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How slang helps turn online worlds into communities

How slang helps turn online worlds into communities


From StarCraft to Rocket League

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“God, look at that Squadette, I’m dodging the game,” my friend says to me. She’s been waiting in the Dead by Daylight lobby for what feels like ages, trying to find a group of players. In Dead by Daylight, you can either play as a killer who hunts survivors down to sacrifice on a hook for points or as a survivor who works with others to escape. I’ve been playing the game for a short while, but I already know what a Squadette is and the repercussions of playing against a whole squad of the same character, Claudette. These squads are known to be toxic, and the moment you see four in a lobby, you just know it’s better to risk being penalized than play the game.

Claudette is only a video game character, but her name and what it can mean to people within this community holds incredible power. It’s funny, in a way, that language can be so creative one moment and then so completely obvious the next. Squadette is far from the only example. 

Video game communities, particularly those centered on multiplayer titles, are incredible at thinking on the spot when it comes to language. Many of us know what certain phrases and words mean. For example, “OP” stands for overpowered, while “buff” and “nerf” mean positive and negative changes with characters, maps, weapons, or other elements of a game. We know this because these words are littered throughout video game communities. They’re present in Fortnite, Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and just about any other community you can name.

Dead by Daylight.
Dead by Daylight.

It’s impossible to say the first time “buff” was used in this modern context, but its first use was meant to describe a way to make something shine, to stand out and be pretty. While buffing a character or a map usually doesn’t mean to make it shine in a literal sense, it is a word that has positive connotations and is well-known throughout most video game communities. 

A more specific example of this is the word “zerg.” The word originated in Blizzard’s StarCraft; it’s a race of aliens that is pretty weak when faced one-on-one but can be dangerous and overwhelming when they approach as a group. The word exists both as a noun and a verb. As freelance video game writer Ewan Wilson tells me, “getting zerged” means “I just got overwhelmed by a load of enemies.” 

Slang is present in just about any community you can name

Jim Bishop, who has played StarCraft since its inception, says that the term’s popularity is due to a combination of coming from a huge video game community and its ability to work well in a number of genres, particularly shooters. “When I first started playing StarCraft, the Zerg were one of those nuisances that could become a real threat if you weren’t careful,” Bishop tells me. “And you know, I’ve noticed that the tactic of overwhelming players isn’t all that different from what you face in zombies modes in first-person shooters. Overwhelming the player is actually the main objective from a certain perspective.”

Almost any player of Dead Island or Left 4 Dead will tell you how easy it is to be “zerged” by the enemy. The use of this slang term, like many others before it, still slips through the cracks of most genres. It used to be a very specific meaning that existed only in StarCraft, but now, you’ll find zerg being used in multiplayer games that don’t even have guns or a first-person perspective in them at all, such as Elder Scrolls Online and Runescape (both old and new). With a massively multiplayer online community that relies on communication with other players, it would be far more astonishing for terms like zerg not to get passed around.

Language in video game communities isn’t just black and white. There are certain communities that pick and choose words and morph them into something that only they’ll be able to use. In Dead by Daylight, most of the slang I heard and knew was learned while playing with my friend. But as time went on — and given how intense the game can be — some words flew past me. The way these communities develop a language that can be passed on between person to person is, ultimately, very complicated. While you could argue that you could learn all of the slang you needed to know by playing the game with strangers, the complexity behind this language cannot always be fully grasped by that alone. This is where slang dictionaries come in. 

Rocket League.
Rocket League.

Searching Google for “DBD slang dictionary” or “Overwatch slang glossary” leads you to a plethora of different sources, from Reddit to official game forums. These posts are not only popular; they also have a similar theme that runs throughout their creation: the desire to help new players by sharing information in a way that’s both accessible and interactive. With these dictionaries existing in places that are community-based, people can not only ask and learn more about the games in which they are interested in dedicating their time, but they are even able to add in their own and make corrections if some terms are out of date. This collaboration is then passed on in a variety of different ways, either through word of mouth, social media like Twitter, or even something as simple as YouTube comments. 

Another thing these phrases and terms have in common is that many of them are created in games that feature a competitive element. This is partly due to the nature of multiplayer games where players are against each other and, as passionate Overwatch player Daniel Mitchell-Benoit tells me, “ease of communication” allows players to “shorten” and “make words simpler” in order to get your point across in half the time. For a game like Overwatch, where split-second decisions, timing, and team composition can change the entire result, terms like “monkey” for hero character Winston or “pig” for Roadhog can make a real difference in-game. The same can be said for other competitive games such as Destiny and Rocket League, which each have their own specific words and phrases.

There’s also another element. A lot of this language, and why so many players lean into using it and passing it on, is because of the popularity of video game streamers. Twitch streamers aren’t just people who sit in a chair and play video games to make money; they are considered celebrities and can create their own phrases like a pop star could. Tyler “Ninja” Blevins’ “time in” catchphrase even made it on a pair of Adidas sneakers — though I have yet to hear a phrase that’s reached the popularity of something like the “beyhive.”

With such a large following comes a dedicated fan base that is keen to learn from you. As Lillian Broomfield, a fan and player of Rocket League, tells me, prominent streamers are the key to popularizing new slang and terminology within a multiplayer community. They do this by having a huge audience that passes around their slang. Because of that audience, they can work in an almost collaborative manner to create new words that have come entirely from them. Broomfield gives me one example of this through the use of a move called the “Musty Flick.” Created by YouTuber and e-sports player amustycow, the flick is a highly technical move that has caused Musty to score many goals and has become so popular that it’s gained its own name. While Musty is a streamer, Broomfield acknowledges that, due to the high skill of the move, “most people know it from e-sports and e-sports personalities.”

Yet, one thing remains common throughout all of this: the need to be part of something by adopting the slang and using it as a part of your own dialogue when playing with others. The human connection to others is great whether you’re playing with complete strangers and having a good time or with someone you already know. It fosters a sense of community, and isn’t that what we all want? By adopting the same mannerisms and slang of the communities they are part of, players achieve the ultimate prize: a place where they belong.