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Self-Censoring Potential Content Risks for Global Audiences: Why, How and When. Tom Edwards IGDA Localization SIG Chair & Principal Consultant/Founder of Englobe Inc. 21 FEB. 2008, 12:00-1:00PM. This Lecture is About….

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Tom edwards igda localization sig chair principal consultant founder of englobe inc

Self-Censoring Potential Content Risks for Global Audiences:

Why, How and When

Tom Edwards

IGDA Localization SIG Chair &

Principal Consultant/Founder of Englobe Inc.

21 FEB. 2008, 12:00-1:00PM

Tom edwards igda localization sig chair principal consultant founder of englobe inc

This Lecture is About…

  • Understanding the challenges of Geopolitical and Cultural (i.e., Geocultural) Content Risks in order to maximize the global reach of your game title

  • Why it’s important for games to account for such risks

  • How you can “self-censor” your content (before someone else does)

  • When it’s appropriate to check for content risks

This Lecture is NOT About…

  • Learning how to make “Politically Correct” games

  • How to pander to a local government’s demands

  • Appeasing the uninformed non-gamers who legislate against games

Point 1 the basic goal of a game is to be fun
Point #1: The Basic Goal of a Game is to be “Fun”

  • Most games aspire to be “fun” for their target audience, not to be a negative or “offensive” experience.

  • Consider these broad game traits that differentiate a “fun” experience from an “offensive” one:

Point 2 two general types of game audiences
Point #2: Two General Types of Game Audiences

  • Intended: Game players and all those who generally understand the relationship of between a game’s content and its context.

  • Unintended: Non-game players who have little or no exposure to game content-context issues.

  • The Unintended group is a larger concern for content risks and geocultural issues as they are more prone to label a game as problematic or “offensive”.

  • A game’s “offensive” perception can drive revenue and popularity among the Intended audience while strongly isolating the Unintended.

Tom edwards igda localization sig chair principal consultant founder of englobe inc

Why Self-Censor for Geocultural Issues?

Because of religious issues like in KakutoChojinin 2003

  • Audio containing chanted verses from the Islamic Qur’an was mistakenly included in the game.

  • The game reached international locales via the gray market.

  • Local governments and consumers vocally protested and criticized after discovering the content.

  • The game clearly crossed over a line of acceptability and required a global recall.

  • This event had strong parallels to other events (e.g., the Danish political cartoons of Mohammed in 2005).

Tom edwards igda localization sig chair principal consultant founder of englobe inc

Why Self-Censor for Geocultural Issues?

Because of historical issues like in Hearts of Iron in 2004

  • Despite the historical setting of the game (World War II), China banned the title in response to how Taiwan and Tibet are shown in the game (as independent).

  • The territorial divisions made perfect sense for game play (ala the board game Risk).

  • China’s government was unwilling to accept the historical context of the game’s content.

  • Hearts of Iron is one of many titles that has fallen to this issue with various governments.

Tom edwards igda localization sig chair principal consultant founder of englobe inc

Why Self-Censor for Geocultural Issues?

Because of packaging issues like in Age of Empires II in 2001

  • The packaging for Age of Empires II was ineffective in Korea due to the presence of the Japanese samurai.

  • Consumers were unwilling to purchase a game title with an offensive historical image.

  • For the AoE II expansion pack, a more careful approach was taken, using a Korean figure (see below).

Tom edwards igda localization sig chair principal consultant founder of englobe inc

Why Self-Censor for Geocultural Issues?

Because of religious issues in Resistance:Fall of Man in 2007

  • Game designers for this title leveraged the Manchester Cathedral (UK) in great detail.

  • The Church of England, being against violent FPS-type games, was outraged at the cathedral’s presence in the game and demanded an apology.

  • Sony said that their cathedral only bore “some resemblance”.

  • Sony and the Church held talks to reach an agreement on the use of the Manchester Cathedral (which could not be removed from the game).

Tom edwards igda localization sig chair principal consultant founder of englobe inc

The Game Industry’s Future is Global

  • PricewaterhouseCooper’s projections for 2007-2011 indicate a global gaming market worth $48.9B by 2011 (up from $37.5B in 2007).

  • U.S. sales will lag behind the world during the next 5 years, averaging 6.7% annual growth while Asia and EMEA will average 10% or more.

  • Increasing revenue requires increasing global exposure, which means game content will be exposed to many more cultures and locales.

  • Bottom Line: Appealing to a more global audience will be critical, which requires geocultural considerations.

Tom edwards igda localization sig chair principal consultant founder of englobe inc

Localization Becomes Culturalization

  • Localization is a ‘no-brainer’ aspect of game distribution – most companies regularly localize their games into English, FIGS (French, Italian, German & Spanish) and Japanese – and increasingly into Chinese, Korean, Russian and Scandinavian languages.

  • Culturalization is a step further beyond language to take a deeper look into a game’s content choices and gauging their viability in a multicultural marketplace.

  • Localization helps gamers simply comprehend the game’s content.

  • Culturalization helps gamers potentially engage the game’s content at a deeper, more meaningful level.

Summary why self censor for geocultural issues
Summary:Why Self-Censor for Geocultural Issues?

  • Primary Goal: Protect the game developer’s (and industry’s) image and revenue stream and allow local customers to simply enjoy a “fun” game.

  • Additional Goals:

    • Minimize/Eliminate local market backlash events.

    • Build customer loyalty and trust in your content.

    • Expand revenue potential by adapting the appeal across cultural boundaries.

    • Catch issues that are NOT covered by the ESRB, PEGI, CERO and so on.

    • Review yourself, or else expect potential sanctions by government(s) – including your own.

How to self censor geocultural issues
How to Self-Censor Geocultural Issues

  • Basic Methodology:

    • Step 1: Identify the Most Overt Issues by Theme, Content Type, and Locale

    • Step 2: Triage to Determine Severity

    • Step 3: Develop Solutions and Resolve

  • Performing effective geocultural review doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time and experience.

  • Any chance of success begins with 2 absolutes:

    • Geocultural review must be integrated (and tested) within existing game development lifecycles.

    • Geocultural review must have an owner or some form of delegated individual accountability.

How to self censor geocultural issues step 1 identify the most overt issues
How to Self-Censor Geocultural IssuesStep 1: Identify the Most Overt Issues

Examine by Theme; most sensitive include:

  • Religious:

    • Any direct or indirect use of a real-world religion or belief system

    • Fictional belief systems that mimic real-world elements

    • Use of religious icons, symbols, imagery and architecture

  • Ethnic:

    • Using real-world ethnic stereotypes

    • Emphasizing cultural issues and conflicts on the basis of race

  • Historical:

    • Direct depiction or modification of historical events and people

    • Extrapolating various futures involving current cultures/governments

  • Political/Cultural:

    • Any concepts, allegories and ‘feels’ derived from real-world cultures and political systems

    • Cultural/political stereotypes and extrapolations

Example identification by theme
Example – Identification by Theme

  • What’s wrong with this picture?

  • This Elephant Demon from Jade Empire has a similar appearance to the Hindu god Ganesh, but plays an evil role in the game’s plot.

  • Changes to the costume helped distance the character from depictions of Ganesh.

Examine by content type
Examine by Content Type

  • Content which often incubates geocultural issues (i.e., just about anything the player will see, hear or read):

    • Character Design: Appearance and back story, emulation of real people, races, etc.

    • Environment Design: Use of real-world locales and landmarks, or mimicry of such locales.

    • Text: Onscreen dialog, UI elements, game documentation & manuals, real or fictional geographic and character names

    • Images: Maps, flags, banners, icons, symbols, photos, cinematics

    • Audio: Voice, music, lyrics, sound effects

    • Packaging: Box art, box text

    • Branding and marketing: Brand names, advertising campaigns, promotional items

Example identification by content type
Example - Identification by Content Type

  • What’s wrong with this picture?

  • Use of the Taiwan flag in Ninja Gaiden’s UI screen

  • Use of the sensitive name “ROC” for Taiwan

  • Use of “Country” to indicate the locale

Examine by locale
Examine by Locale

Virtually any market can hold potential risk, but

the following have proven to be most challenging:

  • North America: United States (sex, extreme violence)

  • South America: Brazil, Venezuela

  • Asia: China, Korea (south), Japan, Singapore

  • Europe: United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Greece

  • Middle East: Virtually the entire region, but particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE

Tom edwards igda localization sig chair principal consultant founder of englobe inc

Example – Identification by Locale

  • Brazil: In January 2008, a government judge banned Counter-Strike and Everquest – ruling them as “harmful for consumers’ health” and they encouraged “the subversion of public order”.

  • In Counter-Strike, a modded map had players role-playing a police officer or a drug dealer in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

  • In Everquest, a player’s pursuit of both “good” and “bad” quests was said to cause problems from the psychological burden.

How to self censor geocultural issues step 2 triage to determine severity
How to Self-Censor Geocultural IssuesStep 2: Triage to Determine Severity

  • All decisions regarding potentially sensitive content must have a rationale based on informed decision-making.

  • Key: Separate Reasonable Risks from Overt Offenses

  • Reasonable Risks: Content that might be sensitive but is a reasonable risk given the local market conditions and the context within the game.

  • Overt Offenses: Content that will always be a problem and should be avoided, regardless of context in the game.

  • No Brainers: Content that has no logical role in context.

  • Don’t guess – do the research! Utilize internal and external subject-matter expertise as needed to make a final determination on severity.

Four critical aspects of triage
Four Critical Aspects of Triage

There four aspects can aid in your discernment of the

appropriate severity for your specific content issue:

  • Context: Consider the original source of the content element and its placement in other environments.

  • Discoverability: How likely is it that a player will notice the sensitive content within the game context?

  • Defensibility: The ability to defend your content decisions from an authoritative, informed position.

  • Intent: The end user perception of your content decisions, whether general or specific.

    [Note: For a more detailed explanation of these 4 aspects, refer to my

    GDC 2006 lecture entitled “Fun vs. Offensive: Balancing the ‘Cultural

    Edge’ of Content for Global Games”]

Example of a reasonable risk
Example of a Reasonable Risk

  • In November 2007, Singapore banned the gameMass Effect due to the presence of apparent “lesbian intimacy”.

  • The ban was removed a few days later and the game allowed to release with an “M18” rating.

  • The issue has had zero effect on Mass Effect’s sales.

  • But the controversy spilled to U.S. news outlets (like Fox) who wanted to make it an issue:

Example of an overt offense
Example of an Overt Offense

  • In 2004, Ghost Recon 2 was banned in South Korea because the story featured a rogue North Korean general who was trying to consolidate power.

  • The Korean Media Rating Board (KMRB) considered the content to be too politically sensitive and they banned the game.

  • In Korea, any depiction of North and South Korea at war, or any portrayal of North Korea as a villain is considered to be very sensitive.

Example of a no brainer
Example of a ‘No Brainer’

  • In Kameo, wooden crosses were placed along a road to indicate gravesites.

  • In the completely fictional context of the game, the crosses make no logical sense; i.e., there is no Christianity in this game world.

  • The use of real-world icons to indicate similar concepts in the fantasy world is a dangerous path.

How to self censor geocultural issues step 3 develop solutions and resolve
How to Self-Censor Geocultural IssuesStep 3: Develop Solutions and Resolve

  • Based on the Step 2 triage, develop solutions that address the most problematic issues/locales.

  • Maintain your original intent as best as possible, but be responsive to local sensitivities.

  • Goal: Be surgical – make only the most minimal change to the least amount of content.

  • Err on the side of caution, if uncertain about an issue.

  • Build your defense: If you ultimately choose to include known, sensitive content then have a solid rationale for its presence.

  • Consider distribution trade-offs: Avoid 1 market to gain 5 others; limit one title to 10 countries in order to sell another title in 25.

Example of resolution 1
Example of Resolution - 1

  • You identify a single character name that is potentially sensitive to a specific cultural group. Just a few onscreen text and audio changes are needed to fix it completely.

What would you do?

  • Out of context, the name ‘Dervish’ wasn’t too sensitive.

  • Within context, ‘Dervish’ set up a potentially offensive allegory related toHalo 2’s plot – U.S. (Master Chief) versus Islam (Prophet of Truth/Covenant).

  • In the end, the character name was changed to ‘Arbiter’ – after months of arguments and escalation.

Example of resolution 2
Example of Resolution - 2

  • Buddhist prayer wheels like these were out of place in the fantasized Asian world of Jade Empire, but there wasn’t enough time to remove them.

What would you do?

  • They were revised so they didn’t behave like prayer wheels – cannot be spun, color was changed and they were made to look more like “magical” objects.

When to self censor geocultural issues
When to Self-Censor Geocultural Issues

  • AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE! The timing of geocultural review is critical to success; being very proactive is key.

  • It’s far less expensive to fix an issue early than to fix it late.

  • Address the earlyconceptual issues around the premise, plot and characters - and the rest usually falls into place.

  • Build the task into the schedule; if it’s not accounted for from Day 1, then it will never be a priority.

Ideal schedule for geocultural review
Ideal Schedule for Geocultural Review

Final Checks for All Identified Issues

General Concept

Back Story & Plot

Character Design

Environment Design

Audio (Effects, Voice)

Content Type to Review

At least 75% of potential issues are identified in during concept phase in these content types

In-game Text (UI, Dialogue)

Symbols, Icons, Flags, Maps

Marketing & Packaging




Phase of Game Development

A bad example of the when issue
A Bad Example of the ‘When’ Issue

  • This very sensitive use of the Taiwan flag in Top Spin was not only caught very late in production – but also during Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S.

  • The use of “Locale” for “Taiwan” is a good choice (instead of “Country”), but the use of the flag is still problematic.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Closing remarks
Closing Remarks

  • Create the game you want to create, but don’t forget the global, multicultural audience who will play it.

  • If you choose to include known, sensitive content then be prepared with a defensible reason.

  • Most game issues result from unintentional actions, but most offending issues are perceived to be completely intentional by the local consumer.

  • You cannot predict every issue; if you miss something and receive local market backlash – don’t overreact, but at least react! Avoid a knee-jerk action.

  • The key to managing the content risk is responding appropriately to the local market’s perceptionof your intentions (i.e. look at the issue from their perspective).

Tom edwards igda localization sig chair principal consultant founder of englobe inc

Thank you for attending.Questions or Comments?

Join the igda s game localization sig
Join the IGDA’s Game Localization SIG!

  • A Special Interest Group for Game Localization was formed within the IGDA in June 2007.

  • Goal: To provide a focal point for professionals and anyone else interested in game localization to build community, draw together best practices and processes, and emphasize the international dimension of game content development to non-localization personnel.

  • For more information, visit: