How would you define the word game? It seems like such a simple word. I was sure I knew how I would define it: in my academic speech, “A game is a semi-bounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes.” Actually that’s Thomas Malaby’s definition (Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games, in Games and Culture April 2007 vol. 2no. 2 95-113) but I like it. In my every day speech I would say a game is any semi-bound activity or product that serves no direct productive function other than socializing or diversion. On a personal level I would call both of these definitions working definitions, but they served as a basis from which I could communicate with others, so they were useful…
Until they weren’t.
I had a “lost in translation” moment. The connotative meaning of the word game had changed in my every-day lexicon without me even realizing it. It wasn’t until I “misused” the word (“misused” if I was going by my former definitions) that I realized the change occurred. All this after struggling through understanding Taiwanese variants of this very idea, and I come home and suddenly I begin to question my own conceptualization of games. How did this happen?
My realization of this change happened in an instant, but I imagine the change itself must have started some time ago. As a guess, I would say it probably began during my first trip to Taiwan in 2009. The main goal of that trip was preliminary research. I needed to learn the language and scope out the field to come up with an appropriate research question. I ran into 2 major problems during that trip. The first was the high level of denial I encountered due to the stigmatization of games, and the second was the differing conceptualizations of the idea of “games” that caused some people to misunderstand what I was asking and for me to misunderstand what some people were telling me.
When I returned to Taiwan in 2011 I was prepared to face these issues. In regards to the first one I found that gently easing into the topic over time generally overcame it. As for the second one, I would either give my definition of the word game as soon as I used it, or if another person used it first I quickly asked for clarification. In this way I was able to establish a working definition for the conversation at hand. For two years I functioned in this way, treating “games” as an unstable and almost intimate topic. At no time, did I consciously feel my personal connotative meaning beginning to fluctuate.
Two days after returning home to Wisconsin I went out to lunch with my adviser. He casually asked me if I had done much gaming while I was in Taiwan and I casually answered, no. We were just chatting at this point and I did not immediately think about what he had asked me or what I had answered. It was an instinctual response. The problem was that it wasn’t true. I had in fact played quite a few games during those last two years, including Allods (not seriously, couldn’t get into it), Sims 3, and a whole host of casual iPod games in addition to the children's-educational-MMORPG my field site company was running. So why had I said no?
In my head, when I heard the word “game” I imagined WoW. I haven’t played WoW in almost 3 years now, but back when I did play I did so daily. While collecting data for my master’s thesis (on raiding guilds filled with power gamers) I would sometimes (often) spend entire weekends in WoW in addition to the every evening after class that I spent raiding. After the data collection was complete I took a short break, but quickly went back to WoW and joined up with a more casual guild. I wasn’t playing as many hours per week as I had before, but I was still playing nearly daily for quite some time. I only stopped playing WoW because I went to Taiwan and was unwilling to wake up early enough to compensate for the time difference that would have been necessary to stay with my guild.
Once in Taiwan, I found that it was not uncommon for people to associate the terms computer games(電腦遊戲), games(遊戲), or gamer (宅男)* with MMORPGs such as WoW. Thus, the association of WoW with the word “game” was created and solidified with each conversation I had.
This experience with WoW likely laid the foundation for the topic at hand, but I don’t think it actually started it. The reason is that at that time I was still in Milwaukee actively taking classes and discussing games in academic and semi-academic settings, thus grounding my use of the word game. Furthermore, I do not believe that what has happened here is a fully conceptual switch, but rather a linguistic one (if the two can be separated). On a conscious level I do not feel like my conception of games has changed, but on some level clearly it has. Otherwise, why had I said no?
There is one other possibility. I did spend sometime playing WoW with my advisor after my research and before going to Taiwan. Maybe I just associate him with WoW and so that colored my thought process at the time thus causing me to subconsciously assume he meant WoW when he asked. Of course on a conscious level I would never make such an assumption.
At the end of the day I don’t really know what happened. On one level I feel like I lied when I said no, and on another I simply see it as a point of curiosity. Either way, this has been bugging since it happened, but it may have been for the best. As I readjust to being home I am now taking note of my language use to see if there are other disparities. I will also keep this mind as I begin to sort through my data and write my dissertation. Who knows, this just may end up being significant.
*I equate the English word “gamer” here with the Chinese term “宅男”because English/Mandarin bilingual speakers in Taiwan often conflated the two terms. The problem is perception. I do not consider these words to be translations of each other in the same way that I disagree with some Americans’ definition of “gamer” as a pasty looking, unproductive, single, male living in his mother’s basement.