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  • Localization and the Cultural Concept of Play

    [11.01.07]
    - Miguel A. Bernal-Merino
  •  The demand for entertainment software is nowadays coming from a growing number of countries around the world, and it has prompted game publishers to partially or fully translate their products into more languages to maximize their return on investment. The game industry is making as much if not more money that the film industry, but they also need Hollywood-like budgets to be able to cover the cost of triple-A titles. For this reason, game internationalization and localization, which has historically been a matter of translating a few phrases embedded in the game code at the end of the process, is becoming an integral part of development for many game studios, and so teams are starting to address it earlier in the project.

    Game companies typically used to handle their own localization in-house; but they quickly realized that localization has nothing to do with the facile idea of substituting "Hello" with "Hallo," "Hola," or "Ciao." There is a considerable amount of linguistic, cultural, and even technical and legal factors that turn game localization into a complex process that requires careful planning and adequate expertise.

    Nowadays most companies offering translation services have had to specialize greatly since the very specific demands of each niche are too pronounced and technically costly to cater for all types of translation, or even software localization. The demand for video games in many countries around the world -- particularly the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Japan -- and the growing complexity of entertainment software products, provides enough work for localization companies to dedicate their efforts solely to game localization year round, despite the seasonal nature of game releases. 

    What's Different About Translating Games?
    Similarly to when we read a book or watch a film, in video games there is often text and dialogue to be read, listened to, or watched. Both in literary and film terms, the author or director wants us to empathize with the protagonist and follow his or her story. As readers and viewers, we accept the non-influential nature of this relationship with the central characters of these creations. We are spectators of a story we cannot change nor even influence in the slightest mode.

    Video games aim at establishing a different type of relationship with players, that of "masters of their destiny." That is not to say that games are boundless, since there is normally a very clear goal, mission, or quest to fulfill, but the way players reach that end is always unique to their personalities and is linked to their own skills in prevailing over the challenges the game throws at them.

    What this means for the localization team is that they have to enthuse players from other cultures with the same energy the game delivered to the original culture, and give them the right information, in the right style so that they can beat the game feeling like the hero the game advertises.

    The place of origin or the language of development of the game is not relevant to the game experience itself. When gamers play and immerse themselves in the virtual world of the game, the game needs to be talking to them at all levels in order not to break the suspension of disbelief. But how can developers and localizations teams achieve this?

    Cultural Customs
    To allow players to feel really immersed in the game experience, game code has to be programmed with variables whose value will change depending on their choices. The same applies to interactivity through dialogue. In those games where players are free to choose their avatar, race, gender, personality, and so forth, linguistic variables have to be built into the dialogue so that the game addresses players in specific terms, enhancing their experience. However, every language has its own grammar and inaccurate variable formulation will spoil the player's enjoyment (as we too often read in game fan forums) by producing confusing and incorrect renderings of the original script.

    Another important issue to take into account is the cultural context the game is taking for granted. We can assume that hardcore gamers around the globe share a small degree of background knowledge, but that doesn't apply to most players. The place we grow up in, the customs and lifestyle of the country we live in, can be dramatically different from one player to another. Concepts like "funny," "acceptable," "honourable" and so forth -- the very way people interact -- depend on long established traditions particular to each country or territory. Historical games have to be particularly careful about the perspective they take: frontiers in maps, how battles were won or lost. Apart from the obvious legal implications, these issues can influence greatly the number of sales in a particular country.

    The audio of a game is of great importance as well, which is why developers employ professional composers to give a signature sound to their creations. Music takes players gracefully by the hand in quite moments, adds mystery in scary passages, and stirs up excitement in action sequences. But some games feature popular licensed music, too. In these cases, developers and publishers need to consider the whether the musical artists are considered marginal, unknown, or unpopular for some reason in other countries.

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