Bad Words

It's time for a vocabulary refresh.

By: Rowan Kaiser

Filed Under: Editorial Industry


Look, I love games. I love talking about games, and I love writing about games. But it can be maddening at times. We like to say things as though they have meaning, but they don’t. For example, Attending the Game Developers Conference as a critic can be a wonderful experience. We, like most players, deal with the game almost exclusively as a final product, while developers deal with it as it’s made. This makes for entirely different perspectives and terminologies used for the same thing, which is often fascinating to see in practice. And then one of them describes how something can make games more “immersive” and it all comes to a screeching halt.

GDC can also be an effective place to find out that the kind of language people use to talk about games is faintly ridiculous, whether used by journalists, developers, or fans. We’ll all be much better off discussing games if we can get rid of some of the terms can mask meaning, instead of clarifying it.

I pick on immersive because it’s the word that so many people still use to describe the highest potential experience with gaming. There are some huge problems with the term, however. To be “immersed” is to be fully enveloped by water. There are negative connotations there—drowning—as well as odd religious, baptismal implications. Perhaps most importantly, this state of immersion is not something that can be discussed or pinned down. What traits make a game more immersive? Are the so-called “immersive sims” like Deus Ex and Dishonored actually more immersive than non-immersive sim games?

Perhaps most importantly, there are better, non-confusing terms that can be used. At GDC 2012, Richard Lemarchand, a lead designer Naughty Dog for the Uncharted series, gave a talk titled “Attention Not Immersion.” The presentation is worth reading in full, but even without reading it, the benefits of using “attention” are significant. It’s more accurate a descriptor feeling of how I play games, for one thing; great games grab and hold my attention, they don’t drown me. It lacks those odd negative or religious connotations. Perhaps most importantly, it’s something that can be studied, quantified, and tweaked. Lemarchand noted that people seeing nature for a few minutes, even just in pictures, could help relieve mental exhaustion—so the Uncharted series intersperses its platforming and shooting with slow, pretty sequences, like the village in Uncharted 2.

While we’re at it, let’s toss addicting in the bin, for similar reasons as immersive. The negative connotations here are even worse, as it’s generally used to describe drug and alcohol abusers. There are also scientific issues from multiple different directions—the question of whether games are addictive hasn’t exactly been definitively resolved, resolved. For another, I know I learned that addiction required the arrival of a foreign chemical in the body, which separates it from dependence, which can occur with anything. Our use of a term like that merely muddies these issues. Finally, like immersion, the use of addicting to describe a game in a positive sense comes across oddly. It implies that the player isn’t in control of when and how much they play the game, as opposed to an active desire to want to play a great game. I know which one sounds better to me.

A few other terms often used to positively describe games that don’t actually really mean anything: compelling, engaging, solid. If you’re using these as synonyms for “good,” sure, that’s fine, if limited. I quite like “compelling” along those lines myself. But they don’t actually mean anything other than that. “This game is solid” offers exactly as much insight as “this game is good.”

And that brings us to the ultimate synonym for “good” when describing games: fun. I’m not sure any term holds discourse back more than this, which implies that there’s some grand, nebulous feeling of “fun” that ties together all games (except of course for “serious games”). Am I seriously supposed to have the same feeling of fun while playing Civilization as I am competing at Soul Calibur, playing Rock Band with friends, looking for headshots in Mass Effect, or engaging in long conversations with squadmates in, uh, Mass Effect? The thing that ties these all together is that I like them. They’re similar experiences I receive from playing well-designed games. Even when I play a “serious” game like Fate Of The World, I still find its craft compelling enough (a-ha!) to hold my attention, even as the subject matter affects my external emotions. Discussing “fun,” especially as the primary goal of a game, limits discussion far more than it adds.

There are a few more rarely-questioned assumptions about what games are or should be. I’ve always found the idea that games are escapist off-putting and insufficient. There is an assumption about the player’s motivation in gaming there; the idea that we love games because we hate reality. On the other side, the concept of escapism is often  used to defend the worst aspects of games. Because a game is deliberately unreal, that can excuse the excesses of racism or sexist or brutality or even just tackiness isn’t a problem worthy of criticism?

At this year’s GDC, game theorist Jane McGonigal tore into the idea of games as escapism, explaining that “expansive” is a far better term. I found it to be a superb argument, myself. But even without embracing her dichotomy between expansion and escapism, I think “escapism” is worth getting rid of. It adds very little to our understanding of games, and it negatively confuses discussion of why players play games.

An almost identical argument can be made against the concept of games as power fantasy. The idea that your in-game character(s) are supposed to grow an become more capable and become more powerful is ingrained in discussions of gaming as a cause of why games are popular. It’s certainly a seductive idea, and very similar to an argument I’ve made about how video games hold appear in part because they’re comprehensible in a way that the real world is not. But I think power fantasy is an effect of how games are built, rather than their cause.

When I was a kid, I played Doom almost entirely by opening the console and typing in ‘iddqd,’ the command that made you invincible. That, you could argue, was a power fantasy, but I’m not so sure. I think the fact that I wanted to see the whole game, and I kinda sucked (seriously, I used a joystick), was my main motivator. Both I and video gaming generally have moved away from invincibility and cheat codes. It takes a lot of work to play a game as that purest power fantasy. It’s also pretty boring. Trying to ensure that video games have the proper of level of challenge is one of the toughest jobs of a game developer, and failing at that can ensure that a game is poorly received. It makes far more sense to argue that games are a challenge fantasy—attempts to create fair tests of skill and cleverness—as we’re rarely tested on such things

Finally, in honor of the late Roger Ebert, let’s stop discussing games as art. The idea that if something is art, it’s somehow better or more deserving of respect is ridiculous. There’s lots of shit out there in the fine arts or in mass media commonly accepted as art. It’s just bad art. And there’s not going to be any specific video game that’s so artistically viable that cynics are going to believe that games are art. That’s why they’re cynics. Arguing about Platonic ideals like art brings absolutely nothing to a discussion other than one’s own baggage.

We can say good, smart things about video games! In fact, we do say those things. But they’re too often buried beneath meaningless, confusing conventions of language. Let’s do better.

Filed Under: Editorial Industry

About the Author:
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a contributing writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq, Gameranx, and Unwinnable.

5 Responses to “Bad Words”

  1. Noel Kirkpatrick

    And then that village in Uncharted 2 is destroyed. With a tank. And a mob of Russian mercenaries. Poor village.

    I’m not in disagreement with much of this, but I’m not as wholly invested in the medium developing a language to talk about itself as you are, either. ‘Immersive’ is decidedly useless, and I do rather like ‘attention’ as a replacement.

    However, I’m left thinking about getting rid of ‘fun’ and I’m not sure I want to do that. I like the word ‘fun.’ I don’t expect it to tie together all games, but I feel like ‘fun’ is an important part of playing (in its broadest use), and a decent enough descriptor of my experiences with some games.

    Which leads me to the question that I’m wondering about, and perhaps you can you enlighten me about it. Where’s ‘pleasure’ in all of this? You don’t use it, and I’m not sure how often I see it used, or how it’s used, when I read (an admittedly small amount) of game criticism and journalism. I ask because in trying to work out my reason for wanting to keep ‘fun’, I went to your notion about having a “grand, nebulous feeling of ‘fun’ that ties together all games” and realized that ‘pleasure’ would be a better word there, maybe? But even then I’m still experiencing different pleasures from different games. My pleasure in Mario Kart is different from my pleasures from Spec Ops: The Line is different from playing Drop 7. Worth considering its use or not?

  2. Steven Sukkau

    Agreed! Compelling seems inadequate, I mean what is the game compelling you to do? Keep playing, like an A&W commercials compels me to buy a hamburger? Does that make it a good game? What if the game compels you to stop playing? You’re right, we’re basically using a lot of different words to say the same thing: “This game is good.”

    So how do we do better? To craft better words do we just need a more intimate understanding of the medium?

  3. Dave Crewe

    Most of these points are valid; I think “immersive,” while certainly overused, has its place, though. While all “immersive” games certainly capture your attention, not every game that has one’s attention “immerses” you.

    “Immersive” implied being lost in a game (and, yes, that carries negative connotations), and while people use the word so much that it’s meaningless, there’s a difference between a game that can hold your attention for long stretches of time compared to a game that makes you forget you’re playing a game (the kind of game that has you physically moving with the character without even realising it). It wouldn’t surprise me that game critics don’t get immersed in this sense very often, because you should be approaching the game with a critical eye, but as someone who only plays games occasionally, I’ve been “immersed” in that sense many times.

    So I don’t think there’s a problem with the word “immersive,” as much as a problem with how it’s used. Similarly for “addicting” or “addictive” – if people use it in a positive fashion without any due consideration, sure, that’s an issue, but games can be addictive and it shouldn’t be an issue to recognise that (again, as long as the word isn’t overused). This is particularly true for games that go out of their way to make them selves addicting (or creating dependence, if you’d prefer) with a chain of task-reward activities or poker-machine-esque flashing colours etc.

  4. Z

    Disagree quite a lot with this. Arguing for the removal of terms like ‘fun’ and ‘art’ seems like you’re shooting yourself in the foot, as good games (that is, games of quality to a generally-recognisable standard) are at least one of those two. I love Roger Ebert, but I disagreed with him on a lot (Die Hard, for instance) and same here; we don’t have to give up the fight and relegate games to the childish escapist shelf that nongamers so often want to put them. Don’t like these terms? Fine, don’t use them. But do recognise that they’re good touchstones for people to appreciate what we’re talking about, and understand – you don’t really offer alternatives, but I’m guessing they wouldn’t be ones that make talking to non-gamers about games easier or more fulfilling for either party…

  5. Jesse Miksic

    I’m 100% with Z on this. If you want to introduce new terms and new meanings to the discourse, fine, but don’t impugn others’ ability to be conscious of the words they’re using, and don’t call for some sort of hedge-clipping to keep our critical vocabulary under control. Not only is it counter-productive to intentionally suppress discourse… people won’t do it anyway, no matter how much you call for it.

    As for these terms… let’s see. Dave Crewe sums up “immersive” quite clearly. The goal here is that you get so mentally involved in the game that you forget the outside world. Do you disapprove of this, like you disapprove of “escapism”? Fine, but I don’t share that judgment, and neither do most of the gamers I know, who find that they can best appreciate the full game experience — all its complexity, all its narrative subtlety, all its art — if they can become “immersed” in the game, just like you might become “immersed” in water. The word doesn’t scare me… drowning isn’t enough of an existential phobia that it overrules the metaphor.

    Addicting is another one that has clear, useful application in discussing games, or any media, for that matter. How long has it been since you read a book that you wanted to keep reading, even during work? That you kept thinking about when you were doing other things, eager to get back to it when you had a few free minutes? Some games share that quality, and it’s a hallmark of a well-crafted, gamer-centric experience. These books and these games share a quality — a quality of compulsion, the result of a powerful experience that hooks into the subconscious — and I think “addicting” has the right metaphorical valence to describe that. I can’t think of a better word, and you certainly haven’t suggested one.

    Maybe the fact that these words are overused is a sign that these merits, or criteria for quality, are over-stressed in mass market gaming. I would accept this critique… what don’t we have more games that are formalist and cerebral, rather than immersive? (note that “addicting” is used often for mobile games, but “immersive” is not, which demonstrates that these words DO in fact still have meaning) If the problem is with a skewed emphasis in game design and criticism, then we have to design a wider variety of games, and cultivate a better critical appreciation for non-immersive, non-addicting games. Removing the words from the critical vocabulary isn’t going to help this problem, though.

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