Gamer English

As a native English speaker, I tend to assume that I will be able to understand when other people speak my language, even if they have little skill and perhaps a heavy accent. It may take a repeat or two, but I eventually get it.

gamer cat In the gaming world, language permutations are rather common. Although not at all specific to social games, I was made particularly aware of this trend through the Facebook platform. In the world of Facebook apps, people "friend" each other in order to play together although they don’t know each other at all and likely never will. In a way, they are creating their own community to play with from a pool of possible fellow players. Although this kind of community full of strangers is like a server in a typical MMO, it’s also quite different. A server, one’s community, in an MMO is typically restricted to a certain region, often along country lines, and the language differences are not very great, especially in the US. In Asia and Europe, it’s much more likely one encounters different languages, but they are still those likely to be encountered in a single regional area. 

There are three different groups of gamers in which I’ve noticed language change happening:

1. Social media + games

2. MMOs

3. Text-based games.

All groups show signs of problematic grammar usage. Spelling includes both common mistakes as well as purposeful shorthand. The most interesting thing I’ve found is change that seems to result from learning the language aurally. Combining that with the other two changes of English, I find it quite hard to all your base understand sometimes. Considering that these changes typically occur because of different mother languages, it can also happen that new words are formed for a particular group, especially if there is a minority of native English speakers in said group. Add that into the mix and one begins to wonder just how English this “English” really is.

I am no linguist, so I will make no broad claims about how or why this is happening, but I find it especially fascinating that the group most impacted by these language changes is the one involving social media.  I do admit this may be purely due to personal experience and would love to hear your own experiences if they differ from mine. Since Facebook as a gaming platform has no regional barriers, I have app buddies from all corners of the globe while my experience in other games tends to be more heavily weighted toward native English speakers due to my location in North America.

There are two ways I encounter language change in social media. First, I occasionally will get requests on Facebook that are written in 2 or 3 languages – typically a native language, a bastardized English, and then occasionally something else based on I do not know what. “Aidez-moi svp, pls hlp, piaco graci mio.” [Yes, the third is my made-up Italian-looking gibberish.] Second, I see comments on either peoples’ app-related posts or their personal statuses and photos.

preposition It is the comments on photos and personal statuses that show the most extensive changes in English, to such an extent, I often cannot understand what is being said. Perhaps this is because people are trying to actually communicate something substantial, as opposed to just asking for general help with an application. I can pick out words, and sometimes I can read all of the words, but the manner in which they are joined combined with a plethora of emoticons makes the thoughts communicated impenetrable to me, while others in their community are able to respond and converse. I see this happen most often between Asian users. It is not always so extreme. There are also some comments I can usually understand, but they seem to come from people who have learned no English in school and instead have just picked up words either from seeing other application user’s comments or from the applications themselves or even from real life. These comments do not try to carry on a conversation – instead, they simply express thanks or need. These users are most predominantly Hispanic I have found but there are also those from Eastern Europe and Asia whose comments fit in this category.  There are also the comments by native non-American English speakers which tend to be mangled more by the Internet than that of my fellow Americans for reasons of which I’m unaware. It is the extremely different English comments  of my Asian app buddies though that most baffle me. It is unclear to me how such extensive changes take place while still conveying a sense that the users have actually had some education in English though clearly a small amount and as a second/third language.

I have separated them somewhat by region and that may be influenced by educational practices in the various countries. European ESL folk tend to be the most clear when using English, but I assume that is because most start learning English in school at a young age. Since all my languages are European or form the base of European languages, perhaps it is just easier for me to understand their use of English and to not notice so much the changes in grammar.

video games teacher How would these different kinds of English usages arise? Games with a social component certainly are a huge incentive for this. One needs to communicate, even if just a little, with one’s fellow players even in a game so simple as a Facebook app. English is the language of many of the main applications on the platform, so unless they use some translator, some basic form of English certainly helps though it isn’t hard to tell what is being said in a Facebook app since almost all of them follow the same basic formula. This formulaic simplicity likely helps with basic vocabulary acquisition.

The big question I have though is why is it so much more prevalent on Facebook than in an MMO? I think one of the primary reasons is the state of textuality in the games themselves. MMOs are typically translated to the language of their target region, so an understanding of English is not required to play the game, but rather serves as a bridge to other players if necessary. North American servers occasionally encounter players who rarely speak English, for example, some French-speakers from Canada, but they are such a small segment of the population that it has no real effect outside of their immediate group.

In text-based games, the difference lies not so much in the difference of language in the text, but simply the aspect of textuality itself. I have little experience with contemporary text-based games, but I would imagine the impact of textuality would create a different kind of petri dish for language breeding. Depending on the language setting of the game, the population of the community (which is not so strictly monitored as in an MMO), and the level of interaction among players, the language permutations found here could be vastly different from those in other game settings. Even in these different conditions, English very often serves as a kind of administrative language, if you will. For example, one web-based game whose website is translated into 24 languages and whose forums have separate boards for separate languages, still shows the English segment of the forum to be the most-used and the site’s general information how-to-play section is also in English. Clearly, if one seeks to play a game like this to one’s full potential, knowing English in some way is going to be beneficial. Even if one’s client of the game is in one’s mother language, if the community one is playing with speaks primarily English, the player will naturally pick up phrases and words even with no English background. I am not sure if the manner of acquisition would be different depending on original mother language, but it would be a fascinating study.

Perhaps the most fascinating result is that I, as a native English speaker, have to learn a strange permutation of English in order to communicate to my Facebook app buddies. I do not need to be able to write this language – simply to read it superficially enough to understand it. What kind of literacy is that? AESL – Alternate English Sub-Literacy. I jest and am also quite serious.

Social Games and the Pastoral

When I hear the term “pastoral”, my mind immediately jumps to Vergil’s Georgics or maybe Daphnis and Chloe. It’s a peaceful, idyllic setting where the concerns of politics and the city are far away. The music of shepherds’ lutes and birds’ chatter fills the air while a soft breeze carries the scent of wildflowers from the nearby meadow. The sun reflects off the glass surface of the lake and sheep pasture closeby.

Our modern time may be quite different than it was then but there is still the keen desire to escape the concerns of the “real world”. Our Rome is just as busy, just as stressful, just as demanding as ever it was. Peace is not as distant as it was perhaps, but rarely does it stay long in our souls.

Out of all the many games on the Facebook platform, Farmville alone has claimed numbers reaching above 70 million. It is not a pretty game by any definition I don’t think, nor is it complex. Its mechanics are accessible and its ideas common. In the US where agriculture as a profession has fallen ~70% in the last 140 years, is it no wonder that so many idealize the life of their forebears? Surely, one may think, it was better in those times when one simply hoed, and planted, and watered, and harvested. Tend the animals, weed the crops, prune the vines. No hustling and bustling, just the sweet rhythm of hoe/plant/water.

Most of us realize that life, in fact, wasn’t just a peaceful utopia then. It was hard. I remember reading the Little House on the Prairie books as a child and thinking I would never want to be her. Thank you very much for my computer and A/C , I’d like to keep them. Even so, the thought of no deadlines, no emails, and no facebook sounds just a tad enticing…for a moment.

Metaplace’s My Vineyard I think does an even better job of creating a pastoral setting. Even the music in that game is relaxing. Sadly, it hasn’t had the time or marketing that Farmville has had, and I’m not sure it actually is different enough to be a success, yet it illustrates the same thematic concerns.  Other games have recently also tried to capture this peaceful kind of utopia, but through a desert island.

A desert island is quite similar to the pastoral setting of agriculture. It isn’t actually all peace and pretty. If you were actually alone on a desert island, not getting killed by raptors and perhaps finding some food would be your main concern, not completing a collection of Renaissance paintings. (I here reference Zynga’s Treasure Isle). And yet, suspension of disbelief is no struggle in this game either. Millions again are happy to click around, digging up treasure and decorating their personal island with seashells and baby (vegetarian) jaguars.

It doesn’t really make me happy that Zynga is our culture’s Vergil, but perhaps it’s telling. Actually, I’d more like to compare Zynga to Cicero’s failed attempts at poetry since they are equally as artful.

It’s also somewhat ironic that our window to the ideal is through that very thing we are trying to escape – modern technology. Just as the readers/listeners of Vergil’s Georgics were going to be elites far from the world of shepherds and sheep, so are the people playing Farmville likely quite far from the world of the constant woes of real farmlife.

This ideal is just one of many which games help us to realize, if only temporarily, a wish we have that our modern society and/or lifestyle is unable to fulfill. I also think that many fantasy MMOs play off another such wish, the need and desire for prestige and honor among modern people who live in a world with few opportunities to be heroic. They also provide opportunities to be useful to a community by plying a trade, opportunities to be a social leader, build/decorate dream houses, have a beautiful face, fantastic wardrobes, etc. The pastoral is really just another manifestation of fantasy where people can create something they wish they had in real life – quotidian peace. I sincerely hope the next iteration of the pastoral is closer to Vergil than Cicero’s poetic drivel.

Social Games: MMO?

This is another entry in my series on social games – a nice, sterile term for those annoying applications that spam your Facebook News Feed. You know the kind – someone’s farm needs fertilizer, someone’s dog needs a treat, someone’s restaurant needs spices.

In the series, I will be looking at questions of endgame, reward/punishment, society, and narrative, from the perspective of a “traditional” gamer, meaning someone who primarily plays non-casual video. (Yes, that term is heavily loaded and ill-defined, but for now, going to use it.) Today, I want to look at the question of social versus MMO.  I see similar things like levels, social interaction, personalization, avatars, and economy in both the social games on Facebook and the more hardcore MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Aion. What is similar about these different kinds of games or are these just similar kinds of concepts being used in completely different ways in completely different games?

I’m not the first to have addressed this question, but hopefully my answer will provide something new to the discourse of just what an MMO really is and why social games feel different.

First of all, let’s just look at their very names – massively multiplayer and social. Although it may seem that these two things are the same, they aren’t necessarily so. Considering the current trend to make MMO play, at least the leveling part, a potentially fully solo experience, one can perhaps see how despite a world populated by thousands, one can have an entirely asocial experience. Look at the recent revamp of the “epic” questline in Lord of the Rings Online. What used to take a full party of six members can now be done on your own. Regardless,  I am going to stick to my old-fashioned understanding and experience of MMOs and say social is part of the game. Most people still interact with other players to some extent during their playtime and the vast majority join guilds or clans so they can feel like part of a group.

In a “social game”, however, other players add substantively to player experience although its possible to play purely on one’s own. Playfish says, “Social games are games designed to be played together with friends.” (I tend to play MMOs with my friends too).  In these social games, not only do you reap concrete benefits like experience or currency, you also can individualize, compete, and share. Wait, how is this different from an MMO? Sure, you can play solo, but it’s much better to play with others. You get more experience and loot when playing in a group and joining a guild or clan often makes many parts of the game, if not easier, more accessible. It seems then that both MMOs and social games both offer the same benefits of group play while still allowing the player to solo if he desires.

If it is not the social aspect, perhaps it is the very mechanics of gameplay. Most MMOs have a leveling system that guides character development and governs one’s access to areas in the game. Interestingly enough, social games have these too. Almost all of them have levels one earns, and as one gains levels, one also gains skills and access to new items, equipment, or actions. Not only Farmville behaves in this manner, but most ZyngaPlayfish, and other game companies’ offerings.

Perhaps an MMO feels different because  one’s character is part of an overarching narrative. I’m not just some avatar, I’m a particular elf helping other elves take care of corrupt trees. Although Farmville’s “narrative” is a very poor excuse for one, it is still there. The new co-op play has you and your friends plant flowers for someone’s wedding, for example. If you do so fast enough, they’ll give you a wedding gazebo gift. Sounds like a quest to me. The new Sony social game, “The Agency: Covert Ops” has a very detailed narrative outlining the actions one takes. Other games, of course, have almost nothing one could call a narrative. Yet, even in those games, you can typically find some kind of NPC who guides your experience with (meaningless) narrative. For example, another Zynga game Cafe World has you cook dishes and serve them to customers. You don’t know why you’re doing this, you simply run a cafe and cook. However, there is this overarching figure named “Amelia” who occasionally tells you things like, “this bride needs help with a wedding cake!”. So, although the narrative is pathetic and barely existent, it is there.

The one thing perhaps you’re all screaming at your screen right now is persistent world. This was the big thing about MMOs in the early days and perhaps still – the world goes on existing even when you’re not there. Things are happening, people are questing, boars are dying. Are the worlds of Facebook not persistent? I think that they actually are. In My Vineyard, for example, a game put out by Metaplace, one’s vineyard is a potential gathering place for all of your friends, even when you are not online. They can all visit your vineyard, sit on your benches, look at your pond, and talk to each other when you are not there. In most games, one has some kind of “home” whether a restaurant, a farm, or an HQ, that one decorates as desired and exists at all times for people to visit. In Café World, while you are offline, your friends can come to your café and spice your dishes, providing you with benefits or saving food you’ve left to spoil. On your return, you will see who has visited and what they’ve done.

These worlds of social games, though persistent, are not free for their players to explore. One cannot take one’s avatar outside, down the street, to another farm or vineyard. The interface is much more mechanical and governed by addons and loading screens. I do recall the day though when zones in Everquest were bordered by zone walls and traversing passes between them brought on a loading screen.

Rather than any difference in quality between MMOs and social games, there seems rather to be simply a difference of scale. MMOs have much more depth, more players, more geography, etc. But why is it valuable to even come to this conclusion?

If many social games are just mini MMOs, we can judge them on the same principles. Are the quests interesting? Are the themes innovative? Are the narratives engaging?

Further, if many social games are just mini MMOs, perhaps they can inspire each other to go in new directions. Since they are on such different platforms and appeal to different markets, yet share the same concepts and base mechanics, looking at social games could help us understand the motivations of players in MMOs as well as vice versa or at least provide a testing ground for hypotheses. Communities and their interests, differences in features and expectations, as well as design goals and philosophies can all be compared. Traditional definitions of game genre can be explored and evolved  – for example, there are not just simulation games of farms and restaurants on Facebook, but also city-building games, civilization games, card-collecting games, secret agent games, etc. What defines and separates these genres and how do motivations and interests of players change across those genre lines?

As you can see, there is much to think about beyond just how much money Zynga is lining their velvet cushions with.

Social Games: The Agency

I’m going to be doing a few posts on social games – mostly covering their aspects in relation to more familiar MMO games. To start out with though, I’d just like to talk a little bit about Sony’s new Facebook game, The Agency: Covert Ops.

It’s brand new so it is hard to judge right now just how successful it is going to be compared to other games on the Facebook platform. From personal experience, I’ve noticed it’s actually only more hardcore gamers who have been captured by it. I don’t know if this will hold up, but considering the ease with which my own app buddies typically latch on to new games, I’m surprised that they haven’t with this one.

The game itself is rather basic and many of its features would be familiar to anyone who has played other social games on facebook. It has the familiar line of friends at the bottom whom you can visit each day to help out for a small Influence (xp) bonus. Also, the basic mechanic that allows one to complete actions in the game will be familiar to many app users. It works off a kind of energy bar system which is depleted by a certain amount on completing an action and is restored as time passes. I was happy to see that the restoration pace is actually quite swift compared in particular to Zynga’s new Treasure Isle treasure-hunting game. There is also the typical personal decoration part of a Facebook game. Here, you have an HQ that you can decorate and organize as you wish as well as an avatar you can dress and equip as you choose. These two staples of Facebook games are present in the Agency but take a backseat to the actual gameplay. I realize this may be a problematic statement as decoration and personalization are certainly forms of gameplay. In the Agency, however, there is an obvious difference between more traditional forms of gameplay (like questing) and those more associated with social games.

Yes, this Facebook game has quests. It isn’t the first, but it is one of the most narrative-heavy games on the platform I’ve seen so far. One takes on the role of a special agent in Amsterdam who is tasked with finding out how and why people are dying. One does this by completing various missions that are assigned.  Some are completed with a simple click of the button, others by completing minigames, one of which is combat. This addition of minigames internalized in the app itself is one of its best features in my opinion. There are a few different minigames, a seek-and-find, a matching, the combat one I mentioned, a platformer, and likely others I’m forgetting or haven’t run into. Not only do they offer variation in gameplay, they provide a sense of excitement, as most are timed, and even an option of failure. Yes, one can lose a minigame, and one can lose in combat. The possibility of failure in a Facebook game? Amazing, I know, but yes.

There is also a crafting aspect to the game, and one can even farm mats if they so desire. Some missions have the chance to “drop” a component – perhaps a weapon or armor piece or some kind of gadget. Components can be taken to the lab technician who has 40+ different items he can make for you if you acquire the necessary ingredients. These items are either weapons, armor, or gadgets which help you do your job. Components are also acquired from him once every 12 hours if you check-in, and from visiting new friends who play the game.

Another option that is discretely very similar to other facebook app features is that of the Group Missions feature. Basically, you choose a time frame (30 mins, 1 hr, 4 hr, 1 day, etc.) and must return after it in order to collect cash and influence. This feature however is buried in the tutorial, loosely based in the narrative, and not front-and-center in the interface as it is in other apps. I at first, when going through the tutorial, did not even realize that this feature actually was just a simple do X, wait Y hours, return and collect. But it is.

Lastly, one earns achievements/badges from various activities in the game, as one does in most apps. All missions can be repeated and there are multiple mastery levels for each one. I have not actually done this as repeating missions requires Cover (energy) and I have not completed the main narrative yet (though I am level 17 already). I assume there is a level cap since most apps have them, but I do not know what it is yet and the narrative, though making definitive progress, does not seem to be running out of steam yet.

Overall, I highly recommend that people try it, either those who are more familiar with social games or those more familiar with RPGs/MMOs. (Your avatar also has skills and you acquire skill points to spend at each level). It bridges the gap nicely, though I think it is much easier for traditional gamers to pick it up than it is for social gamers. The tutorial is very good I think, but somewhat long compared to other Facebook app tutorials and the interface is not as clear as pure Facebook-gamers would be accustomed to. I hope though that this app will encourage other developers for the platform to do more with their games. Some of the latest offerings are so lacking in creativity and originality, it makes me sad for humanity.