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Speculative Physics

Speaking in Tongues

by Mendel Schmiedekamp
Jul 21,2004


Speaking in Tongues

Last month I discussed RPGs as information, and qualities and ramifications of this perspective. However, an RPG is not only content, it is also a medium in itself. Each is a language used to express and give meaning to the gameplay.

Content and Media

Languages possess a dual property. On one hand, they act as means to communicate and express. On the other hand, the language constrains what can be said, and gives the underlying meaning of expression. This makes language something which can be contained and described, and whose description has an important effect on its use.

Like no other media, language is capable of being expressed within itself, and even more importantly, language is the natural way we present and express language. Sculpture, song, and other artistic media cannot describe themselves, except in the most contrived manner. But with language each layer is both content of the previous layer, and the media for the next one.

An RPG is one of these layers, both expressed in language, and being used as one. Languages come in many forms. The most common type of language we encounter is natural language which are the many different ways humans communicate. Having evolved over millennia, these languages have many complex features which perhaps reflect how we think and view the world. A more technical type of language is computer languages. These have been intentionally designed to improve conciseness and clarity, with varying levels of success. The last major category is mathematical languages. These reduce language to its simplest components, in order to understand the expressive power of language.

Natural Language

Natural languages are the ones people develop on their own, and evolve as such, allowing us to communicate. These are languages with a rich history and structure, where the evolution and application is the focus of the theory. Whether it is the relationship between atoms of a game, and the available phonemes for natural language communication, or the deduction of distant root languages being used to attempt a sort of RPG archeology, this type of language has many disparate things to offer.

Natural language also offers allegories for the different ways people communicate and express within language. In RPGs when we talk about genre, we usually mean some broad setting constraints, such as pulp action or horror sci-fi. But genre can also be the structure of the game, making it more like a short story or a poem. While most games are designed as either long plays or novels, this does not preclude other options, for example a game whose purpose is to make many short sessions, based on the limerick.

Computer Languages

Computational languages are based on the need to communicate with computers and similar systems. This includes programming languages and communication protocols. What is important about these languages is that they (especially programming languages) are used to build systems, in a direct designed manner. Unlike natural languages, which facilitate many general modes of expression, computational languages are focused on a small number of applications. Thus the intuition gained by treating RPGs as computational languages stems from relating the structure of the game to to the structure and properties of the play. Analogies can then be made from different types of languages, object oriented or logic programming, to the evolution and design of modern RPGs.

Another perspective is that computer languages are the only languages that are truly designed. While some people may write natural languages, the intent is to make the language as close to a natural one as possible, not to gear it to a particular application. In designing and checking a computer language a variety of techniques exist, which also parallel the design and testing of RPGs.

Mathematical Languages

Mathematical languages are more closely related to the theoretical ideas of what language, communication, and information are. Mathematical languages are based out of the Chomsky hierarchy, and can be made using a generating machine or a set of rules. These machines are based on finite control, which may incorporate memory structures. Some of this were described in a previous article, here.

Studying the hierarchy of mathematical languages also gives some insight into the power of a particular game. For example, a generic system will be able to simulate any other game given the right components, usually setting elements such as the Force in Star Wars or Hobbits in Lord of the Rings. One natural question is what are the simplest requirements to achieve this sort of game. This is related to the idea of a Universal Turing Machine, a simple machine that can simulate any physical machine. On the other hand, generic games often require significantly more complexity and overhead to simulate some games. Similar results in complexity theory imply that this problem can never be overcome.

A valuable tool in the field of mathematical languages is the transducer, a machine that translates between two languages. Transducers act in much the same way as game conversions. They also provide a way to relate similar languages, by classifying types of transducers. Using this same approach to conversion methods may yield more precise ways to classify RPGs.

Next: In the next three articles I will be discussing more deeply each of these areas of language, present an example design to illustrate some of the techniques.

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