The Erosion of Communication

Like waves crashing against a cliff face, video games are slowly eating away at the foundations of the English language. But is that such a bad thing? Let's ask Andrew over on LittleBoBeep.

'Guys, I've done some preliminary calculations and, uhm, judging by the building angle and the estimated distance to heaven... we're fucked.' 'Watchousayin' now, Poindexter? Yer always chattering on, an' it sure do sound like English, but damned if I ain't makin' no sense of it.'

"Dude, you totally just Starcrafted my ammo; I am so gonna Mario your mom," says one gamer to another, by way of insult, and thus with a proverbial mesotron rifle places the last, gleaming bolt of missile energy into the exposed forehead of "linguistic integrity". You don't have to be an Oxbridge Grammarian with a pipe permanently glued to your upper lip and whose definition of a "good night with a lady" is an intimate fireside read of Austen to have your forelocks raised in pre-emptive worry about the State of Things, but let's be candid for a second here folks: language is about communication, and when communication consists of staccato 'splosions of the weird, frantically changing online pidgin that tends to sound like a mix between the attempts to describe the parabolas of the sun by a fourth grader who's just discovered his big bro's cache of MDMA and an intoxicated computer's binary interpretation of The Mikado, something begins to seem a bit awry.

See? You've upset him.

The Erosion of Communication

"WAT teh F0ck d3de, u r n0t g0nna g3t to d4t base b4 1 do!" is the modern form of the old childhood expletive "Tag! You're it!" that invariably cursed the slowest kid around to scramble desperately, wheezingly, after his or her persecutors; it's here again, only filtered through what amounts to an ad hoc "font" of alphanumeric substitutions called 1337 speak. But 1337 speak isn't a problem. It's easily comprehensible once you learn to read it, and doesn't really change the underlying grammar. And you'd have to be pretty stuck up to take offense to something kids have really just grafted on to language. History is full of examples of simple mono-Alphabetic substitution ciphers, like the pigpen cipher, that are extremely easy to decode using simple frequency analysis, and even the most basic of these are nevertheless vastly more obscure than 1337 speak. Nay, I say, NAY, the problem of decaying communication lies not here, but elsewhere.

Now just think back to that classic episode of Star Trek TNG "Darmok," when Picard reveals his hidden (or not so hidden?) linguistic genius by cracking the heavily myth-based and metaphoric Tamarian language. Well the writers weren't stretching particularly far to come up with a language that communicates by referencing cultural, historical, and mythological events condensed into crystallized meaning. All languages do this to one degree or another, and English is no exception. Of course, the creation of these little gemstones of species-memory is often a boon. How else would we succinctly describe something like, for instance, an isometric 3rd-person game involving repeated forays into randomly generated dungeons with randomly generated monsters and randomly generated loot drops colour-coded based on power, value, and rarity, interspersed with truly spectacular boss fights and the nagging, vehemently suppressed feeling of life being irretrievably squandered into an abyss of recapitulated video game tropes? One word: Diablo!

The Erosion of Communication

Yes! Owing to the miracle of idioms we can now reference an entire edifice of cultural experience with a single word. Diablo is a stand-in for the genre of hack and slash RPGs that have flooded the video game market in the last decade and whose basic structures have become practically synonymous with role-playing games period. Typically the word is invoked with an explanatory suffix, like -esque, or -clone, but sometimes even that is eschewed in favour of just calling a Gleaming Nightmarish Spade of Deathly Incarnadine Bloodgasm a Gleaming Nightmarish Spade of Deathly Incarnadine Bloodgasm. "Yeah it's got some Diablo elements," or, "This is Diablo set in [genre]/[place] [time-period]" are fairly common usages. Having played a few Diablo-esque clones with hack-and-slash, action-RPG elements set in the post-apocalyptic future, or the enigmatic Renaissance, or the Samurai-flooded Tokugawa-era of Japan, I can attest to the general validity of these descriptive techniques.

But I think that Ferdinand de Saussure - who so famously divorced the signatory content of a statement (read: the word's meaning) from its phoneme (read: sound) and idea (read: thought) - the very self-same Saussure we all know and love, would at this very instant be celebrating in his grave at the spontaneous forms of usage that explode across the Internet at every conceivable point of human linguistic interaction. In other words, these days we just say whatever the fuck we want. Without pause, we engage in conversation while using a highly personalized lexicon of terms, expressions, words and idioms that, like Picard's incomprehensible Tamarian friend, reference our own past experiences, or at best the experiences we have shared with a very small subset of the broader (potentially inter-galactic) civilization.

Unlike Picard, however, we humble Internet-faring citizens lack either his dapper, chrome-forehead ensconced genius, or even a mere universal translator to help facilitate these simple, daily interactions. Whatever shall we do? The answer is obviously to Zork the Splinter Cell with a God of War, and 3D Realms the Monkey Island just like Bioware did the Grim Fandango. Too confusing? Well, failing that, we could always put all our faith in the third pillar of the linguistic triangle, pragmatics (the other two being syntax and semantics, in case you're trying to impress a date). In brief, we could understand through contextualization. But wait, you say, we're not computers? That's right, and John Searle is in a Chinese Room somewhere trying to eat a bowl of rice with one of Euphemia Allen's musical scores. Go figure.

Andrew Hlavats is a writer over on Little BoBeep. He has an M.A. in Philosophy, and is currently working on a Fantasy novel. He also loves rock-climbing.