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Memory Insufficient: Language and Games


Recently, I had the hon­our of being guest editor on Memory Insuf­fi­cient, the games his­tory ezine. I edited the spe­cial issue on Lan­guage and Games. You can read the edit­or­ial from the issue below, but really you should just go and down­load the whole issue here [pdf], because it’s free.

Lan­guage is a part of human cog­ni­tion that we’re mostly unaware of - we use it auto­mat­ic­ally, only pay­ing con­scious atten­tion to it when it is prob­lem­atic or sur­pris­ing for us: when we are com­pos­ing a dif­fi­cult text or a speech, when we don’t under­stand what someone is say­ing, or when we are con­fron­ted with an unex­pec­ted turn of phrase or accent.
The role of lan­guage in games goes unnoticed most of the time. In the vast major­ity of cases, lan­guage in games is a means to an end: instruc­tions need to be clear, dia­logues and descrip­tions must just be adequate. Lan­guage is not often con­sidered any­thing other than a medium for information.

Yet, lan­guage is more than just a medium. It can be part of a vir­tual world’s set­ting, much like land­scapes, char­ac­ters, archi­tec­ture, visual art, etc. It can be part of the ludic struc­ture of a game: lan­guage fore­groun­ded as a chal­lenge and mech­anic, rather than just a car­rier of mean­ings. And it can be a prac­tical factor out­side of the game, but within the game’s social con­text: as play­ers, we chat with oth­ers in writ­ing and speech, which can col­our the com­munit­ies of gam­ing in vari­ous ways.

The art­icles in this issue take up some of these less obvi­ous but import­ant roles that lan­guage may play in games. Corey Milne takes us to the island of Montague’s Mount, and explores how the game’s use of the Irish lan­guage pos­i­tions the set­ting of the game, and how it caused him to reflect on his own rela­tion­ship with the second mother tongue of his home country.

Alex Fleet­wood invites us on a jour­ney through sev­eral iter­a­tions of the design of Hin­ter­land — a game about poetry and trans­la­tion played out on the streets of our cit­ies. Along the way, we encounter insights into the nature of trans­la­tion as a game mech­anic, the social con­sequences of mono- and mul­ti­lin­gual­ism, and the lin­guistic land­scape of mod­ern cities.

Finally, Kishonna Gray exam­ines the role of lin­guistic pro­fil­ing in the online voice chat rooms of Xbox Live, how it enables racism and sex­ism in par­tic­u­lar ways, and also how lan­guage may be used to express online gamer iden­tit­ies. These are but three of the ways in which the role of lan­guage in games may be stud­ied. It is my hope that you will be inspired by these art­icles, and per­haps you will dis­cover new ways of look­ing at language.