Where would you be without language? (Belated Gamescom Followup)

by Dave Proctor

Hello again! It’s been a while, mostly because of three weeks of work catchup after Gamescom that just exhausted me, but I’ve been dying to get back to Destroy Object since my trip to Cologne, for the least of reasons to let you know how great the event was.

500,000 people in attendance over the course of 5 days. It is a staggering, rambling mess of people, and the biggest consumer-facing game event in the world. Given that North America has, like, 12 PAXs and 5 Comic Cons and a hundred Fan Expos, it’s amazing that one of Europe’s few consumer events to actually showcase new games is so well attended. It proves the vitality of the industry and the power of the medium. It is great, and I had fun.

But that’s not what I came here to talk about, game designers. I came to think about what I noticed the moment I landed in Frankfurt, on the one end of a train that would take me into Koln. What I noticed is that I’m a pretty smooth and charming guy… in English.

A bulk of my ability to feel comfortable, capable, and relatively “normal” by my own standards is my ability to speak, (quickly, earnestly, and in a way that demonstrates my emotion to another party), in the language of my surroundings. I can get through any situation where I am lost, confused, or possibly may have offended someone, just by using the codifications and tonalities of the English language. “I can talk my way out of anything,” the old axiom would simplify, but it is more than that. I understand how to accurately explain myself in a variety of situations so I don’t have to “talk my way out” of anything… what I do is venture to better clarify any situation I’m in. I’m good with words. It’s what I do.

What does this mean? This means if I’m at PanExpo in Toronto and I’m demoing a game, I can get people’s attention based on their shirt, or reference something that happened nearby to strike up common ground, and then hopefully get them to demo a game once they know I’m someone who can say something that makes them laugh, or can speak to some common ground between us. It is more than a salesman’s technique. It is an ability to bridge a gap between people that let’s you just have a normal conversation. OR it means that in a restaurant I can quickly establish a relationship between myself and a server, I can understand if they’re in the mood to joke around or not, and I can position myself in such a way that I treat them well, and be either as fun or as boring as the social situation may require. It’s not being untrue to myself… I like making situations easier for everyone around me. It’s kind of my thing. When I design narrative games, I’m trying to read people’s expectations and understanding, and deliver them a story based on that. When I’m out in life I’m also trying to read expectations and understanding. It’s a quality of a good conversationalist.

What I noticed in Cologne is that, robbed of the language, I was complete disarmed.

I had nothing, no chances to ease any tensions for myself or for people around me, I had no ability to help shape a conversational space, and I had a total lack of confidence that I only just this month realized existed entirely in my ability to “talk good.”

This

was

fascinating. 

I do know a bit of German. My family is half Austrian and I am learning the language on a daily basis, but my skill only extends through my ability to order food, and maybe convince people only looking for single lines of dialogue that I live just up the street.

But I realized that for those people looking for more lines of dialogue, THEY, like me in Canada, are trying to establish a conversational space. To establish a good rapport is quite accurately this. It is to establish a harmonious relationship with other people, a situation of understanding. People that share a language and seek to converse with people of that language are seeking to do this. Everyone wants to shorten the distance between each other with language. Without the language, I feel isolated and distant.

So now, I ask you to think about the last time you were in this space. When was the last time you didn’t have language? When was the last time that you didn’t have the means to express yourself in a manner that you deemed necessary to survive in the world you were in?

Are you thinking about it? Good.

Challenge #1: Put yourself in a place where you can feel that again. It is incredible to understand what traits and tics you use the most, how it is you make yourself comfortable.

Challenge #2: Think about people that deal with this on a daily basis. You know where to find them. It is a real concern in a world constantly changing. This is one of those opportunities for empathy that designers get so rarely. Put yourself in that uncomfortable place.

Challenge #3: Can we do this in a video game? What are games but a chance to use a certain set of mechanics and abilities to navigate a world and make ourselves feel in control of it. How can you make a player feel like they have skills that mean nothing? Like they have to learn new things to survive? How can you make a player feel like a tourist lost in the world? Or an immigrant desperate to make connections? How can you make it hit home that we are all reconciled to each other through language.

Just a thought. Missed you all.

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