Sunday, September 17, 2006

How Talking More Equals Saying Less

The Narrowing Nature of Words

Language is used to communicate. Words are used to describe. The more words, the more you are telling. Or so common sense would tell us. I would like to look at speaking and writing from a slightly different angle.

From my perspective, the more words you use, the less you actually tell.

Consider the following story:
Bird
That's a pretty short story. And it doesn't tell very much, does it? It doesn't even have a verb. However, this story tells us the entire idea of bird without anything more specific than that. Every part of bird, past, present, and future, is contained within this story.

Here's the next story:
Brown bird
From one perspective, this story tells more than the previous one. In the previous story you spoke only about bird, but you now tell more about this bird, i.e. you are talking about a brown bird. Isn't that more information?

From one perspective, yes. But from another perspective, we now have less story; a story dealing with less information. Before, the story being told encompassed all birds of all types. By adding the word brown to the story, our story has shrunk to being only about brown birds.

The next story:
I saw a brown bird
The story space is shrinking rapidly. While it is true that more information about this particular story is being revealed, the story is now encompassing a narrower and narrower experience. The story was once about birds. Now it is about a particular time that I saw a particular type of bird. The story perforce now includes both birds and me; all other instances of birds and time are excluded from this story.

The more I say, the less possibility of information I actually convey.

Another way to look at this: the more I increase the specifics in the story, the more I decrease the general nature of the story. Each word narrows my story from a generic tale to a specific event.

Cutting Down to the Elephant

I am comparing the idea of telling a story to the idea of cutting an elephant out of a block of wood. After all, from one perspective, the elephant was already in the wood; the sculptor is merely removing all parts of the wood that don't match a particular elephant. From another perspective, however, the wood contains all elephants until it is cut into a single elephant.

There is a contrary take to my view of this, however. You could say that the elephant is not contained in the block of wood. It is not the wood that makes the elephant, but the boundary imposed on the material. The elephant was in the mind, and only imposed on the wood. The wood never contained the elephant, because it never contained the boundary.

From this perspective, the story "Bird" does not contain all birdness in it. For that to be the case, all possible stories must be floating about in some sort of ether. Creating the words doesn't "unleash" a story that is already there; it imposes a story from within a mind onto formless words.

From this perspective, the story is created by the boundary, i.e. the words that are imposed.

Bidding in Bridge

Consider the rules of bidding in the game of Bridge. In Bridge, each player makes a bid of a rank (from 1 to 7) and a suit, or passes. The bid must be on the same rank or higher than the previous bid. If on the same rank, the bid must be a suit ranked higher, from clubs to spades, or no trump. There are only 35 possible bids, along with a few other possible declarations, such as "double" or "redouble". The bids must be in sequence, lowest to highest. If you skip a bid, you can't go back to it.

Bridge players have been working for a century to communicate as much as possible within this limited and terminating language. The language takes full advantage of not only what is said, but also what is not said.

For instance, if a player opens "1 spade", not only does the player declare that he or she wishes to win the auction at "1 spade" (the player may not, actually), but also declares certain ranks of cards in hand, and certain card distribution, as well. In addition, by not bidding any other opening bid, the player declares absence of all of the other possible holdings that weren't declared.

The bid imposes quite a lot of structure onto the initial formless unknown of a hand. Subsequent bids, by their statements, or by their absence of statement, further refine the hand to a high clarity.

The possibility space of what the hand could have contained (any combination of thirteen cards out of fifty-two) shrinks with each bid. In fact, it shrinks even with your opponent's bids. And in parallel, the possibility of specific holdings increases with each bid.

In this case, more specific means more information, because all information is no information. This is conveyed as much by indicating what does not exist, as by what does exist.

Abstractness in Games

War games and RPGs often contain thousands of pages of rules. In contrast, generic mainstream board games may have a single page of rules, or even just a paragraph or two.

Longer rules equates to a more specific game. The more words describing a game, the less abstract the game is (that's a rough observation, not an absolute rule). But is it more rules that create less abstraction, or more rule description?

If I describe the Go board as China on the fields of Ying Yung, on the snowy morning of December 12th, in the year 956, at 6:50 am, is my game less abstract? Or just the rules description? If I add a rule to the Go game such that any five stones in a row of one color are removed from the game, does that make for a less abstract game? If I say it's because of scarce supplies and starvation, does that?

Either a game tells all stories that it's mechanics can contain. Or, if you hold the opposing point of view, the game mechanics are only a language imposed by the designer, and stand unique. In the former view, the mechanics are the words, and the more mechanics, the more specific your theme. In the latter view, the mechanics come into existence to support the theme, and cannot be separated.

It seems to me that the two camps of game players - those who look at a game as a tool for creating fun, and those who need to play by the rules - parallel these two camps. The former believe that the game is an instance of ether, a representation of numerous similar games. The latter believe that the game was created out of the mind of the designer, and has no form other than of that imposed by the designer.

Unwritten Rules

The less rules in the game, the more people say "the rules don't say that you can't!"

The reason game rules can feel incomplete is because designers instinctively know that they are working in the former model - a game is etched out of ether. It does not come from the mind, complete, in want of a substance out of which to carve it.

You don't need to specify that players shouldn't cheat, that each player should take turns as starting player, that holdings should be open or closed, etc, unless you want to impose a particular vision onto the game space. All of these rules exist; players can decide how or whether to implement them as they best like.

Imposing on this space turns a generic game into a specific one, one that not everyone shares. You run the risk of someone not liking the game just because he or she doesn't like the method for choosing the starting player. On the other hand, it also provides concreteness for those who can't deal with finishing the work themselves.

Yehuda

Edited for cohesion ...

2 comments:

Gerald McD said...

Excellent!

Most intriguing and thought-provoking (is that redundant?).

Anyway, nice job, Yehuda.

Yehuda said...

Thanks, GG. I still think it lacks a little cohesion. I may revisit it.

Yehuda