We all belong to a specific culture. Every day, we unconsciously carry out hundreds of actions that distinguish us from members of other cultures. The way we brush our teeth, the way we look, the places we go, the things we like — all this makes us bearers of a specific culture. Involvement in a specific culture isn’t just about history, art and politics, it’s the vast collection of details that make up a unique reality. When we talk about video game development, we primarily mean the creation of unique worlds, unique realities that will virtually always contain subtle or overt references to existing cultures.
We’ll start with a little theory. Localization can be reactive or proactive. Reactive localization is about removing everything that could negatively impact the player’s experience. This is the minimum level required to ensure smooth reception of the game by users. That’s why, in the version of The Witcher for the Asian market, Yennefer had to put on some underwear.
Proactive localization aims to add something enjoyable and familiar to the player. For example, releasing special patches or DLC for specific languages.
What are the main things to be aware of?
Politics and History
I’ll start off with a prime example that shows just how deep culturalization problems can go. It’s about Age of Empires, where armed Japanese forces invade the Korean Peninsula and seize power. The action takes place in the middle ages and has a historical foundation. Despite this, the Ministry of Information in Korea announced that nothing like this had ever occurred in history. Even though historical documents indicate otherwise. Microsoft had no choice but to release an update just for Korean users and change the course of history in the game.
Faith and Religion
Religious beliefs are such a sensitive topic that we often try to avoid discussing them even with close friends and family. Nevertheless, when moving into new markets, we need to know our stuff and take a respectful approach to anything that could offend players. The screenshot shows the game based on the Ultimate Fighting Championship brand, where Khabib Nurmagomedov makes a Christian sign of the cross. But both the developer and the publisher had overlooked the fact that the real-life fighter was Muslim.
In the screenshot from Twitter, you can see Khabib calling on EA for equal treatment, saying that he and many of his fans are Muslim and this fact must be respected.
The law is one thing you can’t ignore. If in Russia, alcohol, cigarettes and drugs are not permitted to be shown, then no one would even consider leaving images associated with these things in films or advertising. We must respect the law of other countries. Right now, the Chinese government imposes the harshest censorship rules. It’s not just games that must be checked, but updates such as DLC.
In China, you can’t show violence, murder, of course, any skeletons or blown-off limbs. The image of a skeleton, which is incredibly popular in video games, is offensive as it shows disrespect to the dead. Skeletons, werewolves, zombies, mummies, even assassins — the list of forbidden topics in China is very long.
Images of gushing blood and blown-off body parts are also totally prohibited in Japan.
Developers resort to some dubious tactics to get around these restrictions by modifying the image:
By making something black and white:
By having something happen off screen:
In Europe, Germany poses the most difficulties for developers. According to our research, Germany is one of the most attractive countries for developers in Europe.
Everybody knows that references to Nazism, depictions of the swastika and images of Hitler are prohibited in Germany. In Wolfenstein: The New Order, Hitler’s mustache had to be shaved off so he wouldn’t be recognized.
Another quirk of German law is the ban on the depiction of murder, meaning that some characters have to be turned into robots.
When discussing market leaders, you’ve got to mention the USA. America is famous for being a free country, but this fact places a whole load of restrictions on developers. Everyone is probably familiar with the American preoccupation with discrimination of all kinds, from gender to race to religion. When you release a game in the US market, you have to try to please everyone.
The screenshot shows a completely innocent detail that the developers had to redraw. Here we have Lenora, the only black character in the Pokémon series, and in the Japanese version nobody had any problems with her clothing. But for American audiences, seeing an apron on a black girl was like waving a red rag at a bull, so Lenora had to be dressed in a more neutral shirt.
Traditions and Beliefs
It’s common knowledge that Japan is quite a strange country. One of the weird things you should know about is the Japanese government’s opposition to four-fingered characters:
In the comments under our last article, many people rightly pointed out that they want to play a game in its original form. There aren’t many examples of excessive culturalization: in general, developers and publishers are reasonable people who understand that dressing Godzilla in a fur hat and giving him a balalaika isn’t a great idea. The most striking example is probably the attempt the assimilate Spiderman in India.
So, What’s the Takeaway?
For some, working in the games industry is a way to make money, while for others it’s a way of worship to the art. There are many interesting indie developers who refuse to adapt their games to suit regional circumstances, explaining that to do so would spoil the vision of the game entirely.
As a process and a service, culturalization can’t dictate terms, it can’t stop a developer from doing what they want. What culturalization can do is advise and point out instances in a game that have the potential to be sensitive for a particular audience. That’s why the final decision always rests with the developer.