[In an in-depth analysis, designer and Divide by Zero Games founder James Portnow surveys almost 300 people to discover the role of genre-specific language in games.]
Every discipline and specialization establishes its own power words, its own secret language. These languages serve a multiple of purposes: to establish mastery, to deliver specificity, to foster group identification, to create an artificial barrier to entry.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in our own industry and our culture. After all, to the outside world something that is "broken" is bad and a "mob" is a crowd of angry people...and gamer slang can't hold a candle to the mystic composition industry jargon.
It's a natural human thing to do. It's why lawyers and doctors pepper their speech with Latin, it's the reason that "goths" and "gangstas" can barely communicate -- but should we do it within games?
The Problem At Hand
Today almost every game establishes a specialized vocabulary to support its story or creative IP. That vocabulary is, for the most part, exclusive and non-transferable (that is to say, it doesn't apply to other games).
Does this make sense? Is this what we should be doing? Should we be creating common genre-wide vocabulary? Should we be using more familiar terms in order to lower the barrier to entry to our games?
Over the course of this article I will be addressing these questions and discussing an informal survey I took regarding this issue (don't use it for any term papers kids: it's pretty much just me asking questions to gamers).
What Does The User Get?
There is a designer who I very much admire who would always ask the question, "What does the user get?" as a metric of whether a design decision was good. This was the best tool I could think of for weighing whether our exclusive vocabularies make sense, so I simply asked groups of gamers how they felt about the terminology in their games.
Case Study 1 - MMOers
Whether you're walking around Norrath or Azeroth, MMOs present some of the most massive and intimidating blocks of jargon and 'creative language' presented to gamers. If you don't know what a Blood Elf is or where Tanaris is located you might as well go back to your real world home and play with a ball.
So how do gamers feel about acquiring this massive vocabulary that loses all meaning when the servers shut down?
Overall the response was amazingly positive from the MMO gamer community. Common themes were that the vocabulary reinforced the world (the most important element of the creative IP in an MMORPG, in my opinion) and gave them the flavor they lost by skipping the quest text.
There was almost universal agreement about place names: "You've got to call them something, so they might as well be unique."
Equipment names were more split. There was a sizable minority who wanted equipment names to tell more about what a piece of equipment did. In general the amount of terminology was generally considered manageable given the amount of time players spent on a single MMO:
"By the time you've been playing for forty hours you just learn it, you know. It's not like I had to go out of my way to figure out what a Moonkin was."
Perhaps the most interesting part of my study of MMO players was around how MMO terminology related to the social experience. A fair number of the respondents stated that jargon enhanced the social experience, especially the out of game social experience.
"If I'm like at a Denny's and I hear somebody go '...Sunwell,' I'm like totally in."
(I wasn't entirely sure what he meant by this at first; he meant that he would go join their real life conversation.)
On the other hand a slightly smaller number said that the terminology ruined their out of game social interaction, some going so far as to say they wouldn't talk about the game in public, even to other people who they knew played.
"I hate that I can't talk about my game without sounding completely dorky."
"I feel silly saying Blood Elf Paladin. I'm uncomfortable every time someone tries to talk to me about WoW outside of my home."
Case Study 2 - FPSers
FPS games often have a more modest amount of jargon to pick up. It is almost entirely limited to the player's weapons/gear. So how do FPS players respond to this more limited jargon pool?
Well, first I found FPS players fall into two categories: those who play historical/real world games, and those who don't. For those who play "real world" games, there is at least a subset to whom the jargon matters a lot.
They will chew your ear off about how the Mosin-Nagant rifle isn't historically accurate or the M4A1 "just doesn't shoot like that." As for the rest of the community, they pretty much couldn't care less if you called a nail gun a nail gun or a machine gun.
Interestingly enough, I found that map names could be a real source of vitriol for some players.
"I think Deck 17 but we're playing on Deck 16 and it's all sorts of different, and that's some stupid fuckin' bullshit if you ask me."
(I'll admit, "Deck #" doesn't make for a very good naming convention.)
It was interesting to note that FPS players were at least somewhat displeased by how rapidly their knowledge of map names became obsolete. I don't think this is actually related to the larger question of exclusive vocabulary and secret languages, but it's a noteworthy sidelight.
Case Study 3 - Strategy Gamers
This one surprised me the most. Strategy gamers were all for invented names -- so long as they were good. Complaints came in when players had to remember the difference between a TU-34 and a TU-37 or a series of nondescript tanks.
I think my favorite strategy gamer comment on the subject was:
"If names weren't carefully chosen, how could you make sure everything hotkeyed right?"
The most common complaint from strategy gamers related to not having enough variety and breadth in their game terminology. Their principle desire was to have enough differentiation that unit names were clear and distinct, allowing for easy recognition and recall:
"MkV, Sherman, M1, Gladiator, Centurion; those names mean anything to you? Is a Sherman or a MkV better? Is one better against infantry and another better against other tanks? Maybe a Centurion's actually just a roman era foot unit!"
"I really like Dawn of War's names. They sound like what they do and they're all really different."
Case Study 4 - Parents
Here's one group that universally hates exclusive vocabulary.
"It's like my kid's speaking a different language."
"I can't keep up. He comes to the dinner table and I try to be involved, but one week it's a 'dwarf enchanter' and the next it's 'Solid Snake.'"
"I don't know if he's talking to his friends about doing drugs or playing a game."
"I've got a job and three kids. How am I supposed to learn all the Pokemon?"
I received several indifferent responses and no positive responses from parents about the exclusive vocabulary in games. At the least it was viewed as a tragic waste of a child's brainspace, at the worst it was an active impediment to the parent's relationship with their children.
Casual and Sports
I left sports games and casual games out of my survey entirely. Sports games usually translate their vocabulary from the real world sport they simulate, and so don't have IP-supportive vocabulary.
Casual games have little to no exclusive vocabulary, and when they do it's rarely integral to the user's experience (you don't need to know what a Tetris is to play Tetris).
I conducted this study to aid my own efforts in the work I am currently doing. Below are the conclusions I've drawn from the study and my own reasoning as I've wrestled with the project at hand.
Vocabulary Of The Mundane
I've come to believe that games would suffer from homogeny if we were to lower the barrier to entry by making game vocabulary more prosaic; we would lose part of what lets our players cross into the magic circle.
Part of what allows them to escape their mundane, ordinary, everyday lives and slip into this secret other world of "game" is the hidden language they adopt when they begin to play.
As words that had no meaning before reaching for the controller take on significance and gain import the player becomes part of an exclusive society: they know what no one else knows, they are special, unique.
This transformation prepares a player to adopt the role of a great warrior or a brilliant commander or a deadeye mercenary -- it is in becoming more special than the ordinary person that we come to more easily accept the fantastic roles we often adopt in games.
While creative terminology is good, creating good creative terms is in and of itself an art. I've found that there is, at times, a tendency for some designers to want players to prove their devotion by learning an overly complex set of vocabulary.
I could write an entire article on this topic, but to keep it brief I've found the following rules of thumb useful:
1. Whether it's the Black Bow of the Betrayer or a Firebat, names should still hint at what something is in your game.
2. Use real roots. Whether it's English, Latin, German, or Japanese doesn't matter, just try to draw your names from something recognizable. While this might help clue your player in on what your names mean, the real reason is that it's hard to remember whether Qlgeshmahn is the healing potion and Mqklema is your torch or if it's the other way around...
3. Numbers are bad. If they correlate to power they're boring and if they don't correlate to power they are confusing.
4. Use invented vocabulary only for things that are unique to your world. Don't replace the names of things the player already has words for without some very good justification.
We have already established a group of conventions (HP, EXP, bot, frag) that carry over between games in a genre. These terms are usually related to common mechanics found in the genre.
I've become convinced that you should not try to replace these with cool IP-related words. This simply confuses players and leads them to refer to things in your world by the better known corollary terms anyway. Of respondents who played RPGs, I often asked them what the currency in the Final Fantasy series was; slightly over half inaccurately responded, "Gold."
On the flip side, anything not related to common game mechanics seems to be fair game.
This study brought to light the larger question of how the non-gamer relates to someone immersed in one of our fantasy settings. This is a moral question and a social question but, I believe this to be a monetary question as well.
Often our customer is not actually the one consuming our products; they are a relative or a friend of the person who will, in the end, play our games. If we can improve their tangential experience, that is to say if we can make buying a game a positive and connecting experience, they are more likely to be willing to purchase other of our products in the future.
Unfortunately I don't have any suggestions on how to do this except on a case by case basis.
Notes on the Study
I began taking this survey in furtherance of my own work. I refined it over time, adding and subtracting questions as I began to discover what questions elicited useful data.
This survey is a combination of email questionnaires and face to face conversations. Not all of the respondents knew they were being surveyed at the time. In short, this study was in no way statistically rigorous.
I am publishing this summary because I felt as though the results benefited my own work and may benefit the community as a whole. I believe the data acquired here to be good, regardless of its lack of rigor...just be aware of how it came to be.
For those, the sample size was just under 300 people (I have 238 gamers and 43 parents marked on my tally sheet with a handful of results discarded for various reasons). I tried to target gamers of all ilk from the hardcore to the more casual, although due to the categories investigated and the nature of the survey I believe the respondent pool leaned more towards the "core."
[James Portnow is a game designer, formerly of Activision, and now at Divide by Zero Games, where he is also the founder and CCO. He received his master's degree in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon University.]