Massively Overthinking: The language barriers of MMORPGs


This week’s Massively Overthinking topic comes from Kickstarter donor XanadoX, who wants us to talk about “playing MMOs in another language: Korean, Japanese, or even English if English is not your mother tongue.”

Have you done it? Do you do it? Is there anything to be learned from it? Are there any games where it’s totally worth it? Let’s talk about the upsides and downsides of playing foreign games and language barriers in MMOs in general.

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): I’ve never played an MMO in a foreign language, but I did once bump into some Russians in EVE Online and start communicating with them via Google Translate. They invited me into their mining gang, and we talked for hours about all kinds of stuff; I just hope I didn’t accidentally join the Russian Mafia. I think EVE’s the best example of a game in which the language divide became something really interesting and positive. Because everyone’s together in one servers, alliances developed a propensity to support other alliances in the same timezones and those of the same nationality or with the same language. We had a major French contingent last time I was in nullsec politics, and the Russian power bloc has historically stuck together and been very difficult to beat.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Apart from English, the languages I’ve learned aren’t particularly useful in the MMO genre (though as soon as someone finally makes a game where Latin is necessary, I’m totally going to win!). I don’t think I’ve ever played an import that hadn’t at least taken a stab at localization; being able to understand people around me is just too critical to my enjoyment. Even badly translated games are easier to muddle through than games where you are completely in the dark and reliant on tropes like health bars and number keys to get you by. Go to any Korean MMO website with Google Translate turned off and it’s the same effect. “Well, one of these buttons probably has screenshots… I’ll just click around…” I may have just had this exact experience hunting for Black Desert screenshots for this post. Ahem.

But I have had guildies who play MMOs in what are to them foreign languages. When I first started playing MMOs, there was a Malaysian gamer in my guild who barely spoke. For a while I thought he was shy, but I soon realized he was just quiet because his English wasn’t as rapid-fire as ours. The language barrier was a big deal, but he was persistent and wanted to play with us. A year later, he was easily keeping up with the chatterboxes. In fact, I’ve had several guildies over the years who’ve said they learned or heavily improved their English through games, and thanks to them, I have some tasty new Hungarian, Danish, French, and Norwegian cursewords at my disposal. I consider myself lucky on the one hand that most of the games I want to play are already in my native tongue, but on the other, wouldn’t it be nice to learn a useful new language through a video game?

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): You can learn a lot about how little you understand of another language by trying to play a game meant for native speakers.

The thing is, I don’t mean to mock doing so; players familiar with a foreign language can often derive a lot from playing games that haven’t yet or may never be released over here. The inverse is true, too; there are players over in Japan who might like to play MMOs other than the Final Fantasy installments, but they’ll need some English proficiency first to do so. It’s a good tool for immersing yourself in another language without traveling, at that. But it tacks on a big hurdle to communication and understanding, which is a more problematic side of the coin.

Really, I’d like to see more games take the approaches that Square-Enix has with trying to ensure that players of multiple languages can play together; it’s a bit sad that I can’t think of any games other than Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV that even make the effort to include some form of translation for text to make it comprehensible. I understand that localization adds a lot of time on to development, but at the same time it makes games more impenetrable than region locks can ever be.

Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): I played ArcheAge in Korean and Russian. In hindsight it was worth it because I got to enjoy the game before crafting was gutted and before it became the poster child for why cash shops and free-to-play suck. It was challenging to figure out optimal skill builds without being able to read the tooltips, but other than that I would recommend that dedicated players try games in other languages for the novelty if nothing else. You never know what systems a “westernization” initiative is going to ruin, so I say enjoy the original while you can. Plus if a game is highly anticipated as AA was, there will be a lot of videos and forum guides from bilingual players to help you over the rough spots.

I did have a couple of guildmates with me in Russia who were put off by not understanding the you-are-the-one cutscenes and the kill-10-rats dialogue, but as someone who likens MMO “story” to the articles in Playboy, I could not have cared less.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I can’t ever imagine a scenario where I’d willingly attempt to play a game — an MMO, no less — in another language. Story and context is too important to me, and I would hate being frustrated by a lack of understanding key systems.

I’m sure there are games that aren’t as linguistically heavy and are more intuitive that could be more feasible prospects, but all things considered, I’ll wait until it’s localized in English.


Tina Lauro (@purpletinabeans): I adore languages and how they build into a nation’s culture. I love picking up bits and pieces from many different languages by talking to other people who speak them, so I would definitely play an MMO in another language if it were done well.

I would love to see a game in which the language starts as basic and conversational and gets progressively more complex as I progress. Immersive learning environments are a big deal in linguistics, so why not use an MMO as the platform?

In-game translation items, or perhaps even NPC guides for new language zones, could prevent some of the issues that come with playing a game in another language. I would really enjoy both learning new languages this way and testing my skill in languages I’ve already been working on.

Your turn!

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