah Falstein, I find the sheer volume of time the 400 Project spends on the minutae of its trumping scheme to be rather frustrating. It makes it hard for me to support this approach, because I cannot see how anything so complicated can propagate effectively (although the rules themselves are a wonderful grab-bag of ideas).

I would love to contribute meaningfully to the refinement of language and ideas, especially in the field of game design (and perhaps too in the field of philosophy of religion and language, although at the moment it seems all I can do is act as a counterweight against the premature certainty engendered by scientific thinking). I am under no illusions that this will be easy, and under no expectation of success. It is, I believe, the attempt that is worthy.

If, at the end of my time, I have contributed one useful term or phrase to the language of game design, I will consider this to be a grand achievement. If I have somehow managed to advance someone else's ideas, I will consider this an even greater achievement. Likely, I am just a map dot in the vast continent of intellectual pursuits, and I find myself quite comfortable with this. I don't crave fame, I just want to make games that people enjoy. (And I hope I can resist the temptation to judge my success by sales figures).

Intellectuals battle for control of the language. Most of these conflicts are beyond irrelevancy. A few, perhaps are worthwhile. Let us hope for the wisdom to determine what is worth pursuing, and the humility to contribute, rather than attempting to stake meaningless rational claims on our own.


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Yeah, I suppose I've been guilty of this, trying to explore the games as puzzels vs. games as rhizomes and the ludic/paidic spectrum, I've sometimes takes territorial distinctions which may have been counter-productive. Maybe the best way to go about game desing theory is to lead by example, build a project that embodies a new technique or form and let people play, rather than listen to overlong blog posts (not that yours are overlong, you typically keep your stuff succinct).

We're all territorial, or argumentative, however you want to put it.

The key is in picking your battles. What arguments are worth enduring or winning? I agree with you they are few.

The other component is talk vs. walk. Just about anybody can talk a good game. This is where I check my ego all the time. Whenever I find myself arguing, I have to tug at myself--a little reminder that while I'm doing all this arguing, I'm NOT achieving something cool or accomplishing anything. And I have to remind myself that the only way to truly convince people or change their mind is via action & success.

The best way to make a statement is to blaze a trail for others to walk upon.

The rest is just intellectual masturbation.

Sutton-Smith is my favorite play scholar, but I have to agree with you that his terminology will never take off in the mainstream.

Thanks for the comments everyone! It wasn't really my intent to point fingers in this piece, I just had some things I wanted to express. I agree with Eric that knowing when to let go of an argument is a great help in life, though. :)

I feel I owe Sutton-Smith some serious attention, despite my terminological niggles. I have to make it through Ekman first - his work is absolutely fantastic, but for reasons I'm sure I'll discuss at a later point, it's demanding to read.

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