Games as Language Systems

by L.B. Jeffries

11 November 2008


In a piece I wrote about a year ago on the art of writing in video games, I tacked on at the very end that writing in a video game was more than just creating a setting or series of options, it was ultimately about designing a language. I technically didn’t really know what that meant when I wrote it. The phrase just struck me as correct and after batting it around a few forums that game designers frequent I figured it wasn’t utterly inane. No one told me it was wrong, in other words. What technically inspired the phrase was reading a few articles while researching about personalizing the player’s roles in games. You give actions and conduct that are relevant to the role the player is inhabiting instead of just tacking it onto the same old stab & shoot routine. Edge has an interesting article that goes into this by having a movie director gives his take on the subject. It’s not about giving your character the ability to jump around the world you’ve created, it’s about acting and behaving like the person in the game would. Once you combine that with the features of choice and player input, it is an easy leap to say that when a game is coercing you to act in a certain way, it is just as much encouraging you to respond to things in a certain way. It’s not exactly talking to another person…but it’s not just rolling dice or pressing shoot either.

One of the curious features Clint Hocking has been pointing out about Far Cry 2 is that it allows players to express themselves. Michael Abbott pointed out that on many levels the word “express” is exactly the way a video game feels for a player. That act of participation, of interactivity in a restricted setting, allows for a kind of weird emotional output. Yet what are the inherent virtues of Far Cry 2 that merit this term? The player is in a vast, open landscape where they can make numerous decisions about the plot and their tactics. The numerous choices the player is making are what Hocking argues merit calling something expressive. It connects back to what Sid Meier famously said was the critical principle of any video game: it’s a series of interesting choices. Once a game starts to feature hundreds upon hundreds of choices though, they become something greater than their individual parts. The player is now potentially able to make unique or unforeseen combinations. And as games feature even more choices and options, the capacity for the player to create a combination unique unto themselves becomes a reality. The game becomes a language that the player can use to express themselves by making unique sets of choices. This view is not dependent on games with numerous options either. Even very basic communications are occurring in even the simplest games. As Justin Keverne notes in an essay on game vocabulary, we are forming a sentence of intentions just by playing. When I press forward, in conjunction with my aiming, I am telling the game to walk there. Shoot this person. Duck. The meaning of these instructions is defined in the context with which they are used.

There’s an excellent essay that mentions this idea by Nis Bojin. He uses the Wittgenstein theory of language games and retools it into a method for analyzing words that apply to game design. You don’t need to be a liberal arts major to follow the basic points of the essay. My extremely simplified explanation of language games goes like this: the debate about “free will” or “morality” is inherently dependent on your circumstances and perspective. Part of those circumstances are the actual language you’re using to communicate those concepts. The literal word itself has a varying set of meanings depending on the analogies, phrasing, and linguistic metaphors being used. Trying to isolate those concepts into a universal norm defeats the word’s purpose because it’s setting is what gives it meaning. Put differently, words get meaning from the context of where and how you’re saying them. They cannot be isolated from that without losing their original meaning. Bojin comments, “Being thoroughly entrenched in the language of a given language-game is to be bathed in the conventions, accepted modalities and ideologies that support a way of knowing and taking part in the language-game itself.” The leap we are making is that this is the exact same thing a video game does: create conventions, choices, and settings that the player then acts in relation with. They are expressing themselves within the confines of a language that the game creates with its various options. Bojin goes into very different territory after these initial observations, discussing the relationship of words like ‘play’ and ‘grinding’ as players and designers influence one another culturally, but it’s a very interesting read.

The initial complaint I had to this idea came from a blogger who goes by the name mummifiedstalin. He pointed out the ludonarrative dissonance dilemma, that one is not always or even often capable of expressing oneself in a game. This leads ultimately to a semantics argument about expression, because if you take Wittgenstein into account then our capacity to communicate revolves around the enormous and massive “game” that is our language. There are dozens of ways to express the same thing in a language, depending on the circumstances and ways the speaker wishes to interact with their surroundings. In comparison, video games have far less choices but that does not rule out calling them ‘tiny languages’. Their size then being directly proportional to the number of options given to a player. It can be tough to pick up on this in a mostly linear game like God of War because it has so few options that one can’t really appreciate the ‘games as language’ argument. That’s a game that falls under Hideo Kojima’s ‘games as museums’ design theory, and is more about delivering a series of set experiences that the player roleplays through. On the other hand, games such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Far Cry 2 on a greater level represent enough choices compounded together that the first indications of a language start to form. As other titles like Spore increase in complexity through add-ons and fan made materials, this will only become more evident. Games are themselves, despite their confined modes of expression,  languages.

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