Rolling to surmount the language barrier
This story was originally published in the RPGirl zine in 2010, a fine publication edited by Emily Care Boss and containing the writings of quite a few other fascinating women in the gaming community. Enjoy!
I hadn’t been in France long when I met my first foreign gamer. And it didn’t just come up casually in café conversation—I was introduced by another student who knew I’d met my then-boyfriend (now Darling Husband) in an online RPG, and grasped that the concept was related to what this student had been describing to her at a party. I agreed to meet him, knowing that, at the very least, I’d know another geek.
But she was right. Nicolas was a real live French gamer guy. I thrilled him in our first meeting by having Secret Knowledge. We were talking about TV shows, movies and books we liked, and he asked if I watched “Aux Frontières du Réel,” or “On the Frontiers of Reality.” I said I didn’t know it, was it French? “Non, non,” he insisted, and reached for a book. The cover explained it all—behind the French title was a distressed, typewriter-style X. “Oh,” I explained in French, “In America it’s called ‘The X-Files.’” “That explains everything!” he exclaimed. “I always wondered why that X was there!”
Still, scheduling kept us from getting a game together for months, though Nicolas and I would chat when we bumped into each other. Mostly this consisted of him asking me if I knew about a game that had just come out in France, and me apologetically explaining that it had come out four years earlier in the U.S. When I finally met the group, it was to play a one-shot of something I’d never played: Time Lord.
I’d only seen Doctor Who played by Tom Baker on PBS, when I was about five years old. What I’d seen, I didn’t really remember, except, of course, the scarf, and several aliens that looked like upended rubbish bins on wheels. I’ve become a rabid fan since the 2005 reboot, and there’s no doubt I would’ve enjoyed the game more, knowing what I know now.
That said, I enjoyed myself quite a lot. It took several hours to get up to full speed on the French, but that says more about the universality of gamer speed- and geek-speak than it does about my French; I’d already taken on a French customs officer over the phone and won, which I consider the height of my skills. It turns out it’s also universal to play nonstop into the wee hours of the morning.
As we moved into the climax of events around 3.00 a.m., I found myself caught up in the action. We were likely to get cooked by the savage inhabitants of the place where our TARDIS ditched if someone didn’t quickly impress the hell out of them. I chose the much-maligned classic gambit: C3PO and the Ewoks.
“I’ll start speaking in tongues!” I asserted excitedly, preparing to let fly with a steady stream of fast English. I opened my mouth as Nicolas set the scene for the natives and…
Nothing. I could not conjure a single English word to save my life. Surely this was just a late-night misfire. I opened my mouth, tried again.
My English was gone. It had sunk deep in the weeds of my second language, lost in hours of linguistic and narrative immersion. I was stunned by how quickly my language—something I consider integral to my personality and cultural identity—had deserted me in the marathon of collaborative storytelling and group bonding. Two more false starts, and I finally managed a reasonable facsimile of what I’d been aiming for, enough to move the action along toward its conclusion.
At least I rolled well, thank goodness.
It’s not a rpg, but I’ve had amazing luck playing ‘mafia’ in other languages. I’ve won several games in french with a mixed group of francophones/anglophones. I also won a game in chinese with a group of chinese speakers and one other american. I don’t think I’ve ever lost a game. These were also late night games, which I think adds to the fun/glamour. I’ve never played ‘mafia’ in english, but I don’t think I could get into it, kind of like how I can’t get into novels in english.
It does sometime seem that our brain sequesters languages in different areas. I know that I must make an initial effort to think in the given language I want to communicate before becoming comfortable enough to find the words and modulate my accent ( am bilingual French and English).
I don’t know when you learned French and maybe that sequestering becomes more pronounced if we learn a language later. I started learning English when I was really young but needed RPGs (and tweenage) to GET it,
I was 11 when I started learning, but even still, that channel switching mechanism is common among all multilingual people. (I took an awesome linguistics class in college where we talked all about this.) I would forget my English, even back in the States, if I’d been reading in French for more than about a half-hour; I’d be silent for a few telling seconds after picking up the phone when it rang. 🙂