Video games are a place of exploration, immersion, and of possibility. They interweave stories, ideas, perspectives, and dynamics of multiple worlds and individuals and carry us from fun MMORPGs to full-blown rage quits.

This drive connects us. In celebration of pride, we are exploring the growing topic of non-binary characters and point of view (POV) in video games, more specifically the interaction between non-binary and game localization.

What is non-binary?

Non-binary is an umbrella term for individuals with gender identities that are not solely male or female—‌identities that are outside the mainstream gender binary (male and female). The term branches out from transgender, often depicted as the swapping of one’s binary gender (ie: male presenting) assumed from their biological sex (ie: male) to its binary opposite (ie: female). Different subcategories such as gender-fluid or agender sprout from it, all having in common not being a black-or-white of the male/female binate.

In games

If NFTs are ground-breaking still, then video games with non-binary characters and POV are pretty old news.  It’s no novelty, although it’s not as mainstream either.

For example, in Elder Scrolls lore, Daedric royals are able to be any gender of choice at any time. Call of Duty: Black Ops– Cold War also showcases Ronald Reagan (yes, that one) respecting your pronouns. Everything is possible in video games.

In language

From the top; linguistic diversity, above all in structure, grammar, and cultural spectrums varies... indefinitely. (Which is great because otherwise, I’d be jobless.) To summarize, they can follow three different approaches:

        1.     Gender-neutral languages, alike English, cover gendered nouns as well as ‘it’ words. For example: The ladder, the people, them.

        2.     Genderless languages, such as Turkish, Swedish, and Chinese have gendered words yet no pronoun structure solely demanding gender nor indicators of gender in objects/people. For example: Merdiven, insanlar, onlar.

        3.     Grammatically gendered languages, such as Portuguese, Arabic, and French, have all nouns gendered. Romantic languages in general are fully structured on the sex-assumed binate. and prove to require an extra effort in describing non-binary contexts. For example: A escada (fem),as pessoas (fem), eles (masc).

So, with great curiosity, we put it to the test. Giving linguists around the world a prompt, our Project Manager Carolina Utrilla Yebra and Project Manager Assistant Sofía Brenner Fernández requested the following localization:

This is Lexi Darkrage, the leader of the Cult of Fire. A young, short, blue-haired non-binary human witch whose biggest desire is to conquer the universe. Dangerous, evil, and determined define them. Their appearance is androgynous but gorgeous. Forestea was the last conquered planet. Lexi wreaked havoc wherever they went. But what they didn't know was that the almighty Enigmastorm was not dead. Enigmastorm is a powerful non-binary hybrid creature loved by everyone on Earthum, their planet. After the destruction of their homeland, they vowed revenge on Lexy.  Everyone described Enigmastorm as close, wise, and fair.

At the tip of the tongue

(The full translations can be accessed here.)

Here is how the experience was reported by the linguists, as well as their strategies to succeed:

“Lucky for me as Turkish doesn't have gendered pronouns.” Relished a Turkish linguist, who had no issues with the localization. The Chinese linguist did not speak of major struggles, whilst Polish was apparently not as easy to translate. For other cases, it was less a matter of linguistic ability and more of cultural understanding.

Reportedly, the trickiest were Romantic languages (Spanish, French, Italian, and Brazilian Portuguese) that are structured on the gender binate; along with German. Reported tactics to solve the riddle were:

Evasion of pronouns (he/she/them)

Gender-neutral workarounds were the preferred option compared to the input of pronouns and of modern alternative vowels/characters (neologisms). When neologisms were utilized, the suffix "-e" was preferred to "-x" or"-@" in Spanish; “... because it is more easily implemented for accessibility, since it is easy to read, for instance, by devices for the blind.” To that, the Linguist nonetheless calculated it best to “avoid the overuse of adjectives ending in "-e" which could result in artificial language and a negative reception on behalf of the target audience.”

The suffix also played a part in the Italian approach, but towards a more de-stating role:

“I chose to use a non-gendered adjective in the Italian translation (ending in -e), as well as avoiding pronouns. The few gendered words are referred to as appositions which in no way determine the characters’ gender.”

(Re)phrasing of adjectives to nouns

Usage of nouns more than adjectives was generally more favored in Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, but reportedly for different reasons. Meanwhile, it provided a more natural tone for the former...

“Where possible, I have used nouns instead of adjectives to be more inclusive ("cercanía" instead of "cercano/a", for instance). I have also used noun phrases such as "De carácter" or"poderosa criatura" so the subsequent adjectives agree in gender with the former noun phrase, avoiding the overuse of adjectives ending in "-e" which could result in artificial language and a negative reception on behalf of the target audience.”

….it served as a higher neutrality purpose for the latter.

"To furthermore avoid the use and reference of pronouns, I translated "dangerous, evil, and determined" as "hostil, infame e firme", instead of "perigoso(a), má/mal, determinado(a)".

When it came to French, moderation seemed more appropriate:

“I've tried to favor neutral adjectives as much as possible, but I feel like going any further would make the text sound too artificial”

Usage of the name as the reference as much as possible, in contrast to third-person singular referencing

In the English language, they/them has become the most common (yet unofficial) form of pronoun preference by the non-binary community among other neo-pronouns. However, there isn’t always a fair equivalent. Spanish, German, and French linguists mentioned it making the most difference.

“There is no direct translation for the non-binary pronouns "they/them", so I tried to use the name as often as possible.”

Giving in to the superseding of the masculine form.

For some languages, the norm is to lean onto masculine descriptions when given a plural context. This proved to be the case for some German, Russian and Brazilian Portuguese writers.

“Using the name as often as one could was not always possible, so I used the generic masculine form (…) Usually, masculine pronouns (der/er/ihm) are considered more general due to the nature of the German language.”

The role of communication

Many reported the role of intentions of the client, discussions in the linguistic team as well as an agreed, set glossary vital in a real-life occasion.

“It would be wise to discuss the issue of non-binary adjectives as a team. Another option would be to freely alternate feminine and masculine adjectives because it is something that some French-speaking non-binary people do.”

“Communication with the client would be extremely helpful in a case like this in order to ensure satisfaction.”

And emphasize the role of communication in guide-lining the project:

“In a real-life project, I wouldn't change names unless specifically asked to do so by the client/PM.”

Thankfully, there is a feature that directly enables contact between linguist and client mediated by the project manager as well as another feature where multiple linguists can all talk anonymously and openly with each under a manager’s full supervision, all in the Alocai platform.  Both happen to be accessible for free for a limited time. Just saying.

In upcoming years

So, what does all that mean in a wider view of things? Linguists noted how the tactics provide an optimistic adjustment, in turn making the text considerably longer.

“Italian is a very gendered language (…) So To create a gender-neutral text, I had to be more creative. So the translated cell is a little longer.”  

Followingly, such often demanded another step.

"In my opinion,the best way is to use their names as much as possible, combining shorter sentences to avoid sounding too repetitive.“ Spoke a German linguist, to which the French linguists followed a similar pattern:

“I changed a bit the order of the sentences in the text to make it more fluid and natural to a French-speaking reader.”

This could entail not only budgeting adjustments, and possibly a rise in linguists’ rates, but also may indicate playing a particular role in Quality Assurance.

“In an actual project, I would first check if there are any client-specific guidelines on how to deal with gender-neutrality.”

Would this mean a possible agreed guideline should be set specifically for this purpose? The lack of official guidelines to ground the translation can allow for anxiety, missteps, and risk to grow. Dissatisfaction from the client, linguists, and players alike make for an unnecessarily stressful time for all involved; therefore, a thought-out standard initiative may be a good, feasible idea.

Non-binary concepts have been rising for the past decade, and seem to continue trailing slowly but surely towards a bigger presence in society and video games. All of this also goes to show the power and chance that language and game localization can make:

“If the client agrees and their intention is to give visibility to this community, I personally would choose to introduce the preferred pronoun punctually throughout the text in order to make the (Spanish) linguistic community more familiar with it.”

How about in Machine Translation?

“An intuitive approach is to implement a machine learning approach to pronoun resolution using part-of-speech tagging & transformer model”, speaks our Data Scientist, Amit Manbansh. “It learns through the reiteration of neural pathways and does not askew, utilizing English as a language of example, the grammar functioning for the usual usage of ‘they/them’. It tags the words that must be linked and associates to a Dictionary system that converts into the appropriate form.”

Keep posted because we are soon publishing an article solely on the subject, which will be found on our social media and blog.

Conclusion

There’s currently plenty of brainstorming with different approaches being explored to amalgam proper linguistic localization and non-binary perspectives into one. In 2012 Sweden introduced the pronoun “hen” (utilized when the gender is unknown or irrelevant to the situation) in addition to the female/male pronouns han/hon; with it being officially incorporated into the Swedish dictionary in 2015.

Such is a remarkable example among all the discussions, ideas, and phenomena that entail solving this conundrum. Nonetheless, we are curious and excited about the development of non-binary persons in language and will stay updated on it (with you!) to provide the best game localization experience for developers, publishers, linguists, and players.

What do you think? Did they fare well in the task? Should there be an agreed guideline, or what is your take on approaching non-binary perspectives in game localization?