Localising social experience: it would be nice to showcase Angry Words in Basque at the next SXSW
Angry Words is a very popular Scrabble-like game played over the Internet through Facebook and smartphone and tablet apps (both Apple iOS and Android). Created by an Argentinian company, Etermax, it's also known by its Spanish name, Apalabrados. You can play against friends or, asking for an anonymous player, virtually anyone else with the app. And you can choose the language of the game among various options (12, currently). One of them is Catalan. And recently, in Beta status, Basque has been added. So, you can simultaneously play parallel games against people around the globe in several languages.
(Note: the Basque version is Beta, almost Alpha. Not fully functional in Facebook yet. Lexical and declension options are being discussed, and, bizarrely, the math in the version is wrong: you get points but the addition does not score properly, XD; we're sure these things will be fixed soon, no pressure to Etermax, they've been just great making this possible)
The localisation effort for Basque is due to one person mainly, Maite Goñi, dedicated Basque geek, university teacher and an expert in online learning. She contacted Etermax on her own and asked them, what do you need? They needed words, so she also contacted the people with the right Basque resources, language-promotion body of the Basque government and the university group Ixa, pioneers of Natural Language Processing in Basque.
Because, you know, the set of words at Angry Words is not a plain dictionary, but you need declensions as well (plurals and verb forms are included in the Spanish and English versions). And it happens that declensions in Basque are almost infinite: ours is a postpositional languages in which nouns are flexed with various affixes, also three numbers (singular, plural, indefinete). Verbs also (mainly the multi-personal auxiliary verb system) have lots of forms. (This does not mean Basque is difficult: to the contrary, those multiple forms are very very regular and result from the combination of a limited set of affixes which are not so hard after all).
So, the basic dictionary of Basque had to be declensed to get the variations for each noun, verb, and that's what the IXA team did for Maite. For instance, the dictionary noun Abuztu (august, the month), which in Spanish or English just has two forms (august, augusts, agosto, agostos) can be played like this in Angry Words in Basque:
abuztu abuztua abuztuak abuztuan abuztuarekin abuztuaren abuztuari abuztuaz abuztuei abuztuek abuztuekin abuztuen abuztuetako abuztuetan abuztuko abuztura abuzturako abuzturen abuzturik abuztutan abuztutik abuztuz
And that's just a set of the possible combinations according to case and number... Anyway, some compromise had to be made to limit the number of flexions and the most used ones were chosen. However, the resulting word set is nearly 170.000 items, and yet, players are saying that common words are absent. So, maybe one of the result of the beta-testing phase might be reduce the number of allowed declensions but increase the lexical entries.
One of the fascinating things about this localisation effort is that it's like the perfect example for which I call the menu/food dilemma in tech development for minority languages. Having the menu in your language is fine, but it is content, the food, which really matters (one of the points I stressed in a recent Unesco seminar). For instance, Twitter in Basque (also made available this august) is fine, but the main crucial question is if there's comments, and links, conversations and memes exchanged in our language (it seems that yes, there's an active community).
With Angry Words, as a matter of fact, it doesn't matter the language your interface shows: you can choose the game's language at well. Different games with different people in different languages (being multilingual is nice :-) and all adult Basques are at least bilingual). The interface has also been localised, but unfortunately, due to restrictions by makers and carriers, you can only see it in Basque in some unlocked Android devices. I cannot for instance, change the interface of my Apalabrados / Angry Words from Spanish. Orreaga Aranburu, a friend, could do it in her Galaxy S II:
It is also interesting that the localisation work needed in this case language resources developed throught the last 20 years or so. Lexicons and natural language processing rules for Basque, developed by enthusiasts, academia and public bodies, have been put into use over a distributed online mobile platform, an application hardly imaginable when Basque natural language processing began being pushed in universities in the 1980's. Research and corpus building, therefore, is important, as well as the open availability of those resources.
But for me, which strikes me more about Angry Wors in Basque is the social nature of the game. Most games are played in an asynchronous way, one move now, and then the oponnent may answer after several hours, so it is sensible to open several games at once. You can have an Ipad, a Galaxy phone and an Facebook account at your desktop and connect to players and games in different languages seamlessly over that multiplatform. One of the fun parts of the game is, when you see that you have 5 games ongoing and it just happens that all opponents (and possible people that you might also know) seem to be asleep or unconnected, you have the option to ignite a game with an aleatory unknown opponent. Choose the option, and you're added to a queue of people seeking players that will result in some match shortly notified to you. Well, this works fairly well in Spanish or English, languages with global audiences, and strangers sprout from the cloud to play with you easily. However, somehow unexpectedly for me, asking for aleatory players in Basque DOES also work. There is people with the app, people you just don't know, ready to play a game in Basque.
Being a person that makes a living of technology, the Internet, and being more-or-less in the center of Basque geekdom, whenever I try some new Basque thing online, I can easily find friends or acquantacies that also switch to the tool and therefore I can comment it with them, probably people that are part of this same geekdom social circle of mine. But with Angry Words, I reach out to people holding a phone while commuting, or bored at home, or on the beach... people that I don't know and they don't know me either. This is no novelty for you hispanos or anglos that read this post, but from a minority perspective is like, wow, we ARE alive after all.
This IS important, and it can be present at SXSW
So, the localisation of Angry Words is MUCH MORE than the translation of some strings in a given app. It's meaningful because:
- consists of pure content (language itself is the content, and it's been put into use into a very fun game)
- showcases the potential of open resources and natural language processing in an unexpected way.
- it's a great example of a multiplatform app, mobile as well as integrated into the desktop (through a social network, Facebook, in this case).
- and most of all, because this little game, Angry Words in Basque, localises social interaction as well. In the context of a minority language this is very important. It's like a milestone, I feel, in the development of technology in Basque.
It would be good to comment this case, and others related to the online social media/app realm, in international events, I feel. And there might be an opportunity next spring, in SXSW 2013 in Austin. Maite Goñi (the key person behind Angry Words in Basque), Kevin Scannel of Indigenous Tweets and Rhodri ap Dyfrig, Welsh nerd, have proposed a panel: Social Media: A New Hope for Minority Languages?
It's not done yet. That panel is a proposal for one of the components of SXSW, the SXSW Interactive of SXSWi presentation festival. It needs to be pushed so it gets approved. So, if you agree that these things are at least half-interesting, you can vote for that panel so it may appear at the final official schedule. Register , and then vote for it. Important: Deadline is Aug. 30th.