Emic vs Etic: Invent Words You Can Use

Way back in college, when I was taking anthropology courses instead of focusing on my major, I learned the idea of “emic vs etic”.

Anthropologists, being clever folks who have spent a lot of time studying cultures, recognized a distinction between terms and concepts that were part of the culture they were studying (emic), versus terms and concepts that they applied as outside observers, terms people in the culture would not use (etic). It’s a very fundamental concept once you think about it.

How does that relate to gaming? When we’re gaming, we’re playing both sides. We’re inventing worlds and cultures, but we’re also trying to play the characters in that world. We are outsiders trying to pretend to be natives who don’t actually exist. We’re trying to make a thing we invented feel like a real thing we’re exploring.

Comfortably stepping into the skin of those made-up people and acting like this is the world we live in is a pretty amazing leap. But here’s a tip to make it easier:

When you’re building settings, take the time to invent names for things that the characters within that setting would use, not just things the players would say.

If you’ve got law enforcement androids roaming around your space western, are characters just going to say “law enforcement androids” every scene? They could, but that doesn’t feel very natural. You need an emic term. You might decide on something like “law-bots” or “cyber-sheriffs”, but even if you just decide that people call them “the Law” it’s now an agreed upon in-world term.

And that’s the important part: everyone at the table knows what to say. Dialog and discussion is immediately easier, because you can role-play your character just saying those words instead of fumbling on weird mouthfuls and having to improvise names. Things flow.

Anything that makes talking in-character easier is worth its weight in gold.

Will it take a little bit longer to invent names that sound natural and fit the flavor you want? Yes, but it’s worth it. You don’t have to wrack your brain to name every single thing, but the more central something is to your story, the more it will come up, the more important it is that you give it a usable emic name.

A Name Is More Than A Name

Emic terms make the fictional world feel more real and make it easier to role-play, but the words we pick can also solidify cultural values. They can tell us a lot about how the people feel.

A classic example is our Roots & Weeds game of Shock from back in the early days of Story Games Seattle. We could have just called the Roots “value templates” and the Weeds “people who don’t have templates”, but the labels we picked added a whole layer of implied judgment. Calling someone a “weed” just sounds insulting. You know it’s a bad thing in this culture. And a “root” is something fundamental. It’s important. It matters.

I use this trick in all the GMless games I play, where we spontaneously create worlds together, but the exact same thing applies when you’re a GM preparing a setting. If you want your players to feel that sweet sweet immersion and play characters who act like they are part of your world instead of awkward visitors, take the time and give them the words they need.

    Ben Robbins | February 16th, 2023 | , , | show 6 comments