Analysis: Mapping Gamer Dialect
[Examining the relationship between language, culture and video games, columnist Daniel Johnson examines a lexicon of gamer-native lore and terms in search of the mystical 'gamer dialect'.]
A few weeks ago, just after my last column, the Global Language Monitor
, a company specialized in tracking new English words, declared “Web 2.0” as the millionth word in the English language
. “Web 2.0” was running in competition alongside other contemporary words such as “slumdog”, “Jai Ho!” and “n00b”
Scrutinizing these words as to whether or not they're legitimate enough to be christened as, ummm... words, is about as silly as it sounds. If I say a word and you understand my meaning, that should be enough to qualify it as a word. At least, those're the rules I play by.
What this company does is track the use of new words in the media, and once the usage reaches a certain frequency, the word is popular enough to be officially welcomed into the English language. If there's anything we can take away from this headline grabber, it should be the mass acceptance of the gaming term “noob”.
As a group of people who share a common fondness to video games, our commonality creates what one might call a subculture. There are ways in which we interpret and react within this world that is heavily influenced by our role as a member of the video game playing populace. This influence, of course, varies depending on the games we play and the way we interact with others within this community, if at all.
Connecting all of these pieces together is a language. As gamers, when we engage with each other, we speak a dialect of our own which cushions our discourse. This language encodes all of those elements related to our relationship with games. The same applies for when two lawyers meet to partake in lawyer-talk – they have their language, just like we have ours.
With the word “n00b” now recognized as part of the world's lexicon (or at least in the same league as “Web 2.0”) it's worth mapping out the rest of the linguistic structure of this subculture of ours for all those media types who want learn more about our foreign gamer talk. This one's for you, Global Language Monitor!
General Knowledge Language
General knowledge of video game culture demands acquisition of the language which embodies the constituents of our subculture (ie. the language is part of the knowledge), otherwise we couldn't talk about it, right? This works on several levels. The first is related to terminology in regards to general game design and development.
In the same sense that film buffs have a familiar glossary of words
such as screenplay, cast and cinematography, video game players too have their base vocabulary including words such as gameplay, game mechanics, cutscenes and 8-bit. For us to be able to talk about games and the way they operate, generally, we need to first have a sense of this language.
The second level corresponds with language encoded information integral to understanding the industry itself, because all gamers need to acquire know some know-how on the industry. Famous developers such as Shigeru Miyamoto and Will Wright, and events like E3 and GDC are good examples.
These people and events are significant elements to the establishment of our culture. Without the developers we would have no products, no culture and no language, so it's only fair game that the language acknowledges this. Furthermore the communal gatherings for members of our culture also exists as part of our vocabulary. Our culture is centralized around products and industry is therefore an essential element of gamer talk.
The final level of general knowledge encoded into our dialect consists of language which makes up the popular culture side of games culture. The language here encapsulates times, phases and eras of our past, present and foreseen future. Terms like fatality
are reminiscent of the arcade fighting scene during the early 90s, “All your base belong to us”
highlights the usually rocky translation that video games receive during the localization process. In more modern times, Wii60
at least partly represents the idea that a consumer could purchase both an Xbox 360 and Wii for the same price as a Playstation 3.
Complete familiarity with this base is not necessary to understand video games and its surrounding cultural sphere, but the language here constitutes what one might call a wide base of gamer knowledge. Acquiring some of this language is essential for conversing with enthusiast players as well as understanding websites and blogs like GameSetWatch
It's an invisible barrier to entry that will likely disappear in the same way that my examples of specialized film language aren't so specialized anymore. Everyone is familiar with such terms and as video game markets continue to broaden, this component of our language will too become a normalized part of wider society.
Specialized Language (Terminology)
Strip it all down and video games are fundamentally a series of rules with attached terminology. It's no surprise then that the largest chunk of language within the gamer dialect is that aforementioned terminology. If we're to break this down further we see that this terminology operates of three separate tiers.
You might notice some overlap with the previously discussed “General Knowledge Language”
and “Basic Terminology”
since part of players' basic understanding of games requires some knowledge of terminology. That is, pieces of language which ground concepts such as lives, health points and game overs, for instance, all come before anything else.
Genre Terminology is rather self-explanatory. It refers to the language required to participate in a certain genre of game. Due to the constant merging and blurring of genres, such language isn't always exclusive to a single genre, and may instead be mutually transferable across many (ie. frag
This language is obviously more in depth since it covers the finer complexities of a more focused area of games. As such, language under this heading references play styles (camping, rushing), mantras used in in-game dialogue (Leeroy Jenkins
) as well as the expected terminology (HP, MP), among other things.
Game Terminology is therefore the language related to the functions and happenings in one particular game. The range of vocabulary per game depends on the depth, popularity and lore of the title. Legendary fighting systems as those in Street Fighter
or King of Fighters
command a healthy language system due to the depth in play mechanics and variation which yield names for fighting styles, mechanical functions, AI patterns...almost everything related to the mechanical backend.
series has a magnificent lore which encompasses many races, characters, locales, phrases – all of which exist in language. Popularity is also a catalyst for language development usually governed by fan communities. For example the way Metal Gear Solid
community embraces words such as meme into their community lexicon.
Gamers truly love to sledge. Having evolved from an original arcade model supporting competition over co-operation it's no wonder we love to fling derogatory terms at each other in the spirit of competition. This property of games culture has created an artillery of language. The most popular word in our lexicon --as by Global Language Monitor!-- “n00b" is the epitome at the centre of all this.
Expressions such as “n00b” and other popular gamer words are often partnered with 133t speak
orthography to compose a jumble of language purely spoken in a non-standard tongue. This linguistic flavour is often seen as the more popularized form of video game dialect by the media. As you can see though the article, my personal interpretation covers a much wider arc. This segment of the overall dialect, in contrast to the terminology and general knowledge language is an elective piece of the complete make-up.
The final piece of the puzzle is in fact completely peripheral from the dialect itself, but plugs back into the language in a significant way, nonetheless. Due the immense variety of situational themes video games can immerse the player in, familiarity with external specialized terminology often becomes heavily integrated into the game itself.
Think of the way Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
familiarizes the player with the language of the battlefield. Or how a Gran Turismo
achieves the same with mechanical, driving and enthusiast car language. Even my previous example of lawyer language is applicable in games such as Capcom's Phoenix Wright
series. The outreach here is endless.
It isn't just within the games themselves where external language forms mesh with the gamer dialect. Video games are digital after all, there's that “video” part, which brings along with it a technical database of language about resolutions, hard drives and the like, without the familiarity of these terms we'd never be able to run games on our TVs and monitors.
Video games are also a culmination of other media, the complete package, so when players do discuss games they actually also discuss music, art and film as well. The specialized vocabulary of these respective fields not only comes into play as well but so does the language which represents the hybridized media and game elements. “Cut scene”
for example makes little sense to film makers but is the most critical part of development for any video producer working on a game.
Lastly, as mentioned previously, 133t speak as well as Netspeak
are a significant part of player discussion, namely on the web or in online games, so they feed back into the equation too.
Totaling each of the structural components together: General Knowledge Language, Specialized Language (Terminology), Competitive Language and Convergence Language, we have a rather solid foundation in which to further study the the language of our subculture.
This structural skeleton highlights a dialect that many of us have been –-and will always be-- learning for a large part of our lives. Furthermore, within this structure are various specialized subsets which are themselves surprisingly fleshed out. World of Warcraft
is an obvious example. Such examples are still evolving much as with the core dialect and will no doubt make for interesting investigation down the track.
[Daniel Johnson spends too many late nights conversing Mandarin to friends in Shanghai. He studies language and culture, and shares most of his video game musings on his blog at danielprimed.com]