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I want a little moment stand still by the fact that English speaking a enormous advantage give in this world.
by Rami Ismail on 05/09/14 12:15:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.


That header is what English looks like to a large part of the Western world, including people in Western and Eastern Europe, parts of South America, Middle and Southern Africa.

أي وانت اى لتل مومنت ستاند ستيل بي ذي فقط ذات انجلش سبيكنغ اى إنرمس ادفانتج جفي إن ذيس ورلد

That's what English looks like to a large part of the rest of the world, including North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia. It's not even Arabic - it's English rendered in Arabic glyphs. If an Arab would read this to you, to you it'd sound pretty close to that title of the article, but to an Arab that doesn't know English it'd mean absolutely nothing.

According to 2010 figures, the internet as a resource features a staggering 80% of pages using the Latin alphabet, and 50% of the entire internet is in English. The second-largest language using the Latin alphabet is German, at approximately 6% of the internet. The four largest non-Latin alphabets, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Russian, represent about 15% of the internet.

Just the fact that you're reading this post suggests you read English, so you have full access to 50% of the internet and indirect access to 80% of it. Direct access mean you can understand the text on the page, and indirect access means you do not have to use a translation service or alternative keyboard to be able to search for words on a website in that language. You have severely limited access to about 20% of the internet, because you simply can't search for a word that uses a different alphabet without using a transliteration service.

For a German, 6% of the internet is directly accessible, 50% of the internet requires learning English and 20% of the internet requires using or learning a new alphabet. For an Arab, less than 1% of the internet is directly accessible, 50% of the internet requires learning English and 80% of the internet requires using or learning a new alphabet.

Our industry basically supports two major languages: English and Japanese, but English is spoken pretty much everywhere around the world. In many ways, English is the lingua franca of our modern society. Whether it's because of the colonial past of the British Empire or America's central position in the world economy the past decades, speaking English is a major advantage in the world of gaming.

As a half-Arab, I want to take a moment to consider the effects that has on our industry. 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.

Most programming languages are English, programming tutorials are English, keyboards are in English, URLs have traditionally been in the Latin alphabet, and the default unicode set doesn't include most non-Latin alphabets. To drive the point home even further: design tools like Twine 2.0 -a tool famed for its amazing empowering properties- do not actually support non-Latin properly by default. Again, using Arabic as example, when I try and insert that phonetic line from earlier into Twine 2.0, I get the following:

You likely can't tell what's wrong, though, because you don't know this alphabet. Scroll back up a little bit to see what it should've looked like. If they look alike, your browser itself doesn't support showing Arabic correctly. If they look different, that's because somebody working on Twine 2.0 didn't check the extended font rendering or is using a font not capable of displaying the glyphs properly. These glyphs should've been connected in a very specific way, something even multi-million dollar AAA games that spend weeks on making realistic trees do manage to mess up.

Even with the amazing steps forward we're making in our struggle for diversity, it might be a good idea to realise that the language barrier is probably one of the largest invisible barriers that exists in our industry right now.

Having access to English and the Latin alphabet is a tremendous privilege in our industry, whether it's the fact that you were born with it or had the opportunity, time, education or money to learn it. That might be something to keep in the back of your head.

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Ryan Geiger
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I think it has to do with the fact that original computing was thought of in a very "English" structure. The first programming languages used verbs in the Latin alphabet like "Go" etc. Even binary while as a concept is based on "on/off" was represented as a Latin 1 or 0. While it might be "too late," it would be interesting to see if other alpha sets can develop computing technology from the ground up that is more efficient (because English is a horrifically inefficient language, and I say this as a native speaker).

Rami Ismail
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Someone on Twitter asked me to point out that 1 and 0 are not Latin signs nor concepts, which - as an Egyptian - I should probably have caught already. Besides that, you're absolutely right: programming was designed in an extremely English-centric fashion.

Matt Boudreaux
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So what are the action items here?

Rami Ismail
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1. Be aware this is an issue.

Matt Boudreaux
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Gotcha. Computers and programming technologies were developed in primarily English speaking countries for English speaking markets.

What exactly do you want to do about that? Because honestly this blog feels like a pointless guilt trip for people who happened to be born in an English speaking country or worked to learn the language - or as an attempt at absolution from said guilt trip.

You're a very talented guy, Rami, and you deserve every ounce of your success. There's far more work that goes into a game than the language of the syntax.

Rami Ismail
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This has nothing to do with guilt, it has to do with understanding certain dynamics at play in our industry. It's not just syntax, it's interface, tutorials, access to talks, chats, forums, events and discourse.

When we consider the situation in other countries, or the market there, or the industry there, we need to keep these things in mind.

Jonathan Ghazarian
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This is good food for thought. I'm working on a small game in my free time and one of the things I've tried to do simply as far as normal usability is to not have text in the tutorial(learn through play instead of being told) but a beneficial side effect of that is that a user does not have to speak my language to get through the tutorial.

Obviously, not all games can do that, but this is making me think about some of the ways I might make an immediate assumption about an audience that might not be 100% correct. Great writeup.

Sung Kwon
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I think someone on twitter asked you a question in similar vein-'ok so if this is an issue, what should be done about it?-kind of line.

My take on this is that awareness can hopefully lead to empathy (not just in purely charitable sense... I mean just getting better grasp of where the other less privileged are coming from), which can then hopefully lead to better cooperative ventures that best suit the situation for as many people as possible. I'm not sure if this is something along the line of what you had in mind Rami, but I think that is a noble goal. It is a bit vague, but I think it's better to leave this at a vague state that function more like a tip than specific direction for future actions to better suit unforeseeable situations ahead.

Zack Wood
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Very true and important to keep in mind. Speaking the international language at native level is a gigantic privilege.

Ahmad Jadallah
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Hello Rami,

I agree with what you are saying. The game I developed (Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta) is translated into 21 languages (including languages like Farsi, Hindi and Malay and of course Arabic) for this same reason, to be inclusive and to speak to your audience in their own language whenever possible, and we have seen the positive effect of this on sales.

But why didn't you attempt to localize Vlambeer games into Arabic? I would imagine with them being generally light on text that such a task won't be too difficult.

Rami Ismail
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Actually, I tried. We had to give up because our games are often in a 320x240 resolution, and there are no Arabic pixel fonts that support that resolution (12px seemed to be the smallest I could find). Now, we just keep the text so minimal that hopefully, even without knowledge of English, you can figure out everything.

Jean-Denis Haas
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The funny thing is, being ESL (I grew up in Switzerland) I have mixed feelings about using the word privilege in regards to languages. Privilege is such a strong word to me (like in: It's a privilege to work with you), it's a description for something very special. And yes, having access to education where you are able to learn new languages is something you really need to value and I feel that is a privilege (so by that extension speaking English is a privilege too then, since it's the international language), but for whatever reason (and given what I just wrote a contradiction) I still have a hard time categorizing the ability to speak English as a privilege. It's really convenient, a huge advantage, etc. But I guess that's my ESL brain at work.

Maybe it's also because I feel that English is not a difficult language to learn (at least compared to German or French), but either way it is something you can learn and therefore a reachable solution to a disadvantage. I feel more privileged being a white male because of the visible/invisible benefits (due to white male being the unfair default state) and because people of color can't change the fact that they are not the unfair default state of white/male. I'm born that way and I get automatic benefits from it. I feel that makes me priviledged. Knowing a different language though? I feel privileged is too strong of a word (it starts to dilute the meaning of privilege). But then again, there might be ESL at work here.

Rami Ismail
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Let me ensure you that the fact that you never really had to consider your alphabet definitely makes it an almost invisible advantage.

As some quick stats, English and German are quite close, and obviously share an alphabet. Having had access to multi-lingual education and resources obviously helps - and as soon as you have access to English pretty much all information becomes available to you.

The privilege isn't so much being able to speak English, it's having had access to the ability to learn it.

I super appreciate the relativation you inserted yourself.

Jean-Denis Haas
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Yeah that's true, didn't think about the alphabet and it's relationship to access. All great points, thanks!

Michael Joseph
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Is the point to spread western culture to non English speaking people through games? Because to be honest, I don't think they are missing out on too much.

Because even if you just learned Arabic for instance, you couldn't necessarily make games that were (dare I say) appropriate for Arabic speaking people. Localizing a language is one thing, localizing the entire content and story of a product is another.

I'd rather see regional games being made for their respective peoples and for outsiders to reach out and experiment with these "strange" games. Experiencing different cultures and ways of being is half the reason people watch foreign films.

Rami Ismail
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One of my hopes in raising awareness for something like this is to make people not instantly turning away from a game or forum post that's non-English.

Javier Degirolmo
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Take into account there are many games which don't need much localization (if any) besides translation, especially if you're aware beforehand of the no-nos because then the game is already designed "localized".

Vasily Yourchenko
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As I see it this is just another facet of socioeconomic inequality. Whether you want to learn English or any other skill from the varied set required to make a game, you need a certain economic status in order to afford your education. Even if you only use free resources you still need to support yourself during the years it takes you to master said field.

Knowing English is absolutely a privilege, but the true barrier is, as ever, class.

Markus Nigrin
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When we decided to move to the US for good, my wife and I obliterated a part of ourselves we didn't acknowledge as important. Or, if you want: we had the privilege of having. We thought we were quite prepared with our (school) education and with spending time in the country. But as you say, eloquence & fluency is a thing and touches so many areas of your life.
I sometimes say I went from somewhat eloquent & witty (my old German friends may disagree) to someone who tries, but can't. Suddenly feeling second league in the many nuanced social aspects of private and Indie life. I now realize how much my native language helped me with my first startup and how painful it is now when one half of my brain knows exactly what I should say and the other half isn't able to bring it out sufficiently.
Getting quite good with the language over time made things almost worse. From talking fluently to getting stuck in a heartbeat.
Now I quite well understand what a privileged starting point we had among most of those with English as a second language. But the frustration is universal and basically never ends. Any time I meet someone who is a non-native speaker I imagine how their real and probably brilliant thoughts might just be hiding under the frustration of not finding the right word/grammar.
I can only invite everyone to do the same.
As a side note, from all the countries I visited, Americans in general are by far the most patient, forgiving and considerate with those things. History of an extremely mobile population and a country where everybody or their ancestors was a recent immigrant. We benefit from that stance all the time and I think it's worth mentioning.
And thanks Rami for bringing the topic up.

Vasily Yourchenko
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You raise some excellent points. My previous post might have been a tad too reductionist, and for that I apologize. I am just frustrated by how rarely people (in general - I am not accusing anyone here) tend to consider the impact of wealth on the day to day lives of would be developers from poorer countries (i.e. most of the world).

Greg Scheel
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Trust me, the impact of wealth distribution is felt everywhere.

Ryan Sumo
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As a Filipino in the Philippines, I have to say that Rami is 100% correct about the ability to speak and understand English being an enormous advantage. In fact, there's an economic advantage, as shown in this Freakonomics post:

"But the real potential for increased wages exists for those outside the U.S. who are learning English as a second language. According to Saiz, researchers have shown that people in Turkey, Russia and Israel who speak English as a second language have been able to boost their wages by 10 to 20 percent."

In the context of the Philippines, that means higher paying jobs in call centers and a host f other social privileges granted by our cultural attachment to English (and by extension the US) as the paragon for all things good and educated (!)

As for myself, I've always told people that the only reason I've ever gotten this far as a freelance artist is because of my communication skills and not because I'm a stellar artist. I'm a decent artist, but my ability to pick up on the nuances of the English language means I'm better able to give a client what they want. I used to feel bad about this but I'm more pragmatic now. We all have different advantages given to us by circumstance, and there's no point dwelling on whether or not you have some sort of unfair advantage. Some people are better artists than I am, I am a better verbal communicator.

Incidentally, the fact that I know 3 languages (English, Filipino, and Bahasa Indonesia) also makes me a little more sensitive to when non native speakers are struggling to put together English sentences. For example I'e worked with some developers from the Ukraine and eve though their English was halting, I could piece together what they were saying through context.

I'm very much for having translations of games made available so that a wider audience can participate in our creations. I'm hoping that our political strategy game can be translated into as many languages as possible, but of course we will have to factor in costs for that.

Li Tianyu
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Can not agree more. I am from China and I speak Chinese. Chinese game market is chaos and bad. So many people just wanna copy others' ideas and make money. Few people could really think about how to make a great game. As a matter is fact, It 's hard to find any gaming knowledge written by Chinese. Sad.

Eduardo Jimenez
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I have to agree with Rami in that having access to learning English and having a common alphabet with the language is a great advantage and a 'privilege'. I find the word privilege a bit odd for the subject, Oxford dictionary uses the words 'right' and 'inmunity' to define it in almost all it's definitions. On the other hand, in the context Rami has put it, it definitely is a benefit that's unaccessible to most of the world, which is the first definition.

But what I miss from this article is some moral words at the end, at least for those of us that weren't brought up in English but had the opportunity to learn it. We should make the most of it, because it really is VERY important. In all aspects of life, and not least of them, videogames development.

Living in Spain gives you a clear idea of what I mean. Most people can't speak fluent English, actually most people can't speak basic English, and an important number can't speak a word. In Portugal, by contrast, most people can speak English, and if we go north (Scandinavia, etc.) this percentage increases drastically. It may have even played a part in them becoming the indie dev center of Europe, in an indirect way.

It's very sad and, up to a certain point, outrageous seing how many people are wasting their chance to connect with the world just for being lazy or too accomodated.

It may be a privilege, but it's one that so many people are throwing away. We really need to be aware of the privilege and don't waste the opportunity we are given, IMHO.

Christiaan Moleman
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I always get the sense that there is a division, at least in Europe, in terms of English level based on which countries dub foreign media in their own language, compared to those who primarily use subtitles and leave voice untouched. In France for example you have to go out of your way to find the VO (Version Originale) instead of VF in cinemas and TV is all in French (including the many British and American series and films they air). This seems to be changing slowly, but the result today is that mastery of English is much less widespread than in for example the Netherlands or Sweden where subtitles are standard.

Alexandre Daze-Hill
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Because our french culture is in a precarious position here in Quebec, there are some incentives to translate any international media we publish to french, like consistent (enough to make the translation and implementation worthwhile by itself) amount of tax refunds.

I'm not saying that it is the answer to everything, in fact I merely say it as an anecdote, but with such incentives, there would be a little more diversity in languages in published softwares.

Derick Ballard
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First post! Language diversity is great and all, but I can't quite get behind government laws forcing the issue. Even as a tax incentive, we've all seen what happens when video game companies begin to rely on those. If a country/province/state removes the incentives, they will just move elsewhere.

As an immigrant in Quebec working in the gaming industry, I am currently learning French for permanent residency. While I completely respect the language and the culture here, I often wonder what good it does forcing a language. I suppose I care more for my career than politics. The way I see it, I'll go where the game companies go. They sure don't care for politics and neither do I. But at the same time: their province, their rules. It's a very interesting discussion though!

Kaitlyn Kaid
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While that helps the customer (making your game in multiple languages), it does nothing for those actually making the games who can't speak English.

English is the default language for development, even in Quebec.

Alexandre Daze-Hill
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Every software and programming language is english, and more importantly, as I, many of us don't speak english as their first language.

I'm all for equality and diversity, but in niche cultures like this, I think it is better to have an universal language, to prevent fracturation and segregation. Also it would be a nightmare to actually create a multi-lingual programming language and even more the support and docs that goes with them!

Pedro Fonseca
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I can really see and understand the issue; however, I do not believe there is any way out of it outside of ridiculously powerful and complex translators.

Issue is, there has to be "the one" alphabet, and while I'm 100% unsure if Latin alphabet is even the most used one, it was the alphabet of those who created the computers we use today, moreso, they were English speakers, so it just makes sense and is perfectly understandable why things are as they are.

And there is no denying it, as approachable and popular as computers can and will become, they are not vital to our lives, they will always be tools at best and, as any tool, one needs to learn to use it.

If we were to fragment programing readable languages into multiple languages and alphabets, it would actually severely limit everyone and most probably would end up making everything less approachable, since most (more than now even) members of a non-English speaking country would only have access to information from that one country (or "designed" to be known by people of that country).

After all, if there is little to no reason to learn English, chances are people won't learn it, especially in developing countries where time, money and will to expand your horizons is usually lacking.

For a practical example, stackoverflow recently launched its version in my native language (Portuguese BR), do I use it?

No, I don't.

Not only it has much less content and knowledge than the original English version, but also most people here know about as much as I do, moreso when it comes to new things or technologies, so in the end, if I don't know how to fix an issue, often they don't know either and no one learns anything.

Now, I'm not saying that we should all just abandon our native languages and customs and join the marvelous global community of "Yankee Wannabeland", but if you want in to their party, the least you can do is learn their language and, besides, it's not like learning a new language will be harmful to you or your roots.

So, if anything, the real issue is how easy/hard it is to come in contact and learn a different language, both from the opportunity, monetary and incentive points of view.

Kyle Jansen
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You're bringing up a lot of points, so let's break them down:

1. Language privilege - games and game literature are primarily English
2. Alphabet privilege - games and game literature are primarily Latin
3. Technical linguistic issues - poor font support outside Latin-1, broken RTL support, etc.

As for my responses:
1. Yes, it's absolutely an advantage to be a native English speaker. But what's the solution? Should we write all our game literature in Esperanto (kvankam mi dubi ke comprenos iu ajn c^i tie)? *Some* language is going to have to be the common language of the industry - English is already established, is already a common second language, and is good at letting people construct new words (which game literature needs, since we have a developing vocabulary).

I happened to listen recently to a talk on linguistics (since it's a hobby of mine), by a native Portuguese speaker. She noted that English is very easy to learn well enough to be understood - the rules are so loose that you can break them and still get your point across. It's a language example of "easy to learn, hard to master". As long as we don't require people to master English in order to read or write game literature, I don't see it as too overwhelming an issue.

So if English is our best candidate for a lingua franca, what's the solution? All I can think of is doing more to translate game literature into other languages. But whose responsibility is it to do so? It's unreasonable to expect the author of a paper to translate it into every language that has a game dev community. I feel a better solution is to make it easier for foreign-language version devs to translate game literature into their own language, and to provide more centralized locations for housing those translations.

2. This is where I start to disagree with you somewhat. Compared to learning a language, learning an alphabet is easy. I frequently use Cyrillic or Hiragana* whenever I need to jot down secret notes (a great help when DM'ing a D&D game). It took me about a week to learn each. I'm tempted to try to teach myself Arabic script just to demonstrate how easy that is.

More importantly, over half the planet natively uses the Latin alphabet, and many use one derived from it (eg. Cyrillic). Yet more use it secondarily - a fair number of things in Asian languages are written in a Latin alphabet (eg. Romaji). So while it may have been a barrier for you personally, and is definitely a barrier to some people, it is hard to say that the majority of the planet is "advantaged" - it's more that a large minority are "disadvantaged".

However, that leads to into next point:

3: The common technical issues with foreign languages is absolutely shameful. Many fonts don't even support all of Latin-1, only the twenty-six letters (in two cases), ten digits, and whatever symbols are on a US standard keyboard. That's why Esperantists have workarounds for the circumflex needed by certain letters - we just use a ^ character as a fake combining diacritic, eg. "c^i". There are dozens of other diacritic marks that are unavailable in most fonts - and even when they are, combining diacritics are often broken.

And those are just for European languages! Right-to-left rendering (as needed for Arabic and others) is broken more often than it is functional. And UTF-16 (needed for any scripts outside the Basic Multilingual Plane) is rarely supported, though it is understandably a bit overkill to expect that (given how much is in the BMP to begin with).

So that's definitely one action to take - make sure your game/website doesn't break if you try to enter text in a less common alphabet. I will be doing so in my own games.

* Technically Hiragana is a syllabary, not an alphabet, as it represents combined sounds rather than single sounds. Likewise, Arabic is technically an abjad, not an alphabet, as vowels are combining marks, not individual letters. However, all of those are fairly similar and easy to learn. I will gladly exclude logographic systems like Chinese from my claim of "being easy to learn", as they are not at all easy to learn.

Michael Klink
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Being able to speak and understand English is certainly beneficial. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to learn it - almost everything I read and watch on the Internet is English.

However, I'd like to add something to the discussion. The internet forces English down your throat and in my opinion, that is a good thing. English is a great language for wide-spread communication: It's easy to pick up, it uses a very simple alphabet, its words tend to be rather short, and lots of people already know it. If we aim towards a point in time where everybody in this world can talk to anyone without language barriers, English is the way to go. And that's great because English is very suitable for that task.
Also, consider the fact that English can be used between two non-native speakers to communicate. For example, the German indie scene is basically non-existent at this point. But the Nordic countries make really cool indie games. With English as a common language, I can enjoy their games. I can't stress how awesome this is.
The internet and its heavy focus on English is doing more for the European integration than any law or politician is.

Paul Furio
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Without fail, one of the very first things I do on any project is ensure that it has good localization support. If it doesn't, I write localization support in myself.

English will likely remain the main language of communication and software, for the foreseeable future (at least until the great Esperanto uprising of 2039, Leviĝu kamaradoj!), but this doesn't mean that there aren't users (and developers) who would gain from our extra effort to communicate in their language.

If there's any key takeaway here, it is indeed "be aware", but also "be proactive." Plan for localization, communication, and outreach for whatever market embraces your game, or has a plethora of supportive mod developers. You never know from where your support will come, nor what opportunities may arise.

Two cases in point: 1) A major social game developed in the USA wound up being very popular in Korea, but all the text was baked into the graphics, so localizing the game was a 6 week grind instead of a 1 week translation effort. 2) If I spoke Swedish, I might be working for instead of making games, their stuff is just that cool.

Markus Schaefer
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I think there is a lot of potential in fan translations as a part of modding culture. Not only can these translations open up the games to additional language communities, it also increases awareness for language diversity within the modding community overall.

I'm also a fan of comprehensive subtitle systems. Ideally, you should be able to keep the original voiceover language combined with several layers of optional subtitles for things like dialogue, ingame posters, texts etc. This would have the additional benefit of making the games more accessible to people with impaired hearing.