Of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages, around 4,000 are written. Though many of us, certainly those of us from secure linguistic communities, take the act of writing for granted, it takes on a deeper meaning for those of us from linguistic communities that are under threat or for whom writing is tied to a more integral part of our sociocultural identity. Jost Zetzsche’s just-published Characters with Character pays homage to some of these endangered scripts, for example.
The internet exposes us everyday to the more famous children of the Egyptian hieroglyphs: languages that use some form of the Latin alphabet — English chief among them — form the majority of written internet content, with Cyrillic, Greek, and Arabic and their variants also well represented.
Less well represented, by several orders of magnitude, is the bichig, the traditional Mongolian script largely supplanted since the post-WWII era by the Cyrillic script in the Republic of Mongolia.
It’s in this context that Tim Brookes, founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project, set out to create a game that would help preserve and expand knowledge of this unusual and ornate script. We all know that games are hugely influential; our most recent issue shines a spotlight on the intersection of gaming and language. I spoke with Tim about Ulus, the strategy card game he and a team of dedicated linguists, calligraphers, and game designers are developing. What follows is a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion that touches on language, game design, localization, and social responsibility.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Michael Reid: What is the Endangered Alphabets Project and how did it come to be?
Tim Brookes: I’m going to answer that question backwards… in 2009 I started carving pieces of text in indigenous and minority writing systems. I discovered to my amazement that I was pretty much the only person who was doing this, which was sort of a horrifying thought because I have no background as a linguist or anthropologist. I exhibited [my carvings] in May 2010 and the response I got was extraordinary.
I had sort of seen it more as a form of documentation, and I had certainly not seen it as being something of real significance, but the more I heard back from people, the more it became clear that actually this was my life’s work. It was sort of fascinating but, having spent much of my adult life as a writer, where you’re always sort of looking for the big subject, I had sort of wandered into it without even realizing it.
The reason I started the Endangered Alphabets Project as a nonprofit organization was because I began collaborating with someone who was a member of an indigenous minority in Bangladesh and was trying to reintroduce teaching in indigenous mother languages In the Chittagong Hill tribes of Bangladesh, and it was clear that at any moment he could have been arrested or disappeared. So I thought I wanted to collaborate with him and help in any way I could, and that wound up being a project that is still going on today.
But the other thing I decided was that if it was just him and me then nobody would care, so I reached out to a number of people I had started to get to know at significant institutions in the UK and the US in particular, and also in Canada. These were academics and researchers, so we were able to say that [our project] had the backing of Harvard and Yale and Cambridge, and it would be harder to make him disappear.
MR: It clearly started as something you were passionate about and grew from there, and there was definitely an ideological push behind it.
TB: That’s the thing that’s sort of very hard to pin down about the Endangered Alphabets Project, because although it involves languages and linguistics it’s also human rights and social justice. People who are on the other side of the divide see this immediately, because they are totally aware of how important their language, their writing system, and their cultural artifacts are to their psychic and spiritual survival, individually and as a people. We’re so used to being the ones who are privileged that the importance of all of that doesn’t really occur to us.
MR: If you’re in a linguistically privileged position, which almost all anglophones are, to you it doesn’t seem like much of a problem, but if you’re on the business end of it, if your cultural identity and spiritual practices, if the whole gestalt of your communal identity is disappearing, then it’s a really big deal for you.
TB: Interestingly enough there’s a converse to that as well. There’s a saying that I’ve sort of come up with — based on the well known saying that history is written by the winners. I say history is written by the winners in the alphabet of the winners. In finding out more and more about these cultures and their relationship between their language and their script, what I’ve come to realize is that our notion of what writing is, and can be and should be, is really limited.
We talk about languages evolving or scripts evolving as if we are the end point of evolution. Like the history of ideas leads to us because we’re the ones who have got it right. But the more I work with this the more I find myself wanting to show how our assumptions about writing, and by extension many things, are the result of our set of beliefs rather than necessarily [something] accurate or true. In many cultures writing is seen as a spiritual activity in itself, not just a way of recording spiritual practice, but the act of writing itself is a spiritual activity. People in the west don’t get this; if I’m making a grocery list is this a spiritual activity? I don’t think so. What [this idea] really does is get us to look at the way in which, when we are collecting our thoughts and we’re selecting words and we’re searching in ourselves to try and find out exactly what it is that we want to say, we are engaging in a practice which is similar to prayer. With prayer people always think that you’re praying to something external, which is kind of misleading I think. [What the idea of writing as a spiritual activity] means is that we have invested ourselves and our identity spiritually in this product…and you can see this is true because if someone has written a book and they see a copy of it being tossed into the remainder bin or on sale for 75 cents in the supermarket, it feels as if a dagger has gone through their heart.
Because it isn’t just that writing has served to replicate the sounds of speech, it’s that writing has been a means of gathering a kind of reflective attention which certainly could be seen as being spiritual in nature.
MR: What is Ulus and how do you play it?
TB: There are two to six players. Each player blind chooses a god card. This is based on the notion of the Greek gods, on the idea that the dramas of the gods were played out on the human chess board. Each of these gods has a different vision for the future of the Mongol lands. They’re in competition to gather the assets and strength necessary to create that particular vision of the ulus, the Mongol lands. Each player then chooses a champion, this is the human representative of the chosen god’s ambition. Some of these champions are historical figures, some are quasi-historical, some of them are mythological features. Two are heroes from the great epics of Mongolian tradition; one is Genghis Khan, and one is a character who is seen as being Genghis Khan’s mother but seven generations back, whose sons became the leaders of the Mongol clans. One is a noblewoman called Khutulun, who was the champion wrestler of her day. When anyone wanted to court her hand in marriage he had to wrestle her. She beat all of them, and retired undefeated. Two are characters who were essentially empresses, one of whom is probably the most influential woman in the history of the world.
Each of the champions has certain abilities that you choose to play at different points in the game. The champions travel in a caravan around the Mongol lands, going from one sacred site to another. When they’re at each sacred site they have the chance to battle a monster for an asset. Each of these asset cards are valuable either to any of the ulus ambitions, like the horse card, or are suitable only to one specific quest. So you’re trying to collect these cards, you’re trading them, fighting for them, and having completed the circuit around the Mongol lands you’re learning about real places in Mongolian history. You wind up at Naadam, which is the annual summer festival where trading takes place and is kind of a cross between the Olympics and a state fair. There are three traditional Mongolian games at Naadam: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. So when the champions arrive by then they’ve assembled a hand which they’re hoping is going to be as strong as possible and contains as many of their asset cards as they’ve been able to gather, and they have to take part in these contests. The games are all shagai (sheep ankle bones that are used as dice and for divination in Central Asia) games that are based on games from the Asian continent. At the end the champion who has the most assets cards plus the most strength is the winner.
MR: Why did you make the game?
TB: About four years ago I thought, if you’re going to revitalize a language or a script you have to begin with children. And if you’re going to begin with children you’re going to have to begin with games. I started creating a number of games for various other contexts, and that’s been going ever since.
The Chinese government announced that starting in September 2020 certain lessons in Inner Mongolia — Mongolians call it southern Mongolia to show that it’s part of their region; the Chinese call it the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region — would henceforth be taught in [Mandarin] Chinese. And this is part of a long-running campaign on the part of the Chinese government to essentially iron out diversity in the country. Clearly it’s an enormous country with enormous diversity, which you could see as being a sign of richness, or see it as a sign of the kind of difficulties that colonizers typically think of local cultures as being. We’ve seen this in Tibet, we’ve seen this with the Uighur people and the whole genocide there, and it was really clear that this was going to be the opening of the door toward the sinicization of the Mongol people.
It was clear that this was a situation for the Endangered Alphabets Project, because you have a clear and present danger, a culture that is well established, and one that is closely identified with its language and its unique, vertical script.
The degree to which the Mongol people are identified with their script can be seen by the fact that, when the Russians took over a slab of western Mongol territory, they insisted that Cyrillic be used. In the Russian province of Buryatia, which is a Mongol region, virtually no people there can read and write the Mongol script, even if they speak the Mongol language, because they’re so used to reading and writing in Cyrillic. So it’s a perfect example of the danger that could befall even such a substantial culture as the Mongols, when a more powerful neighboring or regional culture dominates them. In the country of Mongolia, they too have been using the Cyrillic script since the Second World War, roughly. Ironically the only place where the vertical traditional bichig script has been safe up until now was in southern/Inner Mongolia. Interestingly enough it gained from its relationship with Chinese writing and calligraphy practices, and also Tibet was very influential because of course this was an area that was very influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.
I have to credit a Polish friend of mine, he’s been a friend of the Endangered Alphabets Project for a while now, and he’s had the advantage of learning how a culture survived under totalitarian rule by growing up in Poland under Communism. He said you should not do something that’s just going to aggravate the government. He said the way they’re going to survive is the way the Poles survived, by keeping their identity intact until the totalitarian rule collapsed. And the way you do that is with games.
We came up with at least four games and we’re working on three of them right now. One of the people who’s a member of my team is in Germany and is working on a card game that teaches the Mongol script. A second is one that I’m going to be launching later this year, which is a version of the English game Happy Families. Happy Families is a bit like Go Fish; it’s a Victorian game in which you have typically four members of a family who are, for example, Mr. Baker, Mrs. Baker, Miss Baker, and Master Baker. Similarly to Go Fish you try to collect all the members of a family. We’re going to do this with Mongolian dinosaurs, because most of the dinosaurs that we’ve heard of were actually found in Mongolia. My daughter, Zoe, who is a super dinosaur fan and a great artist, and I are going to begin working on a dinosaur family card game, and each of the cards will have the name of the dinosaur in the Mongolian script.
While all this was being planned I was thinking about a board game and that was really how Ulus started, with the question “How can we create a board game that makes use of Mongol history and mythology and cultural tradition?”
MR: Who did you work with while developing the game?
TB: I was really fortunate in three respects. One is that for 11 years I taught at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, which had one of the more developed game programs in the country, so I had already met a number of people who had practical experience with game design, game art, things like that. I was the advisor for one student’s MFA thesis, an iPad drawing game which was meant to teach Mongolian calligraphy. And because he knew about my interest in endangered alphabets I was an advisor for him.
Additionally, my friend in Poland has a number of contacts, including a friend who is a professor of Mongolian language and Mongolian studies in Warsaw and whose husband is a preeminent Mongolian calligrapher. They were really helpful in terms of being a cultural resource and they’ll be translating the rules. They put me in touch with a couple of other people, including a Polish woman who’s one of our game artists, as well as people who are involved in Mongolian teaching and calligraphy.
The third thing I was lucky with was Twitter. So many of my contacts have come out of me just reaching out on Twitter. I even have someone who has promised me that the women in his village will sew the game mats for us.
In that sense, I don’t have a conventional development team. One of them did his MFA thesis on a game that involved studying Mongolian culture to a very considerable degree, and the other one has been to Mongolia, his father was a diplomat there. He teaches Chinese at a university in Warsaw, so he knows this landscape extremely well. At the heart of all of this is me, and I’m totally aware of how little I know. I lead with my naivete and ignorance.
MR: Were there any challenges you faced while creating the game?
TB: I hope that what we’re doing is not creating an ongoing business enterprise, but creating a resource that can then be taken over by other entrepreneurs, especially in Mongolia. It would be great to have a Mongolian publisher for this game. The government of Mongolia has made a pledge to reintroduce the traditional bichig script within the next four years. There are actually these great Youtube videos being made by the president of Mongolia, who is learning the script and has the humility to be able to show what he’s learned each week on a blackboard. I’ve been hoping we can make connections there but we haven’t been able to.
Alternatively, it would be nice to make connections with a game company in the west that has the reach to be able to publish it in a respectful way in the traditional Mongol lands in Mongolia, Russia, and China. That has not come together yet. In a sense there’s less hurry there because those people are more likely to get on board if they can actually see the game. So the important thing is to say: here’s the game, it works, it’s fun, etc.
As for other challenges…when we were doing the Kickstarter it became really clear that we’re being supported by two very different communities who overlapped a little. One was the community that typically supports the Endangered Alphabets Project; people who are interested in language and social justice and similar issues. The other community was the gaming community, and the gaming community uses Kickstarter in a very different way to the way in which I’d been using it.
The way the gaming community uses Kickstarter is to produce not just a concept but a finished product; they’re looking for people to essentially join the Kickstarter as a means of being one of the first purchasers of the game, which also has the effect of bringing the unit price down. And so they’re used to, first of all, getting a copy of the game they’ve supported and, secondly, they’re used to seeing the finished game. So some people were saying to me, “how can I support this if I can’t even see a video walkthrough?” While the Kickstarter campaign was running that was really quite challenging, and I was afraid that the people who had that attitude would overwhelm the people who just wanted to support it. In the end, the opposite happened, and we had this avalanche of people who said they couldn’t wait to see the game.
Another difficulty, especially thinking in terms of what MultiLingual readers want to know, is that this is a game that has been developed almost entirely by people who cannot speak Mongolian or Chinese or Russian, and can’t even read the script that we’re working with. I’m very good at carving this stuff and producing artwork out of it, but that doesn’t mean that I can read it. That means that the language part, the translation of the rules, figuring out how much information we need to give to players in the west about the language or the culture, is still an interesting issue. Some people have contacted me and asked if they can learn Mongolian by playing this game, and the answer is no. You can learn a lot about Mongolian culture and history and tradition and mythology, and you can pick up the basics of the script and my hope is it will fire people’s interest to learn it, but the game that involves learning Mongolian is the card game that my German friend is still working on.
We’re really proceeding along different avenues for different audiences. The Happy Families game is really to introduce kids even just to the word Mongolian. There are two really important things about that. One is something that I’ve been told by the gaming community, which is that games that include Mongols invariably portray them as warlike and savage. There are a number of champions in our game and none of them is a brute; this is simply to resurrect the notion that this is a world culture with a rich history that deserves as much of its own sense of self respect and identity as anybody else. People say, “Look at the Mongols, they basically slaughtered their way across Asia,” and I’m going “I’m English! What do you think the second largest empire in the world was? What do you think we did?”
Another one of the phrases I use about the Latin alphabet — and also the English language — is that they developed supremacy not because of any inherent qualities of the language or the script, but because at crucial moments in history we had more lawyers, guns, and money than anybody else. It’s amazing how standard it was, and even to some extent still is, in linguistics to talk about the Latin alphabet as being the most efficient alphabet, and it’s total hogwash. There was this notion that was very popular in the 19th century among British missionaries, and is currently popular among American missionaries, that we should create orthographies for people that are based on the Latin alphabet. But the Latin alphabet is the alphabet of their oppressors. It’s the alphabet of the conquerors. But there are also instances where people have adopted the Latin alphabet because it just so happened that the people who their oppressors were not European. So it’s like no, we’re going to go with the Latin alphabet because those are not the bad guys from our point of view.
MR: This reminds me of Lebanon, where there’s a movement, which can admittedly go in odd directions in other areas, to recognize the multiethnic character of the country. There are a lot of people who don’t like writing Lebanese Arabic in the Arabic script because, for them, it’s the script of the oppressor, and they prefer the Latin alphabet because it’s more neutral for them.
TB: [Companies sometimes] try to create these symbols of peace or unity, but in doing they wind up doing what I call a [US] State Department thing, which is to say “who’s ‘in charge’ in this country? OK, we’ll deal with them.”
MR: Thereby stripping the agency or recognition from indigenous or minority populations.
TB: Yes, and of course this also touches on the issue of localization. From the point of view of the dominant culture localization is “how can I sell more Mercedes in Indonesia?” But for a more sophisticated understanding of localization, especially if you want to actually be successful selling Mercedes in Indonesia, you’ve really got to understand what Indonesia is. 17,000 islands, six major religions, at least 400 different languages and 15 different writing systems, and so when you start drilling down to that level and saying “oh, this is what localization means” then you’re there with the Endangered Alphabets Project.
See also: Open World E07
MR: What has the reception to the concept of the game been so far?
TB: It’s really the Endangered Alphabets Project in miniature, in some respects. I constantly have ethical and linguistic questions about everything that I do, and others do as well. But oftentimes I’ll do a carving and post it on Facebook and somebody will say, “thank you for showing and respecting our beautiful writing.” The response that I’m getting from people in Mongolia and from the Mongolian diaspora is that they are just super enthusiastic that somebody isn’t trying to silence or demonize them. The danger there is that I take that as sort of a carte blanche, and I don’t realize that one of the characters I created is not actually a god, or is not Mongolian, or is insulting to the Mongolian people. Talk about a localization issue! And of course people in the gaming industry know this really, really well. The more characters you have, the more active the game is and the more it moves around, the more localization you have to think about. Because every one of those steps needs to have some authenticity or at least not be obnoxious.
MR: Who do you hope shows an interest in the game?
TB: I would love it if the government of Mongolia got interested in this. They face a huge task; they’re trying to teach and use a script in an entire country that has not used it essentially within living memory, so the resistance is going to be enormous. Anything they can do to make this a more fun, domestic, intergenerational thing I think that would be great. I like the idea that this is going to change the view of Mongolian culture to gamers who are only used to seeing Mongols as being enormous brutes with those wonderfully complex weapons that game artists come up with. Mongolia is a Buddhist country with a wide range of deities. The word ulus means empire or nation or land. When Genghis Khan created this enormous empire that went from Bulgaria to Korea, they actually stopped and said, “what do we want to do with this? What do we want to be, as a people?” There was a division between people who thought we are at heart a nomadic people, and people who had been to the city states of Europe and western Asia and said “that’s what civilization is.” So the game is based on this competition for the Mongolian soul, this question of “who do we want to be”? Mongolia is still the most sparsely populated major country in the world. And that’s why that wide open sky, that we in the US would think of as part of Wyoming or Montana, is a spiritual thing for them. The question is, is that who we are, or are we the major urban center of Ulaanbaatar?
[ML]Ulus is scheduled to be released in June of 2021. You can find out more about the Endangered Alphabets Project at www.endangeredalphabets.com