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Failures of Language

We’re not lacking for words to use to describe videogames. But those words were created to sell videogames, not to describe the process of creating and understanding them. Our games vocabulary is peppered with buzzwords, invented by someone in marketing for a press release and regurgitated into a games magazine. Next the words are on the Internet, slung back and forth by forum posters, and then, finally, I hear an otherwise intelligent game developer use a meaningless word to describe a game.

Here’s a brief glossary of some of the words I hear a lot and what they might mean:

  • Immersive—Game takes place underwater
  • Fluid—Game is actually made of water
  • Flow—Current of the liquefied game

These words don’t have to be nonsensical. In fact, we’ll be talking about meaningful ways to talk about “flow” later in this book. When buzzwords are used without context or nuance to promote a game, as part of a press release or blurb, they might as well be meaningless.

When we use meaningless words to talk about games, our ability to describe them becomes more confused; our language for describing them becomes less concrete. But we’ve bought into this sort of thing in a big way, the same way we’ve bought into the idea that a game is composed of “graphics,” “audio,” and “replayability.” We’re used to thinking of games in those terms, but who gave us those terms?

It was the games press. The terms we think about videogames in are taken from Consumer Reports–style reviews of games. GamePro magazine would divide games into “graphics,” “sound,” “control,” “fun factor,” and “challenge” and then give the game a score of one to five in each of these categories. Doesn’t the way a game looks have a relationship to how it plays, though? Don’t the way things move in a game tell you a lot about how the game controls? Don’t sounds characterize the interactions that they accompany? Doesn’t the challenge of the game affect what the experience of the game is—the “fun factor”?

The fact is that although these categories may seem dated, we nonetheless allow them to inform the way we think about games. Instead of considering a game holistically, we mentally divide games into categories. It’s especially easy to do within a bigger group or studio, where all these categories may be separate jobs performed by separate people. But what something in a game looks like, for example, tells the player what to think about it, what expectations to have. “Graphics” are part of design. So is sound, and how the game controls, and every part of the experience of a game. We’re trained to think of all these parts of a game in isolation.

Our language limits us in other ways. We’ve bought into the established “genres” of videogames: the shooter! The strategy game! The platformer! These categories make it hard to describe, to pitch, to even imagine games outside of the ideas that are already established. When I created dys4ia in March 2012, an autobiographical game about my own experiences with hormone therapy, many players and critics, though they admired the game, questioned whether it actually was a game after all, because it didn’t fit their genre-influenced preconceptions of how games should work and what “ought to” happen when you play them.

The language that we use to talk about games constrains the way we think about them. We don’t have a vocabulary that can fit games that are as diverse as, say, a game about hormone replacement therapy that relates events that really happened to me and isn’t a struggle for victory or dominance. And so the language of games is a language of exclusion. Game culture’s vocabulary frames discussions in such a way as to perpetuate the existing values and ideas of that culture, which is problematic when that culture is so insular to begin with.

dys4ia is a traditional game in many ways. It borrows a lot of established game vocabulary to tell its story. Most scenes involve guiding some player-controlled character around the screen to perform a given task. The reason both players and creators fail to recognize it as a game is superficial—we lack the design vocabulary to connect a game about hormone replacement with related games that have more traditional themes.

When I mention “story” in a game to most players and developers, what they think of is cutscenes: an interruption of a game to show a five-minute movie, directed in obvious imitation of a Hollywood production. Or they think of a wall of expository text that the player has to stop and read or, more likely, skip annoyedly past. This is just another symptom of designers’ fear of design. The truth is that we already have all the tools we need to tell stories in games—to tell real stories, not exposition—but we don’t understand those tools.

Until we learn how to tell real stories in games, “story” is always going to mean “cutscene.” Until we learn how to design holistically, games are always going to be broken into “graphics” and “sound” and “control.” Until we have a language that can describe games in all their diversity, we will only design “shooters,” “strategy games,” and “platformers.”

By equipping ourselves with a language for talking about design, we are giving ourselves the ability to design.

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