James Wallis levels with you

Why Italics Are Important

Back in the mid-90s when I was publishing the journal of games design and criticism Interactive Fantasy, Greg Costikyan wrote us a paper called ‘I Have No Words And I Must Design’. It’s a great piece of work, much referenced and republished since, but there’s one footnote in it that is generally overlooked by all except the most anal games bores, pedants and typography geeks. And yet I think that footnote is one of the most important things that IF published in the whole of its run, because it goes right to the heart of how we see ourselves.

What Greg pointed out was that the names of games should take an initial capital as standard, as the names of books, paintings, plays or films do. He’s absolutist about this, insisting that chess and backgammon should be Chess and Backgammon just like Tetris and Carcasonne, and I quibble with him there (he argues that Beowulf gets a capital B though it’s a product of folklore rather than a known author, but Greg, Beowulf is the hero’s name). And unfortunately he’s no editor or layout geek, or he’d know that titles of major works don’t just take a capital, they take italics.

Apart from that, he’s got something huge.

When the title of a work appears in italics, whether in print or on the web and whether it’s L’Etranger or Leprechaun 2, it indicates that it has a certain status and deserves to be taken seriously. When we don’t italicise the titles of games we’re indicating exactly the opposite—that we don’t think our chosen field is worthy of the same respect as more established forms of cultural expression.

Maybe we don’t do it consciously, but whatever the reason every time we drop in a careless reference to ‘Space Invaders’, ‘The Sims’ or ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ without acknowledging even tacitly that these are works of significance—social, cultural, commercial, artistic, whatever—we are not just doing ourselves and our culture a major disservice, we also collude in the slightly sneering way that games and gaming are regarded by the wider critical world. It’s a tiny thing, but it’s a very big thing too.

[ctrl]+[i]. You know it makes sense.

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  1. Alan De Smet says:

    I was taught that the general rule was the larger complete works got italics. Shorter works got quotation marks. The example given was novels and short stories. Extending this, I agree, it should be Space Invaders, The Sims, and Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook. (This is going to look pretty silly if your comment system eats HTML formatting. It would be nice if you had a “preview” option. Trust me, they’re all italics.)

    I’m less certain on Dungeons & Dragons being italic. Generally speaking, I can’t go to my local game shop and buy Dungeons & Dragons any more than I can go to the local video store and buy 007 or Indiana Jones. I buy specific D&D books or specific 007/Indiana Jones movies.

  2. james says:

    Dungeons & Dragons is the name of the game. The physical products may have had many titles since 1977 when D&D became the D&D Basic Set, but the name of the cultural artefact that people play, the banner above the headspace they’re occupying while they roleplay using those products is Dungeons & Dragons.

    You’re absolutely right that shorter works get quotation marks. But in the context of games, what does ‘shorter works’ mean? Supplements? Add-ons? Should it be ‘Burning Crusade’ or Burning Crusade?

  3. Alan De Smet says:

    Sure, Dungeons & Dragons is the name of the game. But typicaly italics are reserved for singular works, things you can point to. I can buy a D&D PHB, but no one can sell me D&D. There definitely is precident for having a collection of italicized works get italics of their own (The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Der Ring des Nibelungen). But even in those cases you can point to a pile of books or scripts/sheet music and say, “That is the entire Foo.”

    (I’m not totally sold on the point of view I’m espousing. I just don’t think the case is as clear one might hope.)

    As for the quotation marks, it’s always been a fuzzy line. At which point does a “short story” turn into a novella? Or is it “novella” and novel? I have no idea. I expect it’s partially a judgement call. I love “Munchausen” to tears, but it probably only gets quotes. It’s inclusion in Second Person would seem to cinch it.

  4. james says:

    I see what you’re saying about Dungeons & Dragons, but by the same argument it’s impossible to watch Doctor Who since some of the 1960s episodes no longer exist. I’d say that, like a hologram, each part is representative of the whole. Surely the key point is that new cultural genres require new classifications?

    I accept that when a newspaper refers to ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ it’s probably not talking about any specific game but is referring to a melange of generic fantasy tropes with a few gamey elements. That’s its problem. As games commentators, we should know better.

    Quotes vs italics: though neither Chicago nor Cambridge are clear on the matter, I’d say that as Munchausen started life in a stand-alone book and will return to that form later this year, it still takes italics.

  5. Piers says:

    Great post, one major problem: italics suck on the web. I mean sucky-suck-suck. They’re a nightmare to read and this isn’t going to change until we get better displays sometime in the next ten years.

    So I’d argue that rather than saying “everything must be in italics” we say “everything should be the same”.

    And then make sure that all titles – for books, films and games – are rendered identically on whatever platform you render onto. Which will likely be italics in print, of course, but shouldn’t be italics onscreen. Not for another good few years.

    Me, I used to use quotemarks for all titles on screen. I think that’s probably still the best way. But whichever way you render, the point – that games should be displayed as equal to other entertainment products – stands.

  6. james says:

    You’re using a Mac aren’t you, Piers? I refer you to Joel.

  7. Piers says:

    I use a Mac at home these days – but that’s not why I have a downer on italics. The problem is all about the resolution of screen vs print.

    In the late nineties the BBC (well, Lambie-Nairn to be fair) redesigned its logo from the italic version you can still see in old VHSs to the current blocks version because italic fonts don’t display well on screen. Not Mac screen or PC screen, but any screen. Like, for example, a TV screen.

    Italic typefaces were designed for print where you have a dots-per-inch (DPI) in the 300s or more, while screens are still at a base resolution of 72 (PAL and Mac) or 96 DPI (Windows).

    It’s been a long time since I read it, but I believe Lambie-Nairn’s book Brand Design With Knobs On goes into more detail about this.

    This difference in resolution is also why you should avoid serif fonts on screen, while preferring them for print – the serifs help guide the eye in print, while the low resolution on screen just makes them look ugly.

    When screen resolutions hit 300 DPI, italics will be fine – but we’re a long way from there yet.

  8. Piers says:

    (I’m going to feel really embarrassed now if someone shells out a hundred and fifty quid for that and the information’s not in there – can anyone who’s already got a copy let us know?)

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