The first English words I learned were “register” and “not yet”.
I didn’t quite grasp their meaning at the time. I only knew that my CD-ROMs full of demos all featured the same starting screen with two buttons. The one called “Register” opened a scary window full of foreign words. Clicking the “Not Yet” button, on the other hand, allowed me to play for a while.
I was a five-year-old Italian girl, and I had no video games in my native language. So I played what I could: platformers and dress-up games, vertical shooters and puzzles. And I replayed the same levels all the time, because the idea of opening a menu to save my progress was an alien concept to me.
Only decades later I realized what I had missed: parser games, strategy games, roguelikes, RPGs. Entire genres unaccessible to me due to the language barrier.
Thanks to the powers of the internet, It has never been easier for people from all over the world to make and distribute their own games. And yet, for those who don’t speak English, the amount of accessible content is still painfully limited. Of the thousands of languages spoken on Earth, only a handful are represented on the largest digital distribution platform for PC gaming.
My younger self would have squealed in delight at the sight of the 14184 games in Italian currently available on Steam. Vietnamese players, on the other hand, can only choose between 200 games.
Good localisation is costly – and you want your localization to be good, lest you get review-bombed by disgruntled customers as happened to Darkest Dungeons. You, the developer, want to recoup the money you spend on localisation though. So you count your words, you look at the biggest markets, and try to gauge which languages will bring you the best return.
Torment: Tides of Numenera offers an interesting example of this logic at work. The original Kickstarter campaign promised an Italian localisation, which subsequently got scrapped in a later update – leaving some backers with a version of the game they weren’t able to read:
With Wasteland 2, we could turn to many of our backers, who volunteered their time and talent to help build the game’s localization. With Torment, we wanted to pursue professional localization efforts. Unfortunately, during this process, we made the difficult decision to drop support for Italian – both our backer numbers and the sales of our prior RPGs in Italy meant it was unlikely we’d be able to field the very high costs.
The developers admitted they were able to localise Wastelands 2 only because volunteers worked for free. I find this message deeply troubling.
Fan translations of professional releases are a common practice. Fan translators do them out of passion, aiming to share a beloved game with as many people as possible. In some cases, fan translations get the developers’ blessing and become officially supported. Sometimes the fans get paid for their efforts; sometimes, they only get the glory.
It’s beautiful, this desire to share a game with others. But when developers benefit economically from a fan translation, the line between collaboration and fan exploitation can become extremely thin.
Economic issues are even more overbearing for indie developers.
Whenever a non-English developer starts a new project, they face a question: which language to use?
99 per cent of the time, the answer is English. Because you’re a small indie developer trying to pay the bills, and you know your local market is too small for you to make a profit. You have to reach a global audience. You need money and coverage and feedback from as many people as possible, and you know half of the internet is written in English.
So you don’t even bother with your native language. And if you decide to localise your game, you start with Chinese, because that’s where the money is. Some of the Top Played games of 2018 are Chinese only, and perhaps you have already gotten a few negative reviews on Steam screaming “Chinese please”.
Sometimes you wish to localise a game, but you just don’t have the words for it.
Localising is not simply a matter of swapping words and shuffling them around: different languages have their own quirks, and some concepts can be nigh impossible to translate. Does your game have non-binary characters? Good luck localising it into strictly gendered, binary languages, like Spanish or French.
Other times you wish to localise your game in your native language, but it’s simply not possible.
When Rami Ismail asked on Twitter for people to copy-paste an Arabic snippet in different software, developers from all over the world answered with screens of broken message windows.
Professional software used in game development is often made by English-using companies, and struggles to properly rende languages written from right to left. For developers speaking Arabic, Hebrew or Farsi, translating their game can become a daunting technical challenge.
I know what you’re thinking: “Can’t people just learn English, though?” And yes, that would be cool. English classes are compulsory in many countries, but – as the English Proficiency Index shows – it doesn’t mean the language gets taught well. English allows people from all over the world to communicate, and we must strive to teach it to everyone, and do it better.
And yet, if we want English to become a truly inclusive, global Lingua Franca, we should translate broadly and relentlessly, regardless of the economic value of what we translate. So much content doesn’t get an English translation because it’s not deemed commercially viable.
Case in point: it’s been a decade, and yet we still don’t have an official English translation of Fate/Stay Night, the visual novel which spawned a multi-media IP. The most recent spin-offs (Fate/Grand Order, Fate/Extella) got localised, but we lack an official way to access the game that tells you the plot of the whole franchise. It’s such a baffling cultural hole.
We should translate more games into English. And we should translate them into as many languages as we can, too. Even the noncommercial games. Especially those. We should support more initiatives like Itch.io translation project, and help to bring small, weird, experimental niche games to our small, niche local audience.
By treating English as the default language, we’re leaving behind the less privileged: those who are too young, too poor or too busy to learn another language. The ones who can’t play many games, let alone imagine making games themselves. The ideal public of gamedev world a global gamedev conference featuring speakers from all over the world.
Because teens need this. Because teens need to listen to game developers talking in their native language and realise they can become like them.
The media we consume, video games included, shape our minds. If we want our world to become a better, more inclusive place, we must allow people to experience the world.