At this year’s GoPlay NW I got to try out a couple of games about language, Sign and Dialect. They’re the work of the same publisher, Thorny Games, whose entire thing seems to be games about linguistics (they are currently testing a third, Xenolanguage).
They’re very different games. Sign is inescapably a LARP: immersion-driven and bleed-prone, with a modicum of walking about and no table-talk. Dialect is very clearly a storygame, with in-character acting less important to the narrative than out-of-character assertions, explanations and discussion.
Sign is inspired by the origin of Nicaraguan sign language, which was spontaneously developed by deaf children c. 1977-1986. It is careful to explain that the game is not closely representative of those childrens’ experience; in particular, learning of signs in the game is much more structured, guided by a sympathetic teacher and relying on, e.g., the ability to read.
As a Sign player, you play a deaf child among other deaf children, with no pre-existing language community. You are not allowed to speak; you communicate with your hands and facial expressions. Play is divided into classroom periods, structured time where the facilitator, as teacher, hands you cards and leads the group in learning new sign vocabulary; and recess, which is mostly about unstructured interaction between the children. You ultimately learn a vocabulary of perhaps twenty words, including names.
Sign follows fairly well-established methods of teaching basic vocabulary to speakers with no common language; my mother has described teaching English to Vietnamese refugees in very similar ways. (Our facilitator, Marc Hobbs, has substantial real-world experience at language teaching.) There’s a lot of pointing and repetition, broken up with sessions of familiarity-through-use. It’s accelerated, quite a lot, by relying on a common understanding of text: in one round concepts are defined by words on cards before you make gestures for them, and in another you write your own words to define. (This is particularly helpful when it comes to defining more abstract concepts.)
LARP is particularly good at evoking a character’s emotions through strong immersion, and Sign‘s emotional palette is one I haven’t felt before. Frustration and isolation are not uncommon LARP feelings, but the particular struggle of not being able to make oneself understood is very powerful here. There is a lot of joy in breaking through that, of figuring out how to make oneself understood, of faces lighting up as you get your ideas across. It’s also a game that’s very good at evoking sympathy and solidarity. Most LARPs I’ve played are set up to give your character lots of narrative agency: you might not succeed at what you want, but you can sure as hell try, and your manner of trying will make a lot of difference. In Sign you are a disabled child; you have very little power, and most of your personal challenges lie outside the school and the scope of the story. You can’t change your world. Language is the only challenge you can really deal with, and it’s difficult.
Every LARP I’ve played has derived most of its interest from player-player conflict, from people wanting different things and struggling with one another to get what they want. Sign is not like that: you’re all working for the same goal of communication, even if you might ultimately want different things out of it. You do not really have much space to be snobs or bullies; there are too few of you to be cliquey. It’s a game about encountering strangers and building sympathy and solidarity with them, and it is, in general, really good at that – every time someone’s described Sign to me after playing it they’ve been really enthusiastic.
That said: Sign was kind of rough for me. It’s a game that’s easier to play and enjoy, I think, if you’re a socially enthusiastic, outgoing person. I’m an introvert with social anxiety, and Sign prodded some of my raw spots in ways I wasn’t entirely comfortable with; a lot of the things which the game makes difficult are things I sometimes find painfully difficult in normal socialisation. So I’m glad I got to explore Sign, but I absolutely do not want to play it again.
Where Sign is very much its own distinctive experience, Dialect is, in many ways, a pretty conventional storygame. It is strongly reminiscent of The Quiet Year, and particularly of Downfall, in its construction, evolution under strain, and final collapse of a moderately-sized community. Its trickiest element – using fairly common features of linguistic change to evolve language – is conveyed through prompt cards, giving the player some choice while avoiding the problem of introducing too much all at once. It was Kickstarted into an attractively-presented book with professional-quality illustration and layout; it’s no Bluebeard’s Bride, but it’s definitely in line with the generally increased level of presentation in storygames within the past five years or so.
This is not a game with daringly novel mechanics, a hugely distinctive tone, or sharply brilliant connections between the two. As a work of game design, it is a piece of diligent, capable and unsurprising craft, polished but not daring. It’s interesting because of content, not form; it’s interesting insofar as you’re interested in language and in telling stories about it. (As a strictly amateur linguistics enthusiast, I can’t really speak to how Dialect would read to actual linguists. For the most part it focuses on relatively well-known features of languages, focusing more on vocabulary than grammar.)
Setting, in Dialect, is largely governed by playsets, lightly-established scenarios which provide a reason why your language community became isolated from its parent language. As you play, you draw prompt cards which suggest ways to introduce new vocabulary to the dialect, or change existing words. After explaining each new or evolved word, you use it in a scene. The overall arc of the story is one of linguistic isolation: you tell how your language community became distinct, and how it changes as it loses that isolation and risks being subsumed; language reflects culture and cultural change. Reading the rulebook is, if nothing else, a decent introduction to the subject of threatened languages.
Using your vocabulary in Dialect scenes can be tricky. My favourite word from our game was a pause word, used as an ‘um’, to fill space in a sentence or serve as a general acknolwedgement. I went with ‘steady’, derived from boat crews and generalised to reflect a cultural value of toughness and firm resolve. I had a good sense of where it’d go in speech if I was writing it – it’d get jammed on the end of sentences a lot, show up as an emphasis adjective – but getting it to spill naturally off the lips, the way a pause word should, wasn’t the kind of thing we could pull off in a few hours. A lot of the vocabulary in Dialect focuses on commonly-used language features – so you can use them more often, of course! But these are also features that tend to be pretty strongly ingrained and are difficult to shift quickly. And, of course, everything you’re creating is artificial, something consciously created rather than learned from use.
In Sign you’re using immersion to learn a very simple vocabulary; in Dialect you’re trying to acquire idiomatic fluency by stipulating it, and that’s much harder. The proportion of time you’re using your conlang is much higher in Sign. Both produce fairly small vocabularies, but this felt more pressing in Dialect. A game of Sign feels like a beginning; more words, it suggests, will come later. In Dialect your language is doomed, and what you construct of it ends up feeling like you’ve only scratched the surface.
My feeling after one session of Dialect was that it I’d enjoy playing it with friends who are already interested in and knowledgeable about linguistics, but that for general purposes I’d rather play Downfall, which is less confined by playset-settings.