25 May 2015

On Semantics

Semantics as the study of meaning is a branch of philosophy related to linguistics. It has a close connection to the field of pragmatics. In a very simplified way one can say that semantics is concerned with codified meaning whereas pragmatics identifies the meaning of utterances in concrete communicative situations. The phrase “it’s all just semantics” which is frequently used to invalidate a different opinion or to shrug off differing opinions seems to suggest that semantics is not important. I disagree strongly with such a sentiment because I consider semantics to be central to the understanding of the human condition. Our reality is defined by our language and in order to successfully communicate with other human beings nothing is more important than to adequately express what one means.

All too often, however, there is a stark contrast between what is said and what is meant. One reason for that might be that many speakers assume that their use of an expression is shared by all speakers of their speech community and that said expression has a fixed meaning, probably assigned by a dictionary. And, to be honest, in most cases they are justified in that assumption. In other cases, however, it does make a lot of sense to define essential terms at the beginning (or during the course) of a discussion in order to establish a solid basis. Alas, it seems that many people are reluctant to discuss fundamentals – for whatever reasons – and rather want to focus on minor details, oftentimes taking the second step before the first. This can be frequently observed when politicians or “experts” discuss an issue in political talk shows. These discussions usually lead nowhere because everyone is only interested in promoting their own agenda. A personal pet peeve of mine is the misinterpretation or misrepresentation of statistical data or terminology by politicians, especially the difference between correlation and causality.

So how does this excursion into semantics pertain to MMOs? In the scientific community it is standard practice to define terms and concepts relevant to one’s study and maybe MMO bloggers could adopt this approach as well. Take, for example, this post by SynCaine where he talks about “backer-envy” in relation to crowd-funded video games. Irrespective of the content of his post he fails to define what exactly he means by this expression and somehow takes for granted that his audience already knows the meaning or that it will become apparent by reading the article. Unsurprisingly, the very first comment – by Rohan – asks specifically what SynCaine actually means with his concept of backer-envy and the following discussion – beautifully continued by Bhagpuss – is needed to clear the waters. As I understand it now SynCaine considers backer-envy to be the reverse of buyer’s remorse which is how I originally understood it. So the new concept (“backer-envy”) is formed in analogy to an already established concept (“buyer’s remorse”), but with a major difference: it’s not the backers who are envious but rather the other players who did not back the game. This confusion could have been avoided by defining the relevant terminology at the beginning of the article.

Similarly, there’s an ongoing debate about pay-to-win scenarios in video games without a general definition of what that actually means. It seems that almost everyone has a broad understanding of the concept as such but working definitions are far and in-between. To be more precise the term “pay-to-win” should actually be abandoned because etymologically it suggests that a financial transfer results in the completion of a victory condition within the framework of the game providing a win for the buyer. If one agrees that the primary purpose of any video game is to play, then it doesn’t make any sense to buy a win and rob oneself of the playing experience. In addition, MMOs do not offer any win conditions at all. They are open-ended, never finished and won’t reward players with a “Victory or Game Over” screen. Boss fights and PvP matches hardly count in this regard because the victory is only momentarily achieved and does not constitute the final goal of winning the entire game. The expression “pay-to-win” is a misnomer and should therefore be replaced with the more accurate phrase “pay-for-power” (or maybe “pay-for-advantage”). Both Gevlon and Dàchéng have discussed this as well and I think that their contributions are very noteworthy since they offer a sensible definition of the “pay-for-power” scheme as any item being sold in a cash shop that “affects the gameplay of other players”, i.e. the gaming experience of other players is directly influenced. The focus on other players also explains why most objections against pay-for-power items are brought forth by PvPers. Note that the situation in professional, competitive environments (e.g. e-sports) is purposefully excluded here.

The final example to highlight the importance of semantics has to do with language change. I’ve talked about this before. All natural languages are constantly changing and evolving which sometimes leads to words acquiring a new meaning, i.e. they are used in a way that differs from established usage. In the discussion of MMOs this can be seen by the inflationary use of the term “burnout” to denote that someone has lost interest in a specific MMO or in a specific activity in a specific MMO or in MMOs in general. Essentially, some people who have lost interest in or are bored with anything related to MMOs claim to be “burned out”. I find it quite hard to imagine that every single one of these people is actually suffering from a “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress” because, as a psychologist, that is my understanding of what the word means on a basic level. The psychological concept and medical diagnosis are, of course, a lot more refined. It may very well be the case that “burnout” was overused in media coverage in recent years and people subconsciously feel that saying they’re burned out is sexier (or more socially accepted) than admitting that they are simply bored. Regardless of the reasons behind it, this new use causes a devaluation of the medical component which in turn could lead to problems for people who are in need of help. One should at least be aware of this.

In conclusion, I’d suggest using the expression “pay-for-power” instead of “pay-to-win” and to avoid equating “burnout” with a loss of interest or boredom.


  1. Nice read, and boy do i aggree with the sentiment that defining terms is something we could all become better at remembering. As a phd-student in philosophy I have written several papers/articles whose sole purpose was to clear up mistakes resolving from subtle equivocations (two words having the same name, but different meanings) or straight up undefined terms. SO often the reason two parties to a debate are talking past each other is that they think they are using the same terms, whereas they really aren't

    1. Hello Shandren! Thanks for your comment. I studied philosophy as well – in fact, I’ve had a keen interest in philosophy ever since I’ve first come into contact with it in comprehensive school and as such I consider myself a lifelong student of philosophy. I wish you all the best with your dissertation.

  2. Nice discussion on semantics, and very much agreed on defining terms.

    I'd like to point out that there's a use of "burnout" in an MMO context that I personally feel is more closely akin to the psychological terminology than someone feeling apathetic and bored and deciding that they're "burned out."

    This is where the individual has intensely and almost obsessively played said game for hours daily, "grinding" for some kind of goal, or lingering on to do an activity he or she no longer enjoys out of social obligation (e.g. raiding) and just finding it very hard to detach from the game. This eventually ends up in a dramatic emotional explosion whose energy they use to quit the game forevermore, or just find that they've literally "chored" and "obligated" themselves to the point where nothing in or related to the game can ever give them joy again.

    I'd suggest the above is a fairly valid use of "burn out," it's just confused by others who use the term without actually experiencing such a thing.

    1. Hello Jeromai! Thanks for your comment. That is an astute observation. I can also image hardcore raiders being genuinely burned out at some point. However, it is my impression that many people (like e.g. Tobold) who use the term are probably rather experiencing boredom or apathy than what you describe. This is, of course, just a personal impression.