To understand what use a Grammar of Games would be, I’d like to take a walk through the use of grammar in other mediums. I’m treating this as a thought experiment, so please hold onto something; this might become a little bumpy.
How about a definition to start us off? Dictionary.com gives us this:
- the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed; morphology and syntax.
- these features or constructions themselves: English grammar.
- an account of these features; a set of rules accounting for these constructions: a grammar of English.
- the elements of any science, art, or subject.
Notice that the majority of the definition concentrates on language. Particularly on the rules that can be extracted from it, or applied to it, to create consistency. Grammar is a set of conventions developed and applied to allow easy communication. Not only language itself (syntax, conjugation, punctuation), but also any subject matter with sufficient history to have developed definable elements.
So, based on this definition, games already have a grammar, or are at least forming one as we continue to deepen our knowledge of creating and playing them. Any time we talk about aspects of a game, gameplay, or design we are using our established grammar to communicate ideas. However, as games (and especially computer enhanced games) are relatively new, the grammar that we have is incomplete and ill-defined.
One of the fascinating aspects of language is how it changes over time. I’m not just talking about lexicological shifts – words are created or acquire new meanings or contexts over time, that’s a given. Grammar shifts as well. This can be seen most dramatically in they way that punctuation is used today, as compared to even a decade ago. While some of this is due to haphazard education, laziness, and apathy, some is purely a result of cultural shift.
Go ahead and pull out any given paper or essay that you wrote in school. Something written at the high school or post-secondary level. Compare the grammatical construction of that writing with your last blog post or e-mail. What do you differently online than you did on paper? These shifts in grammar are not just limited to the internet. As new forms of communication become the de facto standard the grammatical shifts leak into other means of communication.
In the digital community shifts such as these are accelerated. Think back over the last year or two of game design, gameplay, and the theories that hover around them. How many new ideas were put forward? How many terms bandied about, discussed, created, changed? How many theories of design toted, praised, rejected, argued? The list is a lot longer than the number of changes to punctuation created in the same time frame.
I do believe that we are on a solid path to developing a mature grammar for games – play and design. For instance, there are people who are dedicated to the analysis of gameplay. The goal, so far, is to understand how and why people play. This gives us a foundation for analysing what people enjoy and giving us meaningful feedback about it.
Without the language to describe the systems, and our interactions with them, it is impossible to separate the elements that work from the elements that don’t. By elements, please don’t think that I’m trying to define games as something that can be broken into Lego-esque building blocks for easy reconstruction and recombination. It is more chemistry. There are atomic building blocks, but also formula and restrictions that must be discovered and communicated. A mature grammar can be developed by deconstructing (to a point) existing formula to discover the combinations that went into the mix.
Grammar isn’t going to solve all of our big design problems. You can’t take the short story you wrote about dragons in the fourth grade, upgrade the grammar and spelling, and expect an award winning piece of fiction. Grammar is a support, a framework, and an ideal – it will not create on its own. Designers will forever be struggling against conventions, story, and play in an attempt to create something new.
It will, however, strengthen the core of design as we push for the edges. By applying our grammatical tools – structural analysis, play styles, gameplay notation – we can strengthen our work. This process will become akin to editing your writing. You go back over the work using critical analysis (proofreading) to find grammatical hitches. You add a comma here to create a necessary pause. Something gets re-written to remove ambiguity. An element replaced to create a deeper symbolism.
I think that I’ve wandered enough for one post. What I’ve tried to imagine is a series of tools, conventions, and definitions – a common grammar for games – that would enable us, as designers, to better understand and develop our work. I see it as incomplete right now (perhaps perpetually), but in progress. I see it as worthwhile to pursue and understand. Just so long as we don’t forget that it will not solve our problems, and it will not design our games for us.