Jargon and Definitions
(Sept. 30, 2003)

One of the challenges of writing something abstract online is that you run readily afoul of definitional problems. With an audience as expansive and heterogeneous as the net’s, it is virtually assured that at least one of your readers does not share some critical point of meaning. If I write about games, not all of my readers will share my conception of what a “game” is. Even if I define my terms, someone is going to object to those definitions as being inaccurate or inadequate. There are issues there about the nature of definitions and the role of jargon that I’d like to explore.

Our educations typically emphasize classical definitions: definitions that comprise the set of traits both necessary and sufficient to describe every instance of the concept being defined. Classical definitions are binary: if a thing fits the definition, it’s an example of the concept being defined; if it doesn’t, it’s not. So if a geometrical figure has four equal angles and four equal sides, it’s a square. Nice and clear.

Despite our best attempts, however, natural language seems not to fall neatly into classical definitions. Classical definitions work best with concepts that exist within man-made systems of meaning — squares, species, citizenship, etc. For other concepts, drawing the line is harder. When does something stop being blue? What are the necessary and sufficient qualities of a pie?

For these sorts of concepts, a prototypic definition is more useful. A prototypic definition comprises a set of traits which are typical, but not necessary. Some instances display more traits than others, making them better examples of the concept in question. For example: an olive is a fruit; it has seeds. But an cherry has seeds, and is sweet, and is usually eaten fresh and raw. An cherry is more typically what we mean when we speak of “fruit” than an olive is; it’s more likely to be good in a fruit pie, or appear in fruit punch. Breaking down this overlapping net of meaning into the necessary and sufficient is difficult.

We keep trying, however, because classical definitions are simpler to work with. They’re easier to break down, or to sort into sets. As an analytical tool, a classical definition is far clearer and easier to use than the messy expanse of a prototypic definition.

Thus, analytical endeavors resort to the process of jargonization — in effect, the provisional extraction of a classical definition from a prototypic one. A jargon term — “term of art” is a prettier phrase for the same idea — allows a concept to be discussed more rigorously, but by its nature excludes some portion of the prototypic space. To return to olives and cherries, the biological definition of fruit is rigorous, clear, and very useful if you’re a biologist. It’s not as useful if you’re a cook. Closer to my own work, “game theory” is not the theory of all things that are games, but the theory of systems with independent rational actors. Criticizing game theory for failing to be the theory for all things that are games is a waste of everybody’s time. It’s essential to take jargon on its own terms.

For a concrete example, let’s look at one of my favorite articles on game design, Greg Costikyan’s I Have No Words And I Must Design. In this piece, Costikyan proposes a definition of a “game” as “a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal”. Ever since its publication, he’s gotten a lot of grief around the net from people who are shocked — shocked — that he would dare to propose that SimCity is not a game. The key here is that the purpose of Costikyan’s essay is not to establish an exhaustive definition of “game” for the sheer love of defining. Indeed, such an endeavor is pretty much doomed to failure from the get-go; games are notoriously resistant to being nailed down. Wittgenstein even uses games as an example of a concept that defies classical definition. The point of Costikyan’s definition — as with any term of art — is to draw meaningful distinctions for the purpose of future discussion. In this context, it is useful to point out that SimCity has certain characteristics (primarily, the absence of an intrinsic goal) that distinguish it from the majority of the things in the field colloquially referred to as “games”.

Jargon must be judged by the metric of usefulness, not completeness. Its purpose is to illustrate and facilitate, and all jargon is at some point arbitrary. Any particular jargonization may fail to be useful — if, say, I define “love” as an emotional state induced by sexual intercourse, that’s not going to be much use when we discuss the Gospel of John — but attempting to “disprove” a term of art by citing some instance of the colloquial concept that falls outside its definition is not helpful. Every term of art leaves out something.