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The Fight for Game Grammar

November 6, 2007

When Doug Church first came out with “Formal Abstract Design Tools“, he got a lot of feedback that suggested such a grammar or a formalization of our process wasn’t necessary. Others have received similar criticism citing this attempt at creating a language of game design a complete waste of time or an interesting exercise at best. Ultimately, it seems that many of us are way too freakin’ busy to care about developing, writing or learning a formalized language. Instead, we leave it to guys like Doug, and Clint Hocking and Raph Koster, who’s writing a book on the subject.

Thank goodness the medical profession doesn’t feel this way. Rather, they have a name for everything and a process for everything. People create new processes all the time and perfect on the old stuff, but it’s largely because they understood the components of what they were doing well enough to be able to fully grok it, innovate beyond it and describe their process to someone else in words, rather than just results. Of course, results are staggeringly important, especially in an interactive medium. However, this grammar – these formalized words – are necessary when one attempts to analyze something and, in my case, teach it to someone else.

On occasion, students and fellow developers will complain about this need for a lexicon of game words. Truth be told, I didn’t see the point back when Doug first published his article either. While I didn’t say it was a waste of time, I didn’t care one way or another or see the bigger picture. I was working on Wizardry 7 or 8 back then and was firmly embedded in a world I’d long been comfortable in. It was only when I really started branching out as a designer beyond hard-core RPGs and RTSs into casual RPGs, simulations and fighting games that I first felt a) a desperate need for those who were doing it well to explain it well and b) a need to see games critically deconstructed in a way that educated me rather than gave me information intended for gamers (not that there’s anything wrong with information intended for gamers, but it just wasn’t what I was looking for at the time).

In the years since Doug wrote his article, the beginnings of a language have developed, but we have a ways to go. Ironically, while I believe developers are passively embracing this trend – if we hear people say something enough, we start saying it ourselves – those who want to learn about games and who therefore need to learn it most seem resistant, feeling instead that it’s superfluous to their mastery of all things Bioshock or Call of Duty 4. Others think it actually gets in their way of making games or don’t see a connection between the value of language and the value of production or actual design.

I wonder what would happen if we trained 10 BMW mechanics through demonstrated action rather than words. We’d show them how to build an amazing engine. Then, without a language, we’d let them attempt to talk to one another and teach those who wanted to learn from them. Sure, stuff would get done, but it would be a hell of a lot more efficient and less prone to errors if they had a common language in place. When they critiqued each other’s engines, they would say things like, “It’s fast!”, but not really be able to establish obvious consensus on what components of what systems delivered said fastness since they had no language to describe them. Instead, they’d sound a hell of a lot like us (“It’s incredibly fun!”).

With the exception of design, all other roles of the game team have accepted a developed or a developing language. We have formalized language for digital art (polygons, nurbs, rigging, bones, normal mapping, bump mapping, yada yada), production (scrum, agile, alpha, beta, etc.), programming (bazillions of functions as well as whole libraries) and sound, but when it comes to design… well, not so much.

At the same time, acronyms like RTS, RPG and MMO are really nothing more than design terms that reference whole collections of design decisions. I regularly hear people to refer to things like the core of the game, instances, mechanics, symmetrical vs. asymmetrical design, persistent vs. non-persistent worlds, etc. So, it is happening. It’s just painfully slow. I am grateful for guys like Marc LeBlanc and Raph who are working to push it along.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. ai864 permalink
    November 6, 2007 3:56 am

    Dan Cook has also done a few things with formal language (you’ve probably seen his blog, and his Gamasutra articles on the subject). Good stuff.

    One area where I think we’ve got some good jargon going is in the more technical and mathematical areas of design. Game balance, pacing, positive and negative feedback loops, transative and intransative mechanics, Prisoner’s Dilemma and Tragedy of the Commons. When you’re talking about whether one unit in an RTS is too powerful, we have quite the rich vocabulary to describe exactly what’s going on and why (thank goodness). Likewise, as soon as you get into the use of scripting languages and level design tools, we get to borrow all of the programmer jargon, royalty-free.

  2. November 6, 2007 4:55 am

    I’ve often wondered, being the vocab loving person that I am, why there is such a lack of this in the game industry. I feel that part of the issue is the only recent acceptance of game design as an academic study. Designers such as you, Brenda, who had no “formal” education in the field of game design, developed a language from the work place, pulling terms that may have been acceptable at one development studio but not another, or may have been unfamiliar in different locations. I do believe that all designers are working towards a common end, perhaps using different methods for that end, but they all go through a similar process. Why then is there not a developed set of terms to describe this process we call ‘game design’?

    I can only assume that is has to do with the nature of the process. Daniel Greenberg talked about the mimetic nature of games in a panel at SeigeCon: About how the game, in its purest form, is about getting someone to play out a character in a different world. Perhaps, due to the more interactive than passive nature of games, a common language is more difficult to develop than say in the medical or automotive industry. We are trying to create an experience, instead of an object, which causes the language to be more difficult to define, since it is abstract in nature. What is “fun” to me, may not be “fun” to you, so then, what is “fun”?

  3. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 6, 2007 11:27 am

    Craig Perko has posted a great reply to this article over on Project Perko.

    Worth reading.

  4. ai864 permalink
    November 6, 2007 2:28 pm


    You’re absolutely correct: the reason we’re lacking in what I call a “critical vocabulary” is that the field is so new. Most artistic media (painting, sculpture, music) have been around for thousands of years, so they’ve had plenty of time to develop terminology.

    Board games are old, but they haven’t actually been purposefully “designed” until a little more than a century ago — still a drop in the bucket compared to poetry or acting or dance.

    Although you’ll notice that the language of boardgames (mechanics and balance, in particular) is far more developed than that of video games (why is rolling a sticky ball around and picking up objects “fun” exactly?). So this tells us how long it takes to develop language.

    On the bright side, the industry has billions of dollars at stake every year, so we certainly have the commercial incentive to find something that works. I expect we’re developing our vocabulary faster than most other art forms did, out of economic necessity 🙂

    But as Craig (and Brenda) say, the language will come about emergently. There have been attempts to force a language on the rest of us (mostly through textbooks written by well-meaning designers who need to invent a vocabulary so that their book is coherent), but by and large they fail unless they bring important concepts to the table that NEED that vocabulary (like LeBlanc’s MDA framework).

  5. ai864 permalink
    November 6, 2007 2:43 pm

    Oh, by the way, I also had a blog post about vocabulary awhile ago that might be relevant to the discussion:

  6. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 6, 2007 3:07 pm

    Ian – you highlight another issue that bugs me here and in your post over on Project Perko.

    I have outright dismissed some grammar that comes from text books. While the authors need to find a way to express a concept, sometimes the terms that they suggest are replacing perfectly good terms already in use. I regularly correct such things when I hear my students talking about things like “schemas” noting that in the industry, you won’t hear “schemas” mentioned much.

    With language development, perhaps it’s a question of where the language is coming from – industry or academia – and perhaps the divide that already exists between the two fields extends itself to the terms one tries to create.

    I do agree with Perko in that language develops emergently, and agree with you that devs ignore pressured efforts to develop such a language.

    I still wish it would go faster.


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