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Sounding like a student

January 2, 2008

Here’s a topic that comes up frequently among those of us in the industry: students who use the game development terms that they find in books. For instance, “Ludologically speaking, what do you think of that particular schema?” or “Is that symmetrical or assymmetrical design?”

To quote from a review of a book on Ian Schreiber’s Teaching Game Design blog:

Also, the authors have this unfortunate tendency to create their own vocabulary. Their new terminology mingles liberally with established industry jargon, but with no mention of which is which. I can’t fault the authors for this (what else could they do?) but it does make it more difficult to use this as a textbook: my students who go to GDC should know what an Avatar is, but if they start talking about “schemas” and “constitutive rules” and “transformative social play” they’re just going to embarrass themselves.

It’s not just in the book Ian’s referring to. It’s in a whole lot of game design books. I know. I’ve been reading them. Unfortunately, students dutifully memorize these terms and the concepts they present, and then are surprised to find out that these terms may as well be an ancient language for all the good they do in design meetings.

Actually, it’s a little worse than that. If you’re in a meeting or an interview with people who might want to hire you and you drop one of these lines, odds are one of two things is going to happen: 1. You’re going to look like someone who didn’t do their real industry homework or 2. The people in the meeting will feel awkward because you’ve just said something while sounding pretty confident, and they have no idea what you’re talking about. Best case scenario, they say, “What?” or politely ignore you. Worst case scenario, they say, “WTF are you talking about?” The latter is a lot more developer like. Either way, it’s not a great outcome.

On the one hand, this language is great for looking at games from different perspectives and allowing people to communicate about the same thing. So, it does have its place. As I’ve mentioned before, we do need a common language in the industry. However, it has to evolve, and that evolution takes time. Also, it needs to evolve from within, not from without. At present, the same idea often has several different names depending on which book you’re reading.

We use all kinds of silly terms – LODs and FPS and fps and EP and IP and VP and VC and first party and certification – and we all know what we’re talking about.

This raises an important question for students: How are you supposed to know the difference between the industry jargon and the made up stuff? There’s really only one way to do it, short of sitting yourself inside a developer’s office: listen to GDC lectures or read articles written by bona fide industry folk. Do your research and check out their credits. Are they industry or not? Go to their blogs. The great majority of the links in my blogroll are fellow developers. I wish there were an easier way, but for now, this is the best suggestion I’ve got.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2008 6:05 pm

    Indeed.

    There are two other suggestions:

    1) If you’re taking a class with a professor who used to work in the game industry, pay attention to their jargon. They know the real stuff from the academic stuff, and they will (or at least should) make the distinction in class.

    Corollary: Teachers have a responsibility to their students to point out jargon that’s in common use.

    2) Be ignorant. It’s not as good as talking the talk, but it’s sure better than talking the WRONG talk. I’d been in the industry for over 3 years before I ever heard the word “avatar” to refer to the representation of the player in the game (the games I’d worked on were card games that had no avatar, so it never came up). I learned as I went, by immersion in the industry world, and it worked for me.

  2. January 3, 2008 11:30 pm

    @ai864 – you young whippersnapper, you. I had to unlearn “avatar = the guy in Ultima”.

  3. January 4, 2008 3:01 pm

    So what IS a schema? XD

    And I know I’ve sat between game developers, listening to them exchange words in staccato, apparently deeply immersed in conversation made up of acronyms I couldn’t understand. When they finished talking I was still about as clueless as before. I think they were talking about in-game AI, but I really just don’t know.

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