A note on the word “practomime”

Nov 18, 10 A note on the word “practomime”
If you do me the honor of reading my posts here on Play the Past, you’re going to see me use the word “practomime” a lot. “Practomime” is a word I made up. I made it up because there was no word in any language I know that refers to what I have come to believe is an essential connection between games and stories–indeed, an essential and exclusive identity between them, in that they are both performative play practices.

So really I mean by “practomime” exactly what I meant by “performative play practice” (PPP) when I developed that discursive methodological tool earlier in my game-criticism; the word “practomime” is a way to embed those methodological concerns concisely in my critical discourse. It’s a way to assert a priori that games and stories are two kinds of the same thing.

From a pedagogical angle, too, the term has proven very helpful, now that  my UConn team (which includes Kevin Ballestrini and Karen Zook, both also contributors here on Play the Past) and I are hard at work on developing game-based curricula. We’re designing these curricula specifically to take advantage of the affordances of games’ and stories’ identity to engage students in courses the same way they engage in games.

Practomime, that is, is the thing that both people playing games and people telling and receiving stories do—playing pretend in a context where everyone agrees that playing pretend is what you do. I’m seeking to replace my own reflexive use of the word “game” with “practomime” in any context where I consider it important to bring the performative element of the practice to the fore.

I made the word from two authentic Greek roots, πράττω (pratto: do, act—the word that of course gives us πράξις praxis, which is what Aristotle says tragedy enacts) and that all-time fave of mine μίμησις (mimesis: performance-as [often misleadingly translated "imitation"]—this is what Plato and Aristotle say tragedy is), so I think it’s sturdy enough for my purposes, at least.

As I try to figure out what the things people call games are doing and what they can do, I increasingly feel the need to make the connection to mimesis (see this post for a bit more detail). For my own purposes, I need a term that captures certain connections that I have proven to my own satisfaction at least to be fundamental. That doesn’t mean I think those connections are by any means exhaustive, and I still think it makes sense at the very least to talk about “game elements” in what I’m relabelling, for my own purpose, “practomimes.”

But the category of human experience that’s being touched on in these practomimes is so far beyond the semantic range of “game,” as I see it, that for me a new term is necessary. That new term needs to capture the greater depth of certain “games'” (think of Bioshock) aesthetic relationship to Hamlet than to Monopoly. Note that I’m not saying that they’re not fundamentally related to both those things, and I am saying that both Hamlet and Monopoly are also practomimes.

Consider New Super Mario Bros Wii, which I found, with my aged reflexes, fiendishly difficult. “Is this really a practomime?” I have said to myself, as whatever exiguous story there is in the game faded into the far background to reveal the stark horror of failing over and over to make a particular jump. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “but just as calling DragonAge a game doesn’t get me anywhere interesting and can in fact serve to impede my critical progress, calling NSMBW a practomime doesn’t capture what’s most interesting about the game.”

On the other hand, I do think it’s fascinating, from a practomimetic perspective, that NSMBW is, like a re-composition of the oral epic tradition, a virtuosic variation on what’s near-exactly the same story in so many earlier games. That’s the sort of thing that for me simply can’t be discussed with any degree of facility if we call it a game. But the critical language I’d use might be something like “As a practomime, NSMBW possesses several interesting features that tend to be obscured by the understandable tendency of most critics to frame it primarily as a game.”

Do you have the same kind of trouble with referring to games like Bioshock and DragonAge as “games”? How do you get around it? I’m not wedded forever to “practomime” if an alternative can be found.

An earlier version of this post appeared on my blog, livingepic.org.

13 Comments

  1. Roderick McDonald /

    Interesting concept, for a new word like that.

    The way you are talking about games and stories being similar (and in some cases, synonymous) I think is very accurate. Most games (specifically video games) are a story first and foremost. The games are designed to tell a story, and to give the player the chance to ‘live’ the story that they tell. Whether it’s a game such as Super Mario Bros, Call of Duty: Modern Warefare 2, or World of Warcraft, every ‘game’ is a story.

    Looking at how easily I used the term “game” repeatedly, I obviously don’t have a problem with it. Just because a game is intellectually stimulating and creatively/imaginatively gripping like a story, or because it shares many other characteristics of a story doesn’t mean that it’s any less of a game. (Not that “practomime” suggests that a game is any less of a “game”, just that I still believe the word “game” is applicable)

  2. Thanks very much for the comment!

    The difficulty I was having was in making comparisons between games and stories, when it became clear that in the case of homeric epic, for example, I wasn’t comparing different cultural practices but rather genres within a single practice. I’d never argue that “game” isn’t applicable to “profund practomime” (or something), but IMO we either need a way to talk about Hamlet and Middlemarch as games, or we need a new term. I don’t have any objection to the former, but I’ve had too many ludologists ask, more or less, “What are the rules of Hamlet?” to think that “game” can be useful in that critical context.

    • Roderick McDonald /

      Well, as I said, all games are stories… But that doesn’t mean that all stories are games. I’m at a loss as to what else it could be called, but “game” (as I understand it) isn’t very applicable to Hamlet. In that case, I suppose “practomime” is the better term to use – whether or not there is a better one than that, I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t know enough Greek to come up with one…

      • Well, to play devil’s advocate for a moment and pose the question the ludological sometimes put to me, what’s the story of Tetris?

        I think we either need to say that all games are stories of some kind, as you did, but then redefine “story” to include Tetris, or that all stories are games, and redefine “game” to include Hamlet, or come up with a term that embraces both ends of what I see as the spectrum of play practices.

  3. interesting, someone pointed me to this article today and it is very thought provoking.

    I have a similar issue with this as Roger Travis above. I think that this term would be better off curtailed to those things in games that are like stories. Therefore SMBW has little practomimetic content, whereas Final Fantasy XIII, being essentially a story that requires you to press a button to continue would be highly practomimetic.

    that said though I think the biggest problem I have with it is that a game is a medium to tell a story, like TV or bazooka joe wrappers. So coming up with a word that groups together games and stories is like coming up with a word that groups together sandwiches and cellophane.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rodrigo. I have to say I think when we look at what people are doing when they’re telling or hearing/reading a story, and when they’re playing a game–that is, when we look at the practice in which they’re engaging–we see that they’re doing two kinds of performative play. Games from that perspective aren’t a medium but a kind of play practice, just like story-telling and receiving is. So for me the analogy is more like grouping sandwiches and burritos together.

      • I see what you’re saying, largely because burritos are involved. If I’m getting this you are saying that games and stories are two different kinds of practomime. Are movies a third kind? or just part of the story family of practomime?

      • I’d argue that filmic storytelling (as well as e.g. oral epic and opera) is a different kind of sandwich. I think different kinds of practomime can distinguish themselves as modes by several different features (like, say, different kinds of interactivity or filmic editing). I think it actually depends on the film whether it’s closely related to other kinds of practomime. Whether we see the players’ performances as bound and created within rules or within literary/filmic conventions is just, I think, a shift of frame of reference.

      • If you are looking at what people are doing wouldn’t every film be the same kind of practomime?

        Also I’d argue that a player is always bound by the games rules, although usually those rules have thematic inspirations. For example, it might be in theme for a brave hero to jump over an overturned bookcase, but the rules still won’t let me do it in Fable III.

      • It depends on what you mean by “kind,” I think–in one sense, the practice of one film shares important characteristics with the practice of another, but on the other hand, there are genres of film whose members share practomimetic characteristics (genres have rules, of course) that they don’t share with films of other genres.

        One thing that distinguishes most forms of practomime that we call “game” is indeed the greater degree to which game-rules are binding on players. You can’t really cheat as a director of Hamlet, for example (though some might argue that instead of cheating you can ruin the play), whereas in video games it’s impossible to cheat without modifying the game.

  4. This is exactly the term I’ve been looking for to describe games, fun learning, and story telling. Thank you.

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