Car mechanics and enthusiasts speak a complex language which the average driver doesn’t comprehend. Computer developers can do incredible things with code—things most computer users don’t even begin to understand. And, perhaps most importantly for our purposes, gamers have their own complex languages—languages which can sound ridiculous to non-gamers.
There are multiple components to languages, each of which has varying degrees of complication. Contemporary language courses teach seven components of foreign languages: Alphabet, Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking, Grammar, and Culture.
Although these different languages use already existing alphabets and already existing grammar structures, the other five components of language (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) remain distinct.
The conventional wisdom is that learning a new language is something that does not come naturally to most people once they reach a certain age. In psychology, there have been many studies relating to the heightened ability of young children to learn the language of their parents. Historically, most of those studies have attributed that heightened ability to a so-called internal language-acquisition device which activates and deactivates according to age.
In my experience with learning languages, it has been much less a question of age than a question of immediacy, necessity, and exposure. English was my first language, Spanish my second, and I’m currently working on learning Arabic. Although the grammar rules of Spanish and Arabic are no more or less difficult to me than the rules of English (they’re just rules after all), I’ll still be the first to tell you that learning those secondary languages has been more difficult, or, at least, less natural.
Here, finally, is where games come in: I don’t use Spanish or Arabic in daily conversation because I don’t need to. Unless I were dropped off in a Spanish- or Arabic-speaking environment, I would have no immediacy or necessity to learn. As a result, the learning process is slow. Worse though is the fact that expertise is impossible because I’m not in an environment of constant exposure. Games can simultaneously create an environment of immediacy, necessity, and constant exposure.
Games have an umbrella language which is distinct in itself. The fact that we understand what MMO, FPS, RPG, and RTS mean shows an knowledge that most non-gamers do not have. The gaming language has given context to buzzwords which have infiltrated popular culture (Exhibit A: “Epic”), and contains a history and culture that non-gamers neither care about nor understand.
Language is a product of one’s interaction with the environment and those within it. Each game creates its own environment. If players are to succeed, they are forced to adapt to it in order to interact with it. This scenario creates the same basic conditions to which infants must adapt as they learn new languages.
Within all languages, there are subtleties that reflect mastery. Acronyms and abbreviations are extremely important to language expertise. They rarely come up when you’re first learning a language, but as your exposure increases, they become much more essential. To the language of games, they’re even more important.
Take the following sentence:
“In the MMORPG I play, the LK does so much AoE DPS in P2 that he always wipes our raid—it’s so bad that our RL /gquit.”
It looks like English, but it still requires translation… Let’s see if this is any better:
“In the Massively-Multiplayer-Online-Role-Playing-Game I play, the Lich King does so much Area of Effect Damage Per Second in Phase 2 that he always wipes our raid—it’s so bad that our Raid Leader quit the guild.”
Even if its acronyms are broken down, key elements of the sentence are missing and it requires further translation, explanation, and understanding.
Another element of language which is impossible to impart via classroom instruction is tone. In a non-interactive environment, it takes years of mistakes to finally understand sarcasm. However, mistake it once in an interactive environment and you will learn your lesson much more quickly through embarrassment or frustration.
Games offer an unparalleled environment for language acquisition. Players are in constant communication not only with the game itself, but also with other players. Games label aspects of their interface, and players use those labels to communicate with the game and with one another. Games have their own stories and backgrounds—context is everything. If I say Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, you don’t understand what the hell I’m getting at unless you’ve seen that episode of Star Trek: TNG (and if you’re interested in what I’m writing about, you absolutely should see it). The combination of a labeled interface with a new story/background and an interactive player community creates the perfect conditions for learning and eventually mastering a common language unique to the game.
However, the language a game teaches need not be unique to the game. Parents often say games are a frivolous waste of time, but what if they could teach a foreign language? Classrooms are undoubtedly the best place for teaching the alphabet and grammar, but the classroom cannot contrive the necessary environment for the fluid and natural learning of a language. Two options remain: physically place the student in an environment in which there is an immediate need to learn as well as constant exposure, or create that environment virtually.