In the Balance
On Branding

A Game Design Dictionary

Johnsons_dictionaryWanted: Lexicographer
This is an appeal to the network effect of the internet to see if I can reach out and contact a lexicographer (or more than one). If you know someone who works in lexicography, please can you see if this is something they might be interested in - thank you.

Over at Lost Garden, Danc has a piece on the Game Innovation database. I heartily agree with him that we have a language problem in game design. We lack any common language in our field, and also lack the mechanisms to bring such entity into being. I also tend to agree that an academic approach is unlikely to succeed in building a common lexicon. However, I'm not convinced an open database of 'game innovations' (whatever that might transpire to include) will have the desired result of building a common lexicon.

Right now, even as we speak, people working in thousands of different developers are employing terms that apply to the game design process. These terms are already in use, but they are not catalogued or recorded in any shape or form right now. This is a 'hidden language' of game design - and because it is concealed, the effect of natural selection upon it is to create many 'local ecologies' of words. In effect, we are each marking out our separate 'language niches' and defending these, effectively working against the goal of building a common language of game design.

In order to build a common public lexicon of game design, a possible step would be to build a dictionary of all the game design terms currently in use. I do not know in any great detail the process that lexicographers use to formulate a dictionary, but I am assume that it works by having a group of people who make a value judgement based upon the evidence available about what to include and what to exclude, aided by some criteria-driven protocol established by tradition or developed over years of practice.

Perhaps cataloguing game design terms used in books, papers and articles on the subject would be a starting point - although many such instances contain words used solely by just the individual in question, and therefore have shaky claims to belonging in a public lexicon. For example, no-one uses the term 'game world abstraction' but me, I think; should it qualify just because I managed to get it into a book? I'm not sure this should be sufficient. Whereas the term 'play style' does seem to have begun to seep out into more wider usage, and perhaps should qualify. Similarly, 'market vectors', which I feel I might have helped spread to wider awareness, I believe originated with Wil Wright (although he may have borrowed it from elsewhere).

We therefore need a lexicographer (or a collection of lexicographers) to work on the problem of the game design lexicon, thus bringing the terms currently in use into public knowledge, so that natural selection can work upon the entire vocabulary and refine it into a common language. Presumably, such a person (or people) would also be able to publish the resulting 'Dictionary of Game Design', in the manner of many such specialist dictionaries (e.g. A Dictionary of Computing). I would be delighted to lend my support to such a project as a game design professional.

Perhaps such a dictionary would have too small an audience to justify publication, or would require an investment of work disproportionate to the expected returns. If this is the case, a (lexicographer) moderated wiki-style lexicon (wixicon?) might be the way forward. Perhaps this would be a sensible prior step in any case. Certainly, any such venture needs to be moderated by someone who knows the best practices for lexicography, to avoid being a sink hole for everyone's random terminology.

So, if you are a lexicographer and you fancy being the person to lead a project to produce a dictionary of game design (or you don't want to lead it, but would like to be involved), I encourage you to get in touch. May the network effect of the internet bring you safely to my virtual door!


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This is going to be long (sorry)...

I actually think that open database solutions with proper group oversight and rule sets are the best way to go about defining these sorts of terms and concepts.

I also think many developers have their blinders on so all they can see is their own prevailing mindset within centralized pockets of development each with their own rules and languages. Moreover it seems that many developers just want to focus on their own projects and leave the responsibility of shaping and defining the industry in the hands of others...

But the solution to creating commonality isn't to create more closed systems developed by a) professional researchers who don't have first hand knowledge about their subjects OR b) a hand picked group of 'experts' trying to define game design for the masses.

If we are really going to develop a design language that we can all sign off on we need a system we can all take part in.

You need only to look to wikipedia as a working example. It's definitions are derived by the world public. They are more up to date and relevant than any closed information systems because millions of users are working on expanding it at any given time.

Now... none of this says that we couldn't use the input of Lexicographers to figure out how to get moving in this direction. Only that the responsibility for defining this industries language should rest in the hands of the developers themselves.


This is a tough problem, you remember when I tried tackling it through a glossary at my blog. The problem is you're lexical items end up being too obvious, too vague, or encompassed of contradictory meanings and thus continually in dispute.

I've been getting pretty busy, so I'm not candidate, but I think I'll quote from Costikyan and say "I have no words I must design."

Unk: a dictionary merely captures the usage of language in a static form. Lexicographers do not define language - they observe it, then decide how best to record that information. In other words, a lexicographer is a trained observer and researcher of language. That's what I think is needed here.

To put it another way, I don't believe that a community of game designers will co-operate with one another to build a useful common framework of game design terms. It certainly hasn't happened so far! :) Therefore I suggest: let us simply catalogue the terms currently in use and let the everyday natural selection processes of language define the common lexicon automatically.

The advantage of this is that no-one is put in charge of the language; this strikes me as the superior approach. It can be achieved via an open database, potentially, but if so I believe it needs to be moderated by someone fully cognisant of the best practices of lexicography, and absolutely *not* someone who knows anything about game design personally. :) It requires, I am claiming, a neutral observer.

Thanks for sharing your view! And don't worry - no comment is too long for this blog. :)

Patrick: it doesn't matter if there are disputed definitions in lexicography, provided they are established by usage. This is why dictionaries carry multiple numbered definitions for overloaded words. The huge advantage for us is that we might be able to track down the most common usages of these words and - even more useful, perhaps - naturally eliminate those terms which are overloaded, replacing with the strongest unique terms. Again, achieving this through lexicography allows natural selection to streamline our lexicon over time without resorting to some kind of interventionism.

well, i was going to post the link to the urban dictionary, but i think i'll go all meta, and post the wiki entry on the u.d.

i think it's a fine model for getting to where you'd like to be.


Thanks for this! I have to say, I originally didn't think that the Urban Dictionary would be a good model for what is needed, as it frequently contained definitions imbedded within it that were simply not in common usage at all... it reflected partly urban slang and partly the foibles of the contributors. :)

However, the Wikipedia entry you linked to suggests that they have worked to clean up their act recently. It's an interesting model.

I'd still prefer to work with a trained lexicographer, if we can find one, but perhaps this is a viable fallback position. :)

It's me again. =)

I would actually argue that allowing for 'slang' produces more realistic results than having a sort of gatekeeper for proper vs. improper language. This isn't to argue further against your desire to work with a lexicographer... I retract my initial position on that.

I suppose I should explain my understanding of how the official wikipedia works and why I keep pushing everyone towards this model.

In the world of new mediums like game development we are continually reinventing ourselves, our practices, and our language. When I am out surfing the blogosphere I often find commonalities among the problems and issues people are working on solving. One person posts a new idea and in response there is a flurry of responses in comments and other blog posts. This is a sort of public conversation that everyone can participate in and feed off of like the conversation we are having now.

You stated that you don't think developers will collaborate on developing a common framework but those of us that write blogs, read blogs, and comment on blogs are participating in a distributed collaboration of ideas every day.

Here is an example from today’s 'headlines':

This is a great example of multiple people working on a common issue (how to stop annoying end users).

All wikipedia does is centralize and formalize this sort of dialog so everyone can work on the same problems in the same place rather than having redundant problem solving in tiny distributed pockets that only communicate with one another out of random surfing and RSS feeds.

What wikipedia provides as a dialog that blogs do not is a refining process. Our language is developing all the time. Wikipedia not only allows everyone to identify new trends but to work on the definition of those trends.

The best thing is that we all get to decide what definitions work the best. We decide together what something actually means. When there is disagreement there is dialog around the issue until a resolution is reached. If a resolution cannot be reached then the issue goes to a group with oversight privileges.

This in itself is problem solving that helps define our understanding of who we are and what we think.

The ideas that everyone agrees on will last. The ideas that are marginal are swept aside or splinter off to form groups around them.

In this way, Wikipedia is sort of like a democracy of ideas. Of course, no democracy is perfect but it is a pretty good model.


Unk: thanks for your perspective on this. I greatly admire the wikipedia as an example of co-operation and working towards a common goal. However, I know the degree of commitment a wiki-based project requires of its contributors to achieve anything worthwhile. I wonder if this is the best route.

Most likely nothing will come of this post (which, after all, is the product of idle thought), but it's interesting to explore the options that exist should something proceed.

Aye, the wikipedia model is quite interesting to me because of it's self organizing nature. The centralization of the dialog seems to be an important factor in creating a common language. Blogs, though better than isolated papers or books, are still overly fragmented.

One of the things that I liked about is the ability to reference existing games. Admittedly, this could be included in any wiki-style dictionary. I like the idea of references real world examples of concepts so that people can learn about them through experience. In a way this ties back into the idea that you are talking about, Chris, where language is taken from existing practitioners.

The ideal setup would be for game developers to post their games and then write down the words they used while developing them. It would be a communal post mortem terminology dump. :-) Not sure how you would manage the logistics or arrange the universal buy-in though.

take care

I agree with you, Danc - the best case would be to build a pool based upon the terms employed during actual development cycles. But as you say, the logistics are tricky, and the motivation even trickier to wrangle.

The bottom line, I suspect, is that such a thing may only happen if we find a handful of people who are really dedicated to the task - and who ideally have no personal lexicon to promote.

I wonder if it is possible to subdivide the development community in such a way as to make this task the product of several parallel operations instead of one giant operation?

You might want to take a look at the Game Ontology Project ( While I know that in general you don't look favorably of academic approaches, I think that this project (and yes, I am involved) is taking a much more open, discourse-driven, non-categorical approach that recognizes the fact that language and knowledge are socially constructed. In particular we are very inspired by prototype theory (which, as far as I know, was indirectly inspired by Wittgenstein's work).

The url is:



Jose: Thanks so much for stopping by! This is fascinating work that you are doing here, and I believe completely trumps any need for a supplemental project with similar goals.

Where else can one find 'haptic display' next to 'special weapon indicator'! :)

I'll have to dig into this some more when I have some time.

My pleasure. I've actually been lurking for quite a while. I'll look forward to your contributions in the Game Ontology! (as well as anyone else's for that matter!)


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