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Michael Hom

ANTH 203 / LING 203

5 December 2016

Rich Point Paper

Dirty in Video Game Culture

Online video game culture, much like the larger internet culture from which it is derived,

has a history of having ironic countercultural elements in the way people act towards each other

and talk to each other. This pervasive sense of irony often turns interactions that might normally

have negative implications into having positive ones. For example, while acting arrogant and

disrespectful in a social context outside of video games might be considered rude and abrasive,

inside the culture this can be considered very formidable and commanding of respect, although

not at all insulting. In the same sense, the word dirty is a common slang used in video game

culture that has a counterintuitive meaning compared to its dictionary definition, which reflects

the dissonance between the standard and slang definitions of some words that are used in video

game culture. Through interviews and personal experiences, I will be examining what makes

something dirty, and what it shows about the video game culture that it is used in.

In everyday conversation, the term dirty is used to describe something unclean, impure,

foul, or undesirableall of which have negative connotations. However, a particularly

interesting context in which dirty can be used is in physical sports, where dirty describes

unsportsmanlike conduct. A dirty play in sports could be any action such as intentionally

fouling someone in soccer or basketball, stepping on someones toes in football, pegging

someone in baseball, and so on. Similarly, a dirty player can describe anyone who conducts in

an unsportsmanlike or dangerous way. The way it is used in the context of sports is interesting
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because video game culture is both a counterculture to physical sports, yet it is also a culture that

tries to legitimize itself as a pastime with equal standing and respect as physical sports, referring

to itself as e-sports. Even though video game culture strives to be as equally respected as sports

culture, it is a counterculture and can perhaps even be called a satire of sports culture, and thus

the terms used in video game culture often have completely different meanings than their usage

in sports. While dirty can retain the meaning of unsportsmanlike, it can also have a positive

connotation when used in video game culture. Its exact meaning, however, is hard to define

without more elaboration into the context of what it is describing. Generally, it is used to when

something that is highly entertaining and exciting has happened, but it is ambiguous because of

its subjectivity. Dirty is used as a way of praising someone or something, but the criteria to be

worthy of this praise varies among individuals, meaning the consensus regarding the definition is

very loose. Because this ostensibly negative word is being used as praise in video game culture,

we can see how the things people value within the culture might be different from what people

outside of the culture value. It is this ambiguity between positive and negative that piqued my

interest in the word dirty as a rich point of video game culture, because the word is used so

often that the negative and positive meanings have become less distinguishable in context. In

other words, when video game players describe something as dirty, are they praising it for

being exciting, or for something else?

To delve into the meaning of dirty, I decided to interview members of UW Smash, a

community on campus for the game Super Smash Bros, using their tags or usernames as

identification. I asked players to elaborate on their definitions for what dirty means, as well as

giving their criteria for what a dirty play is and what a dirty player is in the Super Smash

Bros community. Because many members of UW Smash, including myself, are also part of the
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larger Super Smash Bros community in Washington State, and more importantly, other online

video game communities, I presumed it was reasonable to extrapolate their answers to apply to

the general video game community and its culture. Through the various interviews I had with

these video game players, I was ultimately looking for a baseline definition for what the word

dirty meant that everyone generally could agree upon. Although I found that many people had

shared agreement on some aspects of the word and its usage, I began to realize half way through

my interviews the subjective nature of dirtiness. Because of this, I branched out my interview

questions based on what their responses were to get a better understanding of what they define

dirty as.

For the most part, the interviewees attributed a positive connotation to the word as I

expected, but from there, many could not give a solid definition; it took more questions to get a

narrower answer for the definition. Preliminary answers for the first question were generally

more about what the word did not mean rather than what it did mean. One interviewee by the tag

Blue said that In Smash, dirty has a positive connotation for sure, whereas most people think

dirty is just like messy or unclean, while another interviewee called Renil said that To do

something dirty is to do something really well, its actually not lackluster or something bad. To

go more in depth into the meaning beyond the fact that it has a positive connotation rather than

normal negative connotation, I asked for the traits of a dirty play, because it is how dirty is

most commonly used in video game culture. For many people, this did not help to produce a

more precise response, so I clarified further by asking how a dirty play differs from a clean

play. While dirty and clean are antonyms based on their standard definitions, they also tend

to have distinct meanings in video game culture as well, and fortunately, this question generated

more refined answers. An interviewee by the tag Atychi responded, Clean implies good
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fundamentals and execution, while dirty means something out of the ordinary, but not

necessarily sloppy execution or the lack of fundamentals. Other players such as Mowyang

and Alex described examples in the game where both a dirty play and a clean play would

flow well and be executed without error, but a dirty play would be more exciting and creative,

and would go above and beyond the necessary actions to win the match. Renils response

summarized what many other responses stated: To me as a player, dirtiness means something

exceptional and beyond a simple thing that everyone can do and everyone has seen. Its not

worse than being clean; its like going beyond simply playing clean. I call something dirty

when Ive never seen that kind of shit before, and it was hype as hell.

Some people, however, responded to the first question saying that they defined dirty

with a negative connotation to the word, to mean unsportsmanlike behavior. When given a

negative response to the first question, I gave the interviewees the question, Is there a difference

between a dirty play and a dirty player? To them, a dirty player was someone who played

in a very irritating, cheap, or unsportsmanlike manner. Dirty players camp and wait for easy

baits, said Mowyang while describing players who anger and frustrate their opponents using

unskillful tactics. Another interviewee with the tag TM87 responded, One guy I played would

stand up and I think he watched my hands to know where to throw me, as he described

unsportsmanlike conduct at UW Smash. However, when describing a dirty play, there was a

more positive connotation similarly to how others responded. For these players, the context of

whether they are describing a player or a play changed the connotation of dirtiness, but

nonetheless the positive connotation also applied and made sense to them in context.

From my interviews, I gathered a collective definition that I believe fits most peoples

view of the word. Dirty, means more than just entertaining, exciting, hype, or skilled; the key
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aspect is that it is extraordinary. Already, I was starting to see how the word holds some cultural

value in its meaning, especially after asking the question about the difference between a dirty

play and a clean play. From hearing the responses to that question, I recognized that these

video game players valued the extraordinary aspect of dirtiness, and the individuality it gives

to the player to set themselves apart from others through their gameplay and skill. Much of the

way people described the differences involved talking about the competitive nature and the drive

to make a dirty play, especially when the stakes are raised, such as in an actual tournament

match, rather than in a cooperative video game or environment. Dirtiness is a determining

factor in displaying skill and competence in the game.

The experience that I had after the interviews with some friends of mine further

emphasized the significance of the word choice of dirty in contrast with the word clean. A

friend of mine who visited my room often was bringing some other people to see what he called

the dirtiest room on campus. When we all went up to my room, the other people were

surprised to find a tidy desk, a made bed, and a clean floor, and began questioning the

description that my friend had given them. To my friend and I, it was equally surprising to find

that they did not understand the description. Even though we were both video game players, and

the other people were not, my friend was not referring to anything related to video game culture;

rather, he was using the word dirty outside of the context to illustrate to our other friends that

my room had creative and unique dcor. Later, when I thought about why my friend chose to use

the word dirty as opposed to clean, or other words that might indicate that he was referring

to the dcor such as cool, fresh, neat, and so on, I realized that while clean means

organized and tidy, it also has the connotation of being straightforward, tame and mild.

Therefore, to call my room clean would be inaccurate because the dcor content was very bold
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and audacious, the lighting was edgy and unique, and the posters were disproportionately large,

covering the entire room. A clean room to him was a bland room with common decorations,

but my room was dirty because it had features that were beyond the basic dcor that one could

find in a typical guys dorm.

In conclusion, video game culture praises extraordinary talent, skill, actions and players

through the use of the word dirty, which emphasizes how the culture values ascending beyond

the norm. Although I believe that originally the meaning was simply a double entendre created as

an ironic expression of admiration rather than disgust, its usage has developed into a virtue of

video game culture. The meanings behind the word, which can be both a negative meaning of

unsportsmanlike or a positive meaning of extraordinary, illustrate how video game culture is

both a reflection of sports culture with their similarly negative usage, but is also its own culture

with its own languaculture. Through my interviews, I concluded that the meaning of dirty can

be understood in relation to its antonym, clean, where dirty depicts a higher sense of skill

and merits more respect than being basic or clean. Thus, dirtiness portrays the ideal of not

being just average, and of not being bland or simple. Rather, people in the culture strive to

achieve something beyond rudimental. More importantly, it is the strive for individuality

setting oneself apart from the crowd of other players by performing extraordinarily, but also by

being outstanding in other ways, such as even having a unique dorm. Ultimately, when video

game players call something dirty, they are not describing something impure, nor simply

entertaining and enjoyable; they are, as a culture, acknowledging a great achievement of

uniqueness and creativity that can be recognized in video game culture but might not be easily

recognized from an outside perspective.


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Appendix

Interview Format

1. What do you think of when you hear the word dirty when talking about smash bros or

other video games? How would you define it?

If Positive Connotation is given response to #1:

2. Would you agree that dirty is a form of praise? If so, do you think it is different from

describing as something as clean?

If Negative Connotation is given in response to #1:

2. Is there a difference in the meaning of dirty when I call a play dirty versus when I

call a player dirty?

3. Would you agree that dirty is a form of praise? If so, do you think it is different from

describing as something as clean?