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Opinion: Try using E-Prime to communicate

In this reprinted <a href="http://altdevblogaday.com/">#altdevblogaday</a> opinion piece, Volition's Ariel Gross discusses how applying E-Prime to communications in game development can fundamentally change the way we work together.

Ariel Gross, Blogger

January 12, 2012

6 Min Read

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Volition's Ariel Gross discusses how applying E-Prime to communications in game development can fundamentally change the way we work together.] This post relates to communication, specifically concerning a version of the English language called E-Prime. You can find a lot of information out there on the Internet about E-Prime, and Wikipedia can give you the lowdown. You may want to skim that link before continuing. The basic concept involves removing all forms of the verb to be from communications. What does this have to do with game development? I have noticed certainty creeping into our discussions as game developers. This tends to frustrate me at some level, sometimes obviously, and sometimes subconsciously. Certainty can stunt growth and kill new ideas. If we become certain about something, then what can possibly change our minds? Maybe a catastrophe? Squashing certainty from the beginning seems like a better option, and applying E-Prime to the way that we communicate can help. I believe that the application of E-Prime to our communications in game development has the ability to fundamentally change the way that we work together. It may seem subtle, and I have found it extremely challenging at times, but I've also noticed that using E-Prime has the potential to cause less conflict and increase collaboration. More collaboration can lead to more ideas and more innovation. I find myself hard pressed to think of an example where innovation caused a crappy consequence. How does E-Prime work? The Wikipedia page that I've linked above describes the rules for E-Prime. You might initially gasp at the list of words that you can't use, but with a little bit of practice, you'll probably surprise yourself at how it becomes more natural. I've found it helpful to see some practical examples, so I'll give you a few right now. Not using E-Prime: "Combat is the most important aspect of our game, therefore we are going to be creating multiple tiers of combat based on distance to the enemy." Using E-Prime: "We believe that our players will value combat above all else, therefore the current plan involves multiple tiers of combat based on distance to the enemy." Right out of the gate, I feel the difference between the two. Other may not, so I will break down what makes the feel so different to me. The first statement declares with certainty that combat is the most important aspect of our game. The phrasing indicates this as an immutable fact. I don't feel very inclined to propose an alternative. For example, while it seems obvious that players care about combat, perhaps some of our players may care more about the narrative. By instead saying that we believe that our players will value combat above all else, we can establish a sense of probability instead of a sense of certainty. The first statement also declares that we are going to be creating multiple tiers of combat. This sounds like a decision to me, like the future has a definite course that can't change. This statement makes me feel like the gods have determined the future of our game and that I should fall in line and accept this decree without resistance. I might be exaggerating my feelings a bit to make a point here. Saying instead that the current plan involves multiple tiers of combat creates a sense of malleability. It feels more like I still have a chance to propose new ideas, and that my new ideas may change the way that we approach combat. It feels more collaborative. I'll provide another example: Not using E-Prime: "You are not giving me the support that I need for this to be as awesome as possible." Using E-Prime: "I need more support from you to make this as awesome as possible." The first statement feels very accusatory. It seems like it could accompany a finger pointed right at my face. I wouldn't want this statement directed at me. It feels like an attack on my character. My natural response to this would probably include defensiveness and resentment, which could cause further arguing and maybe even escalation. Who wants that? I certainly don't. The second statement feels like a plea for help, or a request for more collaboration. It feels more like someone asking me for increased involvement. My natural response to this would probably involve asking what additional support I could give to make it more awesome, and I would probably feel inclined to provide more support, because I always want to help fully realize the potential of our games. I'll provide one final example. Not using E-Prime: "I know this tools is a piece of crap, but there isn't time to change it." Using E-Prime: "I know this tool needs improvement, but the improvements will have to wait until the next project." I'd probably feel disappointment after hearing either one. But I still feel a difference between the two. The beginning of the first statement defines the tool as a piece of crap. That carries baggage with it. The second statement doesn't define the tool as anything, but instead expresses an intention to improve it. It makes me think about the potential future of the tool instead of dwelling on my current issues with it. If I had created the tool, I would definitely prefer to hear the second statement. The first one feels like a devaluation of the previous work that went into it. The latter half of the first statement makes it seem like nothing will ever change. The tool sucks and will always suck. It carries a defeatist tone because it doesn't imply any possible changes for the better. The second statement might give a shred of hope to someone using the tool. That person using it may agree that the tool sucks now, but they may also infer that changes might make it better in the future. Do you do this all the time? I don't do this all the time, but I try to. E-Prime lurks in the corners of my subconscious every time I write an e-mail, and even when I speak to my colleagues. I do occasionally correct myself mid-sentence to rephrase what I've said, which can make me sound like a stammering goofball or seem like I struggle with English for no good reason, but it has become easier as I continue to practice. One of my personal goals involves creating an environment in which people feel more collaborative, because I want to collaborate, and applying E-Prime to my communications seems to help. At first glance, using E-Prime can seem too difficult to even try, but as an example, this article only took me about an hour to write and the whole thing uses E-Prime. Well, except for the examples, but those don't count. It don't think it took me much longer than if I hadn't used E-Prime. So, I'd say give it a shot. Pay attention to the way that people respond to your newly phrased e-mails and see what comes of it. You may find that people suddenly seem more collaborative, and you may find yourself in fewer conflicts. Seems worth it to me. [This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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