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I learned a word I’ve been looking for since the late 1990’s

February 10, 2009

As I often do in search of nuggets of wisdom, I followed a conversation thread in an email list in which I participate. Tucked away in an article was a reference to Greg Costikyan‘s 2002 update of “I Have No Words and I Must Design.” The 1994 original is an important early essay on the elements of game design, so I was excited to read this.

In the revised version, Greg defines games as, “… an interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle toward a goal.” And in that sentence, I discovered another way to describe what I am always going on about to my students- games, like other forms of interaction design, find their meaning through their use.

The operative phrase is “endogenous meaning”- games generate meaning through their play, not through the handing down of meaning by an author, a director, a writer, etc. A peek at provides the following definition for endogenous: “proceeding from within; derived internally.” From this vantage, games are frameworks for generating experiences, for internally creating experiences through play.

So I now have endogenous as a word in my game arsenal. Thanks, Greg.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2009 1:11 am

    I actually came across the same in Jesse Schell’s book literally yesterday (he was quoting Greg, to be fair). It elegantly encapsulated something I’d been thinking about for a while.

  2. February 11, 2009 9:50 am

    Costikyan wrote a 2002 update of the original? Where is it, and how did I manage to miss it?

  3. jofsharp permalink
    February 11, 2009 10:17 am

    @Nels: I will have to look at Jesse’s book again. I haven’t bumped into his discussion of endogenous meaning yet.

    @Ian: Greg gave the talk at DIGRA, available on their site as a PDF:

  4. February 11, 2009 11:32 am

    Don’t you wish someone could create a reverse dictionary where you search the meaning to find the word?

  5. February 15, 2009 5:20 pm

    As good a definition as we’re likely to get, though I still believe it may never be possible to absolutely define “game.” The point about the meaning of a game deriving from its play is excellent – I made a similar argument on my blog and in my thesis.

  6. February 23, 2009 5:26 am

    I arrived at this blog entry totally happenstantially, and now I can’t pull myself away (sorry I’m a little LTTP).

    Are you familiar with Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage in film? He posited that, in cinema, when two images “collide” or “conflict” with each other, there is a “problem” that needs to be “solved.” There is a dissonance that the filmmaker creates but does not himself stoop to answer, and the gap may only be closed emotionally or intellectually by the audience’s own reasoning. The audience, then, journeys wholly to its own conclusions. In this way, Eisenstein theorized, the emotional or intellectual results were more charged with *meaning*. In short, “show, don’t tell,” I guess.

    Eisenstein’s theory of montage, too, invites “struggle” and intellectual work and play from its participants; montage also leaves a lot of narrative implicit. Still, the word “montage” itself is limited — it can only be applied to movies, literature, and picturebooks. Game design requires, and is owed, a new word entirely.

    I’m so happy to learn this word, “endogenous.” Thank you.

  7. jofsharp permalink
    February 24, 2009 9:24 pm

    @ jennatar: Glad endogenous is a useful word for you as well.

    I am familiar with Eisenstein and his ideas about montage. There is a difference between Eisenstein’s ideas and the later, related reader response theories and what Greg is getting at with endogenous meaning. Battleship Potemkin is always going to have the same exact scenes in the same exact order. But a well-designed game is going to lead to a wide variety of play experiences, each different from the next. As the sports cliché goes, that is why they play the game.

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