Crowd-Sourcing Translations: Your Video Game in Inuktitut

Based in beautiful Pangnirtung, Nunavut, in Canada's high Eastern Arctic region, Pinnguaq is a software localization initiative: a company specializing in adapting computer programming to different languages, regional differences and technical requirements of a target market. Nunavut, Canada's newest territory, is both the largest and the most sparsely populated. As a result of this difficult and isolated geography, technology plays critical role in the delivery of basic services.

Pinnguaq's mission is to adapt popular software to Inuktitut, the indigenous Inuit language, and to better reflect local culture. In June 2013, they released an Inuktitut-language version of the best-selling iPad game, Osmos.

To make this happen, the game was translated through crowd-sourcing. This practice, increasingly used as a tool for international development, can be an incredibly useful strategy to obtain information through the participation of many people and proved to be incredibly successful for Pinnguaq.

To find out more about the role of video games in this majority-indigenous Arctic region, we got in touch with Pinnguaq founder Ryan Oliver. He told us about digital technology uptake and gaming among the Inuit, the importance and power of play in indigenous language, and the strategy of crowd-sourcing translations.


How did Pinnguaq begin?

Pinnguaq began in mid-2012 as a result of a personal passion of mine for programming and specifically for gaming. My son – and more recently my daughter – have taken an interest in gaming thanks to my own passions as well as the accessibility of devices like the iPad for kids as young as 1 or 2. At the same time there are kids in the community (of Pangnirtung) who often visit and play the large collection of games we have in our house. I do what I can to share the access I have to games and technology with my kids and their friends.

It dawned on me watching a kid play a game called “Uncharted” on the Playstation that gaming, for the most part, is a really “white” experience. The heroes are often white (and male, for that matter), the stories are takes on western storytelling and concepts that directly relate back to the Western, particularly the white North American take on life as has been defined by Mass media and particularly Hollywood over the last 50 years. These kids were not hearing the language they speak at home and at school in these games and they are not seeing their culture reflected in the media they consume.

This is nothing new. APTN [Aboriginal People's Television Network] was a response to the lack of Aboriginal media on television, but there is nothing for games or technology…

I think [Pinnguaq] is an incredible opportunity to show kids here how possible it is to succeed and express yourself in this industry. Nunavut is a very artistic territory and cultural and self expression is second nature here. Gaming provides another opportunity to grow on the artistic and storytelling history of this territory. The learning curve is steep (coding), but there is room in this industry for artists, story tellers, animators, actors and really anyone. So as much as anything,

Pinnguaq is saying to Nunavummiut, “You have a place in this industry, there are people willing to open doors for you”…

Photograph courtesy of Rachael Petersen

Photograph courtesy of Rachael Petersen


What is Pinnguaq's mission? Why is gaming in language important for the Inuit and other indigenous communities?

Pinnguaq's mission is multifaceted. Most importantly it is the embracing of technology to promote, advocate and share Inuit and Nunavut culture and ideas across the world. We're currently working on projects that use technology to spread the language, the mythology as well as more economic development related projects like a smart phone App to promote tourism in the territory. I can bring to the table a wealth of experience and contacts in the technology industry and it is my intention to bring that to Nunavummiut, to Inuit and to my community to help spread this culture and territory to all reaches of the earth.

Gaming in Indigenous languages is something that really excites me and I hope takes off.

Let's get one thing out of the way first, it's not a market savvy idea.

Games can cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars to make, and for 99.9% of the companies out there to take time out of their insane schedules to translate a game into a language that is only accessible to a very small population is not something that is sustainable in a capitalist driven industry. However, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. It just means that those companies needs guidance and assistance from the people in those communities and representing those communities to help ensure localization can be done with minimal cost to the production.

It is important because these kids are consuming this media, no matter what. Kids in Nunavut are as hardcore when it comes to gaming as anyone else in the world. They are online in Call of Duty, they are obsessed with Candy Crush Saga on Facebook, they are going into schools playing Mario on their DS. Making those same game experiences, where possible, available in their language is an important step to validating the language for those kids and ensuring they understand that it has value outside of their community…

Of all the games, why did you decide to localize Osmos?

The very quick answer to that is because Osmos let us. The longer, most detailed explanation is that they were very enthusiastic partners and truly believed in the value of it. In fact, every company I contacted was enthusiastic about it and it really encouraged me in the mission…

When I pitched the game to Hemisphere Games [the makers of Osmos], it was almost instant. They immediately understood the value for the community here and were anxious to help. In fact, I pitched three companies at the same time (in case anyone said “no”), and all three were completely on board. Osmos was ultimately chosen because the dialogue in the game is minimal and it was seen as a very good starting point. There were only 300 phrases/terms that had to be translated and it was a much easier technical process that other games would have been. Osmos made sense and the developers didn't hesitate for a second.

[Author's note: Hemisphere Games wrote about the whole process on their blog.]

The reaction has been very positive. People are excited that there is an App on the App Store in Inuktitut, that the language is spreading and gaining awareness.. It's been nothing but positive.


For other readers who may be interested in localizing software for their language, can you explain how you got people involved and excited in crowd-sourcing translations?

I've had the opportunity to be involved with a lot of fundraising and community initiatives here in Pangnirtung and used similar techniques to get Nunavummiut involved and excited about this translation. It was all about Facebook and prizes.

The uptake in Nunavut for Facebook is insane. I would bet, per capita, Nunavut has a higher concentration on Facebook than any other province/territory/state in North America.

Nunavummiut have created groups upon groups for each community and interest and we are constantly in touch with each other, the 2 million square kilometers of physical land made infinitesimally small by the ability to connect with each other digitally.

We launched the crowd sourcing campaign the week before the new “iPad Mini” was released… and we made the iPad Mini the grand prize for a randomly selected translator who participated. I created an online “quiz” that presented the user with 15 randomly selected terms from the game. User just had to login, do the quiz and they were entered into the draw for the iPad Mini. The response was instant. There were some who did it in support for the language and the concept, there were others who wanted to win the iPad. All in all we had around 86 people participate. The game itself was translated an equivalent of 4.5 times total. At the end I was able to go through a database of translations, and then ran them by my team in Pangnirtung to pick which terms were best. Afterwards we tested the game at Trade Shows and with friends in the community, tweaking some translations as we went.

What are the challenges of crowd-sourcing translations in a digital media context? How do you operate crowd-sourcing in a territory as remote as Nunavut?

[The] biggest disadvantage is dialect. When you are inclusive and build a translation in this way, you solicit the dialects and opinions of 25 unique communities, each with its own slightly unique – and in some cases extremely different – dialect. If you look at the translation document we produced, you would quickly see how diverse the translations are. It's exciting, as much as it is difficult. In one sense, we've produced a translation that is truly “Nunavut”. It represents every dialect, every region.

At the same time, we've produced a translation that on a day to day basis, no one actually speaks. I can't count how many times in the beta testing we had people say, “Oh.. well.. that's a different dialect, but I understand what you're saying”. It's a mixed bag. I'm not sure if it's the best solution. It would have been very easy to just hire a translator and have the entire game translated in an afternoon.

But the [crowd-sourcing] process was as much about building awareness of the game as it was producing a finished translation. It was as much about making people aware there were people in the territory interested and willing to localize games as it was about ensuring the translation was the best representation of one dialect.

As I mentioned above, despite our slow internet, the territory is very connected and very tech savvy. I had no problems from a tech standpoint. People immediately understood the quiz and Facebook/Twitter allowed us to spread the word to every corner of the territory in less than an hour.

Ryan further explains the crowd-sourcing process in this video:

What are the challenges of localizing software for Inuktitut language in particular?

…After the game was released and press started to cover it, we received an email from someone at the Language Commission pointing out spelling mistakes we'd made per the official “standardized writing system for Inuktitut”. I wasn't even aware that such a system existed.

One thing I've learned from years of working with Inuktitut and attempted to produce written documents is you'll never make everyone happy. In fact, you'll rarely make anyone happy when you try to write it down.

This leads to the other challenge of localizing in Inuktitut. Osmos is a game with all written text, and Inuktitut is first and foremost an oral culture. Writing has never been apart of Inuit culture and it was only the invasion of missionaries that led to a writing system. Having said that, syllabics have been adopted by most Inuit and the writing system persists and has a role in an increasingly westernized territory. It's a hard one to work through. In a lot of ways, localization would be easier if we did it orally. The language lends itself to oral translation so much easier. However, it's also incredibly cost and technologically prohibitive. The cost of recording someone doing voice overs (and doing them well), then inserting those into a game is huge; with a written localization we just had to edit a single file…

What's next for Pinnguaq?

We have a number of projects on the go. The first will be the release of our first original App for iPad called “Songbird“. It should be out in early September and will work to promote Inuit culture and language by teaching the language through music. It's a bit of an experiment we're trying out to see how easy it is (and what the best ways are) to teach language through music. It's very close to done, we're just ironing out the bugs now.

At the same time we're working on three brand new projects:

  • Inuktitube is a video aggregate that will compile a list of all videos on video sharing websites in Inuktitut and present them in a very easy to use, organized Inuktitut App on the iPad… a menu with categorizes of types of video: Music, Academic, Entertainment, Hunting, etc…
  • Nunavut Passport is a Tourism Smartphone App that will work to act as a “virtual tour guide” for visitors… Nunavut is notoriously low on infrastructure and this App would serve to help visitors find what they want to find and encourage them to visit new places from the moment they enter a community.
  • We're also in the very early stages of developing a completely original game based on Inuit/Nunavut culture and Inuit Mythology… The goal is to make a game that is completely accessible and competitive in the mainstream gaming market, but tells a story from Nunavut and does so in Inuktitut… By making the Oral language Inuktitut, with written English subtitles, we'll expose people to Inuktitut without them even realizing it…

In the immediate future (July 20th), The Museum of Inuit Art in Toronto is hosting an exhibition called “The Art of Play“, looking at Inuit representation in games and gaming. Pinnguaq is playing a large part in that. Songbird and Osmos will both be permanent members of the collection and features of the exhibition. I'll be down in September to talk about the process of developing these games and the projects/mission statement of the company.

To learn more about Pinnguaq, please visit their website, like their page on Facebook and follow them on Twitter at @Pinnguaq.


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