GamerGaters Are Mad About Localization Because They Don’t Understand It

A loser is them.

When history eventually looks back on gaming culture, it’s going to be a minefield of absolutely bizarre unpleasantness that’s nigh-impossible to make sense of. It’s nearly impossible to make sense of it as it’s happening. The ragged slice of gaming that has spent years harassing women in its favourite industry never seems to go away, but I’ll give it this - at least it’s consistent in its complete, unfounded batshittery.

This time, GamerGate (or at least, one of its confusing, internally-warring factions that have inevitably arisen) is pissy about localisation, specifically that of Nintendo’s 3DS role-player Fire Emblem Fates, and has thrown a flailing tantrum of harassment at Nintendo employees over it.

#TorrentialDownpour, as the tantrum is called, has been organised at all the usual places - the KotakuInAction subreddit, 8chan, and in a purer harassment sense, “lolcow” boards like Kiwifarms. The targets are largely employees of Nintendo’s Treehouse division, which oversees localisation of Japanese-made games for North America and other territories. One target, Rich Amtower, locked his Twitter when it became clear GamerGate was dredging up years-old “evidence” of his alleged treachery, saying that “Twitter’s too ephemeral to want all of it hanging around forever.” Context is vital in parsing social media, but it’s all too easily lost.

Nobody has fallen prey to that more than Treehouse product marketer Alison Rapp. Citing her thesis from 2012 about international pressure on Japan to change its pornography legislation, as well as a few out-of-context tweets, GamerGate has publicly labeled Rapp a pedophile, with no real evidence. The narrative began in a Medium post by GamerGater John Kelly, before making its way to gossip tabloid The Mirror Online and white supremacist blog The Daily Stormer, where swastika-tattooed hacker Andrew Aurenheimer encouraged readers to contact Nintendo and demand Rapp’s dismissal by “[acting] as a concerned parent.” Even Jamie Walton, cofounder (with Kevin Smith) of anti-child-trafficking organisation The Wayne Foundation, became swept up in the fracas.

Rapp’s alleged “support for child molesters” isn’t the reason for GamerGate’s faux outrage, any more than “ethics in journalism” was its reason for attacking Zoe Quinn, or “tax evasion” was its reason for going after Anita Sarkeesian. The reality is the same as it ever was: these people believe themselves to be the front line in a culture war against a movement that threatens to destroy their worldview and take away their toys, and they fight this war as their worldview and toys have trained them to fight: with personal attacks, misogyny, and mass online harassment. Hell, I’ve been called “pedo scum” and had my resignation demanded just for reporting the story.

This time the fury is ostensibly about localisation, which to most people is an unknown niche of game development. Localisation is the process of translating, editing, and adapting works from one language or culture to another. It’s something that’s done across media, and to a degree it’s an invisible art. Even the word “localisation” - to make something local - implies that done correctly, a work should feel more or less like it came from the region in which it’s being marketed and consumed. And that involves making changes to the text.

Before we get into this, there’s a distinction to be drawn between government censors cutting content and studios changing content for localisation purposes. The former definitely takes place, but we’re talking about the latter. A crucial part of this controversy is the conflation of the two.

In the case of Fire Emblem Fates, there are a number of changes made in the localisation (incidentally, none of which are attributable to Alison Rapp, who works in marketing). A “petting” minigame has been removed; if it were animal-related, I’d be up in arms too, but it’s actually about petting the faces of female companions. Likewise, a sequence in which a lesbian-coded character has her drink spiked and subsequently falls in love with the male protagonist has also been cut. And a number of scenes have had their dialogue translated and localised in creative ways unacceptable to GamerGate literalists.

Edits to tone down Japanese sexuality have gone on throughout gaming history - bust size sliders have been removed, characters have been aged up, costumes have been made less risque - because the kind of content that’s normal in Japan just ain’t gonna fly in the United States. Ironically, that’s essentially what Rapp’s thesis says: American culture and Japanese culture are just different, and one shouldn’t be expected to imitate the other. GamerGaters believe Nintendo has “censored” the game, but it’s hard to call a private company adapting to the social norms of a new culture “censorship” when the original version can still be imported and nothing has been actually banned. They simply know that the phrase “freedom of speech” sounds good, and just like in cases of feminist criticism, they’ll invoke it whenever they feel like their ability to leer at cartoons is being curtailed.

As for the dialogue, this is where localisation gets super interesting. Localisation isn’t merely translation - if it were, Japanese games would never sell internationally, because they’d be borderline impenetrable. Literal translation ignores and often ruins crucial elements of communication like idioms, cultural references, wordplay, and humour, resulting in a need for creative adaptation. Check out this script posted by a #TorrentialDownpour participant, with the US localisation on the left and a more literal translation on the right:

Or this exchange of dialogue that’s been turned into a joke:

GamerGaters are outraged about these, but the fact is that liberal localisations read way more naturally than literal ones. It’s kinda cheesy, but “poor little doggy” sounds much more like what an English speaker would say than “a dog has collapsed here.” Another example features a Japanese song about fishing, which when literally translated feels sort of clunky, lacking rhyme or rhythm, but when localised is a somewhat clever Dr Seuss reference. Gamers decry the reference as “laziness,” but in practice, it requires a lot more effort and intelligence to create English equivalents than it does to generate English translations. What gamers seem to want is “all your base are belong to us” - the kind of poor, literal translation that gave rise to the localisation industry in the first place.

It’s important to note that localisation isn’t limited to games. It even happens between English-speaking territories: see Harry Potter’s “Philosopher’s Stone,” “jumper,” and “letterbox” becoming “Sorcerer's Stone,” “sweater,” and “mail slot,” or Demolition Man’s Taco Bell references changing to Pizza Hut internationally, or Crocodile Dundee losing much of its Aussie slang upon US release. Pixar goes a step further and localises everything from character names to signs and newspapers in its films; the UK trailer for Inside Out even had Riley’s dad internally watching a football match (“soccer” for America - see? Localisation!) instead of hockey.

Subtitling, the film world’s principal method of localisation, is an intriguing realm that - again - is an invisible art. You can always tell the difference between literally-translated subtitles (the extreme example being the famous “do not want” Darth Vader meme, which originated because there’s no single Chinese word for “no”) and subtitles that have been rewritten to capture the dialogue’s meaning as opposed to its words. I recall Gareth Evans asking, in the leadup to the release of The Raid 2, whether fans “prefer literal translations or subs that try to capture the tone.” The response was dramatically in favour of a translation that captured tone; the first two responses, in fact, were me, saying “capture the shit out of that tone,” and BMD’s Sid, saying “definitely definitely not literal.” Taking the responses to that tweet as a microcosm (and also applying common fucking sense), it seems like the film world is way more receptive to adaptive translation than at least parts of the gaming world are.

So what is it about Fire Emblem Fates’ localisation that has these folks so vehemently angry? It’s likely significantly thanks to the sexual nature of the cut content, given the mob’s predilection for scantily-clad anime avatars and its well-documented hatred for anything that might push culture towards showing fewer boobs. But it also speaks to a closed-minded idea of what localisation is. Localisation isn’t about exactly replicating a work in another language; it’s about migrating that work to a different culture. In that sense, Nintendo’s been remarkably successful - if it weren't for the trumped-up controversy, localisation would never cross your mind.

How do you feel about localisation? Is there a significant difference between what we expect from it in films or books and what we expect from it in games? It’s an interesting issue, and it deserves more nuanced discourse than what it's getting. And by that, I mean: discussion, not career assassination.