Day 15: When was the last time you unironically used the word “diegetic?”

Halfway point check-in!

Every day of our hashtag game I love to read the posts and comments our thing is generating, even when I stridently disagree with something someone says. That’s awesome, diversity of opinion is great. With the exception of the folks who are totally unequipped to laugh a little at this indie thing of ours now and again (and treat self-reflective laughter as an existential threat), it’s been more than two weeks of solid love letters. Amazingly positive. I’m changing nothing.

But also every day, there’s a tiny bit of me that wonders, is this going to be the day that it falls apart? It didn’t happen on the political day (9), it didn’t happen on the class warfare day (13), it very nearly happened on “let’s talk about talking about rules about rules” day (11).

I don’t want that day to be today, either.

Look. Diegetic? It’s jargon. It’s unfamiliar jargon, especially if you haven’t rubbed up against the freeform/nordic bleeding edge. I welcome the haters to consider other unfamiliar words, like thaco, or rollplaying, or crunch vs fluff, or “toon.” Ye gods, toon. How I hate toon. Aw crap, I set myself off with that one.

What is it about jargon that sets us off? It has to be all the implied baggage that comes along with it, yeah? Diegetic sounds academic and oh lord here come the gamesplainers. Toon is straight out of World of Warcraft and oh lord here come the munchkins. (Oh, add “munchkin” to the jargon list.)

As cultural signifiers, jargon is awesome. I say thaco and you know what it means? Meaningful nods, cool, we’re on the same page. I’ve just invoked basements, middle school hazing, Mountain Dew bottles and tiny painted figures. High five, I can safely talk D&D with you. I say diegetic and you don’t know what it means? Fear, uncertainty, doubt. Do we really share play goals? Do you think I’m dumb? Fuck you man, you don’t know me, I’m not dumb!

When I wrote the question, I was laughing at this totally throwaway moment from Dreamation this year, which was the first time I met Brand Robins. After many years of on and off sparring we had a lot of catching up to do. So we’re talking after hours, maybe a beer or something into one of those stand-around-and-bullshit nights. I can’t even remember what we were talking about! But at some point Brand is all “mumble mumble something diegetically resolveddiegetic means within the fiction by the way…” And I had two reactions: One, I immediately jumped in with “sigh, yes, I know what diegetic means,” i.e. my stop-patronizing-me reflex! Two, we had just done the little psychic high-five that said “yup, good, we both take game design and thinking seriously in this particular and academic way.”

There’s been some level of resistance to academic treatment of roleplaying since forever. I’m 100% sure the impulse to treat it as a subject of serious academic interrogation is well-intentioned: you can go really deep in the weeds on the subject, there are university programs for it, and you can travel the world to conferences. I’d also speculate there’s a little insecurity there too: if I treat this subject with enough seriousness, if I can show my work, then maybe it’s okay that I keep playing make-believe well into my adulthood. I speculate that because I know that’s in my brain more than I’d like it to be. My adulthood western work ethic is why there’s an Indie Game Reading Club.

The resistance to the academic treatment is totally understandable as well. It may all be bullshit: the experience is just too subjective and diverse for there to be meaningful research. It might make this fun escapist thing 99.9999% of us do seem like work. It’s draining the magic out of the experience. The all-in lifestyle heavy ludic thinkers might make us feel inadequate (cue my favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quote here).

So is all that heavy academic lifting actually producing better design? That was always the question at the Forge, yeah? If we can just dig deep enough, can we put that knowledge to use? I think the answer has to be yes. But yes relies on an assumption that freeform/larp is a game design technology incubator for games just-gamers will actually play someday. I think it’s readily apparent that it is (no, not the only one). And that’s where a lot of the most academic, serious thinking is taking place these days.

Tl;dr gamers have secret handshakes. NBD.

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33 thoughts on “Day 15: When was the last time you unironically used the word “diegetic?””

  1. There are also those who study games to make better games, vs those who study games to understand how games work externally, vs those who study the cultural place of games, and more.

    And all of us talk to each other, but we’re not always speaking the same language.

    I, for example, have an academic background in literary and narrative studies. But I do not have an academic background in game studies, or any of the overlapping fields in psychology, computer science, etc.

    So a lot of times when I talk to folks with a different academic background, who are actually studying games anthropologically where I’m learning about them to get better at playing/making them….

    Well, it doesn’t always go perfectly.

  2. I’m now doubting my memory and wondering if it was Mikael Andersson who said that to me. Argh! It was still such a good evening, even if my befuddled old brain mixes up the details.

  3. I really don’t follow the “relies on the assumption” sentence. I kind of infer that you’re saying that since that’s where a lot of the academic-ness is happening that’s where the results would be seen, but that doesn’t seem to have much to do with assumptions or reliance.

  4. Also I’ve never used diegetic unironically. I do know what it means (I looked it up because some asshole dropped it to prove he was better games-educated in a conversation – and to be fair at that point I didn’t know the word) but I never use it because it isn’t common parlance, and almost nobody uses it to clarify a point rather than just show off big words (Brand gets a pass ^_~). I generally just say “resolved in-fiction” or “fiction based resolution” which gets more nods and everyone on the same page – which is generally my purpose in any given conversation.

  5. (So, notably, in gaming circles I rarely see it used in a place where ‘in the fiction’ wouldn’t work. In narrative and film studies it actually is more specific, and has to do with parts of the fiction as they apply to the overall narrative. Like, does the thing happen on screen or off? Either way it happened in the fiction, but one thing happened in the fiction we saw, the other in the fiction we did not see.)

    (I’ll stop being a wank now, I swear.)

  6. Mark Delsing okay. My example will of course produce a lot of disagreements! 🙂

    In our Urban Shadows game, I saved you from the demons that were about to eat you. Afterward, we sat down and shared our fears about these demons! Those characters’ developing relationship is a diegetic thing; it’s happening inside the fiction. It has its own weight and meaning and context.

    Meanwhile, I-the-player have earned a Debt on you. That’s an outside-the-fiction mechanical thing that’s hooked to an inside-the-fiction thing.

    Have you ever had to slow down the die rolling at a tabletop game, you know, folks are throwing around bonuses and invoking their abilities and whatever? Do you ever just pull up for a second and say “Wait a second…what does this look like in the fiction?” Then the players might look at the advantages they’re trying to invoke and then realize that what they’re trying to do has no fictional context? That’s related to diegesis, might not actually be diegesis, and this is where I’d defer to one of the gamesplainers to set me straight.

    Lots of freeform relies entirely on diegesis: what does my character want, what are my character’s relationships, what is true to the fiction? It can be diceless because everything you need to move the fiction forward is already in the fiction, and the uncertainty is coming from how the players interpret their character’s knowledge of themselves and the world.

    Re. “Toon.” Seriously? You’ve never heard that one? Lucky duck. It’s your PC, with the implication that your PC is a package of assets to be used to overcome challenges. Disposable, meaningless, no fictional context.

  7. It’s entirely possible it was me, especially since you mention the patronizing comment. I do this thing where I learn a new-to-me concept, get super excited about it, try to communicate it to others, get self-conscious about using jargon or coming off as elitist, overexplain myself, and end up seeming patronizing instead. It’s a side effect of being academically ignorant but also too curious to stop myself from peeking into the windows of the ivory tower.

  8. Heh, I remember hearing a WoW player talk about their toon, back when they were trying to hook me into the game more long-term, and I was completely ??? at the word. I had never ever heard it used like that before. Culture shock!

    (I ultimately decided that a night of WoW was approximately as much time investment as a session of RPGing, but without all of the goodness that I like in RPGs.)

  9. Dan Maruschak what I mean is that there are plenty of folks who either don’t think, or don’t know, that lots of interesting design tech comes out of that scene. Some might even stridently reject the claim! That all new design ideas emerge fully formed from the skulls of Monte Cook and Robin Laws and whomever else.

  10. Weirdly, I don’t ever remember hearing the word “toon” in that context before, but I instinctively knew what it meant, so I must have learned it (probably from my few remaining WoW-playing friends) and then forgotten all about learning it.

    When doing your survey of RPG jargon, make sure to include for each term: 1) a functional definition; 2) a sardonic definition; 3) a ranty definition explaining how each term is totally fucking useless now and we don’t talk about it and if you want to know what it means then go read these 25 closed threads with 500 posts each, any number of which might be digressions or personal attacks or references to out-of-print ashcan editions of indie games.

  11. I’m a professor of game design at one of the top universities in the world. I’d be happy to talk about what that’s really like, if you’re curious. I have some significant points of disagreement with the second half of your post.

  12. I know I offered to talk about my experience, but I’m having trouble figuring out where to start because your assumptions about what “academic” is are so far off that they’re Not Even Wrong.

    1) The resistance I see is not to actual academic treatment of role-playing. I’ve had enormously positive experiences doing academic research on RPGs with many different communities, including communities that are deeply hostile to online RPG “theorizing” (for, what I’ll add, are pretty good reasons).

    2) There are a number of relationships between theory, design, and empirical work, depending on what intellectual tradition you are working in. None of them involve competitive bloviation.

    3) One of the big ongoing debates in the field is about the “aca-fan” – the appropriate relationship between research and play. There are good theoretical and methodological reasons for a range of positions within the field, from my own (I play much less now that games are my job) to “I study my favorite games so I can spend more time with them.” What isn’t at stake is a sense of insecurity.

    4) We do have insecurity about establishing our relationship with other disciplines. Where do we publish? What methodologies do we value? Whose terms do we engage with? As we’re forming a field, what will that field look like? And let’s be blunt: a lot of that insecurity is driven by access to resources, like students and money. We tend to try to justify ourselves to people we think can help us pay the bills.

    5) Point 4 has a positive side effect: we spend a lot of time reading and thinking about prior work in other disciplines, and engaging with it seriously. We also work to make our work intelligible across disciplines. This is, to say the least, not what I see in pseudo-academic discussions of RPGs.

    6) We care a lot about making our work actionable and accessible. In my field you can’t get a paper accepted unless the contributions to the field are clear to the point where someone else could pick up the work if need be.

    6a) Contrary to stereotype, the more prestigious the program, the more emphasis is put on generalizability, accessibility, and clarity. Deliberate obscurity is seen as the last refuge of the incompetent. (One of my departments is ranked #1 worldwide, and the other does not participate in ranking programs but is known to be a top-notch place, so I have some insider insight into this.)

    7) We make people get up to speed with knowledge, both in games and in other relevant disciplines, before we take their attempts to contribute to the conversation seriously. This avoids blowhard syndrome, or at least weeds it down to those blowhards willing to make a long-term commitment to engaging with other people’s work before they can posture about how smart they are.

    Basically, the “heavy academic lifting” you’re describing isn’t.

  13. Thank you Jessica Hammer for giving concrete details into some of the issues I was hazily pointing at above!

    (I think we need to have a serious talk about using the word “academic” around game theory. Because there are academics and then there are “academics” and then there are dorks like me who just like to talk a lot.)

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