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Fair Game: Cultural Reference, Localization & Assumed Knowledge

Column By Lisa Jonte on April 19, 2013

You can blame my time in Age of Wushu for this column. 

When I was in college, my Anthropology professor showed us an image of a vintage-looking lamppost covered in snow and topped with a bit of holly. He asked us all to tell him what it represented. Quickly, everyone was offering variations on the same theme: Christmas. We were correct, he told us, of course we were. After all, it was easy. It was obvious. Then he asked another question that silenced the room, “How do you know that?”

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How did we know that? It’s not as if there were words on the lamp post that said, “This is a Christmas thing.” Or, for that matter, a Dickens thing, a winter thing, a holiday thing, or any of the other words we’d automatically associated with a snowy, holly-strewn lamppost.

What we hadn’t yet grasped was the idea of common cultural reference and our own immersion in it. We had spent our entire lives up until that point being taught exactly how to interpret that image, and many others, without ever realizing it. Quite simply, we didn’t know what we knew.

Flash forward a few (okay, quite a few) years and the world has gotten smaller. Thanks to the internet, societies, their cultures and their pop-cultures are now much more easily investigated and experienced… sort of. What we have now is an open window through which we can glimpse what it’s like to live other lives in other ways. But that’s all it is. While it’s sometimes easy to think otherwise, a glimpse is not the same as growing up immersed in a particular culture, unconsciously absorbing its signs and its sigils.

Enjoying acarajé and soccer is no more immersive into Brazilian culture than burgers and westerns are of American culture. Not to mention the fact that culture can be broken down, not just by country, but by ever smaller localities, so that there are unique images, phrases and habits even within a larger societal context. (Compare the image of say, a small New England town with that of Taos New Mexico and you begin to see what I mean.)

I believe this is why import games, no matter how good, often have such a difficult road to success. When taken out of their original context, away from a native audience that understands automatically what all those visual cues and spoken references mean, these games no longer make as much sense. It’s not that the games themselves are necessarily bad, or poorly made, but that they are not sufficiently prepared for an audience that isn’t equipped to understand them. Worse, that audience isn’t given the tools to really figure them out.

With AoW in particular, something’s been nagging at me almost since the beginning: I don’t have the knowledge the game creators assume I have. This isn’t just a question of translation or even of localization, it’s larger than that. Or rather, it is localization, but there is so much more to true localization than most importers seem to understand or bother with. It’s not enough to translate the words and adjust the syntax for a different language, there’s a whole new vocabulary that must be learned and understood before anything else can really make sense. Unfortunately, it’s that vocabulary that usually gets short shrift, rendering the translations only semi-comprehensible.

For example: A game can spend a great deal of game time instructing players about their Xnoodle, carefully laying out the many pathways to Xnoodle enhancement. It can have NPC after NPC lecture players endlessly about the importance of Xnoodle, even sounding alarms and throwing up warnings when Xnoodle isn’t being allocated correctly. But unless that game also demonstrates what Xnoodle is, with definition and corollary, no one outside of its original audience in the Condo Belt of Nix is going to get it.

The problem for game devs is that they don’t see their own cultural immersion as anything other than just the way things are because, for them, it is. They’re unlikely to know what needs to be explained to a new audience because, for them, everything in their game makes sense; They don’t know what they know.

Now, I would argue that the burden of localization should fall on the game importer. After all, they’re bringing the game to new shores, if they’re asking people to pay for it, then those people have the right to expect at least a basic understanding of what the heck is going on in-game. Alas, that isn’t often the case, and I don’t know why.

Is it about money? Perhaps importing publishers are unwilling to spend the extra money on a more layered localization effort? Is it about time? Just get the thing to market and damn the torpedoes? Or is it simply a matter of ignorance on the part of the importing publishers? Do they really not understand that a simple translation and some grammar fixes just aren’t enough to make a game world, borne of a completely different cultural context, intelligible (let alone enjoyable) to a new audience? It may seem unthinkable that a major corporation, investing huge amounts of cash in such an import venture, could be ignorant of something so basic, but as my classmates and I proved so long ago, it’s the basic things that are the easiest to miss. Maybe even the importers don’t know what they know.

What do you guys think? Have your say in the comments!

And now, a few responses to last column’s comment thread:

Stromm said:  “Been on the "special" cookies again eh?”

Once a year, whether I need it or not.  :)

Randayn said:  “...just didnt find it humorous”

Fair enough.

Gravarg said:  “Made me laugh.”

Glad to hear it.

Ahrien said:  “Come on, April's Fool jokes should be posted on April 1st, not 4 days later...”

Damn straight! Why, what kind of world would it be if we just let people explore humor outside of its one appointed day? And four whole days later? Outrageous! Sadly, as it’s past St. Isidore’s Feast Day, I’ll have to wait to post this response until next year.

Until next time, may your escort missions be few and your drops plentiful.

  • Milky Way image by: http://www.ForestWander.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0-us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Soccer image by Wilson Dias/Abr (Agência Brasil [1]) [CC-BY-3.0-br (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
  • All other images used are copyright free.

Check out some of Lisa's past columns:

Lisa Jonte / Mother, writer, artist, editor. One time (print and web) comics creator, and former editor of the fem-centric GirlAMatic.com; now a secretive and hermit-like prose writer, (and not so secretive nor hermit-like blogger.) A gamer since way back, (no, seriously, waaaay back) her collection of gaming paraphernalia is older than most game store clerks.

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