Centers and Peripheries of Games Criticism

Remedios Varo - Center of Universe

Remedios Varo – Centro del Universo / Center of Universe

Last week, Rami Ismail made a brief but important call for a bit of awareness concerning the status of English as the lingua franca in (the major part of) the games industry. I had been gathering thoughts on a discussion of the role of language in games criticism, specifically, for a while, so I figured now would be a good time to make things a bit more concrete. I had written a paragraph calling for awareness of linguistic diversity in games last summer, but didn’t really take the argument anywhere, so let me build on what I wrote there.

As English is the dominant language of the (western) games industry, it follows that the language of the (critical) press is predominantly English as well. By the same logic, large languages other than English have been able to carve out areas of the games industry in their own language. To posit a basic rule of thumb: the more speakers a language has, the more likely games are to be localised (i.e. translated) in that language, and the bigger its native language games press will be. The converse is then also true: the smaller your native language is, the more likely it is that you will have to depend on your foreign language skills to play games and read journalism about games.

Size is not the only determinant of translation likelihood, of course. Some languages are closer to one another historically, and translation practices between some languages are more conventional than between others. In this respect, games localisation is partly dependent upon traditions of translation in other media.

As Ismail argues correctly, all this is a huge but largely unheeded advantage for native speakers of English. The vast majority of western games will be originally written in English, as will journalism, criticism, and scholarship about those games. It is no surprise, then, that understanding of English is basically the one major prerequisite for perusing the larger part of games and games criticism, apart from money and time, of course. For this reason, everyone who writes/talks in English can be heard by the rest of the gaming world, while the converse is definitely not true. The center of the games world is the English-speaking world, while the rest of us are positioned somewhere in the direction of the periphery.

For the non-English native, the native language games criticism market is generally small or non-existent. To use my own mother tongue, Dutch, as an example: there is some games press in Dutch, but most of it is consumer-geared, and if it is critical, it is confined to only a number of outlets. For example, columns in daily newspaper NRC Next, editorial sections of some of the larger websites, and private (unpaid) blogs.

The language barrier is not insurmountable — it’s perfectly feasible for a non-native speaker of English to become a professional writer on or for games. However, this naturally comes at a cost: the investment of time and money to learn an additional language, and the same to break into a network that is intrinsically more accessible to native speakers. The ability to learn English is not equally distributed either. Being Dutch, I have profited from a relatively rich tradition of teaching English in primary and secondary school, but this is certainly not the case in all countries. Now, I believe that learning foreign languages is a wonderful investment, but the point is that it is one that native speakers of English do not have to make. They are free to invest this time and money in other things, while ‘we’, the non-natives, do not have that luxury.

As Ismail points out, all this tacitly assumes that the English-speaking world is welcoming to non-natives, which is certainly not always the case:

Even our most inclusive efforts tend to exclude those that do not speak English, incapable of learning it for any reason, or that have the added disadvantage of using a different alphabet. It’s the purely English content of most of our talks at conferences, but also the fact that most chatrooms and forums simply do not allow any conversation in languages other than English. Bad grammar is frowned upon, eloquence in the language is considered a sign of professionalism and your ability to speak at events, gain any press traction or make any useful contacts is directly correlated to your knowledge of the language.

In addition, non-native speakers of English continuously face a choice: writing criticism in your mother tongue means enriching your local game culture, but at the cost of barely being able to reach out across language borders. Critical Distance’s foreign correspondence sections do ameliorate this to a certain degree, by spreading visibility of curated non-English language pieces, but not by spreading intelligibility of the pieces to those who do not read German, French, etc. Google translate or better yet, a helpful friend, is still needed in those cases.

From a diversity viewpoint, the problem is not just that non-native speakers of English can have difficulties finding an outlet for their critical writing; it is also that monolingual speakers of English rarely if ever get to enjoy the viewpoints of those who do not speak or write in English. In other words, many speakers of English are stuck in their own linguistic bubble. Sure, it’s a pretty big and comfortable bubble that lots of people would like to get into, but there is a world out there.

Where to now?

First of all, it would help a lot if more native speakers of English were aware of their advantage. Maybe you already are; if so, great! You can still try and spread this awareness to others. Embrace varieties of English and be forgiving of mistakes and awkwardness made by non-natives. Realise that even the attempt to speak and write English as a non-native in front of an audience takes courage.

I would also like to make an appeal to all you multilinguals out there. We can help to integrate the languages of games criticism (and the games industry in general) by curating and/or translating important work written in languages other than English. My favourite recent example of such an effort is Zoya Street’s article ““Between excessive fantasy and selfish disillusionment” Reading a Japanese essay from 1999 about visual novel ‘Captain Love’”. What’s so great about Street’s piece is that he combines translation and (meta-)criticism in one fell swoop. Such work that weds linguistic to cultural translation is extremely valuable, and I wish we would see more of it.

To be able to contribute in the latter way, you’ll have to either be or make yourself familiar with cultures and languages beyond the English-speaking world. Either way, effort is required, but I believe the payoff is significant: a fairer and more diverse world of games writing, where center and periphery are near enough to shake eachother’s hand.

If you know of other ways to make the game writing world more linguistically integrated or have seen promising initiatives in this regard, I’d love to hear from you.


  • ChrisBateman

    Dear Oscar,
    I have long struggled with the advantage that having English as a first language gives me, but I have also noted that many people (especially in mainland Europe) who speak English as a second language speak and write it *better* than many who have it as a first! I vividly remember one of my first trips to the Netherlands, where the doctor whom we were staying with asked me to check over his paper in English for errors – and of course, it was immaculate. Few of my students could write with the eloquence of this Dutch doctor!

    Despite coming from a family line that includes an interpreter to the Pope who spoke (I think) eleven languages, I do not have a great gift for spoken language, although I do okay with written languages. I can get by rather well in both France and Japan, especially if staying for more than a week, and I can read signs in Greece, for instance. But my language skills are rather limited compared to my great-great-grandfather, and it is a disappointment to me. I continue to practice my French and my Japanese, but without native speakers to engage with regularly, I never get very far.

    It is important to reiterate the advantages of having a lingua franca, in that it does allow communication on a scale otherwise impossible. But at the same time, it is all too easy for the speakers of that language to ‘bully’ their communities around… There are no easy fixes. But like you, I feel the power of the multilingual as a translator is immense, and has a gift to connect cultures otherwise uncomfortably bound.

    This problem is far from constrained to games, of course – talk to film-makers about making commercial movies in languages other than English, and the massive changes in budgetary scale this implies, or talk to Eurovision Song Contest entrants about the greater chance they have of winning in English… It seems all creative industries are struck by this limitation. Perhaps the rise of Chinese cultural exports will serve to sober the effect of English’s ascendance, or perhaps the growing volume of Spanish language speakers in the United States will have an effect… I’m uncertain where we are headed, but it seems unlikely English will be toppled from its spot in my lifetime, even if it is not inconceivable that it will be within a few centuries. Time has strange lessons for us all.

    I have nothing to offer in conclusion but my support for anyone wishing to push beyond the easy paths on this issue.

    With unlimited love,


    PS: A reply to your letter will arrive next week!