Focus

Gender-inclusive language in games and its localization challenges
Cristina Perez
Cristina Pérez
Cristina Pérez is linguist team lead of the Barcelona and Dublin offices of Keywords Studios. She holds a master’s degree in audiovisual translation from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, which granted her access to Keywords thanks to an internship as Spanish linguist back in 2012.
Leticia Sáenz
Leticia Sáenz
Leticia Sáenz has been working in video games localization for over 11 years. She has seen the industry from different points of view since she has worked in different companies and roles. She is currently the localization lead at Keywords Studios Barcelona.
Cristina Pérez
Cristina Pérez
Cristina Pérez is linguist team lead of the Barcelona and Dublin offices of Keywords Studios. She holds a master’s degree in audiovisual translation from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, which granted her access to Keywords thanks to an internship as Spanish linguist back in 2012.
Leticia Sáenz
Leticia Sáenz
Leticia Sáenz has been working in video games localization for over 11 years. She has seen the industry from different points of view since she has worked in different companies and roles. She is currently the localization lead at Keywords Studios Barcelona.
O

ver the past years, we have worked hard in localization to make sure that players get to live the full game experience adapted to their culture and the aspects that surround them. We have gone to great lengths to make sure that localized versions of video games are culturally correct; we have even coined a term: culturalization. And this amazing achievement has come to a reality as we strive to attain the best localization possible, one in which players don’t realize that they are not playing the original version of the game. In the attempt to make sure that video games reach everyone and that everyone feels reflected in them, we have seen developers start including female and LGBTQ characters as protagonists of our adventures, as well as using more inclusive language.

Before explaining what gender inclusive language is, let’s try to understand first what “genderization” means. If we look at the definition of “genderize” in the dictionary, we will see it means to make distinctions according to gender, something that we do on a daily basis without even realizing it. Depending on your own language, you might be wondering if this refers to grammatical gender or semantic gender. And this is because not all languages have the same gender system. If we take a look at Europe, we will find at least five different systems, ranging from non-gendered languages (English, Finnish), to languages with common or neuter gender (Dutch, Danish), languages with masculine, feminine (Spanish, French, Italian) and neuter gender (German, Russian), and even languages that distinguish between animate and inanimate objects (Basque).

So what is this inclusive language that we are talking about? It’s a form of language that is not biased toward a particular sex or social representation of gender. Gender neutrality should be used mainly in two cases: 1) when the gender of the person referred to is unknown or indeterminate, and 2) when we want to include in our speech people who identify themselves as non-binary or genderless. In English, for example, this can be achieved by using the singular “they” or “one” instead of “he” or “she,” or by using nouns that are not gender-specific in fields such as professions: “police officer” and “flight attendant” instead of “policeman” and “stewardess.”

Historically, in English and many other languages, the use of masculine forms to refer to generic groups was regarded as standard, but in the last few years, academic and governmental entities are beginning to rely on gender-neutral language to convey inclusion of all sexes or genders. Advocates of gender-inclusiveness argue that achieving this kind of language is possible. They consider that gendered language often implies male superiority and reflects an unequal state of society, while detractors argue that trying to use gender-inclusive language often leads to unnatural grammatical constructions.

When it comes to localization, we need to take into account the linguistic and cultural context of the target countries. In some cases, we deal with languages without grammatical gender, which use their own mechanisms to achieve this inclusiveness. On the other hand, when dealing with languages with grammatical gender, rendering texts neutral or gender-inclusive is at times overly complicated from a cosmetic point of view — due to lengthy workaround structures overlapping, for instance — or plainly unidiomatic.

Case studies
Let’s have a look at what some developers have done to include non-gendered language and characters in their games, and how they dealt with it in English.

Fallen London

Fallen London is a game developed by Failbetter Games and released in 2009. It is known for giving the player a third (genderless) option during character creation. Players who choose this third option would not be addressed either as male or female.

Primary written and spoken languages in East and Southeast Asia. Source: CSA Research 2019.
Sunless Sea

Several years later and after taking into consideration the feedback received from players, this same developer released Sunless Sea. In this case, instead of giving the option to choose gender, the game asks players for their preferred form of address — implying that gender is up to players and may not match how they would like to be addressed.

In Sunless Sea we can also find androgynous characters. For example, the Alarming Scholar is firstly described using masculine and feminine pronouns only to end up referring to the character as neutrally as possible. Even the use of adjectives seems to be done in a way that supports a certain degree of neutrality.

Instead of giving the option to choose gender, the game asks players for their preferred form of address — implying that gender is up to players and may not match how they would like to be addressed.
Instead of giving the option to choose gender, the game asks players for their preferred form of address — implying that gender is up to players and may not match how they would like to be addressed.
Images above from Sunless Sea.
The Sims

The Sims was probably one of the first games to normalize same-sex relationships, but EA went a step further in The Sims 4, where they removed binary male and female categories from the creation menu.

Any Sim can now have any body type, clothing, hair, tone of voice, walk style or accessories. Players can even decide if they want their character to use the toilet standing, and become or get other characters pregnant.

As linguists and localizers, how can we deal with this kind of content and introduce gender inclusiveness or neutrality in our translations? This can be difficult in English, but it gets even more complicated when we need to translate it into different languages, especially those with grammatical gender like Spanish, French, Italian and German.

Some generic solutions that would work for all the languages would be the following:

  • Using non gender-specific terms as we mentioned at the beginning of the article: “police officer” instead of “policeman.” However, this can lead to a convoluted or less natural language in cases when it’s not easy to find generic terms.
  • Duplicating structures in the source files for all the different gender options, which would be more costly for developers, as the word count to be translated into the multiple target languages would be higher.
  • Finding neutral structures whenever possible, which is common practice among professional localizers, who usually need to handle variables and placeholders without knowing what term will replace them. However, this is not always possible and sometimes it might lead to long and complex sentences, introducing truncations or overlaps in the game, especially in mobile versions.
Image from The Sims.
Image from The Sims.
Now let’s see what options we have to introduce gender inclusiveness or neutrality when none of the solutions mentioned above is really suitable.

Spanish

In Spanish the generic masculine is the accepted form to address groups comprised of male and female individuals. We have several options to avoid this:

  • Using @ or X to replace the letter that would set the gender of a word. Though not officially recognized, this has been a common use in the last few years. There is one inconvenience though: those characters cannot be pronounced or read by text-to-speech applications, which affects the dubbing of the game audio and prevents people with visual impairments from relying on that kind of software.
  • Creating a third neutral and inclusive gender by using the letter e. The latest option to be coined and, though not official, the one that is becoming stronger.

Italian

Like Spanish, Italian is a very strongly gendered language, where even objects have a grammatical gender. This makes talking about a person without defining gender almost impossible. It’s becoming common practice, especially online, to use the asterisk (*) to replace the –a (feminine) and –o (masculine) in words, or to use the at symbol (@) to indicate plural. However, this use is quite inconsistent, or a text would be full of asterisks and at symbols every other word.

German

In German, the asterisk again can be used to indicate that there are more variations than just the one displayed. For example, “der*die Priester*in” to indicate all the genders on the spectrum.

French

In French, we are witnessing the reinvention of the language. For instance, gender-inclusive pronouns are being created to blend the known masculine and feminine forms into one (iel/yel/yelle/ille/ol), along with the creation of new grammatical declensions for nouns and adjectives.

Sensitivity readers

Some video games companies employ sensitivity readers to ensure their original and localized texts are free of gendered language as well as prejudices and misconceptions that are usually associated to non-binary people. If a game includes LGBTQ characters, it would be recommended to have a gamer from this group check the content and make sure that no prejudices make it to the final build. We need to think of this figure as an external consultant who will help us ensure the quality of the final product.

As you can see, we do not possess definitive answers on how to overcome the challenges that this matter poses for the localization teams. The goal of this article is to raise awareness and open an educated debate on the topic among MultiLingual readers, trying to find solutions in the long run that allow us to keep up with the developers who have considered gender-inclusive language important. Society changes, and in an industry with an ever-growing presence of women and non-binary people across all strata, it is only fair to reflect this diversity through language and give visibility to all of us involved in it.