Gaming [draft] [#digitalkeywords]

“Could it be that while ‘game’ itself was rooted in communion and enjoyment, the excess of the suffix ‘ing’, makes it border a little too on the risqué? Could it be that ‘gaming‘ is thus essentially subversive, connected ontically as it is to the dangerous wastefulness of gambling, and uncontainable as it is in its participial form?”

The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)


Gaming — Saugata BhaduriJawaharlal Nehru University

‘Gaming’ is generally understood as the act of playing games, especially, in the current context, video games or games with a digital interface. Accordingly, it is often erroneously presumed that while the use of ‘game’ as a noun or adjective can be traced far back in the history of the English language, ‘game’ as a verb (with ‘gaming’ as its present participle), is of a fairly recent origin. However, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary traces the use of ‘gaming’ to 1501, and the Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary traces it to 1495-1505, both sources connecting this participial form etymologically to ‘gambling’. Talking of etymology, the Online Etymology Dictionary traces the word ‘game’ to

Old English gamen “game, joy, fun, amusement”, common Germanic (cognates: Old Frisian game “joy, glee”, Old Norse gaman, Old Saxon, Old High German gaman “sport, merriment”, Danish gamen, Swedish gamman “merriment”), regarded as identical with Gothic gaman “participation, communion”, from Proto-Germanic *ga-collective prefix +*mann “person”, giving a sense of “people together”.

There are thus two important components that make up the sense of a word like ‘game’ – an original sense of ‘communion’ and a derivative sense of ‘enjoyment’ – and when it comes to the participial form ‘gaming’, our keyword here, a third derivative sense of taking risks or ‘wagering’ also gets factored in. So, ‘Gaming’, as a keyword, is to be understood, not in terms of its literal functional meaning of playing games, but in terms of it always entailing the three features of collectivizatization, enjoyment, and excess.

What is also to be noted is, that while the word ‘gaming’ was available from the end of the 15th century, it was used rarely, making its case even more interesting. What would account for this rarity? How can one analyse the reticence of a language to deploy the verbal – and more specifically, the present participial, and thus always continuing and never foreclosed, never-ending, open-ended – form of a word whose nominal and adjectival use is so frequent? Could it be that while ‘game’ itself was rooted in communion and enjoyment, the excess of the suffix ‘ing’, makes it border a little too on the risqué? Could it be that ‘gaming‘ is thus essentially subversive, connected ontically as it is to the dangerous wastefulness of gambling, and uncontainable as it is in its participial form? Is it precisely because of this that gaming in the present context – as in the way video games have often worked out to be – becomes the veritable site of role-playing and identity alteration, of contestations and negotiations vis-à-vis the normative life-world, of a Dionysian joyful disruption of the austere world of utility? It is in attempting to answer these and like questions, that the myriad senses of the universe of ‘Gaming’ today can be understood.

But before one can move to the present participial form ‘Gaming’ and it implications, it may probably be worthwhile to take a look at what ‘Game’ itself is. There are two, presumably contradictory, elements that make up a game. On one hand, a game has to have a structure, fairly set rules, and definable goals and objectives; on the other, a game is supposed to lead to enjoyment – that supposed other to regimented structured normativity. It is in this duality then that the primary feature of Game lies: it cannot be utterly de-structured, or de-structive as one may put it, based as it has to be on a structured set of rules and goals; and yet its foundations in the undergrowth of enjoyment has the potential to constantly challenge and subvert structurality itself. Games have to be understood in relation to this immanently subversive duplicity, and ‘Gaming’, as a present participial form of the same, as a further extension of this duplicity unto the forever continuous and forever deferred zone of the indeterminable ‘to come’.

It is thus probably that Wittgenstein would have thought of ‘Games’ in his Philosophical Investigations (1953), aphorisms 66-70, as undefinable as such:

66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? – Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'” – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. […]

67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way.-And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family. […]

68. [… ] What still counts as a game and what no longer does?

Can you give the boundary? No.

You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn.

(But that never troubled you before when you used the word “game”.)

“But then the use of the word is unregulated, the ‘game’ we play with it is unregulated.”

It is not everywhere circumscribed by rules; but no more are there any rules for how high one throws the ball in tennis, or how hard; yet tennis is a game for all that and has rules too.

69. How should we explain to someone what a game is?

I imagine that we should describe games to him, and we might add: “This and similar things are called ‘games'”. And do we know any more about it ourselves? Is it only other people whom we cannot tell exactly what a game is? […]

70. “But if the concept ‘game’ is uncircumscribed like that, you don’t really know what you mean by a ‘game’.” (31-33)

And, Lyotard and Thébaud would have further extended this sense of indeterminacy and undefinability associated with the word in their Just Gaming (1985). But are games really undefinable, or is there a certain ontic primacy to the phenomenon, that can be cognized and defined, albeit in terms of the slippery duplicity mentioned above?

That games may constitute the very basis to modes of being human, and more so in the bearing out of this duplicity, is best borne out in Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book Homo Ludens, which suggests that ‘play’ is the primary and fundamental condition to the formation of human culture, with its other forms like language, law, war, knowledge, poetry, philosophy and art, being all based on the notion of play. Huizinga says, “The view we take in the following pages is that culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning… Social life is endued with supra-biological forms, in the shape of play, which enhances its value.” (46) In fact, for Huizinga, play is fundamental to life itself as it seems to precede human culture too: “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.” (1) Huizinga suggests further that this primary institution of play is to be credited for the very beginnings of human civilization, less as its source, and more as its very form: “We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play like a baby detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.” (173) More importantly, however, play can perform this function precisely because of a duality that it exhibits, and Huizinga’s suggestion that play at one and the same time demands and creates order, and yet also is the means to freedom itself (8-10) succinctly sums up the very duplicity that was mentioned above as the basic feature of Game. 

But, it should be noted that Huizinga (or, rather, his translator) uses the word ‘play’ and not ‘game’. Are the two words the same? Because if they are, an attempt at defining the specificities of the keyword ‘Gaming’ may run into serious issues. It is imperative, therefore, at this point of time to look into three often presumed to be cognate words – ‘game’, ‘play’, and ‘sports’ – and, in trying to locate their differences, theorize upon the specific imports of ‘Gaming’. To define ‘play’, one can turn again to Huizinga and his classic definition:

Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means. (13)

This fairly benign and de-individuated definition of ‘play’, however, undergoes a singular and almost sinister twist, when the word gets combined with ‘game’, to form the word ‘gameplay’. ‘Gameplay’ refers to the interactive and experiential component of a player’s act of playing, involving the contingent strategies the player evolves in the process. As Craig Lindley puts it, “gameplay [… is] understood as a pattern of interaction with the game system … In general, it is a particular way of thinking about the game state from the perspective of a player” (2004: 186) and further that “The experience of gameplay is one of interacting with a game design in the performance of cognitive tasks, with a variety of emotions arising from or associated with different elements of motivation, task performance and completion” (2008, 9). It is evident that the bringing together of ‘game’ and ‘play’, or the insertion of the element of ‘game’ into ‘play’, leads to an element of individuation, experientiality, strategization and contingency to the play. Further, ‘gameplay’ has within it the possibility, as Gonzalo Frasca (2003) points out, of introducing “manipulation rules”, or what an individual player can do in an act of playing, beyond the set “goal rules” and “meta-rules” of the game (231-32). This possibility of manipulation and strategizing that ‘gaming’ may entail is best brought out, however, when one contrasts a word like ‘gamesmanship’ – or the art of strategically manipulating rules to win a game, as so succinctly put as early as 1947 by Stephen Potter  – with ‘sportmanship’ – or playing by the rules and accepting defeat with grace, thus pointing out the essential difference between ‘games’ and ‘sports’. Thus, the essential specificity of ‘game’, as a keyword, in contradistinction with the presumably synonymous words ‘play’ or ‘sports’, lies in this subversive feature of it, ‘to game’ or ‘gaming’ being to be able to strategize and manipulate the system, while apparently playing by its rules.

Needless to say, there is therefore such a phrase like ‘gaming the system’, which inductively extends this fundamental feature of gaming – of playing by the rules while potentially subverting them – to the wider world, bringing out once again the subversive essence of Gaming. And, this aspect of Gaming is extended further beyond the immediate domain of ganes themselves through a function like ‘gamification’. We are told that “Though the term ‘gamification’ was coined in 2002 by Nick Pelling, a British-born computer programmer and inventor, it did not gain popularity until 2010″ (Wikipedia), by when it came to be accepted widely as the mode of extending the essence of gaming to non-gaming contexts like eduation, business, etc. Gamification typically works by bringing in elements of enjoyment, competition, and the principle of rewards into other work, thus inducting ‘gaming’ as a phenomenon towards achieving goals beyond the ordinary and the normative.

The myriad possibilities of Gaming have been suitably studied under the discipline of Gaming Theory or Game Studies or Ludology, which has emerged as a vibrant interdisciplinary field that critically analyses games and gaming in relation to their implications for society. The fact that this field of intellectual exploration has been able to combine the otherwise discrete disciplines of science and technology, social sciences, and the humanities shows the particular efficacy of Gaming as a discourse to be able to almost undo what the Frankfurt School has identified as the primary problem of modernity, where rationality stood spintered along the three axes of science, morality, and art. This meta-realization as to whether engaging with Gaming can thus address the very problems of modernity apart, some of the raging debates within Gaming Theory – whether games, especially some video games, have a negative impact on the youth and society, with their emphasis on graphic violence; whether contemporary gaming cultures further promote digital and class divides across the world; or whether games are indeed beneficial – further highlight the great importance that Gaming as a phenomenon enjoys in today’s intellectual world.

Of course, before the advent of Gaming Theory, Game Theory – initiated, so to say, by John von Neumann through his 1928 article “On the Theory of Games of Strategy” and his 1944 book Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour – had already firmly placed the notion of the game within the ambit of serious intellectual deliberations. But as I would argue, the crucially missing ‘ing’ suffix in the latter would mark a major difference between the presumptions of the two bodies of theory, and form the basis of our understanding of the keyword ‘Gaming’. The fact that Game Theory is definable as “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers” (Myerson: 1) suggests how different it is from an attempt to theorize ‘Gaming’, where rationality, predictability, and determinability – as explained above – are definitely not the primary criteria. To understand what the primary precepts and presumptions of Game Theory are, one can quote Eric Rasmusen:

The essential elements of a game are players, action, payoffs, and information – PAPI, for short. These are collectively known as the rules of the game, and the modeller’s objective is to describe a situation in terms of the rules of a game so as to explain what will happen in tha situation. Trying to maximize their payoffs, the players will devise plans known as strategies that pick actions depending on the information that has arrived each moment. The combination of strategies hosen by each player is known as the equilibrium. Given an equilibrium, the modeller can see what actions come out of the conjunctions of all the players’ plans, and this tells him the outcome of the game. (31-32)

Clearly, the PAPI-based models that a game theorist tries to evolve out of games are aimed at successfully predicting outcomes, with ‘equilibrium’ being the keyword, a far cry indeed from ‘Gaming’, where being continuously thrown out of balance into the abyss of uncertainties is probably the key to theorization. Thus, while Game Theory has been successfully adapted to economics, political science, evolutionary biology, and to certain forms of pragmatist philosophy, it is not to be conflated with ‘Gaming’ theory, and my hypothesis is that the ‘ing’ suffix hold the key to this crucial difference, adding specificity to the current keyword.

While the discussion so far has been devoted to bring out the subversive essence of the word ‘gaming’ in a very broad way, it may be fruitful now to look at the precise field of video games or computer games – not only because this collection is one of ‘digital’ keywords, but also because the word ‘gaming’, as has been stated right at the beginning, more often than not pertains to this domain itself – and see if this definitional presumption holds there too. A foray into the history of video games or computer games – of its journey from fairly non-manipulable, single player, and closed games to far more interactive, role-playing, simulative, sand-box style games, and the initiation of ‘openness’ with the possibility of ‘mods’, where users can modify games – may well suggest the same. A cursory look at any good history of video gaming – say, by Steven Kent (2001) – and a good account of online gaming – say, by T.L. Taylor (2006) – will already suggest such a trajectory to openness and indeterminacy, and I need not go into details of the same here.

The seven-pronged history of the form’s journey – (i) from a simple “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device” invented by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann in 1947; (ii) to the introduction of dedicated gaming machines with Nimrod – the first specialized computer to play a game – introduced by the British company Ferranti in 1951; (iii) to computer games coming to simulate real games, like “Draughts” developed by Christopher Strachey in 1951, “OXO”, based on tic-tac-toe, created by Alexander S. Douglas in 1952, “Checkers” developed by Arthus Samuels in 1956, “Chess” developed at Carnegie Mellon University in 1958, and “Tennis for Two” designed by Willim Higinbotham in 1958; (iv) to computer games becoming simulative futuristic shooting games – something that will continue to be its most prominent avatar – beginning with “Hutspiel”, a war game developed by the US army in 1955, and culminating with MIT students Martin Graetz, Steve Russell, and Wayne Wiitanen designing “Spacewar” in 1961; (v) to gaming entering the public and private domain of consumption, with the first coin-operated arcade video game “Galaxy Game” being developed at Stanford University by Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck in 1971, and the first commercially available coin-operated game “Computer Space” being created by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1971; (vi) to “Magnavox Odyssey”, the first home console playable on a television, invented by Ralph Baer in 1972, leading to the public arcade vs. the private console (with the later emergence of hand-held gaming devices including mobile telephones) gaming platforms tussle, ending in a veritable victory of the latter over the former; (vii) to the emergence of online gaming, starting with “Mazewar” in 1974, “Multi-User Dungeon” or “MUD1” in 1978, and “Snipes” in 1983, truly gaining momentum with the wide percolation of the internet, and culminating in the MMORPGs and other multiplayer online games of today- is too well-known to merit a further detailed account. May it suffice to say that the direction of this development is, however, what I think is crucial to understand dynamic Gaming, as a phenomenon, as opposed to the static ‘game’.

As my discussion above has shown, an understanding of the true import of the keyword ‘Gaming’ lies in understanding it as an ongoing process that is contingent upon strategies often leading to potential subversion, rather than an object. Therefore it is but fitting that I close it with a note on the Gamer and the Gaming community, the ones entrusted with the actual realization of this import. The role of the gamer is well analysed by the likes of McKenzie Wark (2007), and can be broadly understood, in terms of the creative and subversive appropriation that has been deemed crucial to Gaming, under three heads. First, the gamer as a loner and the gaming community as a subculture itself has the potential for subverting societal norms the way any subculture does; second, more specifically the gamer can, in the act of gameplay, choose to subvert the official narrative of the game through hacking, modding, cheating, etc. (needless to say, Sandbox or Open World games can enhance such activism on the part of the gamer, but that should not undermine the subversive role of the Gamer in the actual act of Gaming vis-à-vis the Game); and, finally, the extension by the gamer of elements of the gameworld to other worlds through cosplay, fanfiction, machinima, etc. All three possibilities above suggest how ‘Gaming’ as an act can be the site of tactical appropriation of a game on the part of the gamer, and while the likes of David Getsy (2011) have pointed out how games – originally created for diversion – can become veritable sites of subversion, I would conclude this exploration of the keyword with a reiteration that the ‘ing’-ing, as it were, of the ‘game’, or the rendering of the nominal into the present participial, is where the specificity of Gaming as a keyword has to be located.


Frasca, Gonzalo. “Simulation versus narrative: introduction to ludology”, in Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (eds.), The Videogame Theory Reader, New York: Routledge, 2003, pp. 221-235.

Getsy, David J. (ed.). From Diversion to Subversion: Games, Play and Twentieth-Century Art, University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo ludens; a study of the play-element in culture (1938). (trans.) C. Van Schendel, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

Kent, Steven L. The ultimate history of video games: From Pong to Pokémon and Beyond – The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.

Lindley, Craig. “Narrative, Game Play, and Alternative Time Structures for Virtual Environments”. in Stefan Göbel, et al. (eds.), Technologies for Interactive Digital Storytelling and Entertainment: Second International Conference TIDSE 2004, Darmstadt, Germany, June 2004, Proceedings, Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 2004, pp. 183-194.

Lindley, Craig, Lennart Nacke, and Charlotte Sennersten. “Dissecting Play – Investigating the Cognitive and Emotional Motivations and Affects of Computer Gameplay”. CGAMES 08: Proceedings of 13th International Conference on Computer Games, November 3-5, 2008, Wolverhampton, UK: University of Wolverhampton, 2008, pp. 9-17. < Cognitive_and_Emotional_Motivations_and_Affects_of_Computer_Gameplay>, accessed on April 29, 2014.

Lyotard, Jean-François and Jean-Loup Thébaud. Just Gaming, (trans.) Wlad Godzich, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1985.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary “Gaming”, accessed on April 29, 2014.

Myerson, Roger B. Game Theory: Analysis of Conflict, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Neumann, John von, and Oskar Morgenstern. Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Neumann, John von. “On the Theory of Games of Strategy” (1928), (trans.) Sonya Bargmann, in A.W. Tucker and R. D. Luce (eds.), Contributions to the Theory of Games, Vol. IV, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959, pp. 13-42.

Online Etymology Dictionary “Game”, accessed on April 29, 2014.

Potter, Stephen. The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1947.

Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary “Gaming”, accessed on April 29, 2014.

Rasmusen, Eric. Games and Information: An Introduction to Game Theory. Third Edition, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2001.

Taylor, T.L. Play between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Wikipedia. “Gamification”, <>, accessed on April 29, 2014.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, (trans.) G.E.M. Anscombe, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, (1953) 1986.

Further Readings

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: an Approach to Videogame Criticism, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Mäyrä, Frans. An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture, London: Sage Publications, 2008.

McAllister, Ken S. Gamework: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture, Tuscaloosa AL: University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Thompson, Jason C. and Marc A. Ouellette (eds.). The Game Culture Reader, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013.

Wolf, Mark J.P. and Bernard Perron (eds.). The Video Game Theory Reader. London & New York: Routledge, 2003.

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