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"A Utopian Speech Community" by C.J. Montague
This paper was written for English 370: Language and Linguistics, March 12, 2004

"A World Unlike Any Other" is the proud proclamation of Swirve.com's flagship internet role-playing game, Utopia. Swirve also describes its games as "the most captivating experience on the web". The 80,000 plus players who participate in the Utopia game seem to agree, as the majority of them have been playing the game for a year or more, which is longevity in internet terms. Utopia first debuted as the brainchild of Mehul Patel, a Swirve.com programmer in late 1998. Since its inception, the game has grown to fill three servers worth of digital kingdoms, created a merchandise line, along with countless tribute websites and, in the words of Swirve.com "impacted lives in amazing and fantastic ways. Whether it's bringing families together or creating friendships across the world, our users' stories are unique, intriguing, and amazing".

What "Utopia" has also spawned is a new speech community. A speech community is an entity which has a wide definition depending on how it is used. Generally members of a speech community communicate in ways which are alike or mostly alike and can be understood by most others members of that community. Speech communities do not have to contain members who speak all the same language, but that is often helpful. All speech communities require is that their members all obey the same set of rules when communicating, and usually that communication occurs for a social purpose. Based on these definitions, the players of Utopia are a distinct speech community when they are speaking to each other within the context of the game. Due to the concepts which drive the game, experienced players have developed their own communication style that only other players will understand. This system has rules which govern the formation of new lexical entries in this system as well as grammatical and syntactic statements. Within the context of this single internet game can be found a whole new and complex jargon that even follows the rules of pidgin development. And, since speech communities contain a social aspect, the knowledge and ability to use this jargon appropriately reflects on a players social standing within communities in the game. This speech community is only one of many similar internet communities, and it is possible that the development of new complex jargons is taking place within all of them.

An Introduction to the Methodology

How can these statements about language in the game be supported? The easiest way was to get the support of players within the community in gathering linguistic data. Data was gathered through an analysis of recorded conversation in the game, and through a survey with questions designed to test the limits and reveal the rule structure of the game. A total of 27 surveys were completed, while an additional 14 partially completed surveys were also returned . Step by step, the key features to the jargon of Utopia can be revealed by seeing if players will define terms in the jargon identically to other players, and when pressed to invent new terms, come up with similar responses.

Before I discuss the questions and responses, a brief introduction to the nature of the game is in order. As stated before, Utopia is an online role-playing game. It is conducted entirely through text entries, for example, inputting the number of acres to explore or the number of buildings to build on vacant land. Individual players are responsible for their own provinces, and groups of 25 provinces are randomly placed together into teams called kingdoms. The players in a kingdom elect a monarch who is given the power to declare war and make peace with other kingdoms. There are many goals to work towards, both personal and for the kingdom. Some of these include amassing networth as a province or kingdom, amassing honor gained by attacking other provinces, amassing huge amounts of land or collecting war wins as a kingdom. Each province contains soldiers who defend and attack, peasants who work and generate tax income, as well as wizards and thieves. Depending on a player or kingdom's strategy, the provinces will have different amounts of all these things at different times. There are also buildings to build on province lands, science to research and a forum where kingdom members can communicate with one another. The game will run for about three months, known as an age, before it will reset all the provinces to a base starting point and begin again. When this occurs, individual players can decide if they want to stay in their kingdom or move to a new one when the new age begins. As can be imagined from this very brief description, playing Utopia requires logical thinking, teamwork, problem solving and dedication. The jargon which has developed from the game exists to help simplify some of the game's complex concepts and make communication quicker, but it also requires that new players must learn it in order to function well in the environment.

First Steps

The first step in defining this speech community is gathering background information from the players. Utopia attracts players from all over the world. A majority come from the United States and Canada, but a substantial number also live in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Germany. A large number of Australians and residents of some Asian countries are also present. Although the game is presented in English, most other players have a native fluency in another language. Although most have excellent English communication skills, there is a wide variance in the ability of all players to understand one another. Communication is very important to teamwork, so the need for this standardized communication is most likely the impetus for the beginnings of the Utopia pidgin.

A majority of the players are also male, generally between the ages of 18 and 35. Only two of the players surveyed were female and only one surveyed player was above the age of 35. Although every surveyed player stated that they spoke English, 75% of the players surveyed spoke languages other than English, with German being the most popular, followed by Swedish and Dutch.

Establishing a Base of Knowledge

The first investigative problem that the respondents were posed was for definitive purposes. A list of 18 terms from the Utopian lexicon was provided, with instructions to state what each of the terms referred to. The expected answer would be that all the definitions should be the same, since the speakers would all apply the same rules to each term. This was true in the case of every term except for 'PPA'. PPA was defined in multiple contexts as meaning potentially 'people per acre', 'peasants per acre' or 'peons per acre'. Some respondents noted that PPA could carry more than one meaning depending on context. The potential of the controversy over the concrete definition of this term will be discussed later. However, the fact that the other 17 terms were all defined identically by all respondents supports the theory that every player possesses an identical lexicon or knows the rules of word formation and so can define a term that they are unfamiliar with based upon that knowledge.

The same list of terms was given to five people who do not play Utopia and are unfamiliar with the game. When asked to define the terms, only epa received a response--that of Environmental Protection Agency. Thus the terminology common to the game is only used by them, fitting the definition of a jargon.

Testing the Limits

Now it is clear that speech in Utopia uses a jargon. But can the style of communication used in Utopia, a method of communication thrown together from a mixture of European and Asian languages and English, be considered a pidgin of English? This would mean that there would need to be creativity present in the communication system as well as a system of grammar and syntax which is a simplified combination of lexical items and rules of sentence formation.When it comes to creativity in the formation of sentences, obviously the potential for creativity is limited by the needs of the game and yet within that, it is endless. The entire catalog of English vocabulary is at the disposal of the game players although a lot of it is unnecessary, and using vocabulary which is indicative of English-speaking higher education will sometimes elicit confusion from those players who are not primarily English-speaking. Attention thus turns to creativity in the lexicon. As mentioned before, PPA is a contentious lexical entry with meanings that could both be possible in the same contexts. In an effort to clarify the confusion between 'people per acre' and 'peasants per acre', I attempted to think of a logical entry that would replace one of the meanings and was not already in use. The term zpa, referring to 'peasants per acre' seemed the most logical. When writing about individual groups of peasants and wizards, speakers of the jargon use 'pezzies' and 'wizzies' to refer to them, further support for using a z to replace the p in 'peasants per acre'. However, the results from those surveyed, when asked what 'zpa' meant, were not what I had hoped. Three respondents said that zpa was an unusable term, or that it would not make any sense to use zpa in the game. Others who provided an answer thought that zpa could refer to either berserkers per acre or zombies per acre, both of which are specific soldier units in the game. Only two respondents came up with peasants per acre as their response. At first the data seems to suggest that new entries must be based on a word for word abbreviation based on the first letter of each word in the original entry, and that any deviation from this would not be allowed in the lexicon. In other words, the jargon would rather live with the confusion of having a multiple-definition word than make an exception to its lexical formation rule. But that does not explain why berserkers per acre would be an acceptable choice, as the z in berserkers comes from the phonology of the word and in the middle of it as well. Berserkers can be referred to as 'zerks' but that terminology is not widely spread. So there must be another explanation. When the data for the definition of PPA is compared with the definition of zpa, it can be seen that those who defined PPA as 'people per acre' primarily, chose zpa to be either an unusable term or 'peasants per acre'. Those who chose 'peasants per acre' as the primary definition wound up with zerks and zombies per acre. Of course, they would not have picked 'peasants per acre' as the definition--for them that term was already defined.

The final question that participants were asked was about lexical entry creation. There are three game servers, each having a different name and a different play style, World of Legends (WoL) for beginning players and less experienced kingdoms, Battlefields (BF) for advanced players and more competitive kingdoms and Genesis (Gen) which is an experimental server. The players were asked to abbreviate three potential names for a new server and then state which one they think fit best with the other servers. The three name options were Valhalla of Utopia, Exodus and Mount Olympus. Every respondent stated Valhalla of Utopia and Mount Olympus as VoU and MO, following the previously outlined rule of utilizing the first letter of each word for the acronym. The Exodus server had several variations including Ex, Exo and Exod. However, the Exodus server was also the most popular name chosen for the new server with 39% of respondents choosing Exodus as their name, as opposed to 30% for Valhalla of Utopia and 15% for Mount Olympus, with some abstentions for individuals who said they did not like any of the names. This data shows that when confronted with new terms, players use the same rule to create the jargon's entries for that term; the 'first letter of the word' rule. Players are also constrained by the rule that all acronyms must seemingly be at least two characters in length. When confronted by an entry which has only one word controversy arises as to the number of characters which should represent the shorthand.

The 'first letter of the word' rule can be further explained by a recent example of an actual game addition. A building called "Mine" was replaced with a building called "Training Grounds" in the past age. Within hours of the announcement of the change in gameplay, players of Utopia were already referring to the new building as TGs, as shown by this excerpt from an IRC conversation:

Player A: read Mehul's post on age change, came up an hour ago?
Player B: yup 10 min after he posted
Player C: dunno if i like it
Player B: id on't know if I like the new TGs
Player A: noobs use mines though, theyre obsolete

These players were speaking about a new concept only an hour after it had been announced and already the new entry had been created and approved by the community for use at will. This shows that the jargon used in the game is adaptable and flexible.

But can it really be considered a pidgin? A pidgin forms when speakers of different languages that are mutually unintelligible come together to form a marginal language that is understood readily by speakers of the languages which come together to form it. Utopia is a speech community composed of speakers of multitude different languages, but when in the speech community, all the speakers use English to the best of their ability. Although there is a very specific lexicon which is utilized for this game, as well as acceptable bending of syntactic structures, there is no incorporation of words which would be unusable in the English lexicon. Sentences used within the game frequently leave out articles such as 'the', often do not conjugate verbs into the past tense when it is appropriate to do so, or use prescripted punctuation. But the lexical entries are all based on modifying the English words into English abbreviations as opposed to modifying them into words that have a similar meaning for speakers with a variety of backgrounds. Thus, Utopiaspeak is a jargon and not a pidgin. It is not significantly different enough from English to be labeled as another dialect.

One disturbing trend that happens often in the game arises when a player does not have good command of English and is attempting to communicate to his kingdom in a language that none of them are familiar with. This happens in many speech communities. For example, in research done at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in South Africa, 75% of patients did not speak English, while 100% of the doctors did speak English and would often use it to attempt to communicate with their patients. The doctors bridged that language gap by attempting to find persons in the ward who could understand both the doctor and the patient and were willing to translate. Often, new players to the game are asking for help with the game, much in the same way as patients ask doctors for assistance. Yet, unlike the doctors at Chris Hani Baragwanath, most players in Utopia give up on the attempt to communicate with the new player and leave them to figure out a method of communication on their own, which does not occur. I am reminded of a player, I'll call her Shinji, who joined my kingdom in the Age of Dreams. Shinji had a decent English lexicon but poor grammatical comprehension and she always typed entirely in capital letters and would end her posts with an abundance of exclamation points, a trait she carried over into live conversation formats. She was a new player to the game and seemed open to receiving some help from members of my kingdom, but the general attitude towards Shinji was that she was simply annoying to talk with. Some kingdom members suspected her of using an internet translation site to communicate, which would account for some of the errors in her typing. After about three and a half weeks she became inactive, and, in accordance with our kingdom policy, was killed for inactivity. Shinji made one post as we were killing her before defecting, filled with expletives and exclamation points. She never showed any command of Utopiaspeak. If the communication used in Utopia were a pidgin, then some non-English speakers should be able to grasp it quickly, yet I have never seen or heard of this happening. Knowledge of basic English communication skills seems fundamental to successful gameplay.

Case Studies

A speech community includes not only rules of communication, but also an element of social interaction or hierarchy. The M.I.T. linguist Steven Pinker has compared the evolution of language as the defining difference that allowed the biological hierarchy between humans and other primates to flourish. "Steven Pinker argues that the ability to communicate effectively would have given early humans a 'fitness advantage'." In a speech community, knowledge of the jargon gives one a social advantage. The following three questions were case studies designed to examine the hierarchy present within the players based on language. The first involves a fictional player named Alex. The question is, "If Alex joins your kingdom and does not understand: 'Got NSd -- how many WTs ru running?' is it believable if Alex claims to have played for four ages? Why or why not?" NS refers to nightstrikes which can be prevented by building (or 'running') watchtowers otherwise known as WTs. It is a common game concept which most players encounter their first war in the game since NS is one of the most effective ways to damage an opponent's army and is thus used frequently--especially if one has not built any watchtowers. All but three of the players agreed that it was highly unlikely that Alex had been playing for four ages. The majority cited the common usage of NS and WTs as terms as well as the frequency of their occurrence within the game as making it improbable to play for the span of a year without learning this game concept. The three dissenters cited the potential for an anomaly to exist, and one pointed out that he had met players who, even after five or six ages still were not familiar with the terminology. But all three admitted that, although it may be believable that Alex had played for that length of time, it was highly improbable.

The second case study is about fictional player Bill. The question is, "If Bill from Utopia says to you, 'I can maintain an epa of 15 when I have 20% TDs as long as I don't get AW,' at what level would you estimate his playing ability? How long would you estimate Bill has been playing?" This sparked a mixture of results from those surveyed. Some thought the question was a joke. This is because, in Utopia jargon, the sentence does not make any sense. Epa, TDs and AW have no relation to each other. Epa refers to 'elites per acre', a kind of soldier unit. TDs are theives' dens and AW is a command to assassinate wizards. Epa is not affected by TDs or AW, and vice versa for the other two. The question was intended to see whether or not the players would recognize that, although Bill knows lexical entries in the Utopia dictionary, he does not use them properly, and is thus most likely not an experienced player. All but two of the respondent ranked him as having low playing ability, one even going so far as to question whether or not Bill even played the game.

The last case study focused on fictional player Cassie. Her question is, "If Cassie from Utopia says to you, 'I can maintain an epa of 15 when I have 20% homes as long as I don't get FB,' at what level would you estimate her playing ability? How long would you estimate Cassie has been playing?" Of the three case studies this is the question which provoked the widest range of answers. Three of those surveyed rated her with below average ability and five rated her with above average ability, while the rest placed her in the average category. This question uses jargon correctly, and is supposed to reflect that Cassie has considerable amount of skill, since an average province usually has an epa of 8 to 10.

The outcome of these three case study questions ends up reflecting as much on the players as on the social implications of the language. All of the players recognized that the correct or incorrect usage of the jargon could reflect on a player's ability, but the varied answers to the Bill and Cassie questions reveal that it is the grasp of the concepts behind the jargon that will really reveal the player's ability. In providing explanations for a low ranking of Cassie's playing ability, several of the respondents stated that they failed to see a connection between epa, homes and FB. Cassie's awareness of the interrelationship between these three concepts was what set her apart from Bill and Alex. Precise rules in the game are subject to change with every age, but in the current age elite units, referred to by epa, cost more money to maintain than regular units. Homes increase the size of the total population of a province, which increases the number of peasants in the province. More peasants means that income is greater, and thus able to support more elites. FB refers to the spell Fireball, which kills peasants. If a lot of peasants die, there will be no money to maintain the elite units and they will disappear. So, Cassie is essentially saying that she can maintain a large number of elite units as long as she has a lot of peasants producing revenue, a completely viable and strong concept in the game. The fact that many of the respondents did not appear to make this connection shows that mastery of the jargon does not lead to mastery of the game (including my own, if for some reason there is some loophole in this logic that has escaped me). This does not support the purpose behind these questions, and the lack of a connection between lexical knowledge and game-playing ability was noted by some of the people in their responses. However, even though possessing knowledge may not indicate game ability, lacking knowledge or using it improperly certainly does. The criticism of Alex's boast of four ages of experience prompted one respondent to label Alex an "arrogant noob". This social standing reflection of Utopia jargon is supporting evidence that Utopia is a speech community with rules since conformity to the rules can help one dismantle a negative social standing within the game.

Conclusions

Swirve.com's Utopia is an internet game with its own particular jargon. Mastery and correct use of this jargon can impact the attitudes and perceptions of other players in the game. But what purpose does this knowledge serve to those who are not interested in participating in Utopia?

All over the internet special interest groups like those who use Swirve.com are forming. There are multitudes of chat and posting mediums from java chat rooms to weblogs to message boards. The widespread popularity of the internet means that it has spread around the globe, offering ways to contact people from other countries who speak other languages in ways that were not possible previously. In any such community, whether it be posters to a message board or regulars in an AOL chat room, it is likely that a new jargon will be formed which will have to be learned by new members to that community before they are fully accepted into it. Already, in primary schools, teachers have taken it upon themselves to begin familiarizing their students with internet terms as vocabulary words the same as any other spelling words. Activities have even been developed to teach children how email passes from server to server with jargon like POP3 (Post Office Protocol, it's the server through which users pick up their mail) to learn. There are also two major implications from this trend.

The first is based on the nature of jargons to filter into the language as "Many jargon terms pass into the standard language. Jargon, like slang, spreads from a narrow group until it is used and understood by a large segment of the population." Depending on the popularity of terms coined from these internet communities, there is the potential for a lot of internet jargon and slang to infiltrate and replace the prescriptive lexicon currently in use. In fact, due to the widespread nature of the internet, the formation and acceptance of new terms is likely to happen more quickly through data transmission than through speech transmission. Before the internet, jargon would have to be passed through written documents and face-to-face speech events but now, depending on where new terms make their appearance, a new word can spread around the globe within seconds. Additionally, instead of having one source and spreading out from the source to others in the surrounding communities, many people in varied locations can spread new jargon, like throwing a handful of rocks into a pond. Eventually the ripples will overlap each other and cover the surface of the pond more quickly than if one rock had been thrown in. This has already been seen to take place in the school papers turned in by teenagers, where "English teachers often see 'words' like u, r, ur, b4, wuz, cuz, and @ in student papers." Teenagers are very quick to adopt time-saving internet shorthand and will continue to push this trend. Additionally, a list of helpful terms published in Forbes magazine in 1999 noted that people should not "be intimidated by Web jargon." It is something that is here to stay, and it is in everyone's best interest to learn it. This task is not as hard as it can appear to some people, particularly those who have already had a difficult time learning to program their microwave clock, access their voicemail and read email. "One of the beauties of the Internet is that it is a self-referencing system. The net provides all the information about itself you need to know." And usually in a chat room, there will always be a friendly person willing to explain what the person who typed "TTFN j00 r not l33t" means.

The second implication refers to the formation of a pidgin on the internet. English is one of the most common languages world-wide and the internet was first designed by the United States. As more and more people from more non-English speaking countries join the internet community, it is quite possible that one day there will be an internet pidgin combined with English that everyone who uses the internet will be able to understand. Already American spelling of color, honor and theater are making their way into the British system of spelling despite Britain's traditionally presciptivist nature towards language. As more people join the community, it seems as though there may be no choice but to standardize a language that all can understand and function as the pidgin standard for the internet.


Works Cited
  • Aohaste, M.C. "Communication Problems In Multilingual Speech Communities." South African Journal of African Languages, Vol. 18 Issue 4, November 1998.
  • Berentson, Ben, Matthew Schifrin, Joshua Solan, Emily Manzo, Adit Nathn and Adam Leitzes, "Internet Jargon Guide", Forbes, Vol. 164 Issue 6, September 13, 1999.
  • Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman and Nina Hyams, An Introduction to Language, 7th ed., Boston: Thomson-Heinle.
  • Grimes, Ken, "The language bug", New Scientist, Vol. 177 Issue 2378, January 18, 2003.
  • "Hall of Honors" 2004. (10 March 2004).
  • "How to...speak the Internet language", Teaching PreK-8, Vol. 28 Issue 8, May 1998.
  • Orlans, Harold, "Can U Rite?" Change, Vol. 35 Issue 1, January/February 2003.
  • Patrick, Peter L., "The Speech Community: Some Definitions", October 11, 2002, (March 10, 2004).
  • "The Swirve.Com Gear Store" 2004. (10 March 2004).
  • "The Utopian Experience" 2004. (10 March 2004).
  • Wallace, Milverton, "Information resources and reference guides", Lancet, Supplement Internet Guide, Vol. 351 Issue 9106, March 21, 1998.

- C.J. Montague (12-Mar-2004)

Readers' Comments

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AuthorComment
ineser
Posts: 806
(11-Apr-2004 08:41 pm)
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cool, nice article
alyz
Posts: 34
(11-Apr-2004 08:50 pm)
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wow. that's a really good paper =]. well written and interesting topic! ^^
Team Octopus
Posts: 20
(11-Apr-2004 09:00 pm)
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Yeah, nice one! Interesting place to find a subject for a paper. Shows a bit of imagination, too.
Perhaps the *next paper will be about the short attention span of the avg webbie?
rohobo
Posts: 4
(11-Apr-2004 09:17 pm)
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yay EPA stands for Envirnmental Protection Agency. lol

its strange how a game can spawn its own sublanguage. hmmmm i should start a language. that would be fun :-)
Jack Sparrow
Posts: 6
(11-Apr-2004 10:00 pm)
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An incredibly detailed research into a game that I thought wasn't supposed to make sense, one that was just to have fun and nothing else.

Oh well, this shatters my Utopian view of Utopia. ;D
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