We’ve talked a lot about game localization—how it works, the setup of localization projects, and file management in the localization process. Today, let’s switch to a new topic: game culturalization, which is often confused with game localization.
Read on to learn about the following:
- What is game culturalization?
- What is the difference between culturalization and localization?
- What should be considered when adapting your game to a new culture?
- Some benefits of game culturalization.
What is game culturalization?
Game culturalization is a process of adapting a game to a different culture by looking deeply into the basic assumptions, values, ideologies, and designs of the game to see whether the game adheres to local cultural sensibilities.
While the majority of the work falls to the in-game translation during the localization process, culturalization focuses on all linguistic and non-linguistic aspects of the game, such as the storyline, use of color, graphics, the names of the characters, and the game scenario (e.g. music, promotional banners, and UI) to ensure all of them are respectful, suitable, and meaningful to the local culture.
There are two types of culturalization in practice:
Reactive culturalization is the inspection and removal of anything that might be uncomfortable or misunderstood, or even cause anger among local players;
Proactive culturalization is actively creating culture-specific content that resonates with local players.
However, not all players like to play culturalized games. Some rather enjoy the exotic atmosphere and quirkiness of the original games. So, it’s important to strike a balance between preserving the original game design and adapting it to another culture.
Five central pillars of game culturalization
To achieve the goal of culturalization, let’s take a look at the five main cultural elements you should consider, and how they influence the designs of games in their localization process.
Using a locally well-known and beloved period in history as a game’s setting can generate high interest and engagement from local players, as we saw with the surprisingly successful launch of Total War: Three Kingdoms in China. Since almost every Chinese person knows the story of the Three Kingdoms and has read the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the game seemed more attractive and relevant to them. Chinese players contributed to the record-breaking number of preorders and became this game’s main market.
On the other hand, a negatively perceived historical era can be taboo or its presence in games may even be banned. For instance, the swastika shape is negatively linked to the Nazis in Western countries, and the German government even restricts the use of this symbol in non-educational/scientific/artistic contexts. So, when the localizers of the Final Fantasy series tried to translate the name of an in-game weapon—“卍手裏剣” (pronounced “manji shuriken” in Japanese)—into English, they decided to translate it as “Spiral Shuriken” referring to its shape, instead of its literal meaning “swastika shuriken”.
Spiral Shuriken is used by Yuffie in Final Fantasy VII.
Similarly, in Japan, due to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, the possibility for players to destroy a whole town with a nuclear weapon had to be removed from Fallout 3 to avoid potential criticism of this sensitive subject.
Different religions have their own sanctities and taboos, and it’s even more complicated when multiple religions are involved in one market.
For Muslims, setting the Holy Qur’an to music and singing it is strictly forbidden as it diminishes people’s ability to understand the true meaning of the verses. That’s why Sony decided to delay the release of LittleBigPlanet after finding out two phrases from the Qur'an appeared in one of its background songs.
For Hindus and Jains, it is blasphemous to bring non-vegetarian items into places of worship due to their belief in non-violence toward all living beings. After augmented reality Pokémon eggs appeared in temples, a petition to ban Pokémon GO was filed by one of the High Courts in India.
If Christian crosses might cause controversy in the target market, they are often either completely removed or replaced by other non-religious images. Similarly, words associated with churches, such as “God” and “Bible”, may be omitted in translation or changed to another word (e.g. translating “God” as “Master” or “Super Beings”, and translating “priest” as “shaman”).
Ethnic and cultural tensions
Video games have always been criticized for a lack of diversity, be that among the in-game characters or the game developers. In a widely referenced 2009 study, white characters made up almost 85% of primary in-game characters, while black characters only accounted for 10%. Although this research was conducted over a decade ago, black characters are still underrepresented in games and often depicted as violent or victims, while white characters are more likely to be heroes and protagonists. Putting these two stereotypes together can result in accusations of racism, like the criticism leveled at Resident Evil 5, which contains scenes of a white man shooting black zombies in an African village. Even if it’s a fictional plot taking place in an imaginary village, how these stereotypes were reproduced offended many players.
One of the criticized scenes in Resident Evil 5 where African zombies are killed by a white protagonist.
When localizing a game for markets facing geopolitical tensions, it is recommended to adapt the game to each culture, even if they share a similar culture and language (e.g. the complex situation between China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan). It may be hard for an outsider to spot such cultural differences, but it’s very easy for local players to recognize if a game is localized for them or for their counterparts.
In 2016, Nintendo changed the name of Pikachu in Hong Kong from “Bei-Ka-Ciu” (written “比卡超” in Chinese), which sounds more like Cantonese pronunciation, to “Pi-Ka-Qiu” (written “皮卡丘” in Chinese), which sounds like Mandarin Chinese. As Cantonese has been suppressed by the Chinese government, players felt like the new name neglected their identity as Hong Kong people, and it even led to protests and petitions.
Sound & music
In our previous interview with the video game music expert and composer Pierre Lange, we learned that one of the significant differences between game sounds in the West and the East is that Asian players are used to sounds with a high frequency—louder, more aggressive, and crowded—while European and U.S. players are used to low-frequency sounds with more sub-bass, deep impacts, rumbling, and focused sound design.
As with game sounds, music can be perceived as pleasant in one culture but as unpleasant in another. Music culturalization ensures the feeling in a specific scene is correctly presented to players to remind them of something or to trigger a specific emotion. There are several ways to achieve this goal, such as recreating the melody, translating the lyrics, or subtitling the lyrics.
In Animal Crossing, the English localized version of Doubutsu no Mori+, the melody of one of Kapp'n's songs sung on a boat was recreated from a Japanese style to a Western style based on Western sea shanties to give Western players more of a feeling of being on the ocean.
Japanese version (00:23-1:32)
English version (00:17-1:24)
Color is a powerful element that can affect a person’s mood, emotion, and even behavior. Its meanings are culturally constructed and sometimes are dramatically different across cultures. For instance, red means danger in many Western countries as it is usually associated with blood or fire, but it is seen as holy and symbolic in India, and represents luck and happiness in China. As with sound, using the right color ensures you convey your message with the right emotion to your players.
In Angry Birds 2, the background color of the login page was changed from light blue to red in the Chinese version. Culture-specific elements such as Lunar New Year’s firecrackers and traditional hats were added as well to make it more appealing to Chinese players.
Angry Birds 2 English version (left) and Chinese version (right)
The design of characters differs a lot in the West and East. Some European/U.S. players feel that Japanese game characters are too childlike and cartoonish (e.g. using high-school-aged protagonists or designing characters with disproportionately big eyes). Even when a character is designed to be realistic, it still cannot satisfy Western players’ expectations. On the other hand, some Japanese players think games from Europe/the U.S. are too dark and realistic; they want something cuter and more energetic.
In the original Japanese Fatal Frame, the protagonist Miku Hinasaki is a 17-year-old high school girl wearing a school uniform with a ribbon, which is a pretty common outfit for Japanese students. When localized into English, she aged a few years into her early twenties, gaining more mature clothing and losing the ribbon. Additionally, she has lighter colored hair and more clear-cut Western facial features in the English version.
Miku Hinasaki in the Japanese version (top) and the English version (bottom)
Small items might seem unremarkable if we look at them separately, but all together, they constitute the game environment and make the game more meaningful to players.
In the previously mentioned example Animal Crossing, several items in the Japanese game were redesigned to adapt to American culture. For instance, herabuna (“Japanese carp” in English), which can be caught in the pond, was substituted with a brook trout, a more common type of fish in North America. The Japanese dish Kamakura hibachi was changed to Chowder. And the Cubby Hole furniture item was changed from a Japanese-style shelving unit with students’ shoes (because Japanese students have to change shoes before entering classrooms) to a Western-style one containing school supplies. Making these changes (and a lot more) can make players feel like the game world is similar to theirs. Otherwise, American players might be confused to see shoes inside the Cubby Hole.
Comparison of the design of items in Doubutsu no Mori+ (left) and Animal Crossing (right)
Is it necessary to adapt your game to the new culture?
There is no absolute answer to this question. It all depends on your needs and the nature of your game.
The first question you should ask yourself is: what do you want to bring to the players? If you want them to completely understand and resonate with the game, an appropriate cultural adaptation can lead you to that. However, if your priority is to bring an exotic gaming experience to the players, intentionally keeping the cultural elements of your original work is a better idea. The more you preserve, the more exotic the game will be. If the localization is done well, exotic games can be popular in foreign markets as well.
The second question you should ask is: what is the nature of your game? If the cultural elements in the game are less important, tweaking some designs or changing objects to fit into the target culture won’t hurt. But if the game is based on a real historical event or where the cultural element is especially crucial for the gameplay, preserving them is recommended.
Benefits of game culturalization
If you have decided which market to target from the beginning, you will have the advantage of proactive culturalization because culture-specific content can already be planned and added in the early stages of the game’s design and development process. When the game is finished, it’s usually harder and more costly to make big changes to the fundamental designs of the game.
Culturalization makes a game more meaningful, relevant, and respectful to players. Game developers can convey more accurate messages and feelings through, for instance, design, color, and sound, and create a game world that is more similar to players’ real world, which increases players’ sense of immersion. It also avoids your game offending local players or even being banned by the local government.
Animal Crossing/Version Differences. Retrieved from https://tcrf.net/Animal_Crossing/Version_Differences#Changes_made_in_Animal_Crossing.
Clyde Mandelin (2019). Religious Content Changes in Game Localizations. Retrieved from https://legendsoflocalization.com/religious-content-changes-in-game-localizations/.
Dong, L., & Mangiron, C. (2018). Journey to the East: Cultural adaptation of video games for the Chinese market. The Journal of Specialised Translation, 29, 149-168. Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/157852219.pdf.
Di Marco, F. (2007). Cultural localization: Orientation and disorientation in Japanese video games. Tradumàtica: traducció i tecnologies de la informació i la comunicació, 5. Retrieved from http://www.fti.uab.es/tradumatica/revista/num5/articles/06/06.pdf.
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The importance of game culturalization in creating a meaningful and relevant gaming experience without any cultural obstacles is paramount. At Altagram, we use our years of experience in the gaming industry to help game developers and localization managers get the results they want as efficiently as possible.
Check out our approach to game culturalization here.