Susan Schaller believes that the best idea she ever had in her life had to do with an isolated young man she met one day at a community college. He was 27-years-old at the time, and though he had been born deaf, no one had ever taught him to sign. He had lived his entire life without language–until Susan found a way to reach out to him. ~source
I think all of us with the ability to see and hear can imagine and even experience what it’s like not to have such abilities. By using a blindfold or earplugs we can temporarily shut off our senses. Even with our senses temporarily blocked we have memories of what it’s like to see or hear, so the experience can’t compare to someone who is born deaf or blind.
Though not commonly thought of in this way, having access to language — the ability to form and recognize words as symbols for actions, objects, and ideas — is a powerful and fundamental ability like the rest of our senses. You’re reading this now, so you’ll have to imagine what it would be like to live in a world without words. So, take the time to listen to the first 10 minutes of this Radiolab episode: Words.
“Out of the corner of her eye, she sees him shift his body… He looked like something was about to happen… Then he slaps his hands on the table, ‘oh! everything has a name’” 7m30s
“And he points at the door and I sign door. And he points to me and I sign ‘Susan” and then… he started crying.” 8m15s
Again, we have a person who is overcome with emotion and erupts in tears upon gaining access to a whole new world of expression and sensation. This time, though, it’s purely through words. The 27-year-old wordless man in the story was an adult. Other than being deaf, he was perfectly normal, capable, and intelligent. Yet without words, he was on an island to himself, standing to the side in a world where people interacted with sound to share ideas, and having no idea what to make of it. He thought that others were “stupid” according to Susan Schaller. And the moment he realized that everything in our world of sound has a word, many of the questions, doubts, and unsettled feelings he had lived with all his life finally made sense.
Susan Schaller’s story is a strong case for why language is so powerful and why understanding through language is just as powerfully linked to our feelings and emotions as our other senses. It’s profound that first perceiving the world and then understanding our perceptions is a necessary combination for relating to other people and ideas.
“What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols and we start trading symbols. It changes our thinking. It changes our ideas. It’s no longer the thing – a table – that we eat on, but there’s something about the symbol ‘table’ that makes the table look different.”
Earlier in this article I mentioned that you, the reader, could only imagine what it’s like to live in a world without words and language. Maybe that isn’t entirely true. Every culture, every subculture, every work environment, every artistic work, and every game is a world unto itself complete with its own language and lexicon. Word symbols are constantly being invented as people encounter new experiences and latch on to the words that makes those experiences and concepts stand out distinctly in their minds.
Better-understanding and better-enjoying video games requires engaging their design. Considering design is how we grasp the intentionality of the designers and compare it to our experiences. The best way to do this is through language. If you don’t have the language for breaking down a game into smaller parts, you won’t be able to untangle their silent interconnections. Consider that you might be like the 27-year-old in the story, perceptive, intelligent, but ultimately isolated from the world of expression happening all around you.