Playing the Birth and Death of Language in 'Dialect'

Language can be quietly—or loudly—revolutionary in 'Dialect,' a tabletop game about communities and the words that make them.

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May 7 2017, 7:28pm

All images courtesy of Thorny Games

Have you ever wondered where words like "butch" and "femme" came from? Or how newer generations of queer women refined those concepts into terms like "soft butch" and "hard femme?" I have absolutely no idea, and Wikipedia says no one else does either. I still don't know what "futch" is and I've made my peace with that, but something about the way people whose desires and identities diverge from the "norm" create new language to describe their experiences—and the way that doing so feels vitally necessary—amazes me.

So I'm writing a backdrop about it for this new tabletop RPG called Dialect. It's just a tiny seed of a setting, a gentle push that might set a group of players on a fictional path beyond what I could create on my own. Science fiction allows me to think beyond gayborhoods and lesbian communes, to imagine new ways the young, weird, and dissatisfied might live out the perfectly phrased checkbox on their OkCupid profiles: "I don't want to see or be seen by straight people." The game itself gives players the tools to build characters that exist under those conditions, and then weaves the evolving story of how their ways of understanding and expressing their experiences changes. You make up new words. You develop a dialect.

The game is structured in such a way that the isolated community cannot survive and the game will end. But when I playtested it, regardless of what happened to our characters, my fellow players and I held on to the words we created, and even playing the game felt like a special experience that could only be explained using our new terms. Defining the words to outsiders was tricky. "Covent," I tried to tell people afterwards, "it's like when you're talking with someone, but like, really talking, you know? Like actually really talking?" Players from other tests say the same thing.

I asked Dialect's co-creators, Hakan Seyalioglu and Kathryn Hymes, about the apparent power of this language-building play. Both are well aware of the appeal of Dialect's premise—their Kickstarter campaign raised $189,742, or about 6,000% of their initial goal. As a note of disclosure, I consider them friends.

Hymes is a polyglot and computational linguist, in addition to being a game designer, and her love of language effuses from every answer in our email interview.

"Language," she tells me, "is powerful—it's how we interact with each other… It is one of the most basic ways that groups form communal identity. Dialect tries to tap into that fundamental role that language plays in uniting communities." Many tabletop RPGs have players form a party with shared goals, or a web of interconnected character relationships, to help build something like narrative cohesion. In Dialect, the players are united linguistically.

"Language is powerful—it's how we interact with each other…"

It's no surprise to her that I can still use "covent" in a sentence. "Language also sticks with us," she says. "It gets lodged in some of the deepest recesses of our brains and is damn hard to get out. In a lot of ways, our acuity and ease with language is what defines us as humans… Tapping into that innate wiring is a crucial piece of what makes Dialect sticky, (emphasis hers) why it's so hard to forget those words after the game is over."

Part of why we play games is to feel immersed in a world different from our own, and though "immersion" is a slippery term in game design, Hymes reminds me that the existence of unique terms "will make a world feel lived-in, like you're seeing snapshots from a living, breathing world rather than a shallow picture." At the table, and often long before, we love building worlds that feel believable, detailed, or lived-in. It's surprising we don't pay more attention to the role of language.

It's fun to make up words. But Dialect is also about loss and isolation. The community you envision and play as will eventually break down and be absorbed into a broader culture, and at least part of your dialect will be lost. Through a fictional conceit, Dialect sheds light on a real-world problem: language death. It's hard to estimate the rate at which we are losing languages, but UNESCO lists over 2,500 languages in danger of dying out. Some have as few as two or three fluent speakers left. Projects to resist this loss do exist and they are and surprisingly creative. Dialect is tabletop's secret weapon in that resistance.

In addition to a background in software and game development, Seyalioglu brings an interesting cultural perspective to their two-person team. Born in the United States, but raised in Turkey until he was a teenager, he told me about feeling a bit lost between cultures, and how language played a role in that liminality.

"I only really got to know English in a way that sounds natively fluent when I was fifteen or so, and I definitely never achieved that in Turkish," he said. "It makes it exceedingly hard to feel like you're ever home when that's the case."

Language is more than a functional tool, something Seyalioglu knows this first hand. "I know for some members of my family, if I had never seen them back in Turkey where they had mastery of the language in their everyday life, I wouldn't have known who they really are—how they would act when they had the freedom to express themselves naturally and fluidly. If you never have to think about it, I think it's easy to not realize how much deeper unfamiliarity with language goes." Just as shared language fosters a sense of belonging at the table, or immersion in the story, being cut off from words is also a way of being cut off from other people.

Seyalioglu told me about a particular playtest where one of his players had what she described as a "cathartic" experience. She was the daughter to an immigrant family dealing with losing their culture, so "she got to tell a story that mirrored something very personal to her to a group of people who may not have ever really lived through a similar experience," he explained.

I'm skeptical of the way "empathy" is used in the discourse around video games; I don't think anyone should have to package their oppression into a product easily consumed by their oppressors in order to have their concerns taken seriously. But this is something different. There is value in seeing each other, face-to-face, and being understood.

I'll be happy if they just feel a bit stronger after playing, or affirmed in the values they're fighting for.

It reminds me of the way many Americans are becoming reacquainted with the power of public demonstration and on-the-ground organizing, along with civic engagement. Beyond affirming the importance of issues like language diversity and preservation, Seyalioglu offered me a perfect summary: "Play is energizing, and sometimes, we all need a jolt to re-energize our convictions."

So the setting I'm writing about may have a sudden unfortunate surge in relevance. I don't know what words will emerge as players craft stories of queer resistance and survival, or if it'll have an impact. If I can claim an agenda at all, it would be a bit like the Civic Games Contest, which hopes "to promote or enhance people's ability to engage with the social and political world around them." I'll be happy if they just feel a bit stronger after playing, or affirmed in the values they're fighting for. Dialect, a quiet game about imaginary words in imaginary worlds, may be a surprisingly powerful means to those ends.