Monday, November 16, 2009

You’re Speaking My Language

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Gamers, like kids and drunks, say the darndest things. Just last night I sat down to play Mario Kart Wii with a few friends. This was only the second time any of us had ever played this incarnation of the game, but we were having a blast just learning the courses and the new power-ups. As we chatted about the mechanics of the game and shouted obscenities at one another, I took note of some of the stranger sentences that sprung unbidden from our mouths:

“I think that if you’re in the air when you get POW’d, you don’t spin out.”

“The lightning storm works like a hot potato! Ram somebody!”

An outsider would surely think us mad, but such is the nature of video games and their effect on language. One of the great beauties of language is its adaptability. Lacking the needed terms to describe a given situation causes players to create their own. When Shakespeare didn’t have a word that worked for one of his plays, he invented one. I’m not saying that words like “POW’d” have quite the same puissance as Shakespeare’s invented words, but they still serve a linguistic purpose. I know that when I played Neverwinter Nights online, terms like PhK and FoD were bandied about, and no one looked askance. We all spoke the same language; our communal terms helped to define us as a community.

(They’re spells, for the curious. Phantasmal Killer and Finger of Death. Both bad news.)

I’ve never played World of Warcraft, and when two of my in-recovery friends speak of their halcyon days in Azeroth they are completely incomprehensible to me. (Chris grows more understandable with each passing day.) I’ve picked up a few words here and there, maybe enough to get around, find a bathroom and even a bite to eat. From the Penny Arcade comic below, for example, I’m pretty sure aggro is aggression and DoT is damage over time. Many gamers use terms like nub, newb or noob to mean someone who is either new to a game or acting like they are. But Omen? Raidwipe? L2P? MT? I need a translator, someone who has walked these lands before.
Whether it’s yelling at a friend to use their star power or complaining about shotty spam, video games do more than take us to new locations. They teach us new, bizarre languages and rule sets that only make sense in the context of the game. We talk about the gaming community as a whole, and the communities that arise around specific genres and games, and nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in these communal languages. It’s a testament to the power of video games that this never strikes us as odd: just like our own native languages seem like the norm to us, the languages of the games we play become perfectly natural over time. It’s only when we walk into a room of people playing a strange game that we realize just how bizarre this phenomenon can be.

So what’s the strangest thing a game has ever driven you to say? Have you ever paused to wonder just how such a sentence left your lips? I know I have.


  1. Translation incoming.

    -Omen = Program that measures your aggro.
    -Raidwipe - When the "raid" or group of players (appx. 10-25 people) all die.
    -L2P - Learn to play.
    -MT - Main Tank. Tanks are the ones who desire to have the highest aggro.

    And much like Gabe, I am angry that I know it.

  2. Left 4 Dead is the king of making me saying weird stuff:

    "I just got boomed!"
    "I'm hunted!"
    "I'm smoked!"

    And two sentences I desperately want to use in everyday conversation:

    "Oh crap, a tank! Light it on fire!"

  3. Anonymous:

    Thanks for the translation! That's Tycho that's angry that he knows it, though, nub. L2P. (How's my accent?)

    Richard Clark:

    Left 4 Dead can definitely be hilarious that way, and the best part is that playing the game can quickly alternate between completely ridiculous statements like, "Agh, I'm blind from boomer bile!" and straight-out-of-action-movies lines like, "Don't go back for him! He's already dead! Get to the chopper!"

  4. Aggro is aggression but what it really means is ATTENTION. As in who the enemy is paying attention to. Aggro management is making sure that it is paying attention to the RIGHT party members: it is your tank's job to maintain aggro and everyone else's job to use a program like Omen to make sure they don't generate so much aggro as to pull the enemy away. It is in many ways the core combat mechanic of WoW.

  5. It's not only in-game abbreviations that are creeping into our everyday life anymore. It's also the shorting of the game titles.
    I worked for EB Games for numerous years in my youth and the days that always made me shutter were the releases of the new EverQuest expansions. Legions of EverQuest zombies would flood into my store and ask for said expansions by its shortened title... "EQ SOL" (EverQuest Shadows of Lucin) or "EQ POP" (Plains of Power) were two that I can remember. I was constantly befuddled by their use of language and scoffed at it even. I thought shorting these titles only alienated who you were talking to...and really highlighted your geekness, as most of the time I would look at them confused until they would then say the entire title, then would give me a look of “I can’t believe you didn’t know that” eye roll.
    These days, it’s hard to be a gamer and NOT abbreviate titles: CoD, GoW (“Gears” or “God” depending on fanboy-ism) MW2, RE4 or 5, etc.
    I’ve even found myself talking with some work mates about these games and others looking at us as if we are speaking a different language. It’ll be interesting to see where the English language will go with the gamer/internet lingo that is becoming common use in everyday life.
    TTYL, Got 2 OWN some NOOBS on MW2. LOLZ.

  6. Chris and I have actually had whole mini-debates about how to shorten certain game titles for the sake of the blog! Your comment about Gears of War/God of War made me think of the time when we decided that Gears of War should be shortened as "Gears" and God of War as "GoW." Good point, Cam! The deeper down the gaming rabbit hole you go, the more incomprehensible you become to the outside world.


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