RPGs As Language: Design – Translation Points

October 10, 2013

Even if the game your designing is meant to express a single unified language of play, you can rarely afford to ignore translation to and from that language. Translation is necessary for players to learn play from text or others and to discuss play. This translation of game elements into known modes of communication and experience is what makes the language of play accessible. It is possible to do without, and either trust in the natural human process of building new languages or even to intentionally wrap and set apart the experience of play.

At its simplest designing for translation means discovering or intentionally putting in points where the objects and actions of play closely relate to terms or dynamics in the other language. These points are the atomic elements of translation, the building blocks in which an experience in one language can begin to be expressed in the other. Both similarity and modeling (see my previous post) provide strong opportunities in building translation points – either in borrowing those used by your influences or in linking to the concepts you are simulating. This means cleaving close to your design goals can often give you all the translation points you need.

Even if translation points are not terribly difficult, it is important to keep them basic. Complex parts of your language of play will not easily translate in most cases. Instead the many moving parts need to be translated through the more basic parts of play to unravel the meaning. This produces short-hand concepts and terms, derived from our experiences comprehending larger parts of play, but these short-hand associations are not translation points.

What I call poetry in one language likely translates into another, but not in a simple and direct way. Calling them both poetry wraps an idea, but it doesn’t express the idea and certainly does not give me the tools to translate. For the same reason, “elevator pitches” – the short blurb describing a game experience, are heavily dependent on hard won understanding of myriad cultural and gaming fore bearers. They can be good targeted marketing, but they do instill understanding.


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