Monday, November 05, 2007


Brathwaite is blogging, which is another blog I have to keep up with. :P

She mentions the idea that we could really use some kind of game design language. As you might suspect, I have strong opinions on the topic.

One of the things I don't like about language is that it rapidly divorces itself from the reality it is theoretically based on. Once you get a language that is self-sufficient, it can go on forever without any kind of anchoring and, in fact, become more important than the thing it is supposed to refer to.

As an extreme example, astrology. Astrology clings to popularity despite the utter and undeniable truth that it is total crap. This is because astrology has a really strong language that represents a really coherent set of ideas.

Those ideas just happen to be total crap.

You actually see this quite a lot, especially in the more woo-woo segments of America, in politics, and in law. That user agreement you agreed to on that last install? Total crap. It bears no relation to reality. It is simply The Law cycling, feeding on itself, and bloating. Yeah, a lot of big corporate stuff is like this, too. You can probably think of a dozen more examples. I certainly can.

Languages are emergent, and they tend to rapidly outgrow their original bounds.

The good science-y languages (such as the medical profession's, as Brenda mentions) are anchored, strongly anchored, in reality. I don't think a day goes by without some doctor somewhere putting the slam down on some pseudo-medical linguistics that have no reality. Not just flat-out wrong terms like made up parts of the brain, but also using generally correct-sounding language to say really dumb things.

And the medical profession is still surrounded by crap language, language that has absolutely no relation to reality. Most "alternative" medical practices, such as magnets, reflexology, and homeopathy. Millions of people believe in these things - or their cultural variants - because the language is so strong, so plausible, so self-sufficient, and the concepts it embodies are so attractive.

If you can explain why something works, then the fact that it doesn't work will be overlooked.

That's a profession where people DIE if you get your language twisted, and despite that, they get their language twisted.

There's no denying that language is critical in teaching skill. Doctors spend an awful lot of time memorizing ninety syllable words, and that's why we trust them to gut us like fish. But they're not just memorizing words: they're (theoretically) understanding the reality that drives those words. Dramapraxelbenzine interacts with orispartamenthium in a specific way not because the language says so, but because they have a chemical makeup that WILL REACT, regardless of what the language says.

Honestly, I don't think that game designers are in that kind of a situation. I think that game designers will let the language control them, and wave their hands in a black-magic voodoo dance of ivory tower linguistics. I believe that for a reason: every game designer I've seen that uses specialized language during their design lets the language control them. It's just too damn difficult to get hard data on the way things interact in a game.

For the moment.

For right now, I would prefer to focus on figuring out a good way to research games, rather than trying to develop a language. The language will arise naturally from the research. Force it, and we'll end up poking our players in the toes to give them their adrenaline fix.


PJammaGod said...

I gotta say I nice little concise article on languages and what they really mean, something close to my own heart!

It'll be interesting to see if game creation does truly evolve it's own langauge. Interestingly enough I note various games (usually MMO's) seem to develop their own "language" over time, though it's more of a vernacular when compared to the likes of medical/diagnostic languages we see most health professionals using. Whether this works in reverse too, with Developers working on their own vernacular depending on what project they are working on would be a good question to ask too.

BBrathwaite said...

Good article, Craig.

To an extent, I agree that language development cannot be forced and that it will arise naturally from research. I wish that it would move faster, though, and that we would codify and agree upon the terms that we come up with. Somehow.

I'm doing a good deal of research into various things now and like others before me, I sometimes struggle to express a concept that seems obvious but has no particular name attached to it - or it has five. So the need is there, too.


Patrick said...

Yeah, I've definetly been guilty of this, here's to Aleph delivering me from evil.

Craig Perko said...

The need is there, I just think that carefully codifying it will do more damage than good. I don't want to be trying for a specific dynamic only to be thwarted because somebody thinks it goes against Patternism or something.

Ian Schreiber said...

I wouldn't worry about having a vocabulary "forced" on the field that unnecessarily limits it. There have already been a number of attempts to do so (just look at all the made-up jargon in "Rules of Play" or "Game Design Patterns") and by and large the industry ignores it.

The only time I've seen jargon get widely adopted is when someone has introduced a new, USEFUL concept that requires new vocabulary, and it gets adopted out of necessity (like LeBlanc et al's "MDA Framework" or Church's "Formal Abstract Design Tools").

Craig Perko said...

I'm still worried. I see it happen in a lot of other industries, and I'm not sure where the "tipping point" is.

That's a good example of what I'm talking about, actually. The term "tipping point" refers to a totally theoretical concept that, in fact, is NOT supported by data... but everyone uses the concept.

When we find our "tipping point", we'll acquire a bunch of useless baggage that misdirects our efforts.

Maybe it won't happen, but I find it happens more often than I expect.

Adrian Lopez said...

I think the problem is not so much about language as it is about the conceptual models behind each language. There have been several attempts toward formalizing game design, but I think most such attempts are little more than a bunch of pet theories turned into falsely objective -- though not necessarily useless -- "design methods".

I'd rather see a piecemeal approach to game design vocabulary. Concentrate on describing particular concepts, rather than systems of concepts (those can come later). It won't eliminate the problem of false assumptions, but hopefully we'll end up with fewer, internally consistent fantasies.

bbrathwaite said...

"I'd rather see a piecemeal approach to game design vocabulary. Concentrate on describing particular concepts..."

That's what I'd like to see, too. Thank you for making the distinction between conceptual models and vocab.

I like that, Adrian.

Craig Perko said...

I'm not sure how much of a difference there actually is, but a piecemeal approach is also my favorite.