Mar 28, 2007

Language not required and elevator music for gamers

My friend Jake sent me a link to the following blog article a couple weeks ago. Ever since the darn thing has been haunting me, and it came up again last night! So I decided I needed to exercise my thoughts here.

The Sims has a unique solution that sidesteps the software internationalization problem. They invented an entirely new, completely artificial language: Simlish. Simlish renders your cultural background irrelevant. When you redefine language as gibberish, it's equally meaningless to everyone.

Source: Coding Horror: Software Internationalization, SIMS Style

I read through the blogger's comments and admit I clicked on most of the links. The haunting thing, for me at least, is the fact that in many situations, communication need not be direct or specific. The Sims on-line communities don't require specific language to direct or inform users, much like many social situations. It reminds me of my trips overseas (especially Asia) and finding myself in a world where I couldn't communicate using language. I relied on other means to make my point. Armed with a few words (usually ones like "thank you", "I", "wc", and numbers) I have been able to have some remarkably meaningful, (and often hysterical) "conversations" with people. Although I suspect that all participants came away from the conversation with very different thoughts on what transpired, in general we knew it was a nice conversation and we were usually able to get our thoughts/needs understood.

So all this has me thinking more about communication. Sometimes language is not required. People are able to convey their meaning via many means such as audio tones, facial expressions, body language, and commonly understood visual cues. Translated to the digital world, where the senses and visual cues are more limited, audio and images (in addition to text) take on greater importance when communicating ideas. I find it interesting that music plays such a large role in Sims, yet it's not the lyrics that are important. The melody of the songs provide the ambiance for the game that's being played. In fact the lyrics could end up distracting from the task at hand - the game - so it doesn't really matter if the lyrics are in another language, even Simlish. The Sims model is to provide music, that no doubt attracts the users attention and creates a mood for the environment, but is also careful not to distract from the more important goal of playing the game. 

A recent New York Times article on multi-tasking states that researchers suggest that "listening to soothing background music while studying may improve concentration", not doubt taking the edge off of external distractions without becoming a distraction itself. Sort of like elevator music (although for many of us elevator music can be a distraction). As I write this, I have my iTunes playing on a low volume, I've set my presence to "away", and my focus is on communicating with you, the reader. I use language because I need it to make my point and because blogs are typically text-based communication. However in more social on-line environments, say a Sims game, language is less important and users get an idea of who "I" might be through a series of images, sounds, keywords, and simple exchanges. Language is important and can be subtle, but it's not always required.