Off the Map: Inclusion and exclusion

If you originate from the United States or if you’re currently based in the United States, I’m sorry to inform you that you’re not allowed to read this column. Please stop immediately and turn the page! Yes, I’m serious, stop now — those of US origin are restricted!

Now assuming you didn’t heed my warning and you are from or based in the United States (and you’re still reading, I hope), what was your initial reaction to the previous paragraph? Even if you realized that this was an illustrative tool being employed, there may have been a slight feeling of being put off, insulted or excluded on the basis of your nationality. Such feelings are completely natural, as one of the most powerful sociological forces with which we deal as content creators and distributors is the perpetual balance between inclusion and exclusion.

The topic of cultural inclusion and exclusion is vast in scope, but let me focus on the fundamentals in the light of content development and provide some pertinent examples. In essence, inclusion and exclusion are at the core of a broader category of anthropological friction often called cultural dissonance, which is a wide range of issues that may cause negative thoughts and feelings about a specific culture, nationality, ethnicity and so on. While distinct subcategories do exist within cultural dissonance, many of them share some facet of the inclusion/exclusion dynamic: one group being actively included at the expense of another group, or conversely, a group being actively excluded, which in turn benefits another group.

At the core, this topic concerns the perception of inherent equity and fairness. At the very least, we all want to be treated on par with our fellow human beings, regardless of any factors that make us different from them, whether it’s our language, our national origin, our skin/eye/hair color or whatever else. Everyone is aware of the biases of our cultures and the baggage that has been dragged along with them through history, but we thankfully live in an age where parity in treatment is no longer an anomaly, but an expected right. Some cultures continue to emerge in their understanding of this idea and it will take time. But as we create content and develop market strategies, we can and should act now with the conviction that diversity and equity are expected (while, of course, keeping a careful watch on how such concepts are locally perceived).

Many examples of inclusion and exclusion have arisen over the decades in product content and design as well as marketing. In my own time, I’ve seen it arise over both very simple and then very complex issues. For example, for the release of a major business productivity software package some years back, it became obvious that in order to appease the cultural forces of the region, we had to ensure that the Arabic and Hebrew versions of the software were shipped on the same day. This was considered to be fair and equitable, to avoid reinforcing a persistent notion that one group was being favored over another — and to be clear, there had already been some perception of this being the case due to prior product launches. Likewise, we of course had to ensure that the simultaneous releases didn’t conflict with both Jewish and Muslim religious observations. Some managers on the project didn’t see the point of holding up Hebrew’s launch for Arabic, but then they didn’t have a clear grasp on the long-term tensions of the locale and how far-reaching they can be. The company could have explained that the language roll-outs were merely dependent on localization resources and such, but such business-focused rationales are often viewed as weak excuses for covering an intentional slight.

While many different cultural variables may trigger a sense of unfair inclusion or exclusion, perhaps none has been more powerful and negative than when it occurs in reference to ethnicity. There are many reasons for this, of course, but it’s fundamentally connected to the reality that there are some things we simply cannot change about ourselves, and to be discriminated against on that basis, even unintentionally, is a cause for alarm. Many times the offense is completely accidental due to agents being poorly informed outside their own cultural context, but that often doesn’t lessen the potential feelings of exclusion.

One recent example of this relates to a marketing campaign for Microsoft’s IT Tools. The marketing for the United States included an image of a business conference room and table, at which sat an Asian-American male, an African-American male and a Caucasian woman — all smiling at a screen as they enjoy using the product. The image is a now-common and proper demonstration of diversity in the workplace. In the Polish version of the same marketing, the African-American man’s head was replaced (rather poorly I might add) with that of a Caucasian male. Considering that Poland is 97% ethnic Polish and the African-origin population in Poland is about 1%, from a pragmatic perspective of reaching one’s customer base, this might seem like a somewhat rational decision. However, once the discrepancy between the two versions was discovered in the media, it caused quite a stir, with allegations of racism and bigotry. After all, oddly enough, with Poland having a less than 1% Asian population, the Asian male was not revised.

In an example from the gaming world, the 2009 iPhone game Pocket God evoked an antiquated stereotype for a specific ethnicity. In Pocket God, the player is essentially the “god” over a small fictitious island and has the ability to torment small indigenous people though activities such as feeding them to sharks, dropping them from great heights, having killer ants devour them, getting a volcano to erupt and spew hot lava on them and so forth (Figure 1). When confronted about the portrayal of the natives, Bolt Creative, the game’s developer, was adamant that the designers did not intend to depict any specific culture or nationality, and I don’t doubt them. However, the fact that the game’s island artwork contained a very distinctive moai head statue from Easter Island, which is associated only with that island and its culture, didn’t help the developer’s claim. With the various visual cues on the island, the native outfits and their darker skin color, it was enough for Pacific Islander advocate groups to protest the game as perpetuating the “primitive” ethnic stereotype and being exclusionary to Polynesians.

From another gaming example in 2009, the title Resident Evil 5 generated significant negative publicity due to its perceived racism and again, perpetuating the feeling of exclusion. In the game, a clean-cut, white Caucasian protagonist is seen roaming through a village in sub-Saharan Africa and gunning down unarmed, obviously impoverished African villagers. Even before the game was released, several commentaries on the imagery started to circulate and a broader discussion on the subject ensued in the press, in blogs and so forth. While the publisher Capcom was quick to point out that the African villagers were in fact infected, zombie-like humans who were out to kill the protagonist, the stark imagery of a white man killing black villagers evoked powerfully negative feelings from history. Exclusionary concepts of the “great white hunter,” the “dark continent of Africa” and so forth quickly came to mind for many people. The developers had a clear reasoning for the conflict within the game, which upon its release actually portrayed a greater diversity of zombie targets for the protagonist.

Such backlash in both of these game examples provides ample reason for a content publisher to stop and question if mimicking that kind of negative imagery and thus evoking ethnic stereotypes is appropriate, even if it’s completely unintentional. As a general rule from my experience, when content creators employ stereotypes, it’s simply an overt sign of creative laziness. Would portraying less inflammatory imagery have negatively affected sales in any way? It’s highly doubtful because the target gaming audience usually isn’t going to complain about the content at this level, especially on such a highly anticipated title. The unintended, non-gaming audience did take notice but the impact was negligible; both games became highly successful titles despite the concerns of portraying culturally and ethnically exclusive scenarios.

As we’re developing content and carefully preparing it for international distribution, I’d like to strongly emphasize that considering the issues of inclusion and exclusion in your project is one of the most important and fundamental steps in effective content culturalization. One of the best ways to do this is to simply strive to consider the viewpoint of your customers; to put yourselves in their shoes. What if you were on the receiving end of your product, marketing, or language and locale choices? How would you feel if your cultural identity was misrepresented or not represented at all in the product? Obviously we can’t simship for hundreds of languages and locales and be 100% inclusive in order to appease everyone. Practical business concerns force us to be selective, but the more we can be aware of our customers’ needs, their potential perceptions and their market conditions, both existing and emerging, the better prepared we’ll be to anticipate and avoid potential inclusion/exclusion issues.