Inclusive writing and video games: Can localization change mentalities in the gaming world?

By the Blueprint Team

This year, International Women’s Day was a bright Sunday. In my weekend routine, one tweet captured my attention: A linguist I follow shared a talk by Laelia Véron, a French linguist and feminist. Out of curiosity, I started watching it and found myself compelled to listen through the end. Ms. Véron is a strong advocate of inclusive writing, and her theme resonates perfectly with what I strive to do as a French Localization Specialist at Blueprint Technologies. Video games are a domain where localization needs are important, but where women and non-binary people are notoriously underrepresented. I feel there is no better place to engage in inclusive localization than on the Localization Team at Blueprint, where diversity is valued and women hold key leadership roles.

However inclusive we strive to be, a gender-neutral localization in French (and more generally in all languages that have grammatical genders) confronts us with linguistic challenges. A few years ago, I localized a text-based adventure game for the French market. In this type of interactive narrative, the story’s development and outcome depend on the player’s choices and responses. The game is basically a dialog between the player and the protagonist. This confronted me with two big challenges: First, the English version of the game gives no hint about the protagonist’s gender, and it is purposely left to the players to decide. French Localization without gender specification is next to impossible to achieve.

Consider, for example, the very simple and common word, “sorry.” While saying “sorry” in English does not reveal the speaker’s gender, it is désolé for a male speaker and désolée for a female speaker in French. And of course, both the protagonist and the player say “sorry” many times during the game! This leads us to the second challenge: The game targets as wide an audience as possible. Do we want to ignore all the French-speaking female players?

Let’s do the math here: Two options (male/female) for the protagonist times two options for the player equals four localized versions, without even addressing the gender-fluid protagonist/player. That was not our solution, however. We made the protagonist a male astronaut for the French version, cutting short the role of the players’ imagination—the protagonist’s gender was the topic of passionate fan discussions amongst the English-speaking audience. On the player’s side, I managed to avoid assigning a clear gender by resorting to convoluted phrasing at times (e.g. instead of désolé(e), I would write je regrette). Fortunately, this rephrasing remained limited, since the player talks less than the protagonist, who tells the story.

Yet I still wonder how differently the protagonist and the game would have been perceived had I chosen the opposite gender for the astronaut. I ask myself: What if we could slowly, one word at a time, make women and gender-nonconforming people more present in the gaming world by localizing games with inclusive writing?

According to Wikipedia, inclusive language aims to avoid “expressions that express or imply ideas that are sexist, racist, or otherwise biased, prejudiced, or denigrating to any particular group of people.” Here, I would like to focus more specifically on gender-neutral (or gender-inclusive) language, and how it is used in French.

As stated in the United Nations’s guidelines for inclusive multilingual communication, “Using gender-inclusive language means speaking and writing in a way that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes. Given the key role of language in shaping cultural and social attitudes, using gender-inclusive language is a powerful way to promote gender equality and eradicate gender bias.”

Driven by feminists in the USA and Europe, gender-neutral language became a common feature in many languages around the 1980s. Feminists aimed to reform the androcentric language (e.g. using masculine pronouns in place of generic), arguing that this language reflected the prejudices of a patriarchal society. In English, for example, some gendered titles are now replaced by terms that do not specify the gender of the person referred to, like “firefighter,” “flight attendant,” or “bartender.” In French, neutralizing job titles by replacing them with a unique gender-neutral term is impossible because there is no neutral grammatical gender, and pronouns, nouns, adjectives, and articles all reflect the gender of the object to which they refer. For example, “the small door” is la petite porte (feminine), and “the small desk” is le petit bureau (masculine). This leaves us with three options: 1) create a feminine version of the word by adding a suffix (e.g. une professeure for “a female teacher”), 2) use an epicene form (identical spelling for both the masculine and feminine forms, e.g. une professeur for “a female teacher”), or 3) use the same version (masculine or feminine) for both genders (e.g. un professeur for a male and a female teacher). Each option has generated debates in French-speaking countries and creating feminine forms of professional titles has been received and enforced differently depending on the country. Canada took the lead in initiating and enforcing it: The Canadian Office de la langue française (OLF) published official recommendations as early as 1971. Switzerland followed suit in 1991, and Belgium in 1994.

France, however, consistently shows strong resistance to creating feminine forms of professional titles. In medieval France, feminine versions of some professions were applied to the spouse, such as la bouchère (the female butcher) for the wife of le boucher (the male butcher). During World War I, when men went to war, women had to take on positions that were traditionally held by men, and feminine forms were created for professions such as a railway worker (cheminotte, as feminine form of cheminot) or a factory worker (ouvrière, as feminine form of ouvrier). Despite those historical precedents, the Académie française has consistently disapproved recommendations to use feminine forms of professional titles.

The resistance to gender-neutral language reached a climax in France in 2017 when the first school textbook promoting a gender-neutral version of French was released. Why did this trigger such controversy? It used “median periods,” a compact way to indicate in writing both gendered versions of nouns. For example, étudiant·e·s stands for “male students and female students.” While the outcry focused on the median dot, it is just one of the ways inclusive writing can be achieved.

In Blueprint’s localization department, the French team uses all the strategies recommended by the UN to achieve inclusive writing. When referring to players (of video games), we typically use both the feminine and masculine forms les joueurs et les joueuses (literally, male and female players). Another technique we use is rephrasing to avoid treating the masculine form as generic. Instead of writing “Ceux qui possèdent déjà le jeu recevront des émoticônes en cadeau” (in English: “Those who already own the game will be gifted emoticons,” but ceux is masculine), we would write, “Les personnes qui possèdent déjà le jeu recevront des émoticônes en cadeau” (in English: “People who already own the game will be gifted emoticons.”) While the median period is not our preferred solution, we reserve the possibility of using it if space is limited, which is common in video game localization.

When it comes to language, things change slowly in France. Back in 1990, the Académie française issued a set of recommendations to simplify French spelling, known as “Les rectifications de l’orthographe. This recommended new spelling remained largely unknown (perhaps ignored?) until 2008. It only appeared in spell checkers in 2003 and in school textbooks very recently, around 2016.

As translators, we believe that we have a role to play in shaping our language. Our translations mirror linguistic evolutions, but consistent use on our part may also contribute to making French-speaking audiences more familiar with these changes. For that reason, we recommend using the new spelling as well as inclusive writing in our Style Guide.

Elizabeth Dawes concludes in this article, “As a linguistic system, the French language is neutral, and leaves it up to the users to make their own choices. The constraints that impede these choices come not from the language itself but from the speakers who impose their ideology on the language.”

I once missed an opportunity to make a protagonist a heroine and help, ever so slightly, improve the female representation in games. But I believe that inclusive writing in localization can help change things. According to a Stanford research, biases toward women have changed over time. Adjectives such as “intelligent,” “logical,” and “thoughtful” were more often associated with men in the first half of the 20th century but have increasingly been associated with women since the 1960s, correlating with the women’s rights movement. We also see that game development is now increasingly influenced by the audience. If we can change gamers’ mentalities, it is likely to improve the representation of women and gender-nonconforming people in games.

According to EA, one of the largest gaming companies worldwide, players want more inclusive games. This cannot be achieved without having gender and ethnic diversity within the gaming industry. Women make up an increasingly large share of the video game market, and their purchasing power is growing. Not listening to their calls for more inclusiveness would mean that the industry is missing significant revenue opportunities.

Localization alone cannot solve the equity and inclusivity problem in video games, but we can make an effort to raise gamers’ awareness of female players by consistently using inclusive writing in our localized versions.

That is what we do, every day, in every localization project here at Blueprint, where diversity and inclusivity are part of the localization team’s DNA. This team would not feel so special and familial without this diversity, and it would not exist without the boldness of our leaders, who choose to trust us and bet on us every day. And, you guessed it, many of those leaders are women.

Blueprint localization team is always looking for talented people. Check out our open positions to learn more.

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