Thursday, August 30, 2007

Quite Literally

So, here's an interesting question to tackle: don't you think it's really quite mean to look down on people who don't spell correctly on MUDs? I mean, spelling and grammar aren't as important as the message they convey.

Well, it's a fair point. After all, language is designed to get your point across in a manner that the other person (or, in this case, people) understand. Someone with the best command of the language still needs worthwhile things to say, otherwise they get annoying very, very quickly.

On the other hand, though, text-based games are just that - all text. Despite the fact that people have taken to chatting over the Internet in the same way that they would in real life - that is, casual, "fingers before mind" kind of stuff - we lack a lot of comprehension aids. We can't see facial expressions or gestures. We can't sense tones or voice effects. It takes a lot of effort to get a sense of "feeling" across.

This has two problems: firstly, roleplay is a lot about feeling. It is about evoking a scene in someone's imagination, and creating one in your own. The trick is that for things to make sense and play out seamlessly, this scene has to translate nearly perfectly. If two people are imagining totally different things, there isn't much hope for any kind of happy ending. In addition, there is a more general communication breakdown: if people can't understand what you're writing, they just can't communicate with you. They can't tell what you're saying, what you're asking for help about, what response you want to get from them. It isn't that they're trying to be rude or unhelpful, they just don't know what it is you are trying to get across. Part of this is, of course, that the sender has to realise that they are not the centre of the universe and people honestly don't care enough, nor should they, to spend ages trying to decipher the message. If they don't get it first time, it may as well never have been said.

Following on from that is the second problem: it just shows a lack of respect. MUD communities are a joint effort, like a novel being written by different authors, where each author has no editing power over what the others put in. Once it's said, it can't be undone by someone else. So if one person is spending two seconds on every sentence, the novel is going to look awful no matter how good the other authors are. And then what happens? Of course the other authors are going to think "well, why should I stay here and get dragged down by so-and-so who either doesn't know what they're doing and doesn't care?" - they go and find another book to contribute to. One bad apple can ruin the whole cartload for everyone.

So what do I suggest? Firstly, I like the above analogy a lot. Think about a MUD as being a co-written novel, a very flexible one that has no defined beginning or end. A work in progress. For all you know, someone is logging the goings-on for posterity, to look at later for inspiration or simply for enjoyment. Whatever the case, remember that a novel is a very fragile thing, and one writer can easily ruin the whole piece. If you feel that your writing could be better, then this is an excellent place to learn - surrounded by others who love writing, and want to help all the writers improve, so that the whole work improves. Just remember that in this medium, effort is vitally important - and it is just as important to show others that you are holding your end up in that regard.

"Bad spelling can be lethal. For example, the greedy Seriph of Al-Ybi was once cursed by a badly-educated deity and for some days everything he touched turned to Glod, which happened to be the name of a small dwarf from a mountain community hundreds of miles away, who found himself magically dragged to the kingdom and relentlessly duplicated. Some two thousand Glods later the spell wore off. These days, the people of Al-Ybi are renowned for being unusually short and bad-tempered."
-Terry Pratchett, "Witches Abroad"


Ananiki said...

I totally agree. If you're going to spend the time playing a MUD, at least put a bit of effort into the experience you know? It just seems to me that players who are constantly type in shorthand belong in those huge graphical games. People have to remember that in a text-only game, you have to make the experience mentally visual for everyone around you.

Aelius said...

I take the use of language very seriously. Having just spent the last two years composing a dense academic thesis, I can appreciate as well as anyone else the desire to read clear, lucid passages. Reading a confusing piece of work - whether it's an academic book or a one-line message in a mud - is frustrating, not only from the point of view of the reader, but also the author, since he will likely be asked to clarify what he said, told to speak properly, and so on. There are three problem areas, I think - abbreviations, typos, and grammar.

Now, I want to make it clear that I'm not talking about any player in particular, or even any specific mud. These are just general comments about how neglecting certain aspects of language can lead to comprehension problems.

I know that it can often be easier, when typing, to abbreviate many words rather than spelling them out. That's fine - not everyone is a fast typer. But when these abbreviations hinder one's ability to communicate, then problems arise.

Typos as well - we all make them, of course. But when they happen so frequently that a reader struggles to understand the meaning of a phrase, then, again, problems arise. Most mud clients allow a user to check for errors before sending the text to the mud - that can be a very good tool.

And finally, grammar. This, to me, is the biggest one of them all. When confronted about hideous grammar practices, people often say things like "I'm too tired to use proper grammar" or "this isn't English class, I don't need to use proper grammar".

Well... where to start? First, I would seriously question anyone who says that using proper grammar is tiring. It's not. And it just makes everything so easy to understand.

And second - the English class excuse is a popular one. But you see, the point of English class is to teach your skills that you can use outside of the classroom. You're not learning to communicate well just so you can please the teacher. You're learning to communicate well so you can function in society without looking and sounding like, well, a dimwit.

In fact, the whole point of school in general - for the most part - is to learn practical, transferable skills. And I would argue that the proper use of language in everyday life - especially when it's your native language - is one of the most important skills you can learn.

Owl's perch said...

Though it may sound a bit odd, it seems to me that a lot of people who join in a game wish to do so because they want the company of others.

This may be because they wish to have an audience for their achievements, towards whom they may later gloat. Or it may be simply to have someone they can interact with who doesn't merely repeat lines like "I think the dragon lives in the northeast."

Of course, most people wish the simplicity of having what they want on solely their own terms. They may wish to speak in a way that feels comfortable to them, even if it is an improper use of the language.

I'll admit to being guilty of similar flaws. However, I don't like making them. I don't feel comfortable when I do so. When we nag someone to correct their speach, it is with the desire to make them uncomfortable with it and attempt to correct that desire.

This is where we have the root of the problem. How do you make someone uncomfortable enough to want to improve their english skills without making them uncomfortable about logging in to play the game?

Positive incentives such as offering praise to those individuals who provide a good example, or who have improved their abilities. Carefully couched corrections to those who have not and appear to have no other desire to do so.

It is, in the end, a choice by the individual. Whether to improve themselves, to play, or to try to help others improve and play.

Bart said...

Some people are just bad spellers. They will be bad spellers for life. I've worked for postal executives that couldn't spell and depended on others to find their mistakes. Spell-checker is a great aid, but as we know they are limited.

zMud has a command line spell-check that works well.

But I agree, not spelling correctly because you are too lazy to look up a word is well...too lazy.