Video Game Localization & Cultural Adaptation

Video Game Localization & Cultural Adaptation

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The evolution of video games since their inception in the 1970’s has exploded into the Internet Age and morphed into a worldwide phenomenon. As the games, developers, and players have become more sophisticated, entire fields and professions have been created to meet the challenges of marketing and selling the games around the world. A crucial step in that process is called localization, and is a process to adapt the game to its new target audience. Localization could simply be translating and redesigning the packaging, or more extensive such as changing the scenes in the game and the appearance of the characters to appeal to the players in the new market. Cultural adaptation, or culturalization is a more in depth process to make sure that the game is free from cultural barriers to full acceptance by gamers in the target country/culture. Language and culture go hand in hand, so the process of making sure a game is appropriate for the target language also must take the culture into consideration too.

The process of localization depends on time and budget available and can be full or partial. Partial Localization includes translation of the text within the game but not an updated voice over. Full Localization involves translating everything from the packaging and manual to the text within the game as well as creating a new voiceover. Localization in general requires a detailed planning phase to set up a timeline and define the scope of the project. After the translations are complete, testing must be done to make sure the game functions have been preserved before it can be distributed to the new market.

There are challenges for translators working in the localization industry that are similar to issues in the movie business. For example, the process of translating the Batman game from English to Spanish proved difficult because of the double meanings and slang used by the characters. The game’s dialog between Joker and his friend is very informal and intimate, and they taunt Batman by riffing on his name, the game also uses dialog between characters to give the player clues, often in the form of plays on words. This issue highlights the importance of Transcreation, which is maintaining the intended humor or covert meaning in the translation. Because the informal language and the clues do not translate easily into Spanish, translators were charged with the challenge of working the clues into the translation. Also, the version of the game marketed to Mexico had to be different than what was marketed to Spain because there are so many cultural and language usage differences.

The original localization project may have been in the early 1980’s when Japan’s creators of Puck Man (pronounced pakuhuman) decided to market the game to the US and considered possible mispronunciations and cultural connotations in English, made the wise decision to adapt the name for US players, and it became the international sensation called Pac Man.



Another less light hearted example of localization is the game called Bionic Commando. It was originally released in Japan as Hitler’s Revival: Top Secret and the villain was created to resemble Hitler. The international release of the game needed more than just a name change. As you can see in the photos, the original game’s swastikas were changed to Eagles, the story/mission of the game was modified and the villain’s name was changed.

The cultural adaptation aspect is extremely important be cause there have been examples when a game has flopped when gamers reject the adapted version because an important detail was not modified to be culturally appropriate, or even more crucial, to be respectful of the country’s religion. Similar to removing the swastikas and Nazi elements from the game, localization and cultural adaptation teams must be vigilant about portraying religion and politics in respectful ways.

Mortal Kombat Game Localization

Due to Nintendo‘s “Family Friendly” policy, the SNES version of Mortal Kombat features changes to the gameplay and replaces the blood with sweat, and most of the fatalities with less violent “finishing moves”. On the Sega Genesis version, the blood and uncensored fatalities were available via a cheat code.

Similarly, in Final Fantasy Legend II, you can see how “Bananas are going around secretly” and the player must stop a gang of banana smugglers as bananas are inexplicably banned! It turned out that “opium” in the Japanese version was changed to “bananas” in the USA version due to Nintendo’s censorship policy.

Making changes to the visual appearance of the game helps to make it more appealing to players in target markets. Research into that effect has motivated the modification of game characters to be more attractive or culturally appealing. For example, character’s body type, eyes, and clothing as well as blood and violence aspects have been modified to be suitable for gamers from different cultures. Furthermore, age ratings, i.e. officially recommended age to play a game based on its content, must be checked before localizing games for other countries.


Game Localization

Another cultural and language matter is tailoring the style of the translation within the game to the preferences of the target culture, e.g. subtitling vs. dubbing. In countries where foreign movies have been dubbed rather than subtitled, game localization teams have found that gamers prefer the same style, and hence tailored the modified games accordingly.

Currently, there is a trend to design games that are already “internationalized” so that it is much easier to market them around the world with minor modifications.


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