Communication Problems

Anyone who has had the misfortune to watch an episode of BBC’s Watchdog will know that, in between the odd genuine con, a lot of the programme is filled with non-stories where clueless indolent tosswits got stung by their complete failure to check or understand what they were buying. Suffice to say I don’t watch the programme, and whining like this doesn’t exactly convince me of the programme’s worth.

In short, according to Watchdog DS game Brain Training is apparently racist because the voice recognition has difficulty with Northern accents.

Words don’t fail me. In fact, they come quite easily to mind, and only retroactive editing has deleted many colourful words from this very sentence.

As someone who grew up in Yorkshire, lives in London and spends a lot of time in Devon, I have pretty extensive experience of English accents from the top to the bottom of the country. So, I feel fairly well qualified to break this none-story down and kick its component parts to pieces.

First up – voice recognition is not perfect, and having to repitch your voice slightly when using Brain Training is something that effects everyone, regardless of accent. There’s an element of trial and error but generally if you go for a neutral, clear manner of enunciation you’ll get it right most of the time. I have a slight speech impediment and I can manage it reasonably well, so really anyone without an impediment should have no problems at all.

Secondly – regional background isn’t a race or ethnicity, the use of certain vowel sounds is not an enshrined or significant right, and neither for that matter is being able to play a computer game. A few weeks ago I suffered from shooting pains in my forearms for a couple of days, a side effect of a temporary back problem. I couldn’t really use a mouse or joypad very fluidly during that period, but I didn’t start firing off complaints to software companies that they should slow the monsters in their games down so that a creaky armed fuck like I was could slowly shuffle the mouse around and kill them. Because, you know – it’s a leisure activity, we can’t all do everything, and it’s a stupid thing to complain about.

Finally – and this is the most important one – let’s look at the terrible, terrible burden this game is imposing on players with accents that the game finds tricky to process: it requires that the player make an effort to be understood. We all have powerfully versatile vocal chords, we hear dozens of accents on TV, in songs and on the street every day – all that Brain Training requires is that, at times, you speak in a different manner to which you are accustomed to be understood. That you flex your vocal abilities. Well, fuck, what an imposition. What a tragedy.

Here’s the thing – being willing and able to put that extra effort into being understood is a good thing, a vital thing. Communication is important, it’s a gift and an important part of life, and it’s worth working on. Living in London I meet or hear visitors making that effort every day, trying to get their point across and get along, working at an unfamiliar language, unfamiliar accents, unfamiliar manners of speech. Good for them – at the weekend I’ll be in Europe, doing the same, wrestling with a phrasebook and hoping that, by the time I come home, at least some basics of drink ordering and casual chat will have stuck. Because it’s a good exercise for the mind, and we should all be willing to meet the other person at least halfway when trying to communicate.

It’s a big world, and every region within it, whether it be a sweeping country or a single street, is small by comparison to the whole that, in this age of the internet, world trade and cheap travel, is just around the corner. Brain Training is, of course, the creation of one Dr Kawashima, a Japanese game that has spread around the world. If you can’t even be bothered to nudge your vocal chords out of the range normally used in your hometown, if you can’t even switch up your vowel usage to pronounce the guy’s name properly, then frankly you don’t deserve this educational, entertaining treasure from a far off land. Make your own entertainment. Kick a ball or something.

If a game like Brain Training forces players to stretch their communication skills beyond the ability to be understood by the bloke who works in the local chip shop, then it’s not a matter for complaint, it’s a good thing. It’s training the brain, as well as the voice and the social skills. It’s pushing the player in a good way. And surely that’s what an educational game should be doing?



February 5, 2008. Tags: . Uncategorized.

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