Off the Map: Balancing powers

Trade-offs are often a part of life. Pretty much every human being understands that we have to make choices along our paths in life, choices that can have profound consequences for our ultimate destiny. In the same way, most products that are created for widespread consumption are the result of a long series of choices made by a collaborative team of people. This is actually one of the joys of content development — the widely collaborative effort that yields the culmination of diverse choices across many functional groups to arrive at a coherent end product.

However, making choices doesn’t stop when the product is finalized. When the product is eventually released, choices must likewise be made regarding the target locales and languages for localization. Most content creators and publishers develop with some idea of the languages for which they plan to localize; in video games it’s often French, Italian, German, Spanish and Japanese at the very minimum. Of course, the decision also depends on the nature of the product and its intended audiences, market segments, demographics and so on.

But beyond the language dimension, the geocultural aspects of the content may introduce a whole different set of decisions related to choosing appropriate markets. Language choice could be a simple issue of economics, such as having sufficient funds to localize into a specific language as well as having the market research to determine the potential return on investment for that specific market. However, when it comes to weighing the viability of the non-linguistic aspects of content, the choices are not so simple or straightforward. With geopolitical and cultural issues, the types of choices change significantly and are not only based in economics.

The bottom line is that as content developers for a global audience, we must realize that it’s rare that a piece of content will be universally suitable across every culture on this planet. In the realm of content culturalization, that’s usually the ultimate goal of the process, yet it’s always tempered with the realization that universal appeal and acceptance are very improbable, if not impossible. This, of course, changes with the specific nuances of the content, not just when initially released but over the “long tail” existence of the content. For example, the icon of Mickey Mouse, as universally beloved as it can be, has morphed over the years to mean different things to different cultures. Once a positive symbol of an upbeat United States, Mickey is viewed in different lights now, from a symbol of shallow American commercialism and the ills of capitalism to the negative aspects of local culture being displaced by global “retail culture.” Because of this, a company may be required to rethink its distribution strategy, whether that means excluding certain geographies as target markets and/or revising the content to better fit in more challenging locations.

Because of its unique geopolitical landscape, the Asia region serves as a good primer for how companies might need to consider — or perhaps reconsider — their market strategy and distribution plans. Let’s think about the example of employing a map in a product. While maps are often perceived by the general public as objective codifications of the “real world,” they’re actually a record of the perceptions of a series of data gatherings, interpretations and analyses by people, machines and computers. The goal might be objectivity, and it is to some degree usually achieved, but many governments use maps as a means to reinforce their local “geopolitical imagination.” In other words, many governments still use maps as a form of propaganda to constantly reaffirm their claims to both the outside world as well as their own citizens. China is notorious for this action, as every map produced by China’s mapping agency always shows Taiwan as an integral part of China, along with the entire South China Sea and parts claimed along the India-China border. This isn’t the “ground truth” reality, but rather a “local reality” into which your content must fit or else be rejected.

China isn’t alone in this practice. In Japan, maps are shown with the southern Kuril Islands belonging to Japan, while in reality they’re occupied by Russia as a result of activities during World War II. Likewise, Korea uses alternate names such as East Sea for Sea of Japan and West Sea for Yellow Sea, while also indicating the disputed island of Dok-do (Take-shima in Japanese) as wholly Korean territory. In short, each government carefully manages a virtual representation of itself for a wide variety of reasons. If a product violates the local perception, then a trade-off might become desirable or even necessary. Why a trade-off? Well, when local governments or consumers are so diverse and immovable in their viewpoints about the same piece of geography, a historical fact, the use of a specific icon or symbol, the allowance of a particular language and so on, the content publisher must decide which market it desires to serve. What factors will determine the choice?

First, it’s an issue of deciding if the market is a short-term or long-term prospect for the company. In these times, it’s often less likely that a company would consider any market to be “short-term,” especially with the more recent notion of the “long tail” and the desire to see content or products maintain a service life that is as long as possible. Content choices that maintain a level of geopolitical and cultural sensitivity for a market might allow for a short-term gain, but the reaction from the local consumers and/or government might be enough to damage the long-term potential. It likely goes without saying, but one thing that’s common across all cultures and locales is the desire to be respected. Whether intentional or not, any content that introduces the perception of disrespect also introduces the seed of long-term animosity between that local market and a specific company.

Another crucial issue, related to the first, is a specific market’s legacy or history with a specific company, originating country or type of product/content. As mentioned, if a company makes a prior mistake, it might be difficult to overcome the issue, depending on the level of offense caused. Sometimes the legacy is related to having a few or several bad experiences related to a company’s work or a specific type of content, such as video games or movies. Many times these perceptions can be overcome by simply working harder to ensure that whatever content you’re producing is particularly well culturalized for the target market. You have to take extra steps to appease prior concerns.

Lastly, the worst situation is when the trade-off is related to factors out of a company’s control, such as national origin. During times of cultural angst or geopolitical conflict, the relationship between countries can be strained and citizens will often take even simple steps in passive protest, such as not buying products from a certain country of origin. For a company trying to offer a positive service or product, this can be particularly frustrating and again requires more effort on its part to overcome any negative perceptions. Conversely, this can be frustrating for a local market that is excluded because of its geopolitical situation. Taiwan has long been at the short end of this dynamic, as many companies may favor business first and foremost with mainland China and bend over backwards to appease the Chinese government, despite the overt threat of potential government intervention.

In the end, the trade-offs become a careful dance of content design, content strategy, market research and a little bit of luck. While it’s not easy to focus on one market’s needs while potentially having to exclude another’s, this could be prudent to avoid the short-term setback in favor of the long-term gain. Just keep an eye on the changing local geopolitical and cultural landscape while maintaining ample patience. Also, designing content management systems and design processes that can be extremely flexible and account for single-market nuances can also be a real benefit in expanding to many new markets. Basically, the notion is that if you don’t want to make trade-offs in your content, then you have to make your content hyper-adaptable.