Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Quick Semantics Question

Or: what do we call this hobby?

I'm a bit of a linguistic prescrptivist. I believe that language needs to play by the rules, and unusual or nonstandard usage tend to bother me more than most people. But I suspect I'm not the only one who's occasionally put off by the term "board games". After all, plenty of the games we play have nothing to do with boards.

Despite the argument against it, board gaming might well remain the best description we have. BoardGameGeek, by far the hobby's most popular and influential website, hosts reviews, discussion, and information for thousands of games. Many hundreds of those games don't use a board at all. Even the linguistic argument against "board game" might be losing steam as it's increasingly commonly used to refer to any non-roleplaying analog tabletop game. But what might some alternatives be?

A term like board/card gaming brings the Dominions and San Juans of the world into the fold, but it's a lot clumsier to say yet doesn't add too much information. What about games that use both cards and boards like Agricola or Settlers of Catan? How about games that use neither, like Carcassonne or various dice games? If the distinction between "board" and "card" game is slowly fading, then this term doesn't necessarily make too much sense.

A much better alternative might be tabletop gaming, the term favored by Wil Wheaton in his TableTop web series. This one is better--it doesn't limit the games to a certain medium, it's descriptive in that many of the games in this genre are in fact played at a table, and it emphasizes that we're not playing party games or video games, neither of which typically involve tables. The biggest argument against "tabletop" is that it's already used in RPG parlance to differentiate analog games like Dungeons and Dragons from video game RPGs. "Tabletop" might actually be a better term to describe a class containing both analog RPGs and board/card/whatever else games.

If "analog" is a good retronym to describe non-video games, then how about analog gaming for the class as a whole? It's probably worse than "tabletop," as it's less specific and could feasibly refer to RPGs or party games or basically anything else that's not electronic.

We might be tempted to use Euro gaming, but that term suffers the opposite problem that "tabletop" and "analog" do: it's too specific. There are plenty of high-quality, well-designed games that are not European or even particularly Euro-style; popular ones include Pandemic and Blokus among many others. There's the added disadvantage that people who don't play Euro games likely don't know what a Euro game is.

Moving away from media or surfaces entirely, strategy gaming might work well, since it doesn't discriminate by style or medium. Gaming purists might balk at some games playing fast-and-loose with the moniker "strategy game"--Betrayal at House on the Hill proudly describes itself as a "strategy game," though compared to games like Power Grid, Betrayal's strategic depth might leave a little to be desired. On the other hand, compared to something like Sorry, perhaps Betrayal counts as a strategy game after all. One cause of hesitation with "strategy game" is that it too already has a definition; war or territory-control video games such as Starcraft or Age of Empires are often described as strategy games.

A possible compromise might be tabletop strategy gaming, though that's a bit of a mouthful, and it might have the unintended consequence of making people assume we're always playing Starcraft in board game form, or Risk.

Finally, just plain gaming might not be as bad as it seems at first. Video gaming, roleplaying, (standard-deck) card gaming, and party gaming are already content to use the narrower, more descriptive labels, so can we get away with simple "gaming"?

What do you call your gaming hobby? Is there a standardized term that the community has already agreed upon? Do we need one at all?