Can we stop using these words?

I have come to the conclusion that ‘pretentious’ no longer means anything when used to describe a videogame. We ought to stop saying it.

Currently, it’s pretty much the most damning word in the biz, particularly when it comes to indie games. In many internet communities, it’s used to apply the marks of tribal exclusion. Angry internet people apply it willy-nilly to nearly anything that they don’t understand (like pOnd), even if those things are, from the perspective of your average vocabulary-having individual, not in the least pretentious. The press members who write for these people sometimes do this, too.

Okay, so a lot of people use the word to mean ‘intellectual.’ These are the kind of people who believe that games somehow resist study, or that intellectualism in gaming is somehow objectionable. They are the enemy, etc. etc. I don’t really want to talk about this. It makes me too angry and I start typing too many words about how much I dislike ’core’ gamer culture. (This post has undergone 4 revisions and was at one point over 2000 words long.)

Other people use the word ‘pretentious’ because it’s easy. These are the people I’m bothering to have an argument with. If a word is too easy to use—if we can slap it in any old place without feeling that we need to think about it—we shouldn’t be using it. ‘Pretentious’ is one of those words, like ‘gameplay,’ or ‘interactive,’ which are simply too vague to be critically useful. Instead of ‘interactive,’ I’ve started talking about ‘agency’ or, better, ‘degrees of agency.’ At this point, ‘interactive’ is basically a feature-list word, and it’s hard to control the meaning of a word that’s owned by commerce. You can slap the word ‘interactive’ on anything, and so long as your game involves user activity—even the kind of ‘press x to continue’ stuff Kent recently wrote about—you can probably get away with it. As for ‘gameplay,’ I flat-out don’t use it. If you have to use the word ‘gameplay,’ you’re not thinking hard enough about how you’re playing.

Anyway, ‘pretentious’ is now in the bin with ‘gameplay’ and ‘interactive.’ According to Merriam Webster, the actual definition of ‘pretention’ is:

expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature.

At least, this is the best suited definition from the list. Oh, also: the given synonym is ‘showy.’

Okay. How do games express importance, worth, or stature? How do we tell if and when those are unwarranted? Exaggerated? Affected? What makes a game ‘showy’?  Is that really all we need to say about a game—‘it pretends to be more important than it really is’—when we want to create productive criticism? It’s the vaguest kind of unsupported opinion. And if you’re going to bother supporting it, the weakness of the word is going to make it hard for you to do it to anyone’s satisfaction.

Honestly, we’d be better off using different words. Different phrases and ideas, anyway. Instead of trying to decide whether Braid, for example, made ‘unwarranted’ claims of ‘importance,’ we should be  talking about the intellectual and emotional risks it took, and asking whether they were worthwhile. (Answer: they were.) What about a game that took similar risks, but failed to live up to the promises those kinds of risks often make? Some people think that The Path failed in this way. I think that The Path failed on a variety of levels—it had that awful collection mechanic shoehorned into it, for instance, and had a variety of irritating and unnecessary control problems that made it less an experience of transcendent/horrifying discovery and more an experience of frustrated ambling. But I also think that it was very emotionally effective and ultimately, therefore, a kind of success. People need to talk more comprehensively about Tale of Tales’ games—to dissect why they seem so abrasive, even to people who are willing to enjoy that kind of experience. They don’t need to pull a Jim Sterling. I know he’s not really in the best position to advance the quality of games criticism, working for Destructoid and all, but he certainly doesn’t make it easier for those of us who are trying.

‘Pretentious’ is not the kind of word to use if you want to have a debate or win an argument. It does not make friends. It is good for screeching at the choir, but screeching at the choir is not something that people ought to do at all. In my opinion. At any rate, most of the games writers I care about already avoid the word. I’m just pulling ‘pretentious’ out as an example because it’s bothered me recently—there are plenty of other problems with the words we use to talk about games.

Scientists: relevant to this post!

One of the books which has had the greatest impact on me personally is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s about how new scientific fields form—about how we lose trust in old ‘paradigms’ of science and grow, slowly, to adopt new ones. The process invariably  involves a certain kind of indoctrination: new generations of scientists must grow up learning the new standards and the new vocabulary in order to communicate or perform productive research together. Scientists need a shared vocabulary and a certain critical mass of shared beliefs in order for them to talk with each other about anything. The same is true for any group of professional people for whom communication is a primary concern. A strong vocabulary with enthusiastic support from the people who use it will be much more useful than one they constantly argue about, or one too coarse to communicate the important nuances of their work.

We have an awful coarse way of talking about games.

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  1. It’s funny, then, that the definition of pretentious fits Modern Warfare 2 more than anything.

    I actually think 80% of the reviews on GameFAQs would disappear if they outlawed the word “flaws.” Now, it’s not a bad word to use, but MY GOD is it ever overused there.

    • lauramichet

       /  July 18, 2010

      or the word ‘compelling’! They would DIE without compelling.

      “compelling gameplay” is, I think, the least-meaningful phrase that anyone could ever possibly use in a game review

      • It beats “epic,” a word that has pretty much lost all semblance of meaning to describe anything anymore.

        A shame, too. Home of the Underdogs’ Epic game section has some great stuff listed.

      • Home of the Underdogs is a magical place.

  2. My…my poor language…

    I think we had this conversation before about “gameplay,” but I’ll reiterate for the other words you brought up. The problem, as I see it, is not with the words themselves. They each have a specific meaning, and if people would stop using them when they shouldn’t, we would all understand each other much better.

    Take “interactivity.” This word has meaning to me; it’s the presence (or degree) of interaction between player and game. When a game has very little scope for player input, it can be helpful to talk about a lack of interactivity, or how one might go about adding more interactivity to create fun. But when a game advertises itself as simply “interactive,” this is akin to a used-car salesman proudly declaring that his product has “wheels.” No shit?

    I think you pretty much nailed it with “pretentious.” Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go weep for the fate of this once-meaningful word.

    • I was going to write a comment here which used Veret as some sort of strawman – which he, of course, he is in real life – but I ended up writing so many words I thought, damn it, I might as well post it on my site.

      I’ll get that online sometime today. After I get home tonight which will be in, erm, 14 hours.

    • lauramichet

       /  July 19, 2010

      problem with taking the people who use the word to task instead of just finding a new one is that language is a group effort and has no real permanence–Other people can turn words to new meanings whether we like it or not. I think it’s much easier to coin a new word than it is to convince bajillions of people to use a word the way you want them to.

    • Nice post. I learn something more cgnllenhiag on different blogs everyday. It will always be stimulating to read content from other writers and practice a little something from their store. I’d prefer to use some with the content on my blog whether you don’t mind. Natually I’ll give you a link on your web blog. Thanks for sharing.

  3. The one that gets me is labeling every new First Person Shooter as “groundbreaking”…

    • It is shamefully treated as a synonym of “new” these days. While it makes sense for a new building to be groundbreaking (har har har) it doesn’t really make much sense for a new set of digital information to be the same out of simply being new.

      • Violent Games? Those are T RATED!!!!!!! Pac Man has vlioence, Pokemon has vlioence any real game has vlioence with or without blood and/or guns. Anything else is a learning game Try getting Soul Calibur 4, Guitar Hero 4, and/or Lego Batman Was this answer helpful?

  4. I’ve always hated the word “pretentious” as well. It’s so overused among people talking about any type of media, whether it’s film, music, books, comics or video games that I’m pretty sure that nothing good has been made in the last 20 years without someone on the internet calling it pretentious at least once.

    What these words do is provide a shortcut to judging a work without first engaging with it. It’s a nice catch-all category of things you don’t have time to truly examine, and provides an easy justification for it. There are plenty of other quickie judgment terms that fill the same role, and I always hate to see them tossed around in talking about games or anything else. Don’t even get me started on “flawed.”

    What I really hate about the term “pretentious” in particular is the scary effect it has when used as a cudgel against ambition. This is why I try to avoid the word or even the concept even in cases where it may be called for. When I see Jonathan Blow compare Space Giraffe to Ulysses, yeah – that’s probably pretentious, under the dictionary definition of the term. But how bad is it to be pretentious? Does it invalidate the point that Blow was trying to make when he made that comparison? And when people say the same things about his games, I wonder – which is worse, to be embarrassed by the literary posturings of Braid or to never reach for the notes that it hits?

    The old saying about aiming for the stars and hitting the trees applies, I think. I never want to see, as some do, a medium that is content to never look upwards. I would rather see a million attempts at space flight crash and burn than ignore the existence of the sky.

  5. It’s always kind of boggled me that we don’t have a better vocabularly for talking about games. Back when I thought I was a film student, I was introduced to the many thousands of words that film geeks have created or co-opted to describe the inner workings of their medium. These people have built a scaffolding around the giant, lumbering mastodon that is film which allows them to analyze and discuss it from most any angle. By contrast, games critics are forced to try and hit upon something insightful from atop an unstable heap of empty syllables. I have a hard time seeing how we are going to have useful discussions about games when we have so few words.

    Hopefully the many wonderful, thoughtful blogs which have sprung up over the past few years will be able to work together to create a stronger lexicon.

    You only sort of touched on this, but I wholeheartedly agree that games criticism’s tendency to think of titles as either pure successes or failures is ridiculous and deeply harmful. The idea that only perfect or near-perfect games can provide a worthwhile experience is absurd.

    • You know, back when I was a literary theory student, I was introduced to the towering lexicon of academic literary criticism, and it was fun, but words like “signifieds” and “differance” and “simulacrum” came too easy after a while. It’s fun to read Derrida, but is it accessible? No one understands Derrida unless they’ve studied post-structuralism and are also slightly crazy. We struggle to make ourselves understood in games writing, but maybe that’s a productive struggle. Labels are useful, but sometimes they’re also lazy.

      Also I just watched this yesterday: I fully support these words.

      • lauramichet

         /  July 22, 2010

        if you’ve ever tried to write about a conecpt that doesn’t exist yet, you wouldn’t say that labels are lazy. Having words for concepts actually helps us think about things more easily

        the trick is trying to use these labels/words responsibly

      • How about Spore?..For the PC? It’s pretty good You cratee an alien and go through evolution eventually you get to fly a space ship in the galaxy, and explore planets Email me and we can discuss your options But I don’t have many recommendations More and more violent games are coming out..There’s no avoiding them Confront your father about it Have a heart to heart conversation When did you start relying on your father anyways? I never tell my parents what games i play..I just ask them if i can rent anything..Look..I have many games to suggest But none of them are what you consider fun..That’s why I’m telling you to confront your video .Video games do not inspire violence You and your dad could maybe work something out..Like, he could arrange certain times when you can play violent games, and when you cant Just e-mail me I do not promote violence Bit I just believe every teenager deserves to have a little fun every now and then Give me your fathers email address and I can confront him..Sure, there are many games that arent violent but They’re limited choices Maybe me and your father could work something through e-mail, and he could have a discussion with you. I’d be absolutely willing to help you out Was this answer helpful?

  6. searingscarlet

     /  July 26, 2010

    I do think that some words had been so overused that they have lost their meanings, I have to admit though I would still use the term pretentious, when describing games that seems to feel like it had greater importance than it really does, and there are times I simply can’t think of a as precise.

    It is different from say, an “egocentric” game in which one person involved was so taken with their greatness, the entire game becomes all about him/her and the quality of game suffers because of so. Those words describes the situation well IMO.

    You could probably tell by now that I am not a journalist nor that I would ever pretend to be one. If anything I would say I’m closer to being a science-centric person. (I have held title as a “scientist” in my occupation, but given the specific circumstance I feel that It’s far too misleading for this particular conversation.) One of the best thing about science language is the precision, but at the same time precisely because of so, it had barred out many people who would otherwise be interested in science yet were intimidated by the jargons and the implicated elitism.

    Video games being an entertainment that is still not as widely accepted as some of the other forms, I wonder if the need of this whole new set of inside vocabulary would only alienate the other people more.

    I wonder how much of this could be salvaged by having the game journalism to have clear distinction between writing for the mass crowd, with the ones written for the academia, to the ones to the inside industry, to the ones for the “core gamers”.

    Which reminds me. I’d love to read the articles about “core gamers”. One particular group that I have never felt the polarising love and contempt at the same time. And I do apologise for my English, when I’m excited my non-native speaker status tend to be disturbingly obvious.

  7. randomkid

     /  July 26, 2010

    I’m just chiming in to say that I’d also love to read the unused rant on core gamers. I know it might not be productive, but you write so well that it’d be so much fun to read. Please post it as an addendum or something!

  8. Are they gone yet?

  9. ¿Ciertamente estas pensando todo ello? De Hecho No yo pienso
    que la info que has expresado resulte ser verdad.
    No importa demasiado ingeniosamente posteado.

  10. Excellent web site you have here.. It’s difficult to find quality writing like
    yours these days. I realy appreciate people like you!
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