Games Are Technical Communication
If someone who'd never played—or even heard about—roleplaying games read your game, would they be able to play it? If so, you might consider yourself a technical communicator.
The Society for Technical Communication defines the field as "Any form of communication that focuses on technical or specialized topics, communicates specifically by using technology, or provides instructions on how to do something."
Technical communication can be hard to define because it covers a broad array of subjects and humans communicate in many ways, but technical writing is a little simpler.
The technical writing Wikipedia page says "a technical writer's primary task is to communicate technical information to another person or party in the clearest and most effective manner possible. The information that technical writers communicate is often complex, so strong writing and communication skills are essential."
Thinking of game writing as technical writing might help you communicate your game more efficiently. Understanding what you need to communicate and why can make it easier to do so.
Since 2017, I've edited & proofread a million words of game text including editing Apocalypse Keys, Girl By Moonlight, and The Zone, and proofreading Band of Blades, For the Queen and Thirsty Sword Lesbians. I help game writers clarify their text and I love helping designers polish their games to a gleaming shine.
I refer to the content of a game here as a book for simplicity, but I mean any method of conveying information in order to teach someone what your game is and how to play it. Zines, Twine games, binder-clipped pages, etc. are all games. Sam Leigh’s game The World We Left Behind inspired a ballet and I am in love with it. Technical communication is not always technical writing, as we communicate via many methods. No gatekeeping here!
I use player as your audience, but I equally mean reader. For the purposes of this post on technical communication, they are interchangeable.
This post is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive- this is one way to look at communicating a game to players, but certainly not the only way! Take what is useful to you and leave the rest behind.
Consider, if you will, an imaginary Introduction to Personal Computers book. Personal computers were a whole new world when they were introduced in the 20th century—for laypeople, everything was new, and we didn’t have shared or common language around using them. People unfamiliar with them struggled to understand why or how they might use a computer. My grandmother, born in 1922—having never touched a computer—asked me what an email was, and I had to explain several layers of concepts I had learned and taken for granted.
There’s a bit in an early episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun where Dick (an alien on a research mission, masquerading as a human) holds up a computer mouse to his face and tries to talk to it- it’s a funny joke, but if you had no idea what a computer or mouse was, someone would have to teach you both what it is or does and how to use it. Game books also need to convey both of those concepts!
My next analogy is perhaps outside the scope of this post, but it illustrates a different mode of communication I think could be helpful to game designers. IKEA instructions are communicated via pictures because that is the simplest and most effective way to tell people speaking multiple languages how to build a piece of flatpack furniture. You don’t need text, it would be harder for people to understand and use- “Using a screwdriver, screw the metal screw into the middle position of the Billy bookshelf.” (and that's just English!) Pictorial instructions are better suited for the purpose. (I would love to see a roleplaying game or LARP communicated IKEA-style, but I am not at all qualified to do so myself!)
A game book guides players in collaboratively creating a story within an imagined place via its own rules. It does this by communicating several distinct types of information, detailed in Rami Ismail’s design exercise The Core, in order to arrive at what your game is about.
Types of Information Game Books Communicate
The declarative: This is the space within the fiction of your setting, the non-player characters, the lore, your game art, even lists players pick from such as fashion or gear. This is any information you as a game designer are telling the player is true within the fiction the players are creating.
The mechanics: This is how your players interact with the declarative elements of your game. Moves, stats, rules, principles, agendas- these are the tools your players use to affect the fiction they are creating. If the declarative is what the game tells players, mechanics are what players tell the game.
The core: The truth that sits at the heart of your game- what it is about, what it says, or how the game makes players feel. For example, I believe Apocalypse World is about building community as resistance to scarcity and For the Queen is about the internal struggle of conflicting emotions. The mechanics of each game supports those aims, and the declarative elements set up those situations.
I highly recommend reading Rami's post- it really made me think about how we communicate our games to players.
There is a lot of information to communicate, particularly if your player is new to roleplaying games, or new to games focused on telling stories! Game information is specific and highly specialized, and provides instructions on how to play the game, which meets the definition for technical communication. I hope this perspective helps you write and ship your game.