Games and Stories….

This nom has been sitting on a sticky note for months now.  It is good that it sat on that sticky note.. as more thoughts, connections, and ideas have become stuck to it in that time.

Before I get to it, however, let me give you my numbers–as I have in the past–and then use them later.


For those who are new to this blog, the numbers represent the following:
# of push ups I’ve done since Jan. 1st, 1998
# of push ups/day I’ve done per day averaged over my entire life
# of pull ups/chin ups I’ve done since Jan 1st, 2013
Ratio of Push ups/pull ups.

These numbers are important to me–they are both calculations and they say something about me over time.  But more on that later.

Why do I want to talk about games and stories?  Well, it occurred to me one day that both of these things are mental activities that are often pretty central to how humans interact with themselves, with each other, and with the society around them.  Not only are these two topics actual activities that people do, but they are also some of the core concepts in how people perceive life and the world.

Sometimes life is a game to play.

Sometimes it is a story you tell yourself.

And it struck me that these things are actually pretty different ways of dealing with the world–even if they are both very important and central ways of understanding our experiences.

But what are they?  Well, as Thomas Hobbes notes in the beginning of The Leviathan, good thinking requires good definition of terms from the outset, or else we are just making a collection of nonsense sounds signifying nothing.

What is a game?

Games are pretty common in our experience.  Kids make up games and play them and a lot of social interaction and learning seems to be in the form of games.   In general, we talk of “playing games,” and using that understanding, we could  note that game playing is not just a human thing–it could be–at least loosely–extended to a much wider range of animals–especially mammals–as when you watch two cats play with each other.

But what makes up a game?  Well, going back to the etymology of “game,” we find that the noun comes from “gaman” and is a common germanic word meaning something like “joy, glee, sport, merriment” and that it comes from the prefix “ga,” meaning “collective/together,”(it’s the “e” in enough and the “ge” used to form the beginning of most past participles in German.. ) and “mann” meaning “person”–so that the original meaning was a “people together…”

And what happens when you get a group of people together–well, a common activity is for some of them to play together–and to compete with each other in some way while doing it.  Perhaps they are just playing tag and chasing each other.. or maybe they are throwing rocks to see how far they can get them.

This is what humans do.  It is part of our social make up from deep, deep down–and it underlies a lot of our cultural make up.

If we go look at reasonable definitions of what a game is, you get the following:

game is structured playing, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool. Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more often an expression of aesthetic or ideological elements. However, the distinction is not clear-cut, and many games are also considered to be work (such as professional players of spectator sports/games) or art (such as jigsaw puzzles or games involving an artistic layout such as Mahjongsolitaire, or some video games).

Key components of games are goals, ruleschallenge, and interaction. Games generally involve mental or physical stimulation, and often both. Many games help develop practical skills, serve as a form of exercise, or otherwise perform an educationalsimulational, or psychological role.

Attested as early as 2600 BC,[1][2] games are a universal part of human experience and present in all cultures. The Royal Game of UrSenet, and Mancala are some of the oldest known games.”

Synthesizing this information, the key elements that appear in games are:

1. that there are rules that limit them;
2. that there is competition or challenge involved in them;
3. and that they involve interactivity–either between multiple humans or a human and objects.

These elements are important to keep in mind.  They very much define what constitutes the kinds of activities that we understand as “games.”  An unspoken addendum to these elements would be that games involve calculation.  They involve decision-making–either conscious or unconscious–and that a good part of the power of playing games comes from the experience of us executing a strategy or of  performing according to our own wishes and will.  By playing, we create ownership over the game in this way.

It’s also pretty easy to see how/why we the connection between “game” and “play” exists.  The verb “to play” originally meant to “move rapidly, occupy or busy oneself, exercise; frolic; make sport of, mock; perform music” and came from a West Germanic root that basically meant “to occupy oneself about” (think of how current Americans occupy themselves with sports games!) and from an earlier indoeuropean root meaning “to engage with.”

Games have no purpose unless they are played.. unless we occupy ourselves with them and engage in them.

Game-playing is part of what makes us human.

But only part.

Not everything is a game, for we also live in a world of stories.


I’ve spoken a lot about stories on this blog–because the importance of stories in my life has become much more clear as I got older.  I’ve even thought about the differences between puzzle-like and story-like structuring in languages–which doesn’t seem too far off of the comparison I’m making here…

But I don’t think I’ve ever done my usual etymological trick on the word “story” itself before.

About time I did that then.

“Story” comes to us by way of French “estorie,” which itself comes from earlier Latin and Greek words.  At first, it wasn’t really separate from “history” and both of them meant “an account of some happening.”   Delving deeper into the meaning of the original words, one finds that it comes from Greek “histor,” which meant,  “wise man, judge,” from PIE *wid-tor-, from root *weid- “to know,” literally “to see.”

The proto-indo-european root–*weid–is the root of Latin “visio/onis,” from which we have “vision,” but it is also the root of good old English words “wit,” “witty,” and the archaic “to wit,” which meant “to know,” and which has clear German cognates in their verb “wissen”==to know, and their noun, Wissenschaft (literally “Knowledge-scape”), which is their word for “Science.”

In any case, it is helpful to think on this root meaning of the terms that developed overtime to describe our conceptions and practice of a “story.”  A story is an account of something–but this meaning comes from a greek “wise man”–and how does one become wise? By seeing things and coming to know them over time.

In this basic and underlying meaning–a story is composed of knowledge–but it also has a clear time aspect, a duration, that implies both an accumulation of knowledge by someone–and a particular sequence of events.

In this, one might note, a story is very unlike a game.  Games–while they have rules that govern the sequence of certain actions–have the element of random chance/occurrence built into them at some level–for if a game’s actions were entirely foreordained, we usually wouldn’t consider it to be a very entertaining game.  It is the unexpected aspect.. driven by the competition inherent in a game that gives most people excitement and entertainment.

Of course, not everything in a story is known in advance.  The person reading or hearing a story is often entertained because they do not yet know the sequence of events to come–but this lack of knowledge is only true for one side of the storytelling.  The teller of the tale.. whether it is an author who wrote the story in the past or someone speaking it in person.. that storyteller already knows the sequence, and that is what gives them power, for they have the knowledge already and the excitement comes from hearing the tale.. from the transferral and acquisition of this knowledge in ourselves.

Comparatively then, we can see another big difference between a game and a story–namely that in a game the participants are equal–at least in theory if not in practice–whereas in a story, there is an asymmetrical relationship between the teller and the listener.

As we noted above, a game is played, while here we speak of a story being told. Looking at the verb, “to tell,” we find that old English tellan meant “to reckon, calculate, consider, account,” which fits with the use of the term “teller” in banking (a bank teller counts your money..) and in the German cognate “zahlen” which means to count.. (erzaehlen means “to tell” as we use it.. ).   However, the deeper indoeuropean root of “to tell” connects it intimately with our conception of a story, for it comes from root *taljanan, which means “to mention in order.”

I’d like to start to close this by pointing noting that both games and stories also function as a kind of mental construct that we often apply to understanding the world around us.  Sometimes these applications to reality are clear mappings–such as when we are literally playing a game or telling a story to someone, but other times they are more metaphorical.  We like to talk about people “playing head games,” or that “life is a game”–and when we do that we are imposing a certain kind of understanding on the world–we are implicitly arguing that there are rules governing behavior, that there is a competition going on, and that we are part of this interaction in some way.

Sometimes this is true–but sometimes it isn’t–and it can be helpful to take a step back and make sure that we aren’t imposing these understandings on reality when they don’t really apply. Perhaps someone else isn’t playing a game with us.. but perhaps we just want to compete with them and so we turn it into a game.   This can happen in work situations quite easily.

This can be dangerous if we’re not careful depending on the situation–because games have winners and losers–and we can turn those who might be our partners into our opponents.

Stories also play special roles in our lives–we tell ourselves stories to make sense of our lives because they can give us meaning.  Religions our usually a group of stories that accomplish this goal–but even without any supernatural overtones, people use stories to understand the world.  They use these stories as models for understanding what’s going on around them or for inspiration for what to do next.

However, the “storyline” concept can also be misapplied to our lives.  For example, sometimes we convince ourselves that things that are happening in our lives are just following a particular storyline–implying that certain endings are foreordained–when, in reality, things are a lot more fluid and are dependent upon our interactions with reality to determine the outcomes.  In these instances–where we are actually creating the story as we go along–we may actually be much more in a kind of “game-like” situation than we know–and ignoring the chances for shaping the outcome of the game may end up to our detriment.

Also, sometimes shit just happens.  People often want to figure out why this shit happened, and they create a story to explain it–that it was destined to happen or because someone was scheming to make it happen–when in reality, it was just a result of factors way beyond our ability to control.

Here, we need to be careful about letting our own self-storytelling get ahead of ourselves and letting it create an understanding of the world that is following a storyline that has more to do with our own desires and wants than with the actual facts at hand.

Finally, let me end by going back to the numbers at the beginning of this post.  These numbers signify actions of mine–physical actions involving exertions upon my part.  In some ways, these numbers are the result of a game I play against myself–calculations that I make daily to see where I can push myself.  In other ways, these numbers tell a story, for they are but one instance of a long sequence of numbers that cover a significant portion of my life, and there are people who now actually follow my progress.  In that, they tell part of the story of my life.

Thus, it is not that games and stories are utterly separate things all the time.  Sometimes they are just different approaches that we can take to the same subject matter.

Other times.. times which I will elaborate upon in subsequent posts, they are truly different.. and we must be careful to understand the differences lest we deceive ourselves.

About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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1 Response to Games and Stories….

  1. Pingback: Calculation, Perception, and Intelligence | The Philosophy of NOM

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