Digital Media & VideogamesLanguages & LinguisticsSocial Interaction & Networks

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.