Spot On: Singin' the localization blues

As gaming goes global, opportunities to reach more consumers bring with them greater risks of inadvertently offending. The solution? Play it smart.

The internationalization of the game industry has seen explosive growth in the past few years. One look at GameSpot's news or product pages reveals that announcements on Japanese, European, and North American releases fill quite a bit of space, as more games are released in several different markets all over the globe.

Oftentimes, the localization of these exported versions is just a matter of translation, like changing "center" to "centre" or Korean to French. An increasing number of game publishers and developers are finding that localization is actually becoming a much more complex process, however, and attempts to send a product halfway around the world can lead to some severe cultural conflicts, lost sales, and public relations nightmares.

Sweden-based developer Paradox Entertainment recently ran into such problems in China. The company's World War II grand strategy game Hearts of Iron, originally released in 2002, was being prepped and localized for the Chinese market when it was banned in early 2004.

In an article released on the government's official Xinhua news service, the Chinese Ministry of Culture decries the game for undermining China's national sovereignty. One transgression cited is the portrayal of several regions, such as West Xinjiang and Tibet, as separate entities prior to World War II. Hearts of Iron also touches on the always-explosive issue of Taiwan, depicting the island under Japanese control at the beginning of the war.

Paradox was aware that there was the potential for conflict, but it didn't expect such an extreme response. "Working with World War II as in-depth as we do in our games will always be politically sensitive," says Fredrik Lindgren, head of sales at Paradox Entertainment. "However, we were very surprised by the strong reaction and decision of the Chinese government, and we would never have predicted anything like that to [have happened]."

Sometimes, however, game companies run into localization problems that arise from simple ignorance; in many cases, companies are never aware that they are treading on culturally thin ice. In 2001, for example, Nintendo’s Pokemon series was banned in Saudi Arabia for containing Zionist symbols and other religious iconography contrary to Islam. Similarly, in an early version of the Xbox game Sneakers, some of the game’s mice wore full-on Nazi uniforms, complete with SS lightning strikes and iron crosses. The only thing missing was the swastika.

"We've seen in East Asia kind of a blanket insensitivity to that issue in Europe or Israel," Tom Edwards of Microsoft notes of World War II. "It works all kinds of different ways. It's not just US to the world; it's all kinds of regions to all kinds of regions."

For Microsoft, the stakes are particularly high. "In some countries, the government might ban a game just because the game is offensive," Edwards says. "But sometimes...you could have the game affect other Microsoft products. You could have Windows and Office banned in a certain market because of a game."

To respond to such concerns, Microsoft established the Geopolitical Strategy Team, which Edwards, a former member of the Encarta development team, heads up. The group of specialists monitors Microsoft’s entire product line to ensure that it is readily exportable to any country without incident.

"We have this global business that’s built on Windows, that’s built on Office," Edwards explains. "We also have MSN out there, Encarta, and so on and so forth. On top of all of that, we’re also laying on this whole foray into the gaming world, which is exciting, and it opens up new avenues for the company. But at the same time, in terms of content and the potential for local backlash against the company, it opens up the door quite wide."

The 2002 release of Xbox fighter Kakuto Chojin, however, showed that even companies with the clout of Microsoft have yet to learn not to sacrifice cultural sensitivity for sales. In one background music track in the game, there is a sampled voice reading passages from the Koran, the sacred writings of Islam. Immediately after the game had gone into duplication, Edwards and his team discovered the passages and found that they would be highly offensive to Muslims. While it was not too late to recall the game and print new copies, Microsoft decided to go ahead and release the game.

Due to lackluster reviews, the bomb took a while to explode. The Saudi Arabian government took particular exception to the news, and Edwards even visited a number of Middle Eastern cities just to make it clear that Microsoft did care about this sort of mistake and did have people on the payroll specifically to address such issues. But even with the government mollified and the market secure for Microsoft, the Kakuto Chojin blunder still hurt the brand in the region.

Luckily for Fredrik Lindgren and Paradox, the company has yet to worry about the same issues as Microsoft; for the folks at Paradox, China is a third-tier market, at best. "Sales in China are important yet not crucial, mainly due to the big problems with piracy on the Chinese market," says Lindgren. "We did hope Hearts of Iron would be the same success as it turned out to be in the US and Europe, but now we will never find out."

Right now, the effects of such cultural misunderstandings are rather mild and might include a miffed government here and lost sales there. However, both Edwards and Lindgren sense the possibility of these effects growing worse as globalization increases. While giving talks on cultural sensitivity, Edwards still hears some developers arguing that the aspects he identifies as unacceptable are important selling points for the game.

"They tell me, 'You know, everything you just told us about what not to do is stuff that we purposely try to do because it's edgy and appeals to the demographic we're trying to sell to,'" Edwards says. "Think about it. You take people like that, who may not have the best cultural and cross-cultural exposure, then you put them in a global industry, where their actions have a global reach, and they don't understand that. Then there's going to be problems. And it's almost inevitable."

On the other hand, Paradox is resisting the urge to take features out of the game. Not only is historical accuracy one of the most important aspects for the Hearts of Iron series, but the company also sees it as a point of integrity. "We would never change game details we believe are historically correct," he says, referring to localization of Hearts of Iron II (pictured), which is due out early next year. "We feel our integrity is worth more than any income derived from changing the game due to political reasons." Lindgren expects the sequel to be banned in China as well.

However, the Chinese government's decision on Hearts of Iron puts Paradox, and other companies like it, in a tough position. Should design decisions be sacrificed to satisfy the desires of some government, or should Paradox stick to its guns and see continued blocks in the Chinese market? Will companies begin sacrificing accuracy to get a piece of the Chinese market?

"I hope not," says Lindgren, who remains optimistic about the future. "Of course, we will always be more vulnerable toward bans, since we constantly strive to be more historically correct than an average World War II 'fiction' game, but I really hope that the ban itself will create a much needed debate about freedom of speech and what objectively can be described as historically 'accurate.'"

"As the world globalizes, maybe even China will become more liberal toward how we interpret history. At least we can hope for it."

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