Gaming Nomenclature

Few people know this about game design, but there is not a shared language of terminology to describe like results. A game mechanics like hit points might be called a personal resource or a game battery or a wound meter or any number of terms based on which designer you are talking to. And most avoid using terminology altogether when talking with consumers because how exciting is it to talk about attribute nodes colliding with your thematic/categorical action-response arcs in a four-player worker-placement euro-hybrid defense game.

I could go on about the lack of consistent nomenclature in gaming, but I want to talk about it from a different perspective that just consistent terms from designer to designer. What I’d like to address is the lack of subject agreement logic, concise language, and specificity that makes gaming a chore.

Let’s start first with something that drives me kind of nuts going on in the hipster movement: retro-thematic terminology. I don’t care how good your game is, if you feel the need to call a mechanic that objectifies an action “reify”, you are trying too hard. If your game mechanics require that I use a very specific parlance “I do not agree with your supposition, old friend” in order to activate the oppositional matrix, you are trying too hard. Even Unknown Armies “can of whoop ass game mechanic title” rubs me the wrong way and I love most everything Stolze writes.

But enough about my personal dislikes, let’s get to subject-agreement in writing.

Half of what I’ve learned about technical writing comes from having to edit two-cents per word freelance submissions. Back in my Shadis days we had a number of great writers turning in work for almost nothing, but there were also some never-been-published rookies who loved cliche, poor clause structure, and a lack of understanding of subject agreement.

Every board game, card game, and roleplaying game fails to understand the value of subject agreement. It’s kind of like a rule that floats around in the background and when it’s followed it just tightens everything up nicely. And when it’s ignored, well…. only grammar “ethusiasts” really notice it. But it kind of works like this.

Your card titles or your section breaks are either Nouns, Adjectives, or Verbs. They are not all three. You shouldn’t have a book chapter called Equipment, followed up Quick or Running. It just doesn’t make any sense. The same goes for subsections of your books or cards. Or whatever. Now, CCGs are huge detractors from these rules and they shouldn’t be. They probably have the most to gain by using a consistent structure. Structure, not stricture.

Imagine Magic the Gathering always using adjectives for enchantment spells and nouns for sorcery spells. Creatures are already proper nouns and artifacts usually are too. But what if interrupts had to be verbs? All of a sudden the game might click even faster for people attuned to these kinds of signifiers.

This kind of adherence to nomenclature may seem overly anal, but imagine it this way. There’s an intuitive signifier at play here. If I am reading a book and nouns are always used to signify locations, verbs signify action cards, and adjectives signify enchantments/enhancements, that’s one more signifier I can intuitively draw from to know what kind of card is in my hand. But if an action card title is constantly different, then I’ve lost access to this signifier. And modern gaming is about signifiers, usually graphically, but as games grow more complicated and simplified at the same time, these signifiers grow more important to publishers.

Ticket to Ride may be one of the best examples of graphical signifiers in the board gaming world. Colored cards have different shapes, textures, and trains on them, all signifying that a card is yellow or red or whatever. So, even if you are color-blind, you know one card from another. A circle from a diamond and so on. These signifiers exist in graphics whether you are paying attention or not.

But they don’t exist all the time in writing. And writers who take the time to go back and check their chapter headers and section headers and mechanical nomenclature may seem an improvement in their documentation once they realize that subject-agreement is a powerful and useful tool for any kind of technical writing.

And yes. Most gaming material is technical writing.

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