Games Journalism, Big Words and Talking Clearly

I was looking through the Giantbomb frontpage, when in the corner I saw the word “Foucaldian” and had to do a double-take. For those lucky enough not to know, Foucault is a notoriously difficult to understand French cultural theorist, cited in university textbooks and academic journals across the globe – and he now can add Austin Walker's twitter feed to that list. A similar double-take happened the other day when I saw the tweet “But consensus is most valuable when it's understood descriptively, not prescriptively, and strategically, not ontologically” (talking about how it's a good thing for games reviewers to not all repeat the same opinions).

Now, Austin Walker's a clever guy who knows his stuff, and often seems to have interesting things to say about it. In all the video/audio Giantbomb content I've seen him in he's spoken intelligently and – importantly – clearly. But why does he sometimes couch his writing in impenetrable semi-academic jargon?

This isn't just a problem with Austin, and he's not actually a particularly bad offender. Many of the articles that Patrick used to link to on Worth Reading would be full of this sort of stuff. Of course the trend is much wider than videogames writing, but the fact that it's bled into videogames writing unresisted is starting to annoy me.

The term “ludonarrative dissonance”, and the enthusiasm with which it was taken up, is probably the clearest example of this kind of thing I can think of – “gameplay-story dissonance” would almost certainly have been a better term, and wouldn't even have cost any more syllables! Fortunatley it seems to be going out of use, though I'm afraid that might be more because the concept has been talked to death than because people have decided to write clearly.

When you're writing, I'd say one of the more important bits is communicating your ideas to your readers. I (thankfully) haven't ever had to debate moral philosophy on the internet – but if I ever did, I would probably say something like “I think that actions should be judged by their consequences, rather than by what we think is 'right' in the abstract”. What I wouldn't say is “I subscribe to a kind of consequentialist utilitarianism, rather than Kantian deontology.” Mainly because I wouldn't expect anyone to understand me! And when I can express the same idea in a much simpler way, why bother with the jargon?

People often say that big, technical words are important because they let you be more specific in your ideas. But again, you have to think of what your readers can be expected to understand! I study physics, and I would never write a metaphor that relied on the technical distinctions between “momentum”, “force” and “impulse” because no matter how specific I was being I know most readers wouldn't pick up on that – I'd have to either do a bunch of extra explanation, or just phrase myself in a different way. I don't want complicated or subtle ideas to get dumbed down just so that they're easy for me to read, but I'd like to think clarity doesn't have to be at the expense of content.

Sorry if this turned into a bit of a rant. What annoys me is that there often is lots of interesting stuff being said about videogames. It's not as though writers need write in an unnecesarily complicated way for their stuff to look substantial. Does anyone else feel the same way? Are other people getting more from these sophisticated writing styles than I am?

EDIT: Looking some of these comments, I may have thrown in a red herring when I used the term "big words" in my title. It was more clear/unclear writing I was talking about, not just common/uncommon terms. I actually quite like learning "jargon", especially when it's specific and useful, but it's a problem when non-jargon would make the same point equally economically, and also be clearer. Simillarly, writing that doesn't use particularly obscure words can still be done in such a way that makes it very difficut to understand (like the discussion of descriptive/prescriptive understandings of consensus). I think people should try and set out their ideas in as clear and easy-to-understand a way as possible - and if maximum clarity involves technical terms, I'm totally fine with that. But it often doesn't!

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