RPGs As Language: Interpreted Perspectives

September 26, 2013

Language doesn’t determine thought, but it certainly influences it. Even just by habitually training the concepts most commonly interpreted from a dominant language’s usage will bias our thinking toward some perspectives and not others. This tendency is familiar in RPG design, where the language of play affects our most likely choices, even if others exist. A small set of prominent moves or options encourages a player to consider only those on the list, even if flexibility is provided to go far beyond them.

This effect doesn’t end with lists of actions. The way we interact with story and characters can have a surprising effect on what we consider. The languages of character performance lend themselves to emotions, inner lives of those characters, and a concentration on simple expressible relationships. Things like long term character growth or consistency, planning, and details of a setting or situation are likely to be given much less attention. Likewise, a tactical system encourages thinking in terms of risks and benefits, and not the emotional costs of those choices.

Weaving together multiple sub-languages of play is a way to temper the impact of these blind spots, but it can be itself risky. Sometimes you can combine sub-languages and they serve only to highlight what each does not understand about the perspective of the others. Each sub-language gives rise to a separate world with little holding them together. On the other hand, if those links are well designed, then these different domains can shed new light on each other. Together these sub-languages create a unified full language of play which can express perspectives wholly different than its parts.

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