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UKIE's Jo Twist is right: the words we use matter | Opinion

If we casually use terms like "addictive" it robs us of the ability to have a proper discussion when games do cross a line

It probably won't surprise you that writers are generally not terribly enamoured of attempts to regulate and control how language is used or what words are available to us -- especially when the demands are coming from people with a specific vested interest in those words and what they describe. God knows it doesn't take much to get writers excitedly reaching into their Orwell to decry any perceived attempt to impose "newspeak" on us all. Yet reading UKIE boss Jo Twist's comments from Develop:Brighton last week, I found myself instead nodding fairly emphatically.

After all, if there's one thing anyone who works with language should dislike just as much as being dictated to, it's sloppy imprecision in how words are applied. I'm not speaking here about meaning drifting over time -- that's a natural part of linguistic evolution which is made all the sweeter by the frustrated tears of dull prescriptivists -- but rather about the kind of unthinking imprecision that, as Twist implied, really can lead to damaging misunderstanding, both accidental and wilful.

So yes, the casual slinging around of a word like "addictive" to describe every game you've ever played for more than five minutes without getting bored genuinely is a problem, because addictive is a term with a very specific meaning. And if you think that maybe the games industry shouldn't want its products to be mentioned in the same terms as heroin, compulsive gambling and Charlie Sheen's tiger blood, then you're damned right it shouldn't.

"The overuse of the word 'addictive' to mean little more than 'quite enjoyable' has done us a double disservice"

The blame doesn't fall entirely on critics, however -- though I'm reasonably sure they're responsible for the popularisation of the term "addicting," which is one of those odd phrases that's technically grammatical but still leaves the reader mildly suspicious that they're reading the work of a borderline illiterate. Games companies themselves spent years happily championing their creations as "addictive," at least until some of them had the bright-spark idea to put actual gambling-style mechanisms in their games. And suddenly absolutely nothing about their games was possibly addictive at all, no sir, nothing at all to see here officer.

That's rather the point, though. The overuse of the word "addictive" to mean little more than "quite enjoyable" has done us a double disservice, both giving bad faith actors a stick with which to beat video games ("look, by their own admission this is basically digital crystal meth!"), and robbing the word of its power and precision, so we now lack a sensible way to have a discussion about games that actually are skirting around serious, weighty questions of addiction.

Wanting to play another game of Fortnite before bed or being a bit bleary in the office because you sat up in bed playing Civilization on your iPad until 3am isn't "addiction" -- it's "oh this is fun and I like doing it." But dipping into your family's food budget for loot crate cash, or quietly draining the kid's college fund in the hunt for a coveted rare card in a random gacha-style mechanism... That's the kind of point where we actually need to start talking about "addiction" in a genuinely serious way, and having a conversation about where our industry actually wants to draw the line in its skirting of the very real and socially important question of addiction.

"We all know, ultimately, that there are companies out there who are letting down the whole industry in pursuit of a quick buck"

I don't think this is the point Jo Twist was making -- not entirely -- but it's an important corollary. By throwing the word "addiction" around like candy, we're not merely opening ourselves up to unwarranted criticism, we're also robbing ourselves of the ability to dish out warranted criticism and to correctly single out games and publishers who do step over a vital moral line with regard to addiction. I'm not saying, by the way, that all random item box mechanisms are inherently addictive, or anything like it. I'm not seeking to say where the line should be drawn precisely; simply that it's a conversation we need to have, and that the cheapening of the term and concept of "addiction" is serving as a barrier to that conversation.

We all know, ultimately, that there are companies out there who are letting down the whole industry in pursuit of a quick buck; opening up a vast market sector to likely overreaching regulation because they themselves have no compunction churning out games that are little more than high-tech gambling machines and supporting them with marketing campaigns that are fairly blatant in their targeting of children.

The big fuss about loot boxes and their ilk often feels like an industry-wide issue, but it's not -- or at least it shouldn't be. It is a small minority of greedy and short-sighted companies who are letting down everyone else. The sheer ubiquity of the "addictive" label, however, makes it hard for us to isolate those products from the rest of gaming and say "yeah, this stuff over here, this is a problem" without feeling like we've implicated the entire medium in the process.

UKIE's Jo Twist gave a talk at Develop:Brighton last week

Of course, it doesn't help that this whole discussion would have to take place in the glare of a hostile media that's still only too happy to find any fault with games in the hope of turning it into the latest trumped-up societal scare story, and it's understandable that some people feel an urge to close ranks in the face of that. But the reality remains that if we can't have a discussion within the industry about where we draw the line on real, serious questions of addiction, that discussion will be had somewhere else instead, and industry representatives may find that their voice carries far less than they might like.

Yes, then, words and how we use them are important. Not because we necessarily need to stop using them, but because we need to be precise and thoughtful. Incidentally, Jo Twist's other targeted terms -- "gaming" itself, and "gamers" -- are also used in a lazy and thoughtless way that unfortunately contributes to poorly considered perspectives overall. The conflation of "gaming" with gambling by the wider population is something we should all be more careful about when we use the phrase, but it's really "gamers" -- with its implication of a unified, single identity for all consumers of the medium -- that is the far bigger problem. If people want to self-identify as that they should be welcome to, of course, but the audience for games (and the creators themselves) are so much more diverse and disparate than that simplistic shared label implies.

This notion of shared identity also creates a kind of closing of ranks; you can't critique one part of that weird, artificial "identity" without being seen to critique the whole thing. It separates our industry out from others and limits our commercial and creative growth, but it also serves as a protective shell around bad actors -- both within the industry ("you can't criticise this bad behaviour by a publisher, it'll bring down the wrath of the media on video games as a whole!") and within game-centric fan communities ("okay so that guy was sexually harassing children in this fan community, but let's not make a big fuss or it'll reflect badly on capital-G Gamers").

Games communities can be great -- they can be welcoming and creative and vital -- but the sooner we shed the idea that there's some bigger collective identity, either to our products or our consumers, the healthier it will be, and the less closing of ranks around bad actors we'll have to put up with. Being more careful with our language is only one small step towards that goal, but by rejecting the casual throwing around of labels like "addictive" or "gamer," we can at least start the process of having much-needed conversations about whom this industry addresses and where its boundaries must lie.

Images courtesy of Develop:Brighton's official Facebook page.

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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