by Sam Jones
and Alex Ludwig

InFrontline, we look at different contentious issues in Diplomacy, and attempt to examine both sides of the question.

The topic for this issue was first proposed by Alex, who had been playing Diplomacy by e-mail on different sites, including one that was on a German language server, and had an experience that made him question the ethics of pretending to be a non-native speaker. Since Sam had recently written an article taking the opposite tack, he seemed like the perfect person to take on the "Pro" side!

So this time, we look at the morality of pretending to be a non-native speaker of the language you're playing in: is it a legitimate ploy, or does it cross the line even in Diplomacy?


It's like any other game deception


It's alienating and unnecessary

So the question is: Is it a valid tactic to pretend to be a foreigner when you are in fact playing in your native language? The key to the discussion here is the word "valid". At face value, the tactic is clearly valid, as it is permitted by the rules. However, I suspect that was not what the person who asked the question had in mind. And so, the answer to the question depends on what was meant by the word "valid". Is it a respectable tactic? Is it underhanded? Is it, in fact, so underhanded that it could almost be considered cheating?

Clearly, the telling of lies is not frowned upon in Diplomacy, as the game involves continual deception to achieve one's goals. So why should this piece of deception be singled out as a candidate for invalidity? I believe it is because it involves lying about things which do not directly concern the game. No one is suggesting that lying about your sneaky move to Armenia is unacceptable, but lying about your country of origin seems somehow a little bit more, well, deceitful.

However, consider the following examples:

  1. You tell Turkey you couldn't reply to his press sooner because you were out for your anniversary dinner with your wife, when in fact you were waiting to hear from Italy about a Lepanto opening.

  2. You ignore Russia's message telling you about the last minute change of plans and tell him after the moves that you didn't get it because you're in a country with a different time zone and you were in bed.

  3. You sent France a short message letting him know that you're really busy at work and that you'll look at his plans in detail later, which is conveniently after the deadline in question.

I hope you can see what I'm driving at. These are all "white lies" which, once entered into, have to be consistent, and at least 2 has to be continued throughout the game. The problem with considering a given tactic invalid is that there are almost certainly a whole class of similar tactics which you must also consider invalid, unless there is something special about the tactic you consider invalid. And in the case of pretending to be a non-native speaker, I just don't see that distinguishing factor. As such, if you consider this to be invalid, then by extension you must consider all untruths regarding one's personal situation equally invalid. That puts role players in an unfortunate position. It's possible that there is something abhorrent about this tactic in particular that I've missed, but I don't see it yet!

The question at hand is: Is it a responsible — you'll see why I use the word responsible — tactic to pretend to be a foreigner (in the context of language) when you are in fact playing in your native tongue? As I appeal for the "nay" side of this discussion it is important to lay the foundation from which all my arguments are based. One interesting and often limiting dynamic that language presents to us as the people of the world is known as the "language barrier". There are different types of people who will have vastly varying experience with language barriers. This vast range will ultimately affect how each reader interprets the argument provided in this column. They range from those who speak only one language, to those who speak multiple languages, to those who have actually experienced what it is like being a foreigner in a country whose native language is not their own.

Being aware that experience with languages will affect peoples' view on this matter, we can safely proceed to investigate what I feel to be a reasonable argument against pretending to be foreign to a game's native language. The argument is very basic in concept, but requires a little more thought to truly understand where it is coming from. The argument is: It is not responsible to pretend to be a foreigner when you are in fact playing in your native tongue because we as Diplomacy players appreciate and support an international community. That's it. It's that simple. Most of those who have lived as a foreigner, and many who speak more than one language will say, "yeah that makes sense". Some, many being those who only speak one language (in this case English) are thinking, "what the heck are you even talking about?"

Examples always work best, so let's start with one of those. I very recently have been eliminated from a game as Turkey. The game is still ongoing as of May 2008 and is hosted on a German server with the game being hosted in German as the native language. So why am I, an anglo-Canadian, playing on a German server? Well, this anglo-Canadian happens to have spent some years in Germany on educational exchanges. Though I have German background, my German was learned in the time I was in Germany. I can, after years of study and effort, communicate at a decent level; but needless to say English is my mother tongue, and will always be much better than my German. Living in Canada, however, I do not get too many chances to practice German… well… ever. After having spent so much time and money learning the language, I really appreciate any resources I can get a hold of to help keep up my skills. A resource that is also fun at the same time is a jackpot! Hense why this anglo-Canadian plays from time to time on German servers in German games. This is a situation that does not apply to everyone, but in our ever-more globalized world it does apply to more and more people. More over, having a non-native speaker in your game is something that can apply to anyone at any time.

In this game I, as Turkey, quickly allied with Russia to try and crush Austria and Italy as fast as possible so we could get ahead before the northern triangle was able to sort itself out. The Austrian player proved himself a very strong tactical player and delayed us long enough that the Russian eventually found our alliance to no longer be of any use to him, and ended up weeding me out with Italy before France could become the superpower. So what kind of example is that? Seems like a fairly standard game, does it not? Well, yes it is. And so it should be. What's special about this game that does not at first meet the eye is the fact that the German native playing Russia showed no prejudice against me simply because I couldn't communicate at the level that the native German Austria-player could. He weighed his tactical situation with no consideration as to who was a native speaker, and who was a foreign speaker. This allowed me to partake fairly in the game, as I would any English game of Diplomacy.

At the same time I joined another game (this one English) in which I was also Turkey. In this game the Russian player, who was a native English speaker, decided to pretend he wasn't. In fact, he took it to the next level and pretended his English was not only non-native, but actually very elementary. Communication with him could only be described as "frustrating". So much so that I actually was wishing I could drop him as an ally, because it took so much longer to get ideas across than it would have with another native speaker. I then, however, remembered the games I had played on German servers, where I had been treated with due respect and never once suffered from any form of language prejudice. I told myself, "you know what? It is a little frustrating, but the man is putting forth the effort to play in English. The international community has been good to me, and it's only fair and the responsible thing to do to return the favour." I thus proceeded to treat the Russian player as though his English were as good as anyone's, even though it stunk. Eventually the Russian stabbed me (to his own demise, as it did him no good — he basically only destroyed us both with the move), and in my absolute shock and lack of being able to see any logic in the move, I did some sleuth work. Things just didn't add up with this guy. It took me about 90 seconds between Google and Diplomacy archives to find out the player is in fact a native of an English speaking country. This was confirmed when I brought it to the surface with a broadcast, and was met with suddenly perfect English in return and no denial of any sort.

Alright Alex, for Pete's sake sum it up! So where am I going with this long example? Imagine now that you are the German who played Russia in my first game. Imagine that you had experienced this sort of thing prior to the game, where an enthusiastic anglo-Canadian is asking you to be his ally. There is a chance that you will say, "nah nah nah! I just went through this. Not only did I put forth the effort to deal with the language barrier and promote the international community of Diplomacy, but then it turned out the jerk spoke the language just fine! Screw this guy!" And them BAM, just like that I am subject to language prejudice right from the get-go because the trust of the international community has been abused, even though it may very well have been done inadvertently.

Now I am not saying that the individual in this case, or most other cases, pretended to be a non-native speaker with the intention of doing any more harm than would someone pretending to have been late for a deadline because of a wedding that never existed. I don't believe it is an intentional harm; I believe it is merely something that most people, especially those who only speak one language, would not think about if it were not presented in discussion as is being done here.

It is not responsible to pretend to be a foreign speaker when you are in fact a native speaker, because it inadvertently helps foster language-related prejudice in our international community. When someone sits down to a game of Diplomacy, there should be no chance that (s)he is held in a different esteem by the other players because he's "supposedly" a non-native speaker. Language barriers offer their own difficulties, without the added pressure of being labelled a trickster when you are simply trying to play a game of Diplomacy in another language. The risk of alienating non-native speakers in future games is not worth the strategical advantage the trick may gain you. If you wish to pretend to catch on slower, then you can always pretend to be less intelligent. If you wish to pretend to be less of a threat, then you can always act as though you have no tactical ability, or diplomatic tact.

In conclusion: Pretending to not speak the language is simply unnecessary, as you can achieve the same deception through other means without making life harder for those who are just trying to play a game in a language other than their native one. And why not? There are far more English servers than any other one language, and plently of non-English natives capable of filling empty spots in waiting games. That helps us all.

Sam and Alex
c/o The Editor

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