Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Critical Vocabulary Problem

I saw this touched on briefly at GDC this year, but no solutions were given. That's a shame, because it's not something that I can see solving itself anytime soon, and game designers really need to make some progress here.

The problem is that we really don't have a critical vocabulary in the field of game design. When we talk about game mechanics or dynamics, the best we can do is to compare it with what's been done before: "It's like the sandbox mode of GTA with the combat system from Halo, and the mini-map from Ratchet & Clank."

This is limiting: it prevents us from describing new innovations (I remember people trying to describe Everyday Shooter at GDC, and the best we could do was "you have to play it, then you'll understand"). It also limits us even when discussing purely derivative works; if I haven't played Okami, then you can't compare it to another game and have any real understanding between us.

So, we need a better vocabulary. Which leads to the next problem: everyone writing a game design textbook is trying to solve the problem at the same time, each with their own proposed language.

None of these get absorbed into the collective consciousness of the industry, because no single textbook on game design has been read by enough game designers. But designers in the field aren't trying to create their own vocabulary, either.

As a teacher, this creates additional problems. Suppose I use a textbook that uses a combination of existing industry jargon, and new terminology coined by the authors. I've yet to see a book that makes a distinction between the two, so I have to manually warn my students about which terms are okay to use if they're talking with a designer, and which ones they should ignore (or at least use cautiously). But then, if enough students who studied one particular textbook find themselves in the industry, this terminology could start getting used... and then I'm in the position of trying to predict which of the many textbooks will see widespread adoption in the next few years.

And then there are the teachers out there who have no game design (or game industry) experience, and couldn't tell a good textbook from a bad one, and won't be able to make the distinction between "currently in use" and "proposed" terminology in their classes. My students will be competing with these, and the other students may even sound smarter, with their talk about operational versus constructive rules... even though my students might be better prepared for the industry.

Ultimately, I'm not sure what direction a long-term solution can come from. Industry is too busy to figure this out on its own, and too insular to listen to suggestions from academics. Today's students may carry some critical vocabulary with them, but it's so scattered across many different texts that there's unlikely to be a consensus. I suppose it will ultimately take a single game design book that is so much better than the rest, that it gets adopted by every class overnight. Any volunteers to write it?

1 comment:

Corvus said...

Are you a member of the IGDA Education SIG, by any chance? It seems to me that it would be the perfect place to start a consolidation of terms. Perhaps it starts with a white paper and ends up (eventually) as an industry education advisory council which helps schools build curriculum and influences the standard terminology of design.

While I agree that a unified set of critical terms is important, keep in mind that other forms of expressions took hundreds, if not thousands, of years to reach that point! That makes it a worthy, but potentially frustrating and time consuming, task.

Anyway, I enjoy your blog. Thanks and keep it up!