Friday, October 24, 2014

Game Over: Video Games and the Official Style

                Video games have a long-standing tradition of being made for everyone. Their purpose is simple: to provide the player with an engaging experience, challenging enough to be rewarding, but not difficult enough to warrant a full stop. They’re one of the few types of media accessible for everyone from hardcore gamers to casual cell phone players.

                However, any player who has ventured online can tell you that not all gaming communities are very welcoming. Some groups, through a large time commitment and personal experience, have become elites in their respective games, sometimes using their skill to stay in power within the game.  While many video games don’t use the official style of academia, there is an entirely different – and just as valid – style at work.

                Because there is a lack of official style within games themselves, I chose to focus on reviews, rather than the character dialogue and in-game menus presented inside the games themselves. To simplify further, I will focus on one game in particular: Super Smash Brothers for the 3DS, which was released earlier this month (October 2014).

                The first example is an article written for the Internet review site Games Radar. Its focus is on the general public, writing for the purpose of drawing the reader into buying the game itself. It is meant to lead you in slowly – though with the expectation that, in reading this review, you have some gaming experience and thus know much of what’s being discussed in terms of controls. Because the review can get quite technical, there is some explanation of jargon. For example:

              “If, by some small miracle, you've never played Smash Bros. before, it's an unconventional fighting game starring characters from Nintendo's many franchises (plus some cherry-picked guests mixed in for variety). It's you against up to three other combatants, and rather than depleting their life bars, you'll use zany attacks and powerful items to push your opponents off the stage.”           

                Again, this is done because the review is meant for those who are interested in playing, but may not have actually picked up the game before.  The review has some slow sentence openings, done partly to explain what some terms and concepts are. However, this still alienates readers who don’t know all of the terms, or who may feel talked down to because of the sheer amount of explanation.

                There is some degree of shapelessness to the article as well, another characteristic of the official style. A lot of the shapelessness goes away if you know what all of the jargon means, but the fact remains that, when read aloud, this is a review. It’s meant to get information across, and that’s a fairly shapeless topic in itself.

                The focus of this article’s official style is all in the jargon. From ledge-guarding to L-cancelling, dashing to wifi connection, the review is littered with terms the average reader wouldn’t understand. However, there is literally no other way to explain the mechanics of the game. It’s a question of expertise – the review wants to pull in as many readers as possible, but has to use terms the public might not know because there’s no other way to put them.

                This review is actually written quite plainly. As the article goes along, there are some uses of subordination – for example, when they mention how difficult it is to perform some moves “because the mechanic is so broken.” There are also plenty of noun substitutes used, especially in the more jargon-heavy areas of the review. If they weren’t present, the reader wouldn’t understand what was being said amongst all the terms.

                The second review I focused on was an official review, written by a professional. This is from someone who studies video games frame by frame, analyzing them until there is nothing left but coding. There is an instant shift to the passive voice, saying there are “interactions between the characters” rather than simply “this character hits this one.”

                The player is completely removed from the article, leaving it impersonal. There’s no sense that “you” are playing the game – only that there is a game, somewhere, being played, and these are the comments someone has made about it. There is an almost entire lack of shape to the article. It’s taking a path somewhere, but takes its sweet time in doing so.

                More complex sentences are used to describe the mechanics of the game, instantly raising it several grade levels. It’s more verbose, taking a longer time to make the same points the other article did. This review still includes much jargon, though it’s written in a way that makes it sound much more official. For example:

                “The ability to act out of hitstun in has been removed when sent large distances; however, at smaller launch distances, the amount of hitstun appears to be reduced, or characters appear to be able to act out of hitstun. This, combined with higher base knockback in general, makes true combos rare.”

                If the reader didn’t have any knowledge of the Super Smash Bros franchise, they would likely be lost when reading even this small section. The article offers no explanation of what, exactly, the terms involved mean, leaving it up to the reader to decide what is being said. This use of jargon, again, alienates readers who might want to pick up the game, but then discover they can’t actually find out what it’s supposed to be about.

                The final article I found was an analysis created by fans of the game. This is a purely informal analysis, but contains the most complex review of all. Fans of the game have delved so deeply into the mechanics, they analyze individual percentages of each move every character can potentially perform. For example, regarding the character Robin:

                “Jab 3 (Wind): 5-8%, depending on how many of the 'blades' hit. Decent knock-back, killing around the same time as Fire, but very easy to pop out of the finishing blow when it would actually be relevant for a kill-blow. Once you get the 'vortex' going, you can hold the button to have the blades continue, release it to get the final hit. Use at low to mid percent, use Fire for the kill, due to being able to DI out of Wind's final hit.”

                Though this portion is written at the lowest grade level of all three. But how easy is this to read if you’re unfamiliar with the topic? I personally have followed the game through its development and announcement, and when I went looking for fan reviews, I had to look up some terms I was unfamiliar with.

                Again, this article is purely for example. But it does raise the idea that fans of a game are willing to so completely commit to their chosen games, they create in-depth analyses to rival those of professional reviewers.

                What does this mean for video games in general? This is only one example, but it’s a very popular game franchise with thousands of fans across the world, and is thus a very good indicator of what’s going on in gaming communities.

                This sort of writing and speaking going on between fans creates an inclusive sort of culture. Video games are meant for the general public to enjoy, and gamers agree that anyone can join if they like. But first, newcomers have to learn the jargon – all of the mechanics and terms discussed on a very regular basis. Otherwise, they will have no idea what is even being discussed.

                Secondly, they must be good at the game. Fellow gamers will not listen to you unless you are a skilled player – or, if you are not technically skilled, know enough of the mechanics to know what you are talking about, even if you can’t execute the moves. Of course, to become skilled, you have to practice – and yet, gamers very often refuse to play with newcomers, instead crushing them immediately under the excuse of “they’re not worth my time.”

                The process of becoming good at a game, even if you have friends willing to help, is extremely time-consuming. In fact, it takes up the same amount of time a job would. The rewards are, in fact, tangible – in the case of Smash Bros, there are worldwide tournaments with prize money awarded to the victors.  So it can be worthwhile to be very good, but the process of attaining that level is slow and sometimes frustrating.
                Elitists exist in the academic world – but they are also very present in the world of gaming. Those who are extremely good, who hold a lot of in-game power, can sometimes completely leave out those just joining the ranks of fans interested in the game, surging ahead as the rest fall behind.  Though video games are created with the spirit of friendly competition, sometimes the fights aren’t so forgiving, leaving those who are in the know in power, and those who aren’t in the dust.

Kate Habrel

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