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.

When designing languages, whether constructed “natural” languages (conlangs) or formal computation-style languages you should nail down some overarching goals. While in game design as in language design you can simply design ad hoc and see where it takes you, that approach is generally best for practicing design or exploring raw design space rather than utility. A conlang, a new programming language, or an RPG all present at least two very distinct approaches: similarity and modeling.

The similarity approach to designing a language explicitly starts with one or more direct influences from existing languages and (usually) a plan for a few places to innovate or synthesize upon that foundation. For these designs, which in RPGs could be called hacks or heartbreakers depending on context and inclination, this foundation isn’t really laziness. Knowingly or unknowingly familiarity is an important part of these languages. These RPGs and languages are clearly situated within the meta-dialogue of its influences, even if that position doesn’t turn out to be positive or prominent. 

On the other hand, modeling takes something like an imagined society without a sense of self, a logical calculus, or a distributed theatrical performance and tries to capture their dynamics and meaning. While familiar tools are useful for this approach, the overriding goal is to emulate or simulate the system. Fidelity is key.

There is a continuum between similarity and modeling, trading off between the goals of familiarity and fidelity.  Innovation has a place here too, and there is something thrilling in exploring a part of design space without overwhelming ulterior motives. But it is those motives which help turn the speculative exploration into a concrete discovery.

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.

Judgements about ephemera, which form a corner stone of mechanics, seem an awful lot like the interpretations we use when translating between sub-languages. At first blush it is tempting to just attribute the difference to scales. Mechanics form the patterns which are translated. But translation between two sub-languages of play isn’t something which happens outside of play – it is part of playing. To have two sub-languages within a language is also to have means within the language for relating what is in each of them.

Rather than purely happening at a different scale, mechanics are a means for translation, and even a single mechanic can also serve to translate on its own between sub-languages of play. This is like the interpretation of a single sound or symbol within a word transforming the meaning and understanding of the entire context of that word. Natural languages make from this phenomena things like puns, innuendo, and poetics. As RPG design continues to explore the mechanical translation among sub-languages (or as some put it mechanics between ‘clouds’ and ‘boxes’) there is almost certainly a wealth of potential to discover.

Both languages and RPGs can be decomposed into smaller pieces that behave in much the same way. For languages, this includes things like the technical language of law, screenwriting, or botany. In RPGs this is often seen in subsystems and halo of communication which occurs around them. These sub-languages are valuable because they provide a focused, way to communicate within a specific context. Thus, only considering a sub-language allows a narrowing of attention and a refinement of purpose, than concerning ourselves with the entire possible language or game.

However, sub-languages provide another possibility when they are brought together. If we look at two sub-languages within the same language or RPG, there are likely common elements as well as places which are incompatible, at least at first glance. Going from one sub-language to another requires translation, just as passing between any two languages does. However, this translation is built on a layer of commonalities, those aspects shared in both sub-languages. This makes translation necessary, but comparatively easy.

As mentioned earlier, translation exposes the semantics or meaning of what is being communicated and expressed. In contrast a single sub-language promotes focus and can eventually drive toward the pure syntactic manipulation of the sub-language as an end to itself, especially if that sub-language is part of an RPG. One prediction from these observations is that styles of play focused on concentration and immersion lend themselves to single sub-languages for most or all of play. Conversely, styles of play which focus on interpreting stories and themes lend themselves to multiple related sub-languages and the translation among them as being central to play. Of course, beyond either of those two styles, there are many other styles of play which could also be considered more semantic or more syntactic.

Most languages we encounter are natural languages, which means there is a relatively unconstrained process of change within the language. That is why those languages have differences between the prescriptive grammar of how the language is intended to be used and descriptive grammar of how they are actually used. But in mathematical fields, there is a type of language, called a formal language, which is precisely defined by a single grammar, even in terms of its use. Formal languages are, loosely, taking the idea of a language and turning it into a mathematical abstraction.

Most formal languages don’t have a notion of semantics (or meaning), they simply take abstract symbols sequences and describe rules to assemble or recognize them. But some formal languages, including all programming languages, have semantics. The semantics of a formal language are a set of rules taking something in that language and transforming it into a sequence of actions, such as instructions for a computer. This seems simple at first, but remember, the way we build a language is a series of actions, and under the same abstraction as natural languages, any collection of series of actions can be treated as a formal language. The flip side of this is that in order to translate, we must drill down to meaning, not merely semantics or usage.

For RPGs, this implies that translating between languages of play forces us to address the meaning of what is happening in play. This can be an extremely powerful tool in design. By designing or even just allowing multiple languages of play, the interactions between them give rise to a unique play experience.

RPGs As Language: Resolving

September 8, 2013

From a language perspective it is possible to generalize the typical RPG concept of resolution. While most often resolution in RPGs refers to a movement in time taking an action from attempted to accomplished or failed it its consequential effects – but this ties things into fictional time in a way which doesn’t extrapolate well when things are not evolving in fictional time, or there is no immediate fiction at all. But it is just as valid to look at that situation in terms of resolving a discrepancy among possible outcomes – in which case it is the process of paring down possibilities and clarifying details of the social or fictional content which is the root of resolving.

Which means you can resolve anything from play procedures to fictional relationship statuses, from back story to exposing hidden emotions (fictional or otherwise). Resolving is, in essence, a fairly self-contained part of the process of sharing which is built on mechanics and ephemera (which I’ve described earlier). For the moment, we can think of resolution as a ‘sentence’ within the overall communication of sharing. and in that vein the ‘how’ of the resolution can the thought of as a ‘verb’, while the ‘what’ is like the ‘noun’.