“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.” – Mark Twain
Language affects thought. It’s a proven, scientific fact – the words we use affect how we interpret the world around us. As I have been writing for this site, it’s something that has been on my mind quite a bit – the language of video games and the process of reviewing them.
It came to mind again today as I listened to a recent episode of the Giant Bombcast from March 22 about Virtual Reality. While the guys attempted to explain their first experiences with VR, I found myself woefully underwhelmed by the discussion. Their words of amazement fell completely flat for me. The Bombcast said that it’s something that people will need to experience to understand, but I think it’s actually something else entirely. I charge that game journalists and game marketers strangled the ability to discuss VR years before the systems were even conceived!
‘Crying Wolf’ isn’t just a Metal Gear boss*
One of the first, and most endemic, problems that comes back to bite VR is the long history of hyperbolic claims about a parade of mostly unremarkable games, especially since the move to polygonal graphics. For more than a decade now, writers have been telling me that I will feel like I’m ‘really’, or ‘practically’, or ‘almost’ “in the game”; that it will be an ‘immersive experience’; that I will experience an ‘unimaginable sense’ of scope and scale.
And now that Virtual Reality has become the new watchword of the bleeding edge, writers are telling me that I need to experience it to truly understand how amazing it is! It’s ‘an immersive experience, with a sense of scope and scale you’ve never imagined. It’s like being in the game!’ Now, to be fair to these people, some of whom I have a great deal of respect for and whom I have read for years, I think it may truly be impossible to explain this time. Capturing the transcendent in a few pithy lines of prose is challenging for even the greatest of writers, and the breathy reverence with which people who’ve used VR speak of their time with it has a feeling not unlike those who talk about having a ‘religious experience’. However…
About a year ago, Google transitioned the way its search engine surfaced results. Tags and, more broadly, Search Engine Optimization were deemed failures. Too many people have tried to manipulate and game the system, and tags became meaningless as people began to apply them to completely unrelated (indeed, sometimes completely empty) pages in a desperate attempt to get Google-senpai to notice them.
Likewise, marketers and writers have spent years falling back on these same tired buzzwords and cliches, unable to wring out new ones. It’s easy to blame it all on lazy writing (and make no mistake, some of it is lazy); or at least inexperienced and unimaginative writing. But I think that a lot of the blame rests squarely on marketers who have tried to continually escalate the hyperbole arms race in pursuit of selling games that, frankly, aren’t worth wasting that many high-quality words on.
As Strunk and White’s Elements of Style says “If the sickly-sweet word [and] the overblown phrase are your natural form of expression…you will have to compensate for it…by writing something as meritorious as the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” Ad copy for Killzone hardly seems to rise to that level .
Whisk Ye Away the Jargon – oh
Though it’s less relevant to VR, another language problem in games writing (and really the gaming community at large) is the trickle-down adoption of industry jargon, as epitomized by terms like ‘Triple-A’, ‘SKU’, ‘4X’, and ‘next-gen’.
There’s several problems with this. The first is obviously the frequent misapplication of the terms. But that’s actually more of a symptom. The underlying cause is that the definition of some of these terms have become so misunderstood, and the roots have been forgotten such that the meaning has become mutable. In addition to that, it allows for a strange crystallization of thought around very specific lines of thinking (which may actually be the intent, rather than a side-effect).
Saying that every successive generation of consoles has ‘next generation’ graphics becomes a meaningless tautology.
Next gen is an excellent example of this. Originally, the “Next Generation” referred to the second set of polygonal consoles – the Game Cube, the Xbox, and the Playstation 2. I believe it was coined by Microsoft, but if not they at least latched onto it heavily, because they needed to differentiate their new entry into the console market from both the established companies of Sony and Nintendo, and from Sega whose Dreamcast console was about to capsize.
Then, once that generation became established, Next Gen began to apply to the ‘High Definition’ (a word which, itself, can have various meanings) consoles – Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Wii. And now, while in some circles next gen is starting to be applied to whatever will come after the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, in other places people are arguing over whether current PS4 and Xbox One games truly have ‘next-gen’ graphics. Saying that every successive generation of consoles has ‘next generation’ graphics becomes a meaningless tautology. Let it go.
Triple-A however, is the one that has been the most bandied about in a frustrating way. Triple-A should, at best, be a marketing buzzword or internal designation. However, it has come to be both category and weapon. This can be seen frequently on message boards, as people debate whether a game is, or isn’t, Triple-A; whether the game commands a Triple-A price; or whether it truly has ‘Triple-A’ graphics.
Of course, most people have a vague idea that Triple-A is a good thing. But people have different understandings of why it’s good. I’ve seen people say it means the game has “high-quality graphics”, that it’s any First Person Shooter, that it’s any game charging $60, that it’s simply any game that is good, or that it’s any game that isn’t ‘indie’. Of course, none of these are wholly correct. Triple-A just means that a game has had a high production budget (and therefore needs to recoup significant amounts of money to be worth the investment). And while typically these games are shooters, and are $60, and may have good graphics, none of those things are actually requirements.
So, of course, the misunderstanding and misapplication of terms leads to fighting, anger and people feeling exploited after they get their hopes built up solely based on how they incorrectly think something is being described.
Elements of Style offers the wise advice “When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having actually said it are only fair” as well as “The trouble with adopting new coinages too quickly is that they will bedevil one by inserting themselves where they don’t belong”. If you mean that a game has good graphics, say that. If you mean it’s expensive, say so. But using terms that mean different things to different people confuses both your readers and the point.
Hit The Pause Button
The writing that’s done in games journalism feels like a testament to the fact that it began in a grassroots way, out of the desire to fill a void that was recognized. It was clearly built by people who learned as they went, and grew alongside the medium. In a lot of ways, this has led to an adaptability, a nimbleness, and a style that feels true to itself.
However, it has also led to the reinforcement of some bad habits that other styles of writing have tried to root out, because they’re actually kind of detrimental. Technical writers, for instance, generally recommend avoiding jargon; most writing courses teach specificity and precision of terminology. These are generally accepted as good habits, because they reduce the chances of being misunderstood while also stoking readers’ imaginations.
Hyperbole and jargon have taken such hold that it is no longer possible to put this genie back in his bottle.
Now, I’m aware that this piece is the sort of blue sky idealism that someone writes in a fit of mad inspiration, before finding that the cynicism of journalistic reality will just as readily crush them under a wave of ennui and spite as it will anyone else. But let me also say (just in case this piece does ever come back in the middle of the night to whisper its disappointments in my ear like my own personal Marley) that I’m certainly not expecting perfection from writers. I expect that I will, myself, sometimes make the same mistakes I have just called out here.
Writing is hard work, and I’m in the fortunate position of having an editor who allows me the time I need to write out exactly what I want to say. And I certainly have to pay my homage to the many in this field who are more experienced and more skilled than me.
Despite the fact that hyperbole and jargon have taken such hold of the games industry that it is probably no longer possible to put this genie back in his bottle, we should still try to limit the damage as much as possible. So please consider your words a bit. Think about whether they actually mean what you want to say, or whether they’re simply an easy equivalent. And, while you’re at it, take another read through Elements of Style. We all have at least one rule we could still stand to work on.
*Crying Wolf is not actually a Metal Gear Solid boss.
(Editor’s note: I am awesome and Josh really does like Giant Bomb, don’t be fooled guys he always mentions you fellows with the utmost respect)