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Written by Steven Bussey
on April 15, 2020

Part 4: Culturalization

Across the 190+ countries of the world there are over 7 billion people, of which more than 2.5 billion are gamers. This means that there is a multiplicity of ethnicities, cultures, government policies, religions and other meaningful aspects of global diversity that must be duly respected in games localization for international markets.

Culturalization goes deeper than standard translation in order to produce the richest possible experience for gamers in every region of the world while simultaneously avoiding any content that might mar or diminish the overall experience, or worse, offend anyone. But, culturalizing a game is also critical because many players are not able to understand and get interested in a game if they can't relate to it.

Table of Contents

  1. Why is culturalization important?
  2. When is it time to begin game culturalization?
  3. Degrees of game culturalization
  4. Potentially problematic cultural variables
  5. Culturalization process planning
  6. Evaluate the level of seriousness of issues
  7. Takeaway

1. Why is culturalization important?

Culturalization takes localization and brings it to the next level. It is the process of evaluating the suitability of your game's creative elements and adapting them for international markets at national, regional and local levels. Culturalizing a game enables users to better relate to the content and more meaningfully engage with it. More importantly however, it helps ensure that people will not find any elements to be incongruous with the context within which their experience grounds their understanding of the storyline. In addition, it also helps prevent any interpretation of characters or the game environment as offensive to cultural norms or morals.

Insufficient culturalization can be a costly mistake for game companies. Extreme losses of revenue and brand reputation, and difficulties with national and local governments, can cause serious jeopardy for the future of a game and may even put the company at risk of unexpected consequences.

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) emphasizes the need for game developers and LSPs to be diligent in observing national, regional and local considerations of historical, ethnic, religious, and geo-political identities and beliefs. Regional lockouts are sometimes enforced on unculturalized materials, which includes games. There even exists the very real risk of government intervention and detainment of in-country game company employees for investigation and potential imprisonment.

2. When is it time to begin game culturalization?

Start collaboration as early as possible in the development process, and keep it engaged throughout product development. Work with the culturalization project team and other people who are knowledgeable about the acceptability of the game's storyline, characters, dialogues, texts, symbols, objects, voiceover factors, references, etc.

Culturalization carefully scrutinizes all game elements to identify and modify anything that may affront cultural sensitivities or inhibit users from fully experiencing the game as the designers intended.

3. Degrees of game culturalization

In its simplest terms, culturalizing a video game means scrutinizing and modifying it to the extent necessary (from a single small bit to the entirety of its content) in order to:

  • Ensure that the game can be optimally understood by users in each target market.
  • Make the game relevant to users in every local market for which it is localized.
  • Help eliminate issues that might lead to sales being reduced or for the game to be prohibited in a market.

4. Potentially problematic cultural variables

It can be difficult to imagine many of the issues that can be triggered by what appears to be an entirely innocuous part of a video game. According to the IGDA Best Practices, there are several areas of cultural differences that are most likely to engender conflict between game developers and users (or the public at large):

1. History and origins

Some cultures are strongly protective of their distant and recent regional historical narratives, and any inaccuracy relevant to those accounts can trigger intense negative emotional reactions.

2. Religion and beliefs

Religion and beliefs are extremely delicate topics around the world and should be addressed with the utmost respect and balance when portrayed through media and entertainment. Though religious faith can often times be a very interesting concept or theme that many games seek to tackle, direct reference or overt allusions to real-world religions are strongly recommended against at risk of offending religious communities around the world.

3. Ethnic stereotypes

Stereotyping, or any content that may be interpreted as racially or ethnically insensitive, or lacking  inclusiveness, is likely to be recognized as inappropriate and offensive. As with religion, though racial issues are a topic that games can tackle in different forms, it should be done appropriately and with grace.

4. Geopolitical positions

Governments sometimes claim territories and expect to have them depicted as part of their nation on maps and even in digital media like video games. China, for example, does not permit errors in this area, so game developers must therefor be very careful of their depiction of real-world locations and maps.

5. Culturalization
process planning

It can be costly to approach culturalization without implementing a planned localization process to do it. Continuing to correct problems here and there, as they appear, is inefficient and can cause oversight and overall localization costs to escalate.

During the initial creative stages, spend adequate time on team discussions about the game's environment, storyline, subplots, character personas, symbolic elements, etc., and strive to identify potentially problematic features.

  • Research thoroughly — Consult as many sources in your own area and in the area for which the game will be localized as necessary to learn about the culture — national, regional and local —and its norms and customs. Talk to academic, commercial and social authorities on the area. Ask them to examine the game elements and provide feedback. Conduct cultural research through studies, country-specific guides, symbol dictionaries, government and NGO websites.
  • Test with gamers in the target market — Have locals play the game. Collect and analyze feedback on the game's cultural fit to help determine whether you can reasonably proceed with localization, or whether segments of your game require revision or abandonment.
  • Make game elements editable — Scrutinize symbols, text, character references, objects, storylines, musical styles and other elements. Find out if they're allowed and learn how they should be used. Code them to allow editing in order to avoid having to undertake major changes to meet market expectations.
  • Resonant aspects — The closer game content is to real-world things and people, the more likely it can offend sensitivities. Analyze game content that resembles real-world people, places, things, events and especially anything that is symbolic to nationalities, ethnicities, religions, political philosophies, etc.

6. Evaluate the level of seriousness of issues

When your team identifies a potential conflict between a content element in the game and the cultural principles of a market targeted for localization, the next step is to determine whether the level of risk that the problem presents is Level 1 or 2, and respond accordingly:

Level 1: Tenable risk — An element of content that will possibly be noticed and stimulate some moderate level of concern within the target market, but that is unlikely to cause the game to either fail commercially or be prohibited from sale in the area.

  • SOLUTION: It may be more practical overall to not invest time and energies in even minor modifications if the questionable piece of content presents a tenable level of risk of significantly offending cultural sensibilities. Document your evaluation and decisions to use various content elements, for future reference, if there is government or retail reaction that requires a response.

Level 2: Untenable risk — A culturally offensive element of content that can be expected to trigger significant negative reaction within the target market.

  • SOLUTION: Developers should determine the simplest way to resolve the risk with minimal compromise to the integrity of the game's overall character and of the experience intended for users per the game designer's vision.

7. Takeaway

Respecting and caring about the beliefs and experiences of others is at the core of commitment to effective culturalization. There are numerous banned or censored games to date that are deemed too culturally controversial for distribution in various international markets. When developers neglect to refine games as needed, or they release them without regard for cultural sensitivities, the products are at an increased risk of thwarted revenue growth and ultimate failure in some key markets. To help ensure sustained global success, early implementation of the culturalization is recommended.

So with that the culturalization phase is over. Part 5 will have us look at the benefits and recommendations behind internationalization. Despite how similar this might sound to previous topics, this refers to the process of purging any coding in games that varies by the language and culture of certain markets, essentially allowing for much greater adaptability in processing game content into different languages and cultures. We look forward to seeing you there.


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