Verbal Energy

A creative partnership of games and play

However serious we get about games and play, these words are rooted in ideas of joy and delight.

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My involvement with the secular faith of football is equivalent to the way some people attend church only at Christmas and Easter. In a typical year I may catch one or two playoff games and then the Super Bowl.

But I've been giving serious thought lately to games in a broader sense, and to play, as well. It was Nick Paumgarten's recent profile of Shigeru Miyamoto, the "guiding spirit" of the Nintendo video-game empire, in The New Yorker that set my wheels turning. His piece was a vivid reminder of how influential within the larger culture a game designer can be. Mr. Miyamoto, "the father of modern video games," was the creator of the original Super Mario Bros. game. More recently, he had a major role in developing the Wii, the hugely successful wireless motion-capture gaming console.

As the Mario Bros. were solidifying their grip on the leisure time of young Americans, the concept of "serious games" was evolving on a parallel track. Clark C. Abt, a Massachusetts businessman and polymath, published a book titled "Serious Games" in 1970.

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He was thinking in terms of board games – you know, the kind that come in a cardboard box – but he gave a general definition of "serious games" that has held up well in the computer age. It reads in part, "Reduced to its formal essence, a game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context…. We are concerned with serious games in the sense that these games have an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be played primarily for amusement."

Today, serious games, involving computer simulations, are used in military planning, leadership development, disaster preparedness, and even journalism.

If you think words like game and play are so straightforward and Anglo-Saxon-looking that they must be rooted deep in the English language, you would be right.

Game as a noun goes back to an Old English word gamen denoting "fun, joy, merriment." The Online Etymology Dictionary traces it back to roots meaning "people together," and relates to a Gothic word meaning "participation, communion." So my allusion to football as a religion is not without etymological basis. The use of game to mean a "contest played according to rules" goes back to around 1300.

Play has a similarly jolly etymological background. The Old English plegian meant to exercise, frolic, or perform music. A noun form arising about the same time covered "recreation, exercise, or any brisk activity." Play acquired its theatrical sense early on, too. The sense of "any brisk activity" lives on in swordplay or even wordplay. By the 1650s, play had picked up the sense of "free or unimpeded movement."

And by the end of the 14th century the verb play was being used in clear contrast to work.

Play and game are natural partners in our language. But they invite comparison. What game has that play does not is this notion of rules, which, as we have seen, have been fundamental to the idea of "game" for several centuries now. What play has, both as verb and as noun, that game does not is a kind of frolicking freedom. This creative tension may be part of what makes game play fruitful.

However serious we get in the games that we play, our words for them are rooted in joy and delight.

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