Clockwork Game Design Podcast – Episode 2: Distractions


Episode 2, already!? Yep! I spent essentially all day one day recording both of these episodes, because I wanted to really get the ball rolling. It’s kind of annoying to have just one episode of a podcast, I feel like.

Today’s episode deals with the distractions and other obstacles that have slowed our growth in the path to progress in game design. I think I’ve gotten much more into the groove with this episode – now with fewer “ums” and less housekeeping!

Here’s a few things I said I’d link to in the show notes:

Greg Costikyan’s “I Have No Words & I Must Design”

Richard Terrell’s old site – also, his new site.

For those who want a direct feed URL, go here:

As always, please let me know what you think of the episode. And if you’d like to support the show, visit


  • Rob Seater

    An element that is almost universally absent from arguments about the definition of a game (as per your discussion around 13:00) is that there are several different ways to define categories. I’ve seen the discussion of types of categories in both philosophy and psychology, although sadly those fields do not talk to each other much. In philosophy, the discussion is often how the world is organized. In psychology, the discussion is often how humans organize the world. But the notions introduced are similar and powerful, and worth thinking about carefully.

    1. Rule based. An item is in a category if it fits all the rules. This creates clean categories that are good for formal reasoning, but it is often a poor replica of how people often view categories. It doesn’t deal with gray areas well, which can be good or bad depending on your goal for defining the category.

    2. Prototype based. An item is in a category if it is similar to the prototypical example (or one of the prototypical examples) of that category. This creates fuzzier boundaries, but it allows for more nuance (and the notion that “A is more of an X than B is, but both are sort of Xs”). It also helps to explain how two people can agree on almost all cases but then disagree on certain boundary cases.

    3. Family resemblance. An item is in a category if it has a certain number of common characteristics, even though it might be that no member of the category has all the characteristics. This creates clearer boundaries, but allows for some members to be more or less ‘pure’ examples. This method is sort of a cross of the first two methods.

    4. Role. An item is not in or out of a category, but it may be playing a role that is in or out of the category. E.g. a box labeled ‘Monopoly’ may be on the table playing the role of a game, on the floor playing the role of a stool, in my hands playing the role of a blunt object, or in a courtroom playing the role of legal evidence. Rather than debate if the artifact (or even the rule set) is a game, you should debate if it serves the role of a game. Note that this notion doesn’t mean that it is impossible to debate categories objectively — it simply means that context of use is part of that debate.

    5. Social Consensus. An item is in a category if people think it is. By some versions, that’s “any person” or by other it’s “most people” or “many people”. Either way, this is a relativistic view; categories are not absolute, they are only a matter of surveying opinion. One might separately try to understand how those people formed their opinions, but the only true definition is made by observing opinion.

    When thinking about definitions, it can be useful to use several of these notions, or to pick the notion that is best suited for the task at hand. I think that #1 tends to get overvalued by engineers and scientists, but undervalued in the humanities and arts. #1 is very valuable for creating terms and lexicons for formal discussion, but it’s often a poor way of describing concepts that humans have about a topic. #2 or #5 are better if you are doing sociology, anthropology, or much of psychology.

    As with much in life, one should pick the right tool for the job. For example, my mother was a microbiologist for many years, and she used to get annoyed by debates over the definition of life, and whether or not viruses are alive. She would always ask “why do you care?”, not to say that one shouldn’t define life but rather than the most useful definition depends on the task. If you are an epidemiologist studying how viruses spread in a population, then you should think of viruses as alive, since their pattern of spread is like other lifeforms. If you are a pharmaceutical researcher creating cures, then you should not think of them as alive, since their structure at the cellular/genetic level is not like other living things. Really, there are two definitions that get conflated, and one should distinguish them rather than debate them.

    All this is just to say that I think much of the pushback you get, and many of the ‘internet meme debates’ are the result of people not thinking critically about how they are forming categories. You are creating a formal definition to serve as a lexicon for precise discussion that helps the act of design. You are not trying to describe the notion of game that people already/actually have (a perfectly reasonable venture, but not what I understand you to be attempting).
    Hence reactions along the lines of “that can’t be the definition, since it would exclude something I think should be included”. They are correct that you are failing to quantify their notion of ‘game’, but missing that that was never your goal.

    I find that many intellectuals in academic degree programs have gotten too caught up in #5, and have forgotten that #1 is possible (though hard) and that #4 can be a more formal means of addressing issues of social context. I also think that some of your definitions might be even more useful if rephrased as #3 or #4 — keeping their precision, but accounting for context and gray areas (without just giving up on formalism the way certain academics do).