thread: 2011-02-07 : Grammatical Voices

On 2011-02-08, Brand Robins wrote:

When you are writing a construction that has its emphasis upon an agent taking action, you almost always want to use the active voice. (Ed's examples are excellent, and show that even this is not always the case, but it's an easy rule of thumb.)

So when you wish to write rules that say "you do this in order to achieve that" then the active voice is often what you're going to want to use. It puts the emphasis on all those things loved by the modern pundit—active, aggressive, masculine, subject oriented, to the point, etc, etc, etc.

However, let us not forget that Julia Kristeva once said that learning the passive is one of the basic steps in forming our humanity. It is the passive voice that enables us to put ourselves in the place of those who are done to, rather than those who are doing.

As Orwell himself (one of the early proponents of the active as the only possible correct way to write) "Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets?"

So the passive voice has a role. It's role is to strike out against exactly those things that really make the active voice the voice of the pundit. (Only one of which is that it sometimes does say things better. The others have to do with the colonialist and imperialist deification of the conquering subject.)

When a player's choice is removed by the game, when the active subject is not the point, but the loss and the humanity are, then the passive voice can be a useful thing. Otherwise you're removing your ability to nuance, everything becomes like Grendel—that which pushes and that which pushes back, with everything else being silence. The otherwise silent moment is given voice by the passive.

Of course, most games probably won't have a huge amount of space for this construction. After all one of the central tenants of the escapism of RPGs is based around being an active, effective agent. Trad games do this with characters, story games with players—but either way, there is such a huge emphasis on choice and control that moments when you really want players/characters given over are a hard sell.

P.S. Yea, having a degree in rhetoric has made me irked with the easy dismissal of the passive voice. The fact that many grammar idiots give examples of the passive voice that are not, in fact, in the voice because they can't tell the difference between weak writing and a voice indicates to me the whole issue has actually killed what the term "passive voice" means.

For example, Paul Payack going after Obama for using the passive in the sentence "There will be setbacks." Or the editors of the New York Times taking issue with "A bus exploded" as being in the passive voice because there was no human agent given primacy of choice.

However, I don't know that its fair to dump that on a blog about game design.


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