Localization at GDC 2021: Inclusive Writing for the Win

GDC 2021 was once again completely virtual, but that did not prevent it from being an amazing event. I attended this year for more insight on game localization, and was impressed with the variety of presentations and diverse attendees. “Inclusivity” in game development was on everyone’s agenda.

Localization always focuses on the details of language. That means the user experience gets even more scrutiny, especially for dialog and culture. Most games lack this attention to detail, but it isn’t intentional. When you’re not trained for it, how would you know?

GDC 2021 helped answer these questions about inclusivity, and here’s a look at how.

Inclusive Writing (& Design) in Games

Inclusivity in games focused on narrative writing and game development. According to several speakers, you can design experiences and write texts that openly show non-binary gender identities and diverse sexual orientations. This is new; in the past, avoiding discussions of gender was considered “inclusive.” It is a step forward for English speakers, but what about the rest of the world?

In English, words themselves don’t have gender. Writers can avoid specifying a character’s gender or sexual orientation in a couple of ways. Instead of “policeman” or “policewoman” we say “police officer” and avoid the gender completely. When did the police officer come? “They just left!” Writers often use the word “they” instead of “he” or “she.” As English speakers, we understand this “they” is not plural, but just a way to avoid specifying if a character is male or female.

I wouldn’t applaud this avoidant strategy as being inclusive, but it still allows the experience to be open-ended and fit a diverse community of players. The bigger issue comes when you want to localize this experience for non-English speakers.

One common problem I hear from translators is how some languages lack a neutral pronoun, like “they” in English. In many European languages, for example, every object or person must have a gender. Translators are told to work around the problem, but grammar rules are strict, making this type of inclusivity hard. In these cases, translators have to make important decisions about how the story or game text is presented to users in their language.

So what does a translator do? The issues are best solved at the early stages of game development. “They” need the help of the game’s writers. 

Here are some ideas presented at GDC on the topic of inclusivity in game development.

Don’t exclude unintentionally.

  • Avoid exclusion. Don’t funnel players into specific gender choices unless it serves an important purpose in the game. 
  • If you ask the player to select a gender, then it needs to be relevant later in the game. That gender option will need to be considered in every line of dialog. This means (at least) two versions of the same string, one for male and one for female, and possibly another for non-binary. For this reason alone, it might be easier to make your characters without explicit gender.

Be explicit, but be inclusive.

  • You can make “inclusive” choices as game writers. Let’s return to our police officer scenario. What if you decide this specific officer prefers the pronoun “they” instead of “he” or “she”? This is an intentional choice. It is way more inclusive 👏🏼. Translators do need to be told that this is the preferred pronoun, so that they do not avoid it themselves. 
  • As mentioned, English has a very convenient gender-neutral pronoun in the form of ‘they’ — but many languages do not. Translators should use the appropriate language used by LGBT+ groups in their language community. 
  • Along those lines, important details like these need to make it to the localization team and the translators should be provided resources to help them figure this out. When in doubt, reach out to the LGBT+ community in each language on social networks.

Celebrate our differences.

Let’s not forget that the world is a diverse place. The acceptance of LGBT+ ideas is not as progressive in some regions and language communities. Many game developers are coming up with creative ways to work with gender preferences, while still being inclusive.

I was often reminded during GDC of the game The Last Campfire (2020). I finished playing it only a few weeks before the conference, and its unique narrative stuck with me. The story is told in the third person, but in place of using third-person pronouns for the player character, the game opts to use the name Ember. Although the story sometimes needs to use ‘they,’ it maintains the stance that gender is not an important aspect of them or the spiritual beings in the world.

The Last Campfire is a touching and unique experience, as well as a great way of dealing with the unspecified gender of the player character. 

That worked for English, but how about other language localizations? The attempt to de-emphasize gender didn’t translate completely into the localized versions. In Spanish, for example, adjectives referring to the character are feminine, even when other parts of the text avoid specifying gender. It’s still done quite well, but it illustrates my caution above. Leaving important details like this one to speculation doesn’t always play out as intended. It would have been better to have a discussion with the localization team and find a more inclusive solution for the localized regions.

Conclusion

To echo some of the phenomenal points made at GDC, video games are liberating virtual experiences. Players explore fantastical ideas and can be whoever they choose. Even so, those experiences are a reflection of our real-world selves. Video game developers should be aware of that.

Localizing a game into another language or region is also a form of inclusivity. As such, video games should also be conscious of people who experience the world in a different language than you or I.

Interested in getting your game localized with expert translators? Ask us!

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