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Speaking in Accents and the American Ethnocentrism in Video Games
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Speaking in Accents and the American Ethnocentrism in Video Games
by Mattie Brice on 11/16/11 10:21:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

(Originally posted at the Moving Pixels column at Pop Matters)

Voice acting has become a staple in gaming that helps flesh out characters and setting. Abandoning the text-box provided a more intimate way for the game to connect to the player by expressing emotion and ideas in a way that they are more familiar with. The quality of voice acting in games is, of course, an area of contention, but when done properly, it adds brushstrokes to the aesthetics of the game. This is especially true for settings that benefit from characters having accents to imply nationality. The cultural politics that voice acting implies, however, often escape analysis. The default English accent is General American and deviations from this tap into a subtext that assumes an American player. How accents communicate information to the player exposes the subliminal effects of American ethnocentrism.

  
Looking at the voices chosen for the later Final Fantasy games reveal how conscious the video game industry is in having voiceover resonate with American players. There is critique about American culture in the very idea in how a foreign country would choose to best translate their characters. Exotification of both real-world cultures and in-game characters surfaces through the series’ presentation of accents. Final Fantasy XII and XIII use accents to imply regional differences rather than what normally would, the face. In Final Fantasy XII, most of the party has a General American accent, with florid vocabulary to make the setting reminiscent of “olde” times in Europe. This associates the American accent with the player, assumed as the default. Fran is the exception, but she is so in many respects: she’s the only non-human character in the party, the only non-white character, and also the most sexualized. Her odd Bjork-esque accent adds to her exotic characterization, though one could make a strong argument that Fran has the least personality of all of the party members in the game. With the Empire sporting England’s Received Pronunciation accent and while Rozzaria’s Al-Cid speaks with a Spanish one to match his exaggerated mannerisms, the player’s experience adds context to the notion that the politics of foreign countries decide the fate of their own if that player is American. This also takes place in Final Fantasy XIII, in which Fang and Vanille have Australian accents to designate their nationality, while Americans voice the rest of the cast. Along with their tribally inspired clothing and the uncultivated depiction of their home world, the Australian accent gives the American (and possibly other) players the subtext of the characters being wild and exotic. In a game that trumpets the theme of protecting the homeland from foreigners, the emphasized difference between the American- and Australian-voiced characters adds to the drama of the situation. This is absent for those who share the same stereotypical views that the US has about other cultures.

 

The Dragon Age series reappropriates accent dynamics for the assumed American player. Taking place in a fantasy setting, the dominant accent is the English Received Pronunciation. With this as the default, the other accents gain meaning through their interaction with the English: the Dalish speaking with Welsh accents, Orlesians are French, and Antivans Spanish. The treatment of these groups coincides with the stereotyping of their accents rather than their own in-game culture. This is especially true of Orlesians, as their voice acting is sometimes incomprehensible and usually humorous in its deprecating manner. What is surprising is the usage of American accents. City elves, dwarves, and the Qunari do not represent the default. Instead, American accents are a neutral sound because there doesn’t need to be any differentiation within these groups. This makes the American accent invisible so the player can focus on something other than their regional heritage. It uncovers what the developers wanted the audience to focus on with these groups: the classism of the dwarves, the absolute philosophical theocracy in Qunari culture, and how the city elves deal with racism (however there is little commentary on how humans are casually discriminatory towards them). In the cases of the humans and the Dalish, their regional differences are a core part of their story, so they receive European accents to illustrate their relationship to one another. Logically, American accents should sound out of place, as the continent remained undiscovered in the medieval Europe setting the series calls upon as its influence, but they actually do not as American accents are now what players in general have grown accustomed to as the default for video games.

 

The accents found in games don’t merely represent other people outside of the US, though but also groups within the country. Starcraft and games that use the “space marine aesthetic” often use American Southern accents to depict their characters, relying on many stereotypes of the South as unrefined and conservative. It’s no accident the game provides supplementary US Civil War Confederacy imagery to frame the context of their characters. Southern accents allow the player to understand the military of the future by having them relate to the usual trash-talking and attitudes assumed to be emblematic of those in the US’s current one. Instead of exploring the complexities of a Southern identity, the Starcraft series shows Southerners as unwanted and expendable. Players overlook this because the marines are like the outspoken bumpkins that American society at large has come to laugh at without reprimand. The player will rarely find wise, respected characters with Southern accents in their games; the General American accent or one of the many Northeastern ones allow for that role.

 

Realizing that development teams assume an American player as their audience can help diversify the setting and cast in video games. Accents can be more than flavor for a game’s aesthetics but also communicate cultural subtext that adds to the overall meaning of the game. Currently, games rely on an American perspective for characterization in a medium that is experienced internationally, and it’s time to question why this is. And as a community, move games into more of a shared global space.


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Comments


Mohamed S
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Interesting article.

Peter Kojesta
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I read this, and tried to maintain an open mind. Not being American myself, though having no accent, and being surrounded by people with accents in my life, I can understand why this may be an interesting subject to some.



Regardless, I think the article , as well written as it is, is reaching for a conclusion or a "problem" that doesn't really merit the status of a "problem". For example, if I made a game for the Japanese market with a Russian character, would I still be worried that the character speaks Japanese with the correct Russian twang to it? Probably not. And if I was to labor over the accent, I would be doing it expressly to show that the character is Russian, therefore purposely using stereotypical constructs to re-enforce a point (as a tool to further the understanding of a character). This sort of mental short-hand isn't a "bad thing" unless the designer applies it in a hap-hazard, rude, indiscriminate manner.



Furthermore, there are some basic fundamentals to take into account. "Realizing that development teams assume an American player" is a perfectly valid stance for any developer, as the United States is the largest market for games. That may sound a bit "suit-like" of me, but I'd be remiss if that obvious fact wasn't stated. It's also imperative to understand that it's up to a developer to export their own culture. This is one of the reasons that Hollywood is successful, and that American Music is played around the globe. Bollywood also achieves this sort of success because they further their own cause in global culture mind-share.



In essence, I think that language, and it's application through voice, accent, and character, are just another tool that the developer can use to explain character, be it outright stereotypical, or subtle in nature. As such, I don't think it needs a deep review of our internal philosophical outlook.

Michael Joseph
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I think you missed out on the subtext of the article.

Peter Kojesta
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I think you looked way too far into it. I think that there's just far too much "over criticalism" happening these days.

Michael Joseph
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[quote] "I think you looked way too far into it. I think that there's just far too much "over criticalism" happening these days. "

[/quote]



I don't think there's anything "over critical" about calling out the tendancies of media companies to promote stereotypes and isms in their products... be it sexism, racism, or religious and cultural bigotry.



[quote] "as well written as it is, is reaching for a conclusion or a "problem" that doesn't really merit the status of a "problem".

[/quote]



They are doing a disservice to people all over the world including their local audiences.

Peter Kojesta
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Your comment is trying to invoke a multitude of things I didn't really comment on i.e Race, religion, so on. If you'll note in my original response:



----

This sort of mental short-hand isn't a "bad thing" unless the designer applies it in a hap-hazard, rude, indiscriminate manner.

----



I think you're applying one mental metric to the article, and another to my response because you really want to agree with the article; and that's fine, you're entitled to your opinion; I just happen to disagree.



As with all things, a "happy medium" is probably a good way to proceed.

Michael Joseph
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The article specifically talked about racism and steroetypes. I pointed out that i think you missed all that and you concluded i was looking way too far into it.



I'm merely trying to illustrate where i think you missed a lot of the point of the article.



Perhaps I misunderstood your original reply. Is it your conention that there is no evidence of promoting isms and bigotry? That she is making a "problem" out of something that isn't there?

Peter Kojesta
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"Perhaps I misunderstood your original reply. Is it your conention that there is no evidence of promoting isms and bigotry? That she is making a "problem" out of something that isn't there?"



No , that wasn't the thrust of my response, I was speaking to the discussion on language/accents, and indicating that it's a potentially useful tool.



In either case, I appreciate it, I was aware of the items you outlined before, I think we just disagree on various merits included therein. Thank you though, have a great day.

Mohamed S
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I agree with what you're saying, Peter.

Ian Williams
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I couldn't agree more! Also with the post about over criticalism. I think for instance, Starcraft, is perfectly fine in it's use of shall we say, "stereotypes." As long as we realize that's what they are, and they are, it's not as though they could give individual responses to each southern marine in game, not to miss the point or anything, but it seems to me that the vogue these days is to call games out on sexism and pretension, rather than seeing them as attempts at art or fun.

Joe McGinn
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I agree with Peter as well. Article is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Michael Joseph
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A thought provoking article.



And why is the secretary in a Hollywood film a rude and obnoxious, overweight black female, who's talking on the phone while doing her fingernails and can't be bothered to help the person standing before her?



It's not just games that work to reinforce isms and stereotypes. You obviously know that... i'm just saying. Why is it done? That is a very interesting question indeed. It's not even the norm in reality to meet such a secretary (to keep with that example) so why should it be so normal in the fantasy realm of film and tv... and games?

Peter Kojesta
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comment above.

Christopher Braithwaite
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While I appreciate concerns of ethoncentrism it would only make sense that a non-English game like Final Fantasy XIII would target the largest native English speaking market when localized into English; especially if only one English version were being prepared.



In the case of Dragon Age, what would one expect from a Canadian developer other than an American (as in continent) perspective? Besides, just which version of English is preferable to American English such that issues of exoticism and othering would disappear? If anything, using British English for example would introduce even more thorny issues. When considering the English language, there really isn't an accent that could be considered neutral to all native English speakers. The only remedy I can see to this issue is for more non-North American English speaking developers to make mass market games.



Ultimately this is moot though. A developer who is American can only provide an American perspective in their games. Even if they are aware of international issues and do their best to address them, they cannot escape the fact that even their concept of what international is has been defined by their American experience. Thus why try to hide it? Developers should thus focus on being as authentic and truthful as possible in their games so that the uniqueness of their cultural perspective may be apparent without making inconsiderate assumptions about others.

Jamie Mann
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I can't help but think that this article is reading too much into things.



"How accents communicate information to the player exposes the subliminal effects of American ethnocentrism."



How about simple game production economics?



1) the USA is the largest single market for video games

2) the spread of American culture (TV, films, music), mean that a "generic" american accent is the most easily understood accent for non-English speakers

3) America's strong media economy (again: TV, films, music) mean that there's a high availability of "american accent" actors

4) Actors adopting "fake" accents can result in the voicework being viewed as denigrating



Between these items, using non-American accents increases the risk of your game costing more, may result in lower-quality voicework and can make the game less appealing to consumers.



Thems are just the breaks. And it doesn't just apply to video games: there was an article a few years ago which highlighted the fact that non-English speakers are increasingly asking to be taught American English rather than British English.



For what it's worth, I'm British (and northern, t'boot), and it can be frustrating to hear American actors pretending to be British. Mind you, it's almost as bad when you hear British actors pretending to be from a different part of the UK (e.g. adopting a Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Liverpudlian, Brummie, Yorkshire or Mancunian accent. Or Cornish, Cockney, West Country... for a small country, we have a lot of regional variations!).

Luis Guimaraes
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Totally right. Accents? Ethnocentric? Writing goes a million miles (kilometers?) further into the matter.

Mohamed S
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You make excellent points, Jaimie, and I absolutely agree with them.



"using non-American accents increases the risk of your game costing more, may result in lower-quality voicework and can make the game less appealing to consumers."



I couldn't have said it better. I think the most important point you made is the second one: the spread of American culture (driven mainly by the American film and music industries) makes the "generic" American accent the most easily understood accent. Over-use of non-American accents could make the game less appealing to consumers who are unfamiliar with such accents. Also, I imagine it's not easy to find voice actors who do not speak with American and British accents.



Nevertheless, I think it's also a great idea for developers to use "exotic" accents in their games. "Exotic" accents make characters more memorable (anybody remember Wakka from Final Fantasy X?). Regional accents also help players distinguish between different cultures or factions in a game.

Will Ooi
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I agree with what you're saying, but am just wondering what you mean by "lower-quality voicework"? Costing more, sure, but lower-quality?

Luis Guimaraes
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@Will



I think he means that to avoid cost you would hire somebody to fake the accent, and end up not getting a good result with it.

Jamie Mann
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@Will,



I think it's probably best to try and illustrate this with an example.



Say you want a character with a French accent. Obviously, most French actors do not speak English (or at least: not well enough to reliably play a role entirely in English). This means that it will be harder/take longer to find an actor to play the part - and simple economics suggest that with the supply being limited, getting a high-quality French actor will cost more than getting a high-quality American actor.



Given that voicework budgets are highly limited, this will probably mean that a lower-quality French actor (relative to the quality of an American actor at the same wage-rate) will be hired.



(for "quality", feel free to substitute "experienced" or similar!)



The alternative is to get an English-speaking actor to fake a French accent. However, it's obviously harder to act convincingly while faking an accent, especially during emotional scenes. Again, it's likely that you'll have to either accept a lower quality of acting or pay more for an actor who is able to pull this off.



Japanese anime provides two examples of this:

1) When redubbed in English, the budget allocated is generally low and the voice acting on the English soundtrack is generally significantly lower-quality than the Japanese soundtrack

2) Conversely, when a Japanese actor is asked to speak in English, the results range from stilted to flat-out ludicrous - see shows such as Hellsing, Evangelion or Azumanga Daioh...

Mohamed S
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By the way, am I the only person who found this article to be difficult to understand? I mean, I think my intelligence is at least average, and I am fortunate to have received an undergraduate degree from a good university. Yet, I still found this article to be a difficult read.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Using accents instead of actual languages is a terrible wasted immersion opportunity. If I see French characters, I want to hear French; if Japanese characters, Japanese. Accents are not a replacement for the real thing. If my game character understands those languages, I should get subtitles; if not, then not. This is not just about making the environment more convincing, but also getting into the character you are playing - "Aha, I understand these Germans but I have no idea what those other guys over there are saying."



Sound actor savings argument doesn't fly when the game budgets are in high tens of millions. It's even less convincing when the developer studio is not American, and its best and cheapest access is to non-English talent.

Dan Jones
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I'm with you on the point that I'd like to see more games where the characters actually speak the language they're supposed to speak, but I see one significant hurdle: Games as a business (rather than strictly as an art form) generally need to do whatever they can to appeal to the greatest number of potential customers.



Comparing it to movies, as an example, you and I might very well prefer to watch our "foreign" (read: non-American) films with subtitles to get the "true" experience. But I'd be willing to bet that the average US citizen (if you can even get him/her to watch a foreign film) is going to choose to watch it dubbed with English voiceover.



Perhaps developers are guilty of underestimating the openness of the audiences minds... but, on the other hand, you can make more money selling a $3 cheeseburger to 2 million people than by selling a $60 steak to a few hundred people with refined palettes.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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In the case of an AAA game set in Europe with English, German and French characters, first devs do 100% English audio with silly accents. Then the game gets a 100% dub into German and French as it hits those markets. If all that voice acting has to be done anyway, there's no reason other than stupidity not to make the primary audio as powerful and immersive as possible with an appropriate mix of language. The English, German and French xenophobes can have the option of replacing their non-preferred languages with dubs with silly accents, and all voice assets are still recorded exactly the same three times.



It's not about what's "true" or "authentic", but simply what is the highest quality.

Jamie Mann
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@Bisse: looking at IMDB, GTA4 lists around 300 separate speaking parts. That's something of an extreme example, but here's some other AAA examples:

Mass Effect: 72 actors

Mass Effect 2: 96 actors

Batman: Arkham Asylum: 21 actors

Batman: Arkham City: 37 actors

COD4: Modern Warfare: 37 actors

COD: Modern Warfare 2: 45 actors

COD: Modern Warfare 3: 51 actors



In essence, modern video games use as many actors as most films do. Or more; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy used 56, while Happy Feet 2 (an animated movie, so voicework only) used less than 30 and Immortals lists 60.



Then too, video games are increasingly using big-name - and expensive - actors (Iggy Pop, Lance Henricksen, Mark Hamill).



Beyond that, it's also worth bearing in mind that there's far more content in a video game than in a film, thanks to the fact that there will usually be multiple conversation trees. Then too, a game will generally have around 10-20 hours of content, as opposed to the 2 hours of a film.



All told, voice-acting (and other elements such as motion-capture, facial-likeness licencing, etc) is a significant and continually increasing part of an AAA-game's budget.



Regarding the use of "native" actors; as noted earlier, the number of actors who can convincingly play a part while speaking in a second language (i.e. English) is fairly low. And subtitles are not a commercially-viable option; the USA in particular is distinctly averse to subtitled media - for examples, look to the movie industry, where recent films such as "Let the Right One in" and "The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo" had to be remade with British/American actors, as subtitling/dubbing did not work well in the USA.



Finally, having multiple soundtracks would theoretically solve the problem, but how many AAA games actually implement this? Given the significant amounts of content and the costs involved, I would have expected the numbers to be distinctly low...

Will Ooi
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Nice article. I really do believe that games are a great medium to familiarise players with cultures they'd not encountered before. Western RPGs in particular have always had themes of racism and definitely class-based societies, and I'm willing to make a large generalisation and propose that the majority of these players are more tolerant of other races and cultures than players of other genres (and obviously there are thousands of other factors). Also, I'm sure it does help if the depictions of these characters don't merely manifest as the 'evil outgroup member we have to kill'.



The best depiction of authentic use of a non-English language in any game I've come across was Hengsha in Deus Ex: HR, with the NPC characters all being voiced by actual Mandarin-speaking voice actors. Such a nice change from the feigned, awful sounding, stereotypical accents, but to be fair DX:HR had that as well with the Letitia controversy. Hmm...



Of note recently, well to me in any case, was how Claudia Black's character in Gears of War 3 (complete waste of a good voice actor, there) spoke openly with her natural Australian accent. Fair enough, and I can perhaps even see what Epic were trying to go for: a butch-but-still-necessarily-'hot', exotic 'strong female character' to appease the target demographic, but for the game to then throw in an archaic 'arse end of the world' reference about her in-game country of origin...well.

Adam Bishop
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An interesting case that might add to this analysis is Heavy Rain, which had sort of the opposite going on - some players complained that the characters didn't have sufficiently "American" accents and were voiced in some cases by actors who were from continental Europe and spoke English as a second language.

Matt Robb
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Interesting concept, but I agree with some commenters that it seems to be reaching.



In StarCraft for example, one could argue that the Terran accents for many of the characters were meant to be "Old West" rather than "American South", to reflect the relative "lawlessness" of many places. Same way such things were used in Firefly. Even Raynor starts out as "the Marshall of these parts". You see it again in the starting area of StarCraft 2 where Raynor is hanging out in an "Old West" style saloon. Then you have units like the Battlecruiser who use a Soviet-style appearance and accent, etc. Many of the characters in Brood War had American Neutral to represent coming from current Earth culture.



Using accents, just like using race, serves to add flavor, and when used in a fantasy setting will be appropriated in ways that may or may not seem stereotypical, and hitting up stereotypes to increase "believability" is not always a bad thing.

Cody Scott
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Well alot of the west was also filled with Confederate vets who went there to get away.

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Joe McGinn
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Seems like an extremely complex explanation for a simple thing: games made in North America are going to use American/Canadian professional voice actors. This is a logistical reality, nothing more nothing less.

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Wally A
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No suprising that Direction is ethnocentric.



Lionhead's games tend to focus on English accents. A lot of Rare games as well.



Americans will build things from their own perspective. No problem there.



Japan, asia, etc will localize for the largest English-speaking target demographic- usually the USA.



Not denying the ethnocentrism, but an artist will create from his point of view.

Cody Scott
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"the Starcraft series shows Southerners as unwanted and expendable" I have a real problem with that statement. As a southerner I never got that impression from the SC series.


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