The Best Practices for Game Localization is a true gem of information kindly shared by the IGDA LocSIG. It contains everything one needs to know about game localization. The format in which it is shared might make it a little hard to find and digest, so I decided to split it in a format easier to share and process.
The document starts with a very interesting part on game culturalization: its definition, its different aspects and best practices recommended for game developers. Often overlooked, that step of the globalization process is critical to avoid cultural issues down the road – some other which can have disastrous effects (an example of a game discontinued for that reason is given in the document).
That specific section was written by Kate Edwards, executive director of the IGDA and expert on the topic. She first worked for Microsoft, creating the Geopolitical Strategy, which evaluates and manages geopolitical and cultural content in software products. After her stint at the IT giant, she started her own consulting firm, Englobe, engaged in content culturalization and strategy, primarily for the video game industry.
Here, she shares her knowledge in a well-written, simple yet exhaustive text, with her main points clearly organized and summarized.
What is game “culturalization”?
Culturalization takes a step beyond localization, making a more fundamental examination of a game’s assumptions and choices, and then assesses the viability of those creative choices in both the global, multicultural marketplace as well as in specific locales. While localization assists gamers with simply comprehending the game’s content through translation, culturalization allows gamers to engage with the game’s content at a potentially more meaningful level. Or conversely, culturalization ensures that gamers will not be disengaged by a piece of content that is considered incongruent or even offensive in the game’s environment.
Cultural mistakes often prove to be costly for game developers and publishers – not just the loss of potential revenue but the greater effects of negative public relations, damage to corporate image, and strained relations with the local government. In the worst-case, a local government may not only ban the game but take more direct action against the company, including detainment of local personnel for questioning and even incarceration.
Levels of game culturalization
The need for game localization is a well-known necessity within the game industry; however the need for culturalization remains relatively unrealized. Culturalization isn’t just a specific task; it’s also a broader intent for all international adaptation of content. In its most basic form, content culturalization can be viewed as the following three phases:
- Reactive culturalization: Make the content viable; i.e., avoid disruptive issues to allow a game to remain in the target market.
- Localization & Internationalization: Make the content legible; i.e., perform “typical” localization to allow the game to be understood.
- Proactive culturalization: Make the content meaningful; i.e., adapt and provide locale-specific options to allow the game to be locally relevant.
In regards to these phases of culturalization, some clarification may be helpful:
Localization is critical but the process of achieving legibility through translation is not the only step required in preparing content for other cultures. This is true for video games as much as it’s true for every other type of content.
It may be argued that a game title should be “legible” before it is “viable.” But a government will restrict a game based on sensitive content regardless if it’s localized or not.
These phases are not a hierarchy. As with localization, culturalization takes place in various stages within the typical game development cycle and is a coordination of various tasks and priorities being orchestrated across the entire development process.
Top Four Cultural Variables
The effort of thinking outside our given cultural worldview often makes it difficult for a game designer in one locale to be aware of the issues that could cause problems in another locale. However, by considering at least the following four cultural variables that most often generate conflict between the game’s context and local cultures, it is possible to reduce the potential for issues to arise:
- History: Past and Present
The issue of historical accuracy is one of the most sensitive issues for local markets. Many cultures are extremely protective of their historical legacy and origins, so any alternate or inaccurate history can yield strong, emotional backlash. History is a compelling topic, but it’s rarely possible to provide the full context of a historical event in a game. But it’s not only distant history that can be problematic but recent history can be a very sensitive topic as the memory of the events and outcome are very fresh in people’s minds.
- Religion and Belief Systems
Game content creators need to be sensitive to the underlying mechanics of the cultures into which their game titles are to be released. In general, a society based on sacred rules tends to be less flexible and yielding to the context in which information appears because they are following what they consider to be a higher standard than human judgment; i.e., if the problematic content appears at all, regardless of context, then there is potential for backlash.
- Ethnicity and Cultural Friction
Besides the more volatile issues of history and religion, there are many of issues that fit under a broad category that addresses various forms of disagreement, misperception, attitude and ongoing friction between cultural groups. Chief among those is the use of ethnic and/or cultural stereotypes and the perception of inclusion and exclusion with a negative bias towards a specific group.
- Geopolitical Imaginations
National governments often reinforce their local worldview and the extent of their geographic sovereignty through digital media, including online maps and video games. This involves a situation where the government claims certain territories and they expect those territories to be shown as integrated with their nation, whether it’s on a functional map or in the world of a video game (hence the term “geopolitical imagination,” as the depiction they’re demanding doesn’t reflect reality). With some governments, such as China and India, there is no room for error on this issue as they maintain laws that dictate how national maps must appear or how their local political situation must be shown.
Culturalization Best Practices
The underlying principle of culturalization is that a minor investment of time and effort during the game development process will offset a major loss of time, money and public relations in resolving post-release issues. Fortunately, there are some key steps developers can take to be more proactive about their culturalization strategy.
- Attain a basic awareness: A key step is to attain a fundamental awareness of the potential for cultural issues; content creators and managers need to understand that cultural issues can occur and in which key markets and which key types of content. For example, most people are aware that China, India, Korea, and the Middle East can be sensitive markets. Also, many people know that certain types of content can become a real flashpoint for backlash, such as maps, flags and historical information.
- Ask questions: The goal isn’t to establish subject-matter expert proficiency, but to ask appropriate questions during development. For example, the game Kakuto Chojin (2002) contained a brief audio track with a chanted portion of the Islamic Qur’an, resulting in widespread backlash that eventually caused the product to be discontinued (note: this happened after an official protest from the Saudi Arabian government. Despite the problem being known at the time of the release, the developer assumed the issue wouldn’t be noticed. There have later been attempts to release an amended version of the game).
This issue could have been avoided if someone had asked the question: “From where did these lyrics originate and what do they mean?” If something doesn’t seem quite right – even if the exact reason isn’t known – raise the issue immediately.
- Create accountability: In order for culturalization to be successful, it must be treated as a standard component of the development cycle. This means that responsibility for the process should be assigned to a specific person/team, often times the content coordinators and/or editors. Also, a new bug type “cultural” or “geopolitical” or whatever appropriate should be created in the bug tracking system to ensure the issues are flagged and resolved.
As mentioned previously, culturalization is most effective the earlier it’s applied to game content, thus engaging in team discussions around meaning, intent and purpose of characters, plots, environments, objects and so on during the conceptual stages can often catch the majority of potential issues. Here are the fundamentals of identifying potential issues:
- Context proximity: Stated simply, contextual proximity is the concept that the closer a content element approaches the original context in person, place, time and/or form, the greater the potential for cultural sensitivity. Developers should be looking for content that mimics real world locations, buildings, people, events, religions, nationalities, ethnicities and so on, and then evaluating the degree to which the content resembles its real world inspiration.
- Leverage external resources:
a. Text references: Many reference works can be useful for basic research, such as cultural studies, country-specific guides, symbol dictionaries, encyclopedias of religions and deities, etc.
b. Online research: Wikipedia, official government websites, non-government organization (NGO)
websites, religious organizations, etc.
c. Local opinions: Accessing the knowledge of people from a specific locale and/or culture can be particularly useful. If you work in a large multinational company, make use of the internal diversity of the company and ask your fellow employees for opinions. Alternatively, you can solicit opinions online in various forums (e.g., Yahoo Answers). This ad hoc opinion gathering may contain subjective viewpoints, but a large enough sample can reveal a clear pattern.
d. Subject-matter experts: If the above forms of research do not yield clarity, seek out people in different fields such as history, cross-cultural studies or geography.
Just because issues have been identified in the research, it doesn’t mean every potential issue needs to be fixed. After identifying potential cultural issues, the key in next stage is to be able to effectively determine the “must fix” issues.
- Triage the found issues: Separate the “overt offenses” – the obvious things that you know for certain will be a problem from the “reasonable risks” – the things that might raise some concerns but won’t likely prevent a game from staying in the intended locale.
- Document your choices: Every game publisher has a choice as to whether or not to change sensitive content. Most companies do but there are times when it may not make sense to make even a minor content change because the issue is borderline sensitive. In such cases, it’s critical to document the decision-making in a defensive explanation, in case it might be needed if a government or consumers raise the issue.
Implement with precision
Many game designers carry a preconceived notion that culturalization is about making massive changes and rethinking the entire game idea. This is a misperception, and one key reason why many don’t confront the geopolitical and cultural aspect at all, as they believe it’s going to be too disruptive. This highlights one of the most important principles of culturalization:
- Be surgical: Make the most minimal change to the least amount of content. Only change what really must be changed in order to ensure distribution to the game’s target market. In the majority of cases with cultural issues, the resolution is a small, precise fix of a specific symbol, or word, or character design; it’s usually not a major issue such as the entire game’s premise (although this can occur).
Create the game you want to create, but don’t forget the global, multicultural audience who will be participating in your vision, and hopefully enjoying it without any cultural disruption. Well-executed culturalization within a development cycle isn’t turnkey; it takes time to implement successfully. However, the benefits to a company’s content quality, government relations, and public image amongst local gamers will prove to be a valuable long-term investment.