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.