essay

A Game of Definitions

This started as something else. I was beginning to write my latest reply to a comment Daniel Johnson left and decided to investigate what exactly the OED had to say about what a “game” is and how its recorded definitions have changed over the (156) years since its first edition. What I found, well, it was not what I was expecting.

About four definitions into the 21 of the current edition, the OED starts listing the associations with the phrase “[the] game” and “[people] of the game” from works dating from the sizable range of c392 to 2006 BCE. Which, I admit, confused me at first. I had assumed, incorrectly it seems, that the usage was as a veiled metaphor for sexual intercourse. As a joke, basically.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the case after some investigation. There is considerable evidence for the usage of phrase “the game” to mean what the OED puts as “Lovemaking; amorous sport or dalliance.” It relates, at least in my mind then, to the idea of a gamespace being one with reduced consequences as compared to the perceived reality.

For example, consider this small selection of usages I’ve copied from the OED:

1522 Worlde & Chylde (de Worde) (1909) sig. A.iv, I am a chylde..Goten in game and in grete synne.

1609 Shakespeare Troilus & Cressida iv. vi. 64 Set them downe, For sluttish spoiles of opportunity: And daughters of the game.

1683   J. Morrison tr. J. J. Struys Perillous Voy. iii. xxix. 305   Such Jewels as we commonly call Girls of the Game, Misses, or Cracks.

1786   Nunnery Amusem. 6   A soft nymph lay panting for the game.

1938 G. Greene Brighton Rock vi. ii. 259 What mattered was the game. The two main characters made their stately progress towards the bed sheets.

1986   Third Way Oct. 12/1   Once immersed in the ‘invisible’ sub-culture [of prostitution]..it is extremely difficult to quit ‘the game’.

What I find so fascinating about those is this intersection of societal expectations within a context of assumed reduced consequences. Not only is there this gender inequality encoded within the system of usages, notice how its is always “[women] of the game” and not men, but also of a “dalliance” lacking permanent meaning. There are rules to this process of engaging with and participating in prostitution that stretches across 464 years in those selections that link it to what a “game” might be too on a more abstract level.

And then, of course, there is that last usage speaking to the act of inculcation within a system too. Following the combining of accepting languages with systems-as-statements, we get a not altogether dissimilar fear of the escapism that some video games themselves offer. The never-ending worlds and constant always-on, always-accumulating-resources make them in the same sense extremely hard to quit as well. Once caught up in “the game,” some people also find it hard to quit systems that encourage them to daily get their ‘hit’ of content.

Somewhat more relevant to my latest research work though, I had already been thinking about rituals and what they might mean in connection to what we might think of as game spaces anyway, so this opens up a connection I had not thought much about before: prostitution as a game within the larger context of society. Given that there are roles, specialized terminology, and even expected performativity within the space, it obviously makes sense. It is a very ritualized space — and, as it turns out, probably a game unto itself too.