(Originally posted at the Moving Pixels column at Pop Matters)
Voice acting has become a staple in gaming that helps flesh out characters and setting. Abandoning the text-box provided a more intimate way for the game to connect to the player by expressing emotion and ideas in a way that they are more familiar with. The quality of voice acting in games is, of course, an area of contention, but when done properly, it adds brushstrokes to the aesthetics of the game. This is especially true for settings that benefit from characters having accents to imply nationality. The cultural politics that voice acting implies, however, often escape analysis. The default English accent is General American and deviations from this tap into a subtext that assumes an American player. How accents communicate information to the player exposes the subliminal effects of American ethnocentrism.
Looking at the voices chosen for the later Final Fantasy games reveal how conscious the video game industry is in having voiceover resonate with American players. There is critique about American culture in the very idea in how a foreign country would choose to best translate their characters. Exotification of both real-world cultures and in-game characters surfaces through the series’ presentation of accents. Final Fantasy XII and XIII use accents to imply regional differences rather than what normally would, the face. In Final Fantasy XII, most of the party has a General American accent, with florid vocabulary to make the setting reminiscent of “olde” times in Europe. This associates the American accent with the player, assumed as the default. Fran is the exception, but she is so in many respects: she’s the only non-human character in the party, the only non-white character, and also the most sexualized. Her odd Bjork-esque accent adds to her exotic characterization, though one could make a strong argument that Fran has the least personality of all of the party members in the game. With the Empire sporting England’s Received Pronunciation accent and while Rozzaria’s Al-Cid speaks with a Spanish one to match his exaggerated mannerisms, the player’s experience adds context to the notion that the politics of foreign countries decide the fate of their own if that player is American. This also takes place in Final Fantasy XIII, in which Fang and Vanille have Australian accents to designate their nationality, while Americans voice the rest of the cast. Along with their tribally inspired clothing and the uncultivated depiction of their home world, the Australian accent gives the American (and possibly other) players the subtext of the characters being wild and exotic. In a game that trumpets the theme of protecting the homeland from foreigners, the emphasized difference between the American- and Australian-voiced characters adds to the drama of the situation. This is absent for those who share the same stereotypical views that the US has about other cultures.
The Dragon Age series reappropriates accent dynamics for the assumed American player. Taking place in a fantasy setting, the dominant accent is the English Received Pronunciation. With this as the default, the other accents gain meaning through their interaction with the English: the Dalish speaking with Welsh accents, Orlesians are French, and Antivans Spanish. The treatment of these groups coincides with the stereotyping of their accents rather than their own in-game culture. This is especially true of Orlesians, as their voice acting is sometimes incomprehensible and usually humorous in its deprecating manner. What is surprising is the usage of American accents. City elves, dwarves, and the Qunari do not represent the default. Instead, American accents are a neutral sound because there doesn’t need to be any differentiation within these groups. This makes the American accent invisible so the player can focus on something other than their regional heritage. It uncovers what the developers wanted the audience to focus on with these groups: the classism of the dwarves, the absolute philosophical theocracy in Qunari culture, and how the city elves deal with racism (however there is little commentary on how humans are casually discriminatory towards them). In the cases of the humans and the Dalish, their regional differences are a core part of their story, so they receive European accents to illustrate their relationship to one another. Logically, American accents should sound out of place, as the continent remained undiscovered in the medieval Europe setting the series calls upon as its influence, but they actually do not as American accents are now what players in general have grown accustomed to as the default for video games.
The accents found in games don’t merely represent other people outside of the US, though but also groups within the country. Starcraft and games that use the “space marine aesthetic” often use American Southern accents to depict their characters, relying on many stereotypes of the South as unrefined and conservative. It’s no accident the game provides supplementary US Civil War Confederacy imagery to frame the context of their characters. Southern accents allow the player to understand the military of the future by having them relate to the usual trash-talking and attitudes assumed to be emblematic of those in the US’s current one. Instead of exploring the complexities of a Southern identity, the Starcraft series shows Southerners as unwanted and expendable. Players overlook this because the marines are like the outspoken bumpkins that American society at large has come to laugh at without reprimand. The player will rarely find wise, respected characters with Southern accents in their games; the General American accent or one of the many Northeastern ones allow for that role.
Realizing that development teams assume an American player as their audience can help diversify the setting and cast in video games. Accents can be more than flavor for a game’s aesthetics but also communicate cultural subtext that adds to the overall meaning of the game. Currently, games rely on an American perspective for characterization in a medium that is experienced internationally, and it’s time to question why this is. And as a community, move games into more of a shared global space.