The Incompleat Gamester

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WHAT'S A LUDEME?

And who really invented it?

by David Parlett

Copyright © 2008-2017 by David Parlett

The word "ludeme" does not (yet) appear in any dictionary and therefore has not established claim to any agreed definition. The purpose of this article is to explain my personal interest in it, to justify my use of it, and to offer some thoughts towards its definition.

My interest in it arises from the fact that, if you enter it into a search engine such as Google, one of its earliest mentions occurs in a page called The Ludemic Game Generator, which is introduced as follows:

Inspired by passing mention of the word "ludeme" in David Parlett's Penguin Book of Word Games, the Ludemic Game Generator randomly combines categories and mechanics from those at BoardGameGeek to create new (and largely useless) game ideas...

The next reference comes from BoardGameGeek in a forum devoted to a review of a talk by Raph Koster entitled "A Grammar of Gameplay". Mike Siggins, alias "Sumo", webmaster of ludeme.com (apparently now defunct) wrote:

Interesting that they use the term ludeme, which I had only seen in two places before - in David Pritchard's book, and on my domain name!

Two comments. First, I don't recollect using the term in my Penguin Book of Word Games (1982), but I certainly did use it, I think for the first time, in my Oxford Guide to Card Games (1990), where I (rather disparagingly) reported an ascription of its coinage to Pierre Berloquin, of whom more anon. Second, I don't think the late David Pritchard ever used it, but he and I were often amused by examples of confusion between our two names, and invariably corresponded with each other in terms of "To David P. from David P." So it's possible that Sumo was referring to me rather than David Pritchard.

This brings us to A Grammar of Gameplay, subtitled "Game Design Atoms, Can Games Be Diagrammed?", notes for a talk given by Raph[-ael] Koster, former Chief Creative Officer of Sony Online Entertainment, at a Game Developers Conference held in Austin, Texas, in 2005. I say notes for a talk rather than the text or transcript of a talk, as the relevant item, also characterised as a "Quest for a universal notation of game play and "design, is presented on the web site as a series of notes and diagrams rendered as images, making referencing and word-searching virtually impossible. It consists of a series of cartoon-illustrated gnomic statements rather than connected argument. Typical are:

"This talk owes a lot to the concept of 'ludemes'. Ben renamed them 'primary elements'. They are similar to 'choice molecules', but Ben likes empiricism, not theory."

"The most basic ludemes involve a user interface interaction."

"The pieces in chess. They aren't content, they are verbs."

"The most basic sort of variable feedback is your opponent's move."

"Is there skill and risk involved in using an ability? If not, is this an atomic unit of gameplay?

Further reaction to Koster's talk emanates from Stéphane Bura (Creative Director, Elsewhere Entertainment, 10Tacle Studios, Belgium), whose article begins:

The goal of this document is to present a grammar enabling game designers to describe games in a useful manner. By useful, I mean that this grammar should allow us to: After working on the problem a bit, I came to the conclusion - as Raph posits - that a useful game grammar would mostly describe constituative rules, as defined by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in Rules of Play: "The constituative rules of a game are the underlying formal structures that exist 'below the surface' of the rules presented to players. These formal structures are logical and mathematical." Working at this level also requires some assumptions, such as assuming that all the players follow the implicit rules (etiquette). For instance, in a competitive game, all players must play to the best of their abilities to win.

(Salen and Zimmerman's book is to be recommended, although, as I have commented elsewhere, "constituative" is not dictionary-supported - "constitutive" might be preferable.)

So far, it would appear that ludeme means a "primary element" or "atomic unit" of play. Bura uses it further down on the same page, but it's not entirely clear to me exactly in what sense.

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The French connection

In the Oxford Guide to Card Games, I wrote

Card games are not solid objects like rocks and stones and trees, but patterns of human behaviour, ranging somewhere in complexity between, say, languages at one extreme and limericks at the other. The similarities we are looking for therefore resolve themselves into the gaming elements of which each game is comprised. Just as atoms are not indivisible units but bundles of elementary particles bound together by sub-atomic forces, so card games may be regarded as bundles of elementary gaming features acting in harmony towards a common end - "the complete consort dancing together".

It helps to sort these gaming elements (or "ludemes", to quote an eminently dispensable term proposed by Pierre Berloquin) into three types: (1) mechanical, i.e. those governing the physical process of play, such as trick-taking or discarding to a sequence; (2) purposive, i.e. those defining the aim or objective of play, such as card-capture or penalty-avoidance; and (3) decorative, i.e. cultural motifs which are not essential to the gaming content but add a measure of human or real-life interest to it, rather like the "programmatic" elements of non-abstract music.

A footnote to this mention of Berloquin identifies its source, namely, Alain Borvo's L'aluette, ou le jeu de vache (Nantes 1977, p.18). Borvo writes:

Bien que le but d'une étude d'ensemble comme celle-ci ne soit pas de fournir une règle précise pour la pratique de l'aluette, mais plutôt de dégager les principes de jeu qui la composent (ce que Pierre Berloquin appelle les "ludèmes")...

In a footnote, Borvo cites several works containing rules of the game, including Berloquin's Le Livre des Jeux (éditions Stock, Paris, 1970, pp. 60-63). I haven't seen this book, but Thierry Depaulis tells me that the section on Aluette contains no mention of the word ludeme.

In 2007, the following message from Berloquin appeared on the mailing group rec.games.playing-cards:

Je conserve l'impression d'avoir inventé le terme et le concept de ludème à l'occasion de la mise en ordre de mes livres sur les jeux de cartes et les jeux de table mais je ne parviens pas à retrouver un texte dans lequel je l'aurais mentionné. Donc pour l'instant Alain Borvo est le seul auteur connu à l'avoir écrit mais son texte me semble bien tardif. Il faudrait voir sur quoi Parlett se fondait. A suivre.

To which I replied as follows:

It was indeed in the late Alain Borvo's book on Aluette that I first encountered the term ludeme and its attribution, since denied, to Pierre Berloquin. At the time I didn't think much of it, and on the first occasion that I mentioned it in print (in my Oxford Guide to (aka History of) Card Games) I did so only in passing and with a regrettably rude dismissal of it as "eminently dispensable". At the time, in fact, I thought it rather pretentious. By some stroke of irony, I later found reference to the word somewhere on the internet with a mistaken attribution to me, presumably from a reader of the Oxford book. Since then, however, I have found myself using it unconsciously, even almost against my will.

If, then, Monsieur Berloquin now asks on what authority I base my use of the word, the answer is simply the purely pragmatic one of usefulness. It is so useful that it doesn't even need to be defined. The area in which it strikes me as most useful is that of evidently related features common to games of differing and otherwise unrelated types. For example, the game of Losing Chess on one hand, and card games of the Hearts family on the other, exemplify the concept of reversing the object of play from positive to negative. The reversal concept is a typical ludeme, in that it can be applied to many other games of other types. In the realm of card games specifically, another ludeme is that of the Jack as some kind of a trickster figure, ranging from the eponymous card in the ancient game of Karnöffel, to the card that scores 2 for his heels or 1 for his nob at Cribbage, to the most significant card at All Fours (Pitch, etc), and eventually to its complete conversion into the Joker of Euchre and Poker and subsequent wild card of Rummy.

If a definition of the term is required, I can do more than to characterise it as a type of meme specific to the field of games. As for the definition of meme, see Richard Dawkins, who invented it, or the relevant Wikipedia article. In brief, I do not claim to have invented the word ludeme; I not only credited it to its presumed inventor when I first used it but have since made enquiries as to its origin through other contacts in France (albeit without success); and I make no claim to its universal indispensability. I use it because I find it useful, and its meaning has always seemed plain enough to me from its context. What more can one ask of a word?
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Towards a definition

A ludeme is an element of play, comparable to, but distinct from, a game component or instrument of play. Kings, queens, bishops, knights, rooks, pawns, and a chequered board, all constitute the instruments of play or the components of the game of Chess. Ludemes are the conceptual elements of the game, most typically equivalent to its "rules" of play. For example, whereas the material piece shaped like a horse and designated "knight" is a component of the game, the distinctively skewed move of a knight is a ludeme of the class "rule of movement". But other types of ludemes also exist. For example, the name, referend and associated connotations of "knight"  - those of a chivalric courtier - may be said to constitute a thematic ludeme.

A characteristic property of ludemes is their propensity to propagate by passing not only from one game to another (the long diagonal move of the bishop is not unique to Chess but occurs also in continental Draughts) but even between games of entirely different classes. Thus the thematic ludeme of a knightly figure is not unique to Chess but also occurs in card games. Similarly, but perhaps more abstractly, it might be said that whereas an actual chequered board is an instrument of play, or game component, the idea of chequering a board so as to render diagonal moves more comprehensible is itself a conceptual component or ludeme.

The passage of ludemes from one game or game type to another brings to mind the definition of a meme, such as this from the Oxford English Dictionary:

A cultural element or behavioural trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (esp. imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976). In his own words: "The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme... Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches."

If Dawkins proposed the term in 1976, Borvo could well have first published the term "ludeme" in 1977, as Berloquin implies. But it doesn't follow that he was directly influenced by the Dawkins "meme". In this connection, Depaulis notes:

Now, whoever invented the word, it must have been coined in the 1960s or early 1970s when structuralism reigned in France and put into fashion words like phoneme, morpheme, grapheme, mytheme, lexeme, and the like. (Whence "mimeme", certainly influenced by the same philosophical background.) I am not in error in saying that the man who invented "ludeme" thought of it as a "ludic micro-structure" or "basic component of a game structure".

In retrospect, my understanding of the term ludeme as expressed in the Oxford Guide to Card Games seems suprisingly apt, considering that I had not encountered the word meme at the time. Rather, since my main subject is language, the word "ludeme" sounded to me more like a construction analogical to that of the term "phoneme", which dates from the end of the 19th century and is defined by the OED thus:

A phonological unit of language that cannot be analysed into smaller linear units and that in any particular language is realized in non-contrastive variants... Although its exact nature is disputed, [...] the phoneme remains a standard taxonomic unit in the description of speech.

The bit about "non-contrastive variants" may be explained as follows. The sound represented by the letter T in English may vary from region to region, speaker to speaker, or even from one position to another in a word. For example, it may or may not be aspirated, as it most noticeably is in English spoken with an Irish accent. Any distinctive way of pronouncing it may be represented by a distinctive international phonetic symbol. But all are "allophones" of a single phoneme /t/. What makes it a single phoneme is that if you pronounce "cat" with any allophone of /t/ the word will always be perceived as denoting a cat. If, however, you voice the /t/, it becomes /d/, and anyone pronouncing "cat" in such a way will be perceived to be referring to a cad. In other words, /t/ and /d/ are contrastive variants: change the phoneme and you change the meaning of the word.

Similarly, game elements may be contrastive or non-contrastive, and are ludemes only if they are contrastive. For example, many card games involve a hierarchy of suits for bidding purposes. In Bridge, spades > hearts > diamonds > clubs, in Preference it is hearts > diamonds > clubs > spades. The concept of suit hierarchy, as such, is a ludeme. It contrasts with a game in which one suit is always trump, such as the eponymous Spades. Here, the idea of fixing on a suit as permanent trump is a different ludeme. If you introduced it into Bridge or Preference, it would no longer be the same game, at least as far as bidding is concerned. By contrast, however, the actual order hearts > diamonds > clubs > spades, or any other of 24 possibilities, is not a ludeme because it is not contrastive. If you switched the order around as between Bridge and Preference, you would make no difference to any aspect of the play. The thinking involved would not be altered. The same would apply if you simply reversed the order of ranks, so that in each suit Deuce was high and Ace low. Such variations are merely transformations of the same ludeme. If, however, you decreed that the ranking of cards should be upside down in trumps but not in side suits, then you would have introduced a novel ludeme and thereby significantly changed the game, at least as far as assessing your hand and conducting an auction are concerned (albeit not in the ensuing play of tricks).

To summarise, a ludeme or "ludic meme" is a fundamental unit of play, often equivalent to a "rule" of play; the conceptual equivalent of a material component of a game. A notable characteristic is its mimetic property - that is, its ability and propensity to pass from one game or class of game to another.

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