Speaking Different Tongues: Communication Styles and Gaming

(Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash) This week, I had the pure pleasure of seeing Eddie Izzard live in a 99 seat, intimate theater. His show was fantastic, but also gave me a lot of things to think about (which, I think, is probably a highlight of his comedy.) No, apparently, I cannot just go see a show and relax. However, when I jested on Facebook that we were at an Eddie Izzard playtest, I wasn’t really kidding. It’s not his full show yet; he’s doing a small tour while he tries out the new show in the United States, for small audiences just to see how things work. More so, he’s doing this because the show was originally written and meant to be performed in French. He did it outside of Paris first, and then he did a brief playtest tour in Germany, doing the show in GERMAN. This is his first test audience week doing the show in English, and there were some clear holes where he’s making the transition between the languages. It was fantastic, and the feat of doing a live performance (much less a comedic one) between multiple languages is mind-blowing, but it got me thinking a lot about narrative.

I have vaguely studied a lot of languages in my day. While I’m not conversant in any, I did do my work. I went to undergraduate school in Toronto with a half French, half German theater department wherein I had the honor of taking whole class about Cree storytelling. I was really lucky at school to have an intersection of not just a lot of cultures, but a ton of languages on a daily basis. Language affects not only the way we communicate with other people, but the way our brains process and give information to the world. It’s fascinating. German tends to be a very guttural or stomach language: it’s hungry, filling, voracious, gobbling up a bunch of words into single other words/concepts and warming through the stomach up. Thinking in German tends towards more gut based, full on, all-encompassing and unapologetic reactions to things compared to our French or English native speakers. French is a language of the lips and heart; it’s sweetness, savoring things, drawing out concepts and tasting everything in little bits. It brings breathiness from the chest and lives in the heart region to speak. To think in French was a more delicate but sensual experience than to code-process in English or German. English, however, we are a language of the over-thinking. Complicated and sometimes nonsensical, we are a language of colonizers and people who kidnap concepts from a whole mash of other languages, so it takes us out of our gut or our heart into our heads to be more coldly analytical of things. The bits of Cree I learned were a more out of body experience entirely: Cree was wholistic, a language that considered the land, the spirit, everything around people as much as it did the human concepts it was trying to convey. When trying to speak and write in Cree, I really had to slow down and consider the whole picture. This, partially, might have been how VERY different it was from European languages, but I feel like even the way it was taught to me forced me to consider communication on a more all-encompassing level. (Now, I’ll admit this is all QUITE reductivist, but it’s nearly midnight and I’m trying to get the basics out onto paper while the fire is hot.)

The places where Eddie’s show was a blinding success were where he was able to combine the various languages and thought processes to something that would stretch across our own habitual language emotional coding. More so, the places where it failed were where concepts would be hilarious to a German audience (or French) and their thought patterns, but those bits didn’t come across in English. I was able to pick up enough of it to realize the bits that didn’t work were probably hilarious in the other languages he’d tried them in, but English speakers’ anxiety-over-think everything and it just fell flat. It’s been a long time since I examined code switching (much less emotional code switching) and it was fascinating to watch in a comedic context.

So, this got me thinking about gaming. Most of us grew up speaking different languages. Some of us came from a D&D type, episodic, maximize stats, points, and level characters up kind of games. Some of us came from freeform with the goal of deeply emotional experiences. Some come from Vampire politics and learned to tell stories through the language of backstabbing politics. While most of us have learned to speak a LOT more gaming languages and now live in this mish-mash, tower of Babylon gaming society, it doesn’t change the fact that we grew up speaking a different language. Our coding habits still fall back into those old ways and, when things get stressful or pacing is too quick, we still fall back on old habits.

However, we all have the eventual goal of communicating; we’re all trying to tell some sort of story together, even if we come from different bases of language at the start. So many of the disappointing, frustrating, or even toxic situations come from the fact that people are trying to speak different gaming languages to each other. If we can take steps to acknowledge our old habits and realize they might not be the best/only way to communicate our stories, it leaves us a bit more open to listening to others. Also, when we take a step back to examine the habits we’ve gotten into that could be linked back to the way we first learned to game, we can separate ourselves from them enough to figure if we are coming at difficulties from a respectful, clear-headed point-of-view, or if we’re letting old emotional habits get the best of us. The most difficult thing to do in gaming is to admit that the way you game (and learned to game) might not always be the best way for every situation (See my last two blogs where I both damn and then cheer play-to-win gaming. This presentation was a reflection of my desperate attempts to speak my own native gaming language without wholly considering the merits of other languages out there.)

Moreover, if we take a moment to try and figure out what gaming language OTHER players are speaking, we can better understand how to communicate on their level. Taking that time to consider what language/style your scene partner uses and how to accommodate it into your own style will build better stories between all parties. If you realize that someone is having a negative reaction to a scene because they are intensely in it for play-to-win and you are disregarding a lot of things they worked very hard to do in favor of willful losses, then you can maybe take a step back and ask them the best way to give them their win while you fail in a corner. My reigning in of my own play-to-lose style has almost inherently come out of the fact that I realize if I’m on a team, or have close allies, I can intensely hurt their winning game style by purposefully bringing down a whole team. While that’s the language I use to game, it’s inherently not on the same level of a lot of their languages, so it takes a bit more negotiation for both of us to understand how to play to lift the other. Consciously acknowledging when your gaming language styles are at odds is the first step towards having better gaming conversations.

I don’t know if this metaphor will be interesting or helpful to anyone, but it helped me see things in a new light and I wanted to share those thoughts with the world.  

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