January 4, 2007
Localization in Video Games in The Escapist

The December 26 issue of the online weekly video game magazine The Escapist has an intriguing article that ties in to our research on cross-cultural products and the transnational flow of media properties, particularly the ways in which fans are explicitly aware--and even energized--by the fact that these media forms are transnational. Particularly, this article--called "Local Hero"--focuses on the localization process in the video games industry.

Gearoid Reidy's piece begins by comparing video game fans and the gaming industry with that of the film industry, pointing out the many differences in the localization process for games and that for movies and the very different reception for products from a different culture. Two reasons for this--the first is that there is simply a greater market for playing games that come from other cultures, particularly Japan, because Japan has long been a leader in game development. And, second, the process of localization for games is much more immersive than that for films, so that the product is transformed to be uniquely American, while still holding some authenticity from the source game, by the end of the localization process.

For someone who cannot boast to be an avid gamer, I found the article to be very illuminating regarding a process I hadn't put that much thought into--how games cross these cultural boundaries. Particularly fascinating to me was the struggle between authenticity for the source material--retaining an essence of the originating culture, while still making the references accessible to another audience. While subbing and footnotes may work well with anime and foreign language films, that type of response doesn't really work in the middle of game play, and the localization process can get awfully complicated when a game is going to be released in 10 different languages in one month. Reidy includes some humorous examples of how translation can sometimes go very wrong but also the subtleties which are often picked up on in translation that make major differences.

Capcom's Ben Judd, a producer for the company stationed in Japan, says about the localization process, "You can't please everyone. On the one hand, we have the "1337 gaming purists." They want games to feel like art, and they want to know the games have been unaltered. It's a fine line, but localization is, by its nature, going to end up altering the base content."

What is the right balance between authenticity and comprehension? Pop culture or linguistic references that require a paragraph of explanation to keep in the text can be too distracting in the immersive gaming environment in a way that they wouldn't be in fansubbing anime, for instance. The article is worth looking at because, as Reidy points out, "publishers have finaly awoken to the reality of the global marketplace - but most gamers still know nothing about the process."

Reidy goes through the process of explaining exactly how complicated translation from Japanese to English can be, as well as the challenges of multiple language localization and exactly how complicated localizing as much content as a video game requires can get.

For more on Japanese-to-English cultural connections, see last week's post about Pepsiman.

The Escapist is an interesting convergence product in itself, an online weekly journal that touts its "magazine-style updates," "print-quality writing," and "magazine-style aesthetics," combined with "the accessibility of the web." Most interesting to me is the ways in which physical print magazines still hold sway in our current media environment as being more polished, having more legitimacy, and having superior aesthetics. It's odd to see an online magazine tout "print-quality writing," since we know that there is nothing inherent in the process of printing words on a printed page that makes the ideas or the prose of high quality. Rather, The Escapist is trying to tie into a long-standing tradition of strong magazine journalism while making that type of coverage more accessible through the online magazine, PDF versions, and an RSS feed.

Thanks to David Edery for bringing this article to my attention.