Monday, July 12, 2010

Semantics, Shemantics

"I guess it comes as no surprise that with a medium as new and experimental as gaming, debates will break out over the language we use to discuss it..."

(reads that over, rolls eyes, tries again)

"Games are a brand-new artistic medium - we just bought this house and the paint is still fresh on the walls. As a result, we have yet to settle on some of the most basic terminology we will use to describe it..."

(peers through fingers, sighs)

"If an artistic medium is defined by those who criticize it..."

(Throws up in mouth)

Oh Christ already, enough. I just wanted to write something really quick about terminology. Specifically, the fact that there is still disagreement on whether to use the term "Video Game" or "Videogame" when discussing our favorite pastime/hobby/field of study/obsession/livelihood/nemesis. I have no wish to reanimate a micro-version of the great debate in our corner of the internet, I really just wanted to share a few thoughts I had about it over the weekend.

If you'd asked me last Thursday where I came down on the question, I'd have proudly self-identified as a dyed-in-the-wool "Video game"-proponent. In fact, I prefer to lean towards just using "game," since it can feel like the "video" part of it is at once both juvenile and old-fashioned. Smushing the two into one word seemed to only further exacerbate things.

On Friday, the debate opened up again on Twitter. At first, a lot of people were voicing their preference for "Video Game" as well. It was nice; I felt like I was in good company. My bookshelf also agrees - James Paul Gee's excellent book is titled "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy" and Tom Bissell's latest goes by "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter." (In the forward, Bissell notes a reluctant preference for the two-word approach.) I don't have numbers to back me up, but I'm fairly certain that the vast majority of gaming sites lean towards "Video Games" as well.

So I felt pretty secure in my preference. But all the same, something niggled at the back of my mind... could this be a question worth revisiting? After all, the first issue of Kill Screen both asked and answered the question right there on the cover - "Videogames. Videogames? Videogames!"

Kill Screen editor Chris Dahlen confirmed via twitter that the single-word use was Kill Screen's official style. Then Ian Bogost linked to this discussion at Gameology from 2006, with a comment of his that bears reprinting (partial - the full comment is after the above link):
...I use the term "videogame" for rhetorical reasons. Separating the words, in my opinion, suggests that videogames are merely games with some video screen or computer attached. But, I believe that videogames are fundamentally a computational medium, not just the extension of a medium like board or role-playing games (although there is also a genealogy there). I think that closing the space, in part, helps consolidate this concept. Personally, I'm only interested in gaming as it relates to computation. That doesn't mean I don't think gambling or board games or whatnot are useful, it just means that they are not my primary focus.

As for the argument that "videogame" implies video display, as Patrick suggests above, I don't really care. I'm more interested in common usage, and the fact is that people use "videogame" to refer to the kinds of artifacts I want to talk about. I think video qua television screen is a vestigial effect of the arcade era and nobody is really confused about it.
And the more I thought about it, the more I was swayed by that argument. Further complicating things is the fact that as I write about games more and more, I'm finding that I enjoy the slightly kitchy quality that "videogames" has - a little bit retro, it feels like an embrace of the medium's roots.  It's also more practical from a writing standpoint, particularly when hyphens are involved. Calling a phenomenon "video game-related" reads far less clearly to me than does calling it "videogame-related."

On the one hand, I can see how this feels like a bit of a silly debate. And I'm sure it's obnoxious for anyone who's been in the trenches for the past 20 years to see yet ANOTHER blog post about it. (Sorry.) But all the same, the conundrum encapsulates why I love writing about games so much - we haven't even settled on a name yet!

I guess this has been my long-winded way of saying that I'm going to use "videogame" for a bit and see how it feels. Wish me luck.
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