GDC: Finished!
A Design Philosophy...

Grammatical? Lexical? Functional?

I find myself in the onerous position of having to denounce my own work. When I introduced the notion of a categorial grammar of game design I was building on my experience of categorial grammars to try and explore my idea that games are abstractly constructed on a framework of nouns and verbs. But in so doing, I threw away everything that a categorial grammar is good for.

You see, the whole purpose of a categorial grammar is that it allows for algebraic manipulation of language. (My Masters degree project, for instance, learned to read by processing children's books into categorial grammar mathematically). Here's an example, working with the following sentence:

I roll the katamari

The base level tokens in the categorial grammar I am most familiar with are N (nouns), NP (noun phrase) and S (sentence). Everything is composed of these. [Skip ahead to where it says 'So "I roll the katamari" is a valid sentence' if you like - it's not necessary to understand categorial grammar to understand the focus of this post].

Here's how the sentence converts: "I" = NP/NP (the subject of the sentence has this definition), "roll" = S/NP (that is the definition of a verb: if you add a noun phrase to it, it becomes a sentence), "the" = NP/N (i.e. a determiner takes a noun and turns it into a noun phrase) and "katamari" = N (it's just a noun). Think of these things as fractions, so S/NP (the definition of a verb in categorial grammer) is S (sentence) over NP (noun phrase). Okay, so that gives:

I roll the katamari = NP/NP x S/NP x NP/N x N

And remember these are fractions, so we can cancel things out. First, let's get rid of the loose nouns - since NP/N x N = NP

I roll the katamari = NP/NP x S/NP x NP

Now the subject pairs up with the object noun phrase and cancels out:

I roll the katamari = S/NP x NP

And finally, we can see this cancels out too:

I roll the katamari = S

So "I roll the katamari" is a valid sentence. That's what grammar is essentially about: confirming that sentences are well formed.

Now look at how I use the categorial grammar of game design. There is no algebraic content at all. And why? Because in my definition I allowed for collections of nouns and collections of verbs. I threw in this set theory mechanism because I needed it, but I forgot to notice that by doing so the algebraic value of the system was lost - because all definitions that contained at least one noun and at least one verb would qualify as games.

Okay, I guess everyone has a glazed look on their face right now! Let's get back to the point.

The categorial grammar of game design is not really a useful categorial grammar at all - but it's still potentially useful. I believe it is very valuable to analyse games in this way, as I did before with Katamari Damacy and will again with Shadow of the Colossus and doubtless more to come.

I will continue to use this system. But I can't in all conscience continue calling it a categorial grammer.

What then shall I call it? Lexical analysis? Functional analysis? Play analysis? Components of play? Lexicon of play? Atoms of play? Monads of play?  Keywords of play? Of  game design?  Of gameplay?

Choosing the best phrase for something can be of vital importance, as nothing controls  the capacity for an idea to spread, and thus have wider value, than how it is encapsulated in words. Clumsy terminology blocks an idea from having full expression; elegant terminology propagates itself.

I think I prefer 'lexical analysis of play' or 'keywords of play', but I have swung from one extreme to another with no prevailing tailwind to carry me to my destination.

I ardently invite you to share your thoughts on this rather thorny problem.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I think you're a little hard on yourself, at least from the perspective of people who have no idea what categorical grammar was in the first place. But now that the distinction has been made clear, I suppose it's true that you do need a different name for your system :)

Simple is best, I think. Though the attentive and erudite readers of your blog are right with you when you say "lexical analysis of play", I fear that there is a certain amount of eye-glazing it may induce in critical segments that you wish to disseminate the idea to. "Keywords of play" or "gameplay keywords" is about as simple and descriptive as you can get.

I thought that was an interesting article. I've always wondered how a computer could read a sentence.

Heres my stab at a unified theory, taking a very different approach. I hope it doesn't induce the eyeglaze effect, I wrote it to be brisk full of examples.

Oh yeah:

Thanks for the comment, Jack! Disappointed no-one else wants to put forward a point of view, though. Should I assume, therefore, they agree with you?

"Keywords of Play" seems like a sensible heading to put before a section conducting a lexical analysis of play. I feel, having slept on this, that I could use both these terms in parallel. "These are the keywords of play for this game (based upon my lexical analysis...)"

Well, it gives me a direction to begin hiking if nothing else... Terminology can remain in flux until it ends up in an academic paper, magazine article or book, I suppose. :)

Thanks again!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)