Lancaster University

This is archived news from Lancaster University. You can find up-to-date stories in our current news section.

On-line English - the Word Games People Play

05/01/2003 11:04:42

Tony McEnery, Professor of English Language and Linguistics, Department of Linguistics and Modern English Language, Lancaster University.

Have you ever fragged the boss? Have you found an Easter Egg in a 4X game? If so, I am prepared to believe that you may have bricked a noob ? or then again perhaps you are the kind of person that would gib one. I hope not! If this article makes little sense to you so far then you are clearly a noob indeed ? you are not part of the diverse and ever growing community of on-line gamers. Gamers go on-line using the broadband facilities that internet service providers such as NTL now offer for platforms like the X-Box. These gamers do not merely browse the web or engage in a little retail therapy - they play their favourite computer game with somebody in another street, town, country or - who knows - continent!

In doing so, the on-line gamers are developing a slang all of their own, making on-line language a little difficult to understand for the uninitiated. To break the code, frag is a term meaning to blast something away. The boss is the challenging monster/villain often encountered at the end of a particular level in a computer game. An Easter Egg is a surprise hidden in a computer game by a programmer for the unwary - or the wily - to discover. A 4X game is a game where you have to do the 4 Xs - explore, expand, exploit and exterminate. A brick is a powerful player who may protect a weaker one, a noob is a player new to a game, while if one were to gib a player, one blasts them into nasty little pieces resembling giblets! All of this may appear confusing, but we should not forget that this process - the construction of slang for new games and pastimes - is an old and familiar process in the English language. A few contemporary examples illustrates this point nicely - have you told anybody recently that they -"are the weakest link - goodbye...?" Perhaps you have told them that they have -"no lifelines left!" Then again perhaps you have been shown a red-card. The flow between games and the English language has been a two way street - jogging entered the English language to describe this form of gentle running. The sin-bin also entered the English language from sport, where it was used to refer to the place where players sent off the field for some misdemeanour in rugby league and ice hockey were sent.

The interaction between gaming slang and the English language is not a new process of course - games have been a rich source of inspiration for English over the centuries, often contributing words, phrases - even place names - to the English language. If you don't believe me, consider the origins of the name Pall Mall next time you are strolling down that leafy boulevard. Pall Mall, that swishiest of swish London roads, is actually named after a games pitch that used to be on the site that the road now occupies. The game once played there on that pitch - Pell Mell - is long ago forgotten and abandoned in England. But the shadow of the game lingers on in this illustrious English street name.

New media have often been the conduits by which gaming words and phrases entered the English language. Those of a certain age will remember with fondness the phrases 'have a go' and 'what's on the table Mabel?', phrases which gained new popularity and meaning because of the radio quiz show Have a Go in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Television game shows are forever giving the English language new words and phrases - from 'scores on the doors' in the 1970s to 'do you want to phone call a friend' today, games on television have provided the English language with numerous words and phrases which we all use from time to time.

With the advent of on-line gaming we are finding that the slang used on-line is following in the tradition of gaming slang in English - taking words and changing their meaning as well as contributing new words and phrases to the language. As shown above, some common words and phrases, such as boss and Easter Egg, have a radically different meaning in on-line slang from their everyday uses in English. Other words are brand new - they have been created on-line by gamers wishing to find a language with which to talk about a new experience. For example, before the advent of high speed internet broadband gaming, there was no need for a term such as high pinger (a person who's slow connection speed to the internet puts them at risk of losing a game) as high pingers, low pingers or any other sort of pinger for that matter did not previously exist! On-line gamers are demonstrating one of the great strengths of speakers of the English language - their seemingly limitless capacity for generating new words without the fuss and bother of a national language academy telling them what words they can and cannot use. The language of on-line gaming is vital, dynamic and endlessly creative - just like the English language itself.

Some words have been adopted by on-line gamers from existing slang terms. These terms are now being popularised by the on-line gaming community - frag is a good example of such a word. This word originated in American English during the Vietnam war to describe the process of blowing somebody up. Hardly pleasant, but the on-line gaming community spotted this almost onomatopoeic word and started to use it to describe the process of dealing death and destruction to rampaging alien hordes. The word frag is an interesting example from another point of view - it highlights the international nature of gaming slang. Gamers are joining on-line games from all over the world and this is reflected, as in the case of frag, in on-line slang.

With that said, one should not get the impression that on-line gamers are a bloodthirsty and sinister lot. There is a great deal of cooperation on line, and this is shown by terms such as twinking ? bricks helping out weaker players and noobs are twinking. Twinkers are on-line big brothers, if you will. Many acronyms on-line are also cooperative in nature. Just as with other forms of electronic communication, such as email and text messaging, gamers shorten words, and frequently use acronyms. These acronyms often display the cooperative nature of on-line gaming - consider, for example cmp (cover me partner), gjp (good job partner) and wtgp (way to go, partner).

Another indication of the almost chivalrous nature of the on-line gaming community is the fact that some of the worst terms of abuse used in on-line gaming are reserved for what, in an earlier age, would have been called caddish behaviour. Beware of campers! Campers are on-line cads, who will engage in low gamesmanship to win games and run up high scores. To be called a camper of any sort is a terrible thing in on-line gaming, and camping behaviour is not at all acceptable in what appears, to all intents and purposes, to be a genuinely collaborative community. Turtling - running up a high score and then hiding until the game is over so that you cannot be beaten - is another nasty piece of gamesmanship frowned upon by the gaming community. Exploiters - those who cheat terribly and ruin the game for others are probably the most reviled cads on-line. They are usually banned from games as a result of community pressure.

So if you are a parent with a kid going on-line, don't be worried when you hear them saying that they have found a brick! Also, if they express a distaste for campers, pour scorn on turtling and start campaigning against exploiters rest assured that they are part of a large and friendly community of gamers pushing gaming - and the English language - into new dimensions. Then again, you might want to steer your wards away from games in which there is too much fragging and gibbing. Don't worry - what you want to do is look for games in which there is more discussion of sims or sneakers. Sims are simulation games in which, for example, building cities or even funfairs and zoos are the objective of the game. If your kids find this dull, perhaps you should steer them towards sneakers. Sneakers are games in which the emphasis is upon thinking through a solution to the problems presented to you in a game using guile, cunning and intelligence.

English is now well and truly on-line. The language is being created and forged afresh, as it has over the centuries, by new users of the language. The on-line users of English in games rooms are creating new words and phrases to describe new experiences. They are doing this in an environment in which speakers of a wide variety of Englishes are interacting in a truly global community. Gone are the days when gaming was a solitary pastime. On-line gamers are communicating globally with one another as they are playing, and it is in this process of communication that they are coining terms such as those to describe members of their on-line community, from bricks and gods (gods are players who are quite simply so good that their abilities are godlike) to the awful campers, turtles and exploiters. Gamers are happily fragging, gibbing and sneaking their way through the world of on-line gaming. Yet they are also sneaking into the dictionaries. The slang of today is often the acceptable language of tomorrow. So the next time that you hear a youngster using this slang, reflect upon the possibility that you are lucky enough to be hearing the process of the creation of new words in English. On-line gaming, like gaming through the ages, will leave its mark on the English language. I welcome that change, and for the noobs, bricks and gods developing English in their gaming communities my message is simple - wtgp!