In speech and writing, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using more words than you absolutely need. For instance, Wordsworth could have written,
I went for a walk and saw some daffodils near a lake.
But instead he padded it out a bit, like so:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
...and it’s widely agreed that this was an improvement. The poet chose his words and phrases well, and arranged them in such a way that they complement one another; each enhancing the meaning of the others, so that the meaning of the whole stanza is greater than the sum of its parts.
The language of public relations people – press statements, press releases and the like – is the antithesis of this. Perfectly good words and phrases are bent and misused; hammered into place like jigsaw pieces that don’t fit together. In PR language, the meanings of words and phrases are, by context, actually reduced – often to zero. This runs contrary to the purpose of language, which is communication.
I think that English is beautiful, and that human communication is a good thing. I therefore think that PR language is evil. But if that’s too strong a word for you, let’s say ‘bullshit’ instead.
This is the first entry of a regular column in which I’ll be deconstructing bullshit from videogame companies’ PR departments and representatives. It’ll be fun!
Remember when Sony embarrassed itself by claiming that the PS3 controller had won, of all things, an Emmy – and it hadn’t? Here’s a paragraph from the press release they sent out:
The SIXAXIS wireless controller comes standard with PS3 and enables gamers to harness the potential of the world's most powerful computer entertainment system. Developed by refining the popular original PlayStation(R) controller, the de facto standard in gaming with several hundred millions units shipped worldwide, the SIXAXIS wireless controller features motion-sensing technology to detect natural and intuitive movements for real-time and high precision interactive play, acting as a natural extension of the user's body.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
The SIXAXIS wireless controller comes standard with PS3 and enables gamers to harness the potential of the world's most powerful computer entertainment system.
For starters, don’t write ‘Sixaxis’ in caps. I don’t give a fuck if that’s how it’s trademarked – it looks shitty. Furthermore, the literary precedent for writing a name in capital letters is the King James Bible, wherein ‘the LORD’ was written in place of the actual name of God. So, you know... don’t get ahead of yourself, little plastic controller.
Why does the Sixaxis even need a name, anyway? I think most people just call it the PS3 controller, which is adequate. Giving it a name makes it sound like a separate product, which is silly because you can’t use the controller without a console, and you can’t use the console without a controller. They’re two parts of the same product. I mean, would you give the power cord a name?
“Intensify your PLAYSTATION(R)3 (PS3(TM)) experience with the revolutionary 2PRONG(TM) power module.”
I think not. So here’s our first edit:
The wireless PS3 controller...
Actually – I left ‘wireless’ in to be fair, but now that I think about it, all current generation consoles have standard wireless controllers. So it’s not saying much, is it? Get rid of it and here’s the clause we’re left with:
The PS3 controller comes standard with PS3
Oh, REALLY?? The PS3 comes with... one of its parts? How generous, Sony! I expected my thousand dollars would merely buy me a decorative black box!
Hell, even the word ‘standard’ is redundant – unless there’s some special PS3 that comes with a dead rat instead.
and enables gamers to harness the potential of the world's most powerful computer entertainment system.
First of all, you can’t harness potential – not even figuratively. You can fulfil potential; you can waste potential – you can’t harness potential. It’s a nonsensical concept – a waste of words that reduces the meanings of the words ‘harness’ and ‘potential’ to zero.
“...the world’s most powerful computer entertainment system” is a string of bragging buzzwords that can be replaced with just ‘PS3’. The above quotation is clumsily attempting to convey simply this:
and gamers can play PS3 games with it.
Sony uses ‘harness’ in place of ‘play’, and ‘potential’ in place of ‘games’. The latter substitution may well ring true for PS3 owners. (Don’t get pissy with me, fanboys – that was in fact the company line at the time: that people who bought a PS3 were paying a thousand dollars for potential.)
The word ‘gamers’ doesn’t mean anything in this context; anyone can pick up and use a PS3 controller, not just ‘gamers’ – unless Sony defines ‘gamer’ as ‘anyone who picks up a PS3 controller’, in which case the word is pointless. But Sony has specifically chosen the word ‘gamer’ here, to appeal to the hardcore. Just an observation.
So! Let’s put together what we’ve got so far:
The PS3 controller comes with PS3, and people can play PS3 games with it.
You can see for yourself how daft that is, but let’s continue for the hell of it.
“The PS3 controller comes with PS3” – that’s redundant; the controller is a part of the PS3, not a separate product. “...and people can play games with it” – we can cut that bit too; it’s just saying what a controller is, which we already know. So what are we left with?
Nothing. Sony used 23 words to convey zero information. Well... all right, not quite zero. The information we’re left with is this:
The PS3 exists.
Cheers, Sony! Good to know! THANKS FOR THE HEADS-UP.
The goal of PR language is to communicate little to no information using as many words as possible. The idea is that if you say nothing at all, you’ve nothing to be held accountable for – but if you do it using a lot of words, it seems like you’re saying a great deal. People are – quite rightly – accustomed to words meaning things. But as we’ve seen, PR language perverts words by using them in such a way that they mean nothing.
Let’s run through the rest of the paragraph...
Developed by refining the popular original PlayStation(R) controller,
‘Refining’ should go without saying – you don’t develop a new thing based on an original thing with the intention of making it worse. Except that Sony arguably did – the Sixaxis was received very negatively. The word ‘refining’ was chosen as a pre-emptive deflection of that prevailing negativity in the press.
the de facto standard in gaming with several hundred millions units shipped worldwide,
More bragging. Press releases tend to be packed with little asides like this. Come on, Sony – you already said it was popular!
the SIXAXIS wireless controller features motion-sensing technology
to detect natural and intuitive movements for real-time and high precision interactive play, acting as a natural extension of the user's body.
The motion-sensing technology detects movements, does it? It senses motion? Well, gee!
Hang on – the movements are natural and intuitive? The movements belong to the player, Sony. Can your controller really detect every natural movement that a person can make? Or do you mean that the controls are natural and intuitive? You do? Well why not just say that. Oh, because you can’t make promises about every PS3 game ever.
Regarding “real-time and ... interactive play,” I wish to point out that one can’t play a game without interacting with it, and one can’t do anything without doing it in real time.
As for a PS3 controller being a natural extension of my body... WHAT THE CHRIST?? I’m pretty sure that by ‘natural’, Sony means ‘artificial’ -- the exact fucking opposite.
Yes, I’m nit-picking. Yes, one does get the gist of the above quotation. But that is precisely the point: PR language avoids accountability by speaking entirely in ‘the gist’; there are no clear, deliberate statements that can be pinned down.
Slimy, isn’t it?
If you notice an especially egregious and/or amusing example of PR bullshit from within the videogame industry, I’d be obliged if you would share it with me via email, or with the forums, and maybe I’ll use it in the next (much shorter) column. See you then!