Building a Critical Language

[UPDATE: My views on this topic have evolved. Today I know that game designers have plenty of tools without a formalized language, and that the game development process is more about doing and listening than saying. This old post was written by a younger version of myself who was frustrated by scattered and inconsistent design teachings, not realizing that the answers come from finishing more games!]

“As game designers, we need a way to analyze games, to try to understand them, and to understand what works and what makes them interesting. We need a critical language. And since this is basically a new form, despite its tremendous growth and staggering diversity, we need to invent one.” -Greg Costikyan [I Have No Words & I Must Design, 1994]

I have a fascination for language and how it influences our ability to think critically and creatively. I often wonder if there are concepts or ideas I struggle to understand, or have yet to even be exposed to, simply because of the limits of the American-English language. Have there been any significant international projects that required high level intellectual communication between multiple languages and cultures? If so, how did we make them work?

The games industry needs this. It’s been nearly 20 years since Costikyan wrote his seminal work… so how come it feels like we haven’t made that much progress? Who is at the forefront of this exploration and development of a common language among game developers? And how come as a 5th year Game Design & Development student that is about to graduate, I have never encountered a discussion on this topic in any of my classes?

I have seen first hand how this issue can hold developers back. I have worked on projects where team members were incapable of talking about games outside of their personal experiences as gamers, and as a result could not effectively communicate their ideas.

So where is the progress being made? I loved Doug Church’s “Formal Abstract Design Tools” [1999], but even that was over a decade ago. Every other article and reference seems to just be a slight extension of the ideas formulated by Costikyan and Church.

I want nothing more than to be able to learn from the work that has already been done, and to be at the frontlines of this exciting trek forward! But where do I start?

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