The language barrier

December 16, 2009

Interesting Charlie Brooker piece about the language of games, though I’m not 100% clear on the point he was making.

“Veteran players have years of experience. We’re schooled in the way games work. It’s as if we have learned a new man-made language, like Esperanto. And games are the equivalent of Esperanto-language movies – except they’re better than movies. They’re engrossing and exciting, playful and challenging, constantly evolving, constantly surprising.”

I think the language thing is true and it’s a problem, which is why I like the idea of using languages everyone’s familiar with to make better fresher games that people immediately, intuitively understand – e.g. new kinds of games informed by webby interfaces.

I’m also reminded of some stuff Adam Curtis was telling us on Shift Run Stop about how we’ve become infantilised as a culture, and in the face of mass despair, there’s a sense of “Well, if we can’t really change anything, why don’t we just play?” And that although he had sympathy for this perspective, it is another symptom of the era of “decadence in the old fashioned sense of the word” that he believes we’re entering now.

Brooker makes a lot of fun of people who don’t know the Esperanto of games, which is chucklesome as ever but doesn’t really offer a solution beyond “try to persuade them how great games are”. He doesn’t acknowledge that it’s not your flatmate’s fault they keep blowing themselves up, it’s the game’s. And in a way, yours, as a gamer who’s been lucky enough to grow up with the new rococco but has clung to the elitism; the us and them. Which is what this Brooker piece screams – there’s an us and a them. Every time these divisions are written about they are underscored and reinforced.

But in a way, there’s no actual moral imperative to make more people play, or for more people to do something. That’s the attitude I find intolerable in our culture – the “more the merrier” thing. That increasing the number of people doing a thing or behaving a particular way is necessarily better. However I don’t find any reason to defend the elitism of game language either. Why do we always have to chose between elites and democracies? Adam?

Charlie seems to be saying “not enough people know the language of gaming, which means they’re missing out on something important that everyone’s doing” – and that sounds a bit paradoxical. Either we’re all doing it or we’re not and it’s elitist. If we SHOULD all be doing it, then that’s a different kind of point.

Personally, I don’t really care if people aren’t playing games. They might be making or thinking or learning about other things, other kinds of challenges. They might be doing nothing, wasting their lives, missing out. It’s none of my business. All I know is what’s fun for me – a weakness in itself I’m sure, but from my point of view, what’s fun is an expectation-crumbling challenge. Which is why I keep writing that I hope to make a game that’s different. It’d be useful if people who wanted to play it did so, of course, but if I build it big and friendly enough with no mysterious access keys, I think they will come. I’m not interested in evangelising. Or, it seems, neat metaphors.

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