Play and Games

In German, the two words are the same, or at least have the same root. “Spiel” is a game, and “spielen” is the verb — roughly “to spiel.” They’re two different words in English, “game” the traditional noun, and “play” the traditional verb — although they both morph, one into the other these days. What do you do with a game besides play it? Maybe you “engage,” or “immerse yourself,” or you “work” it. Or you’re played by it. Recently “game” has been pressed service as a verb used in and about the gaming industry, opening on to the additional concept of “gameplay.” It does mean something specific and something new — it also further muddies a potential distinction between a substantive like “game,” with implications of having some kind of durable identity, and “play,” which implies something close to the opposite.

Gregory Bateson wisely insisted on that difference. He was generally suspicious of nouns, in fact, and the reasons become particularly clear in this instance. Trusting in the inherited wisdom of the language, we might reasonably focus on a meaning of “play” that is completely unrelated to “games,” (as the very different roots of the words suggest). I mean the “play” in, say, a rope, or a machine part — the degree to which something can deviate from some expected position or function, without completely losing that position or function. Suppose “game” refers to a set of conventions or procedures or patterns that remain fairly identifiable, however much they may change. If English is a game, for example, there’s a lot of play in it! And yet not everyone who “engages” or “immerses himself” in English is playing, that is, speaking or writing in those margins or edges of convention.

So, if you can actually play a game, whether that’s the piano, or German, or photography or Fortnite – you’re lucky.  Possibly exceptional.  It is also possible, and probably more often the case, that we wander among an infinity of attractive games without being able to really play any of them.  

Author: Nancy Roth