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Speculative Physics

Growing Games: Natural Language and RPGs

by Mendel Schmiedekamp
Aug 19,2004


Growing Games: Natural Language and RPGs

Natural languages are best delineated by the fact that they are not designed, rather they grow and based on countless influences and events. The study of linguistics is the primary tool for analyzing natural language, although some forms of literary analysis are also relevant, especially in discussing the modes within which natural language is expressed.

Descriptive and Prescriptive Methods

In discussing specific languages, two basic methods can be used to analyze them. First, descriptive methods involve observing the way the language works, and building different descriptions, making them more and more accurate, leading to a fuller understanding of the language. Second, prescriptive methods involve defining the language fully, and using this definition to use and analyze the language.

The essential difference between these two methods is that between description and definition. If a language is described in a certain way, and some instance violates that description, it is the description which is incomplete, rather than some error in the instance. On the other hand, if a language is fully defined, then violating this definition is incorrect.

Because of the organic and decentralized nature of natural language the descriptive method is used nearly always. In the next article on computational language we will see that the prescriptive method is used nearly always in that case, since computational languages are centrally and precisely defined. It is unsurprising that linguistics relies on the descriptive approach to analyzing language. Below are some applications of a descriptive approach.

Language Universals

One of the major concerns of linguistics is the differences between languages. While there is a large variety of languages on the planet, there are some regularities which suggest underlying patterns. These patterns can tell us how these languages may have come about, and suggest some of the nonintuitive features of language.

One example of this is the presence of vowels. In particular nearly all languages have the same three vowel sounds in them. These are the i, a, and u sounds. Phonetic theory suggests that this is because these three vowel sounds lie as far apart as possible in terms of sounds that humans can speak and hear. Hence languages have independently developed to use this useful fact.

Another example of these universals is the presence of standard color words in language. In different languages the number of color words vary significantly, but certain features of the list are almost always constant. Languages will have at least two color words, for black and white. The third color word will be for red. The fourth and fifth color words will be for yellow and green, in either order. The sixth will be for blue, and the seventh, for brown. This seems to be related with the ease of distinguishing colors in the visual spectrum.

From a roleplaying perspective there are also elements which act as universals. One example is that of resolution mechanics. Namely, all RPGs have a basic procedure to resolve action. While these vary between task and conflict, and the procedure is highly variable, RPGs capture the idea of how the world works in the context of dynamic resolution. Even freeform games are based on assertion or observation for resolution. Likely this is due to the character centric perspective existing in RPGs.

Historical Linguistics

Another area of linguistics is the history of languages. This field is especially interested in the ways in which languages change and the routes by which modern languages have evolved from earlier ones. In RPGs this has an immediate application, the evolution of RPGs, which in shorter time scales can be followed and similarities between the ideas can be traced back, building family trees of roleplaying, and finding the seminal ideas and elements which make a game what it is.

In historical linguistics there are five main types of linguistic change:

Sound and Phonological Change - These changes are when a word retains its meaning, but changes its sound. These changes produce accents and are the most noticeable, though superficial change between languages. These changes are analogous to changes in terminology, though not the meaning of those terms, such as the many terms used to describe hit points.

Morphological Change - These changes deal with changes in the lowest pieces of meaning, called morphemes. One example is the change in suffix -a from meaning the neuter plural to the feminine singular in the Indo-European language family. This is analogous to the change in the botch mechanic between the second and third versions of the storyteller system, only an isolated subsystem changed, rather than a more global change.

Syntactic Change - These changes occur in the overall structure of the language. For example changes in the order of verbs and subjects are a syntactic change. Analogously changes in the order of resolution tasks, such as randomization occurring before or after declaration, are also syntactic in nature.

Semantic Change - These changes occur in the meaning of parts of the language. One example of this is that the word muscle is derived from "small mouse", but that original meaning is clearly not used or implied when we refer to strength or power as muscle. An analogous difference is when hit points are converted from a simple measure of number of blows withstood before death, to a measure of general health.

Lexical Change - This last type of change occurs when words are lost or gained in a language. Gaining words is a very common occurrence, either due to technology, like the word Television, or due to other cultures such as the use of "e.g." meaning for example. This is analogous to the borrowing, deprecating, and addition of mechanics and setting elements which occurs so frequently in the cross-pollination of RPG design.

Each of these modes of change provides a way to analyze RPG changes. With an understanding of how, and an intuition of why games changes they way they do (both in design and in play), we can truly learn from the past how to design better games.

Adding Structure

Language adds structure in a variety of ways. While the basic language is based on communication, further structure often appears to interfere with communication. In some of these cases people cannot understand each other, as is the case with obscure literary forms and disparate dialects. In others, the structure and rules added help constrain communication to precisely what is desired.

In some cases the structures added to language are cultural in form. This is the case where there is a heightened structure for cross-class communication. Most people are familiar with honorifics and etiquette. This also applies to ritualistic settings, which have their own links to RPGs. There is even a measure of this added structure to the use of language in technical fields, such as the difference in meaning between a technical group in mathematics and its use in the vernacular.

Other common structures are literary genres and poetic forms. The difference between a novel and a short story, or a play and a movie script are valuable. By examining the merits of each genre, it becomes possible to find the correct place for a given inspiration. This is even more prevalent in poetry where numerous forms exist, each with advantages and disadvantages for expression. These genres and forms hold a wealth of opportunity for the design of RPGs.

Genre and Form

Many roleplaying games are likened to novels. The structure of the play is intended to be a series of connected adventures or chapters, building into larger campaigns or books. These games also tend to lean heavily on prose conventions, with descriptions and narrative summaries of uninteresting or unimportant action.

Other games have a structure more like theater or cinema, layering the play into scenes and acts, following a tight structure without need for superfluous scenes or continuation. Other games resemble television, with a theatrical structure within a larger series.

However, other genres and forms exist. For example, poetic forms of expression, sagas, myths, and short stories are rarely used in the design of RPGs. By choosing a different genre or form, new avenues and perspectives on design become available. In particular the example design for this month is a game called In the Box based on a poetic form known as the sestina.

Next Month: Computational Languages

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