The Language of Gaming

by Astrid Ensslin

Michael Hancock is the Book Reviews editor on First Person Scholar.  He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo.  Currently, his grey matter is engaged in writing a dissertation on the use of image-based and text-based rhetoric in videogames.


“The success of videogames relies heavily on situated representation, committed interaction, and player immersion.  Gaming is thus a multisensory, immersive experience that potentially obstructs the cognitive distance required to ‘close-read’ and reflect critically on individual semiotic modes and one’s own interaction with them.  This makes gamers significantly more ideologically susceptible than, say, readers of a novel” (Ensslin 138).

Discourse analysis is a fairly new field of study, but one with a very distinguished pedigree, delving deeply into rhetoric and linguistics. Game studies, in comparison, is a relatively new field, but one that has had to fight (or perhaps just “has fought”) fiercely to declare its independence and relevance. In The Language of Gaming, Astrid Ensslin combines the two, detailing over the course of ten chapters how various subsections of discourse analysis can be applied to games and gaming—to the semiotic, textual content of games, and to the discourse and power structures constructed through the discussions of those who play them. As you can imagine with that remit, it’s a rather diverse book, covering everything from how instruction manuals phrase rules to players chatting over a game of Worms 2. By the end, though, Ensslin had me convinced of the value of discourse analysis to game studies.


As stated, the book is divided into ten chapters. The first chapter serves as introduction.  She establishes the importance of game studies, given the influence of games in the commercial sectors, and points out the relative lack of a dedicated language-based study.  In general, the book looks at two perspectives of gaming: the meaning the game appears to present to the player, and the shape of discourse for discussions about games, whether it’s between two players, or from the media to the public.  The second chapter, after a brief portrayal of the diversity of discourses regarding games, isn’t really about games at all.  Rather, it’s an outline of all the different aspects of discourse analysis Ensslin will be drawing from: general literacy issues, spoken and written dialogue difference, computer-mediated discourse, pragmatics (particularly, speech acts and presupposition), genre and textuality, conversation analysis, corpus-based discourse analysis, identity formation in discourse, narrative and discourse, and multimodal discourse.  While it is a necessary addition for those who come to the book without a basis in discourse analysis (like me), by the same token, those without a basis in discourse analysis may find themselves a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of topics covered here (like me).

Chapter 3 is a general discussion of game studies, drawing out the connections between game and language. Both, for example, are drawn by rules, and people negotiate through them, and language is often considered game-like. She follows with a brief outline of the narratology/ludology debate, favoring Juul’s definition of what makes a game, emphasizing Salen and Zimmerman’s description of games being about rules and representation, player interaction, and larger social context. After a brief discussion of the design process and the social context of gamers, the chapter ends on the subject of ideological criticism in gaming, with an emphasis on race and gender.  Chapter 4 argues for games as text, with a discussion of game genre and how games form textual ecologies. Games, she argues, incorporate typical notions of textuality, including intertextuality, particularly in the form of references to history and myth.  There’s transmediality, as defined by Henry Jenkins, to refer to how a story or text can be stretched across multiple media, sometimes including games. And, from Genette and Jones, she borrows the concept of paratext. The section ends with a detailing of how these textualities combine in Final Fantasy XI.

Chapter 5 starts the discourse analysis proper. Using established corpus techniques, Ensslin compiles a gamecorp, a specialized set of linguistic jargon that has particular meaning to players. After a very detailed discussion on how new words enter a lexicon, she briefly discusses how games and game discussion embody conceptual metaphors, ala Johnson and Lakoff.  (For example, gameplay is often compared to war, and the magic circle is phrased in terms of a container seperating game and real world.) The chapter ends with a description of her game corpus, and its conclusions, and a case study of the use of gendered pronouns in Blizzard games such as World of Warcraft and Diablo.  Chapter 6 is on pragmatics, the way language is adjusted to fit particular contexts. In particular, game instructions tend towards directives (“Press up to access the menu”) and representatives (general descriptions: “The villains are based in the final fortress.”), and player conversation tends to move towards the same, with the added element of emotional involvement. The last section of this chapter considers player conversation more closely, in terms of its turn-based nature, how they refer to avatars, how they act in subfserive manners, and the abandonment of politeness in favor of expertise and playfulness.

Chapter 7 is metaludic discourses, which means how people talk about games. Gamers identify themselves through talking about games, and, via Focault’s discussion on power relations, attempt to leverage their positions in a group through this discourse.  In particular, Ensslin argues that gamer discourse is driven by a desire to appear cool, by a need to recognize the play element of games, and the desire to exercise appreciation, to demonstrate knowledge on games through being able to competently evaluate them. The chapter ends with a case study of the Grand Theft Auto series, contrasting the moral outrage of the media with gamer responses. Chapter 8, the longest in the book, considers the multimodality of games, how they are evaluated in terms of not just text but image and sound and haptic reactions, and player-game interaction.  After outlining general new media approaches to multimodality and emphasizing the importance of haptics and immersion, Ensslin examines how players communicate in a multimodal level when playing in the same room, and how they compensate for a more limited interaction when communicating over the computer.  (Swearing, acronyms, and emoticons, in case you were wondering.) The interface system of SimCity 4 serves as an example of  the variety of semiotic references in a game, and she ends the section with a case study of multimodality and racism in Black and White 2.

Chapter 9 is about narrative language and games, and chapter 10 is a brief conclusion. In the first half of chapter 9, Ensslin considers what games have in common with other forms of narrative, outlining some of the traditional archetypes of plot and characters. But she also acknowledges what games do differently than other forms, mostly in terms of getting players to explore and inhabit a space, or gameworld. In the second half, she considers what she calls “literary games,” games that combine rules and literary arts to encourage reflection and critical engagement with games in general, such as Nick Montfort’s interactive fiction, or Jason Nelson’s poetry games. She concludes with a brief study of  Tale of Tale’sThe Path in this respect. The conclusion summarizes her main points, and suggests possible future venues of investigation.


The first reaction I had to this book is that I wanted it to go further.  I wanted longer case studies, and more discussion.  My notes are littered with instances where I wanted expansion.  For example, at one point, Ensslin mentions that the way the instructions in a game address a player resembles pseudo-code, and that the constant directive-addressing could be interpreted as trying to mold the player to the game’s rules.  Given her claim that games have a greater ability to affect people ideologically than other media, such a point seems worth following up on.  In general, it’s a compliment that my biggest complaint of the book is that I want more of it. But I can’t help but think that there would have been more expansion if the book spent less time introducing game studies and discourse analysis in the early chapters.  Granted, it’s a necessary digression, given the potential dual audiences of readers, but that necessity doesn’t disguise the fact that the book proper doesn’t really start until after the first few chapters.

That said, I personally found the book immensively useful. I’m not particularly well-versed in discourse analysis myself, but Ensslin’s descriptions allowed me to build on some of my basic knowledge of speech acts and cluster criticism so that I could generally follow what she was referencing.  My own area of research is the contrast between text and image in games, and so the chapter on multimodality was particularly salient to my interests. In a away, even my complaint about the book’s shortness is in my favor, as it means I can build on elements that Ensslin describes here—and in her conclusion, she encourages such expansions.   More generally, even though discourse analysis isn’t exactly the same thing, it also demonstrates what a background in the humanities, and even my own background in English, has to offer game studies.  I can certainly preform readings and analyses as well as any, and the bridge she makes between early hypertext and games is very welcome.

At the same time, I imagine that this approach raises a lot of hackles for the dyed-in-the-wool ludologists.  On one level, the ludology/narratology debate wasn’t about whether games could contain stories, but whether games studies could resist encroachment from other, pre-existing disciplines.  The Language of Gaming isn’t just an encroachment, it’s a fully text-oriented one, which not only comes at game studies from a linguistic point of view, but, via modality, expands language and literacy to include play style and game graphics.  To Ensslin’s credit, she tries very hard to address this potential complaint, by drawing on the connection between game and language; by staking out her own territory in the ludology debate, that games are story and play; and by repeatedly emphasizing the unique elements of games, such as the spatial factor and that games are played, unlike (some) other media.  I can sympathize with my hypothetical ludologist; while Ensslin handles the way gamers discuss games well, and the way games present themselves to the player, the linguistic, discourse-analysis approach isn’t really suited (or at least interested) for other salient features of  games, such as mechanics, or hardware.  But ultimately, I think a book is allowed to focus on its subject, and Ensslin fully acknowledges that there are some elements of games that lie outside her scope.  She is studying the linguistic effects of game discourse, and she does that well.

While I might not go quite so far as to say that The Language of Games is a foundational text, I would say that it excels in opening a new direction and approach to game studies.  Though it could use expansion in places, its clear description and application of discourse analysis to games and game-based communications make it worth looking into.