Ludonarrative Dissonance, Conceptual Metaphor and Language Learning

1. Introduction

One important way tabletop gamers get introduced to new games is through video playthroughs that local in-person groups shoot together and upload on popular websites like youtube or boardgamegeek. Over time, the familiarity a viewer has with a particular play-group gives them a sense of trust that the games they play might be fun for the viewer as well.

For me, one such group is Game the Game at Geek & Sundry. GtG is the banner-carrier for what was Tabletop, also a fantastic video tabletop play through channel. Recently, I watched their playthrough of the new game Photosynthesis.

In this game, players compete with each other as trees for the most sunlight and fertile land in which to grow. While watching, I was struck by the language the players used when performing their actions. While the controlling metaphors of the game are trees, growth and evolution, the language used by the players was wholly commercialism. They discussed spending their light, how much trees cost and so on. This is interesting to me because there doesn’t seem to be any indication in the visuals of the game that people (in the form of gardeners, forest protectors or land owners) are in the game at all. It seemed to me at first that the players were the trees, or were the genes that were fighting for self-replication in a Selfish Gene kind of metaphor.

This language is probably unsurprising to tabletop gamers, but it reminded me of an experience I had while teaching 6th graders to play the social-deduction game Coup, in which the players are powerful oligarchs who wield their influence to defeat the other oligarchs. However, in playing the game, players easily and quickly begin using the language of war to describe their actions. Killing this player/card instead of losing influence over a character.

This kind of disconnect between the game narrative and the way players enact the game mechanics can be described as a kind of ludonarrative dissonance (LD). Usually however, LD is how the game mechanics may not support the game narrative or vice versa. How the players interact with the mechanics and narrative is not often considered part of LD in digital games. In tabletop gaming however, the player’s brains are the processors through which the mechanics are realized. How the player communicate their actions, therefore, is a way the mechanics are realized. It follows then that if the players conceptualize the mechanics in a certain way that is at odds with the designed narrative, we could describe that dissonant. This is not to say bad or wrong. In fact, we might use the other word, emergent. Or, alternatively, how the cultural-history of a person’s past experience is brought to bare on a current situation.

As a teacher, I’m not too concerned with this LD (it’s the socially-appropriate use of language that I’m interested in). However, after watching GtG play Photosynthesis, and considering Thorne and Reinhardt’s Bridging Activities model of sociocultural theoretic language learning, I thought there could be a more interesting level of language learning and teaching here. So, for the rest of this, I will go through a few things: first conceptual metaphor from cognitive linguistics, the use of CM in language teaching and some personal experience from teaching coup and then some implications that for tying the conceptual metaphors of a game narrative to the actual playing of the game as a way of 1) raising student awareness of the way culture and language interact to give us concepts that we interpret the world through and 2) a potential RPG tabletop video playthrough project students could do following the BA model.

2. Conceptual Metaphor

From a Vygotskian SCT perspective, language is not simply an object that exists in the world to be described. Language is the result of history. In particular, it is the result of the agentive and need-based and goal-oriented (in the language socialization sense) use of language by the people who came before us. That historical-use is then transmitted to us through joint attention and need-based interaction from our youngest moments. As we become social-actors in our communities, these linguistic forms come to both support and help shape the way we both interpret and act in the world.  We take these symbolic relics of history and then apply them to our current material situation. This means we also, agentively change these linguistic symbols depending on the time, place and material condition we live in.

From this view, it would be expected that ways of interpreting the world in the past, should be found inherent in the linguistic forms that we use today without even thinking. These are, in part, what cognitive linguists like George Lakoff describe as conceptual metaphors. See the video for a comprehensive history of the cognitive linguistic tradition:

CL emphasizes that sensory experience is embodied by necessity. In other words, there is no intelligible sensory experience in the brain without also a body in an environment to be sensed. Additionally, CL emphasizes that this brain-body is not a new dualism, they are inherently together and any inferences start from that view. The important claim from this then, is that language or the way we describe the world, emerges from this view of the brain, body and environment. Language is organized following the same sensory experience we have of our environments.

Over time, these primary metaphors that relate to our embodied experience are reused for new situations, building off the previous linguistic tools. This is how we come to talk about CONTROL IS UP in utterances like:

He has power over the committee. 
He has control over hiring.

Or, relevant to this piece, COMMERCIAL ACTIVITY IS WAR:

Meanwhile, Microsoft is attacking Google’s biggest business.
Are European banks about to invade America — again? (from Sun, 2010)

To understand CM, it’s important to know both the source domain of the metaphor (or where the language of the metaphor is taken from) and the target domain (the situation or context that the metaphor will be applied. The case of COMMERCIAL ACTIVITY IS WAR, the source domain is military / war and the target domain is business or commerce.For games, the metaphor is usually understood as COMPETITION IS WAR. Where you get similar usage to the examples above. But in worker-placement games (the metaphor is in the name of the genre), a more common metaphor would be something like GAMES ARE COMMERICAL ACTIVITY. Where you get the same kind utterances mentioned in the introduction.

You have to pay three light points.
How will you spend your light points?
Did you buy that tree already?

By using a similar set of linguistic tools across an entire genre of games that have widely different narratives and contexts (Photosynthesis is mechanically related to games like Catan and Viticulture), players can quickly grasp the actions in a game and in turn, use their brain-processors to perform those actions. If each worker-placement game had to use a ludonarrativly consistent linguistic toolkit, that would probably be overly taxing on players who are new to a specific game.

3. Praxis


As described in the introduction, my experience in using a game-design enhanced pedagogy ran pretty head on into the conceptual metaphor of GAMES ARE WAR. While I did try to explain the context of Coup to the 6th graders, it is a pretty mature theme (by that, I don’t mean obscene or graphic). Not many 6th graders have experience with politics or power in general. But they do have experience in games, winning, losing and images of war and death. Aggression is commonly expressed by elementary school in South Korean children by using words like, “i’ll kill you!” or “Do you want to die?”. It can be a bit unnerving really. So, from a young age, schoolchildren are primed and ready to use the language of war to play games.

At the same time, I tried to emphasize the contextualized meanings of the words in the game. For example influence. Using a contrastive analysis approach, the students were asked to consider how influence is used in Coup and how it differs from other contexts. And many of the students came away from that with the intended lesson, which is that words that you know in one context can shift or change meanings in other contexts and that is ok.

But in the game-play itself, only very self-aware students really tried to use the word influence in the game. Most opted for card, as that is the material object that represents a player’s influence. But what I thought was interesting was that some students did begin using the language of the game narrative.

Language of action as a bridge

photosynthesis set up
It’s a very beautiful game

From my perspective as the teacher, and as I mentioned above, it isn’t the “correct” use of ludonarrative language that I’m concerned with. Instead, what interests me is how to provide more diverse sets of language to my students and how to get students critically examining the language that they use. The way I see this playing out is as follows:

  1. Students are introduced to and participant in a worker-placement game like Photosynthesis by playing the game and observing / collecting language from other groups through video.
  2. Examining that collected language for its use in improving the way they play Photosynthesis.
  3. Extending that examination in actual play and in critical review of their own play and the game itself.

After this stage is complete and the students have both played the game and participated in the online communities of the game, the students would be introduced to RP-style playthrough groups like this one:

Students would again be asked to go through a BA cycle, using the video as a prompt.

  1. What words do the player use to perform their actions?
  2. How are those words used in other contexts?
  3. Imagine a narrative context for the game, what words or phrases would you need to use?

In particular, the students attention would be directed to the old-western style of the players appearance and the way that affects their talk. As a bridge, it would be helpful for the students to think of a similar cultural-historical context for themselves to come up with examples. In Korea, it might be the Joseon Dynasty.

Once students have a grasp of how context influences language choices, students might be asked to re-consider Photosynthesis with a new BA cycle. Students would be asked to:

  1. Explore and collect the language from the game manual, and videos of people playing the game.
  2. Examine that language for its use outside of Photosynthesis. In particular, the teacher may focus on the use of market-based words like pay, buy, sell.
  3. Finally, students would be asked to come up with language that is ludonarratively consistent with the characters and context of the game world for use in a RP-style game that could be shared on a platform like youtube for the audience of tabletop gamers.

photosynthesis intro

photosynthesis buying
Notice how the introduction avoids using capitalistic language. players “plant” in “soil” and “grow” their trees. The metaphor is much more “cultivation” than “commercialism”. Even the use of the word “buying” fits this metaphor.

The last BA cycle here would involve the planning and production of the game video. Students would not be required to upload to youtube, but I would always encourage and support any of them that wanted to.

  1. Using their plan, students would play a few games of photosynthesis, attempting to use their LD-consistent language. Other students would watch and collect examples of LD language and non-LD language. Players would watch themselves and compare to the words that were collected.
  2. Students would compare their use with other students and with their own use over the course of 3 or 4 games. Students collaboratively decide on improvements or changes.
  3. Produce and perform an RP-style, LD-consistent, playthrough video for the youtube gaming community. For assessment, students would be required to watch other groups videos and collect evidence of 1) RP 2) LD and 3) language use and misuse.

4. Implications

As I type this up, one implication that comes to mind right away is the time investment this whole process would require. This is no small task or lesson plan. This could itself, depending on the allowed class time, number of students and of course student familiarity with game-design enhanced L2TL, this could take a semester. I believe there are ways to trim this down. For now though, I like having this overall, grand, framework in place as a guide for myself at least.

In terms of L2TL, This series of classes would have a few specific goals:

  1. developing pragmatically-useful language in the context of playing and talking about games.
  2. Comparing that language used in playing and talking about games across different context for contrasts and pragmatic understanding.
  3. Participating in language use with an authentic community that meets community standards and expectations of use.
  4. Developing a critical approach to even appropriate language use.

For me, this last point about developing critical approaches to language use is maybe the main goal of this lesson. To often in language learning, I feel we give too much objective status to languages. We talk about how “the English language does this or that”. And while I don’t think this is a deep conspiracy, I do think at times by omitting the actor of language use, the speaker, we sometimes don’t give enough agency to the speakers who innovate and break language “rules”. Especially for L2 language learners, errors are often compared to a “standard” language that only really exists in the classroom (a point I’ve talked about before).

Allowing students their own agency in language and giving them ways to understand both the standards that exist and their agency, opens the door to more masterful navigation of a world that can be, at times, unkind and unfair.


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