The Pericles Group

What is Practomime?


by Roger Travis, and originally published on

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 Roger Travis’ blog,