Sunday, July 15, 2007


I was chatting with one of our regular Wednesday Game Night attendees the other day, and it was revealed to me that she had never seen The Dark Crystal.

A quick question-and-answer period later, and I discovered that there were a significant number of films that she'd not seen. Films which I considered to be Geek Vocabulary Essentials, either because they are extremely quotable or else because one or more of their elements is repeated (or parodied) elsewhere in pop culture.

It led to a long discussion on Geek Vocabulary: We don't speak the same language as the rest of the English-speaking world. I'm not excluding non-English-speaking Geeks, here, either - they have different Pop Culture In-Jokes.

This specialized vocabulary is one of those things which makes it harder for non-Gamers to get into the hobby.

Remember All Your Base? Did you and your buddies ever have to try to explain it to a non-Gamer?

We get a fair number of people through the game store that are interested in gaming. They have read newspaper articles about these wonderful European import games, and they want to learn more. I do my best to try to tell them about the games, but it can be difficult - try explaining Mission: Red Planet, for example.

To one of you, I could easily say, "It's an Area Control game with a Simultaneous Action Selection mechanism which is very similar to that used in Citadels. There is a bit of resource management, but you can spend a turn to recycle your available resources by choosing the 'Recruiter' as your character for the turn."

I can't use that lingo with a non-Gamer. I'd lose them as soon as the words, "Area Control" left my mouth. Instead, I have to explain,"You are competing with other players to harvest resources on Mars. You have a set of specialists, and every turn you use the ability of one of these specialists, so that you can get more pieces into the various regions of Mars - only the player with the most pieces gets the points for that area." It's a longer description, and actually conveys less information. But it's more approachable to non-Gamers.

At a convention (as a Demo Team member), I need to be able to quickly feel out someone standing near the booth - I need to figure out their relative game experience, so that I'm not talking down to them. Or above their heads.

It's tricky - especially when there is an experienced 12-year-old with their non-Gamer parents asking me about a game.


And this is before I even start to discuss cultural humor (Wood for Sheep, anyone?).

In many ways, we've pulled ourselves out of the mainstream. Gaming is a Hobby Industry in part because we make it impenetrable to non-Gamers - not because we can't communicate with them, but because we don't realize they don't understand what we're saying. Because we've spoken the language for so long, we forget how different it is from standard English.

Something, I guess, that I need to keep my eyes on.


  1. Try teaching mathematics for a living. You will find it surprisingly similar, only with more of your audience complaining about how they suck at math (largely because they never really tried and/or had ONE bad math teacher).

  2. My day job - CarDomain has its own vocabulary that I get to deal with daily. It sometimes sounds like electrical engineering (We discuss impedance, wattage and ohms), and sometimes is completely different (SPL, SQL, dB, sensitivity).

  3. Anonymous10:04 PM

    Hasn't seen The Dark Crystal? Who is this infidel? :)

  4. Sammy. We've filled that void. And found a list of other films she is lacking.

  5. I think you're conflating multiple phenomena.

    There are in-jokes, such as All Your Base, which are really just in-jokes. There are common cultural touchstones that the rest of the world doesn't share (Cthulhu, Hitchhiker's, fnord). And there is terminology ("area control") that is a shorthand.

    Your description of M:RP is no different from the sort of terminology used by a sports fan, a fisherman, or a car guy. We're not shutting ourselves off from the rest of the world with that, we're just accelerating our conversations to our own speed.

    I think gaming is a hobby industry not because of what we do, but because the people on the outside are choosing to stay on the outside, shying away from the unfamiliar. Ticket to Ride is not a complicated or difficult game, but too many people are unwilling to see it as less foreign than Die Macher.

  6. Jim,

    I don't think that vocabulary is the ONLY barrier to non-gamers. But if we're unwilling to translate ourselves when trying to introduce new gamers, we don't make much progress.

    I'm not a sports guy, but I know what a home run is. Or an RBI. I know how many points a touchdown is worth and why you punt on 4th down.

    There's no translation necessary. Experienced fishermen are generally good about telling beginners, "it's that shiny one right there."

    Car Audio is a hobby, as well. Its vocabulary tends to be a bit arcane - but, again, the hardcore are aware of this.

    It's the Geek culture hobbies that don't feel the need to simplify or explain the vocabulary used. Gamers aren't the worst at this, but Gamers are often heard complaining about a lack of other gamers. You don't hear H4x0rz complaining about a lack of other h4x0rs.

    I understand (and appreciate) the difference between an in-joke and terminology, but there is a LOT of overlap when you're talking to a gamers. I won't always tell people that there's a trade element with different resources, it'll have "a wood-for-sheep element" to it.

    Part of the problem is that "board gamer" still makes people think of Monopoly, Risk, or Connect 4.


  7. Anonymous5:46 AM

    Speaking of geek movies... what's the consensus on the Transformers movie among the Phoenix regulars?

    I thought it rocked pretty damn hard...