Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Teaching How to Write is Hard

Timely as ever, Darius mentions the importance of not referring to "the user" or "the player" in design documentation.

I tell my class to avoid "the user" because it makes it sound like you're writing a piece of software, not a game. Software has users; games have players.

I also tell my class to avoid "the player" even though it's marginally better than "the user." Referring to "the player" depersonalizes the experience and destroys empathy. Darius also pointed out another reason: not all players are identical.

The easy way to do better is to write in the second person: "you press the X button" rather than "the player presses the X button". This builds reader empathy.

The harder way is to create fictional characters, give them names, and tell stories about them. "Confident from his years of experience with Street Fighter 2, Joe mashes the X button into submission." Human brains inherently grok stories, far better than bulleted lists or technical descriptions.

And in spite of all this, half of the design docs I get back in a homework still speak of "the player". The tendency is apparently a tough habit to break. (I remember I had similar problems learning to avoid using passive voice.) But I have to wonder why. Why is it so natural to write in a style that's so unnatural to read? And what can I do, if anything, to really drive the point home... so that students get it right the first time?


Adam Yulish said...

I learned to write in that "unnatural" style thanks to my high school english teachers who insisted I never use first- or second-person approaches to my formal writing. "This isn't a casual letter, don't make it personal," and all that. Once I got into college, I had a professor tell my class that hey, our high school english teachers were wrong. Nothing against my high school english teachers, but what they taught were standards that existed a decade or two before.

I don't know how much my experience applies to others, but everyone I've met who writes papers in third person learned it in high school. Moreover, a lot of reading material for academia uses third-person. If the "authority" uses third-person, I as an undergrad student would feel compelled to emulate that.

Patrick Heney said...

I realize it's several years after you have written this, but I just came across it.

With regards to writing in the second person, avoiding terms such as "the player" or "the user," I think you seemed to have found the answer but then ignored it (probably because it is beaten out of us in our English and Grammar classes).

The answer is Passive voice. Typically it is a poor writing choice to use passive voice. But why is it a bad choice? Because it de-emphasizes the actor and focuses on the action or the recipient of the action. In this case, that is exactly what you are trying to do. It doesn't matter if it was the user, the player, tom, dick or harry that pushes the button. What matters is "the button X is pushed", or "the potion is selected".

Another alternative, which I learned in Journalism, is to write in the transitive present tense, e.g., "selecting a potion does this" or "pushing button X results in that".

Just my thoughts. Great blog! Thanks for making the time to keep it.