Designing an immersive world is all about getting the details right. In a video game, the world consists of a number of elements, including the visual space, the characters that navigate it and the soundscape (music, sound effects and speech). It is in the finer details of these elements that the most immersive and fascinating worlds are built, and one of these details is language. Linguistics, the study of language, investigates subjects like grammatical structures, sound systems and semantic meaning, and its subfield sociolinguistics is concerned with the social meaning that language conveys. Video games make use of linguistic principles in a number of different ways.
Sociolinguistics is concerned with the social meaning of language—how you say it, rather than what you say. This involves, for example, the study of accents and their associated stereotypes. While such stereotypes are not always accurate, they are extremely well-known, so they are useful character-building resources. The voice a character speaks with provides clues about their allegiance, their motivation, their identity and much more, without ever stating this information outright. Grand Theft Auto makes use of such stereotypes by portraying mobsters as Italian-American; while Italian-Americans are not always mobsters in real life, this stereotypical association allows the player to easily interpret the role the character is meant to play in the game. Accents are composed of many linguistic resources, from the sounds involved in speech to the particular words used, but some of these resources are more obvious than others. The r-sound, for example, is strongly associated with a West Country accent, while words like “fam” and “cuz” are associated with British street slang. Carefully designing voices to capitalise on these resources makes for more authentic-sounding characters. This can be as simple as sprinkling a few words of a foreign language into a game set in that country (Max Payne 3 is set in Brazil and features Portuguese), or as complicated as giving groups of characters different accents through which they can be distinguished (as in the Thief series). This article about linguistic experiments in video games offers more detailed discussion of these examples.
But what about fantasy worlds? Linguistics also comes into play in game design through conlangs (constructed languages), languages which are invented for a particular purpose rather than developing naturally over time. Conlangs are popular in other fantasy and sci-fi media as well (for example, Dothraki in Game of Thrones, Elvish in Lord of the Rings and Klingon in Star Trek)—they are an excellent world-building device because they lend authenticity to an invented people while also being unfamiliar and alien. Designing a conlang requires an understanding of all of the basic principles of linguistics—phonetics (the study of sounds), phonology (the study of sound systems), syntax (the study of sentence structures) and semantics (the study of meaning)—and it can involve inventing a writing system and even developing the lore of a world or a people. Fleshing out a world with this kind of detail makes it more believable and immersive because there is always more for players to discover—Skyrim fans have developed a website devoted to the Dragon Language which includes dictionaries, a translator, lessons and much more. Other examples of conlangs in video games are the famous Simlish (less a constructed language than precisely designed gibberish) and the very carefully reconstructed Proto-Indo-European varieties of Far Cry Primal.
Linguistics is all about understanding the way language works, be it sound systems or grammatical systems or systems of social meaning. These are the details we use to make sense of the world around us every day, and successful game design must employ these principles to replicate that process in character- and world-building. For more academic discussion of how linguistic meaning is conveyed in video games, and how we talk about video games, see The Language of Gaming (Astrid Ensslin) or Unified Discourse Analysis (James Paul Gee), and if you’re interested in exploring linguistics further, consider applying to St John’s to study Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics!
Conlangs – If you are familiar with any conlangs from video games or other media, test yourself to see how far your understanding of the language goes—can you form a sentence? Can you introduce yourself? Can you carry out any game-specific tasks or communications?
Sociolinguistics – Think of an example of a particularly iconic character voice from a game you are familiar with. What features are particularly noticeable about the character’s voice and why? Try to illustrate why the distinctive features of this character’s voice or accent matter, and what they indicate about your character in context of the game.
Maren Fichter has just completed an MPhil in Linguistics, for which she studied YouTube accent challenges and pejorative language. She is also a casual gamer when she can steal time on her friends’ consoles, and is really looking forward to The Last of Us 2.