7 Words Around the Hearth[stone]: A Game Between Structuralism and Post-Structuralism of Limiting Meaning

“Talking, talking. Spinning a web of words, pale walls of dreams, between myself and all I see.”

– Grendel, by John Gardner

I’ve played a few games of Hearthstone. With no serious experience with either World of Warcraft or trading card games (like Magic: The Gathering, or Yu-Gi-Oh or even the Pokemon card game), I’ve still had quite a bit of fun.

In one game, an unexpected bout of hilarity ensued as my opponent and I began selecting random emotes incessantly throughout the game. It was silly, nonsensical babble: two apologies, followed by an expression of gratitude and then a salutation was met with an admission of error, two threats, and two congratulatory remarks. As a fan of both surreal comedy and comedy that turns on wordplay and tricks of language, I was immensely amused. The punchline of this joke is the impossibility of understanding meaning.

There are 6 options you can select to convey “Emote” in Hearthstone:

“Thanks”

“Well Played”

“Greetings”

“Sorry”

“Oops”

“Threaten”

But these words are isolated. They are not connected to larger ideas, facial expressions or body language. Consider the extent of a rudimentary conversation that could be had through the use of these emotes. The difficulty (or impossibility) of conversation can be explained with the models of structuralism and the response offered by post-structuralism.

Structural linguistics is the approach to language that says words are part of a web of meaning. Generally, it’s about structure (surprised?) and connection. We know what something means by the way it connects (or does not connect) to other things- like how the word “chair” connects to our concept and image of the actual thing (or idea of the thing) we associate with that word. (On some views, an authority figure looking at you while pointing to a chair in a room and saying “chair” might further convey an edict for you to be seated in the indicated chair- all of these parts being further parts of the web.) Any single node on this web, by itself, can do very little (or nothing at all). For structural linguists, meaning lies in interconnection between words and concepts, which then gives interconnection between speakers and audiences. We base a connection on the words that are thrown at us because we see the connection between the words, the concepts behind the words, and the interlocutors or subjects involved. One interpretation from structuralism is that the speaker intends a meaning, and understanding meaning is a matter of aligning the mind of the audience with that intended meaning of the speaker.

Post-structuralism is skeptical of this model. One alternative suggests that meaning must account for intent of the audience, not just the speaker (a lot of post-structuralism uses the underlying theme of wresting power from authority). From here, different thinkers have different specific ideas of what this looks like. Some models are chaotically radical, but this general concept plays out in the game of Hearthstone: the limits of the available emotes put more power in the hands of the audience to interpret meaning. But the difficulty of any serious communication is that we would almost never be very satisfied that the minds of the two players are in harmony. We cannot be sure that the audience has grasped the intended meaning of the speaker. We cannot even be sure that the speaker had a meaning (a non-English speaker could be clicking on emotes, or an animal, or even a computer could be programmed to randomly select emote- all of these possibilities raise questions which are the subject of many works in philosophy of language).

The fun irony in all of this is that the hearth was the traditional gathering place for small, intimate collections of humans, where ties were forged and strengthened as emotions found connections through full human expression. Now, Hearthstone represents the opposite of civilization’s precedent, as two strangers struggle with basic communication in order to make some sense of their trifling, playful competition. Around the ancient hearth, words formed a sacred connection among humans as they came to understand the meaning of one another. In Hearthstone, words (re-imagined as “emotes”) mock meaning and the idea of understanding can only be the subject of a cruel, surreal, post-structuralist joke.

UPDATE (2/7/15): DOTA2 has a similar set-chat-option feature, and one comedian-observer noted that the more vitrolic members of the community have endeavoured to “weaponize” that feature.

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