The Evolution of Cultural Adaptation

 

Kate Edwards is a geographer and principal consultant at Geogrify LLC.

 

Back in the earlier days of software creation and distribution — and I’m referring to around the time I started my career in the early 1990s — most software was distributed on CDs and DVDs as packaged products that were physically shipped to specific markets around the world. The source company could target their offerings to whichever markets they felt were strategically important. In the event one of their product versions ended up in a non-targeted locale, they had a degree of plausible deniability. In other words, if the software’s content was not culturally or geopolitically compatible with a local market, and the company had no intention of shipping the product there, they could blame it on the black or gray markets and sidestep (most) of their accountability.

However, through the years since my career commenced, software creation has evolved and at this point, the great majority of content is distributed via internet channels and less as physical media. Now, when content is “shipped”, it instantly becomes ubiquitous and exposed to a broad multicultural audience, often without the slow trickle effect of the past when companies had to wait to determine the compatibility. And while many companies today still operate under the illusion that their content is geotargeted and only available to whomever they determine, the reality is that all content that is released now is global — regardless of what the company intends it to be. In short, the system that fuels content creation and global distribution has dramatically changed.

Another major shift over the past couple of decades that has changed the dynamic of content creation is the emergence of social media — instant, targeted feedback from anyone, anywhere towards any content producer. In this often-harsh environment of knee-jerk backlash and reactions without context, the creators’ intentions have become mostly irrelevant. In the early days of the internet, we experienced many general discussions and mostly civil disagreements around issues discussed in nascent online forums. But these have mutated into full-blown culture wars, primarily fueled by tech companies like Meta (Facebook), Alphabet (Google), and Twitter which generate a healthy profit off the phenomenon. There do remain some online forums where people can have constructive dialogues, but most people have been siloed into online echo chambers which reinforce the inclusion of like-minded people while excluding those who may think differently — to the point of “canceling” them (effectively erasing their digital existence). As a result, we have a plethora of toxic online environments where anything and everything is seemingly offered up for a vitriolic debate — from religion to politics, from the latest game release to simple meme reactions.

The upshot is a wide range of effects depending on the type of media scrutinized by the online masses. For films, it could mean being banned in a specific market, or at least edited for content sensitivities. In the case of video games, broader culture is still confirming their reality as an artistic medium that can address the same serious, challenging topics as films or books. But games still must cope with uninformed people (including many politicians) who conclude that if a game isn’t “fun”, then it must be regulated or banned. This kind of thinking persists today, even though we’ve seen signs of positive change — such as the US Supreme Court’s ruling in 2011 that games are protected free speech on the same artistic level as film, literature, and art.

So simple distribution is no longer the issue — we must also manage the immediate reactions from a massive online audience and the often-accompanying toxicity. But there’s yet another dimension that transcends and, in some ways, overshadows both the distribution and reaction issues, and that’s the fundamental aspect of default audience: The content’s intended recipients.

For decades now, most companies often made their content with the Western mindset as the default version — namely thinking of North America and Western Europe as their primary markets (I’ve found in many cases even today, companies don’t even realize that this is what they’ve been doing). The logic was that given the relatively high levels of freedom of speech and allowability of content in these regions, a company could create the default version of the content they are releasing (a film, a video game, etc.) and still maintain a high degree of creative freedom. If the default content didn’t align with local values or requirements, minor revisions were an easy possibility from market to market. But for the most part, the great majority of the creative intent would remain intact. And then, this content produced with a default Western worldview could then be adapted as needed to locales beyond the region — to make localized and culturalized versions for the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and so on — to appease the general sensitivities in other worldviews.

What I find compelling is that in just the last five years or so, we’re starting to see more companies pivot their default version from targeting a mostly Western audience towards not just an East Asian perspective, but a distinctly Chinese worldview. Why? The answer is obvious: Money. China is the fastest growing market for film consumption and became the top market in 2020, surpassing North America. In 2018, China also became the largest market for video games, finally surpassing the United States, which held the title for many years. Also in 2018, China climbed past the United Kingdom to become the second-largest market for television content, second only to the US (and likely to surpass the US soon). In short, China is a consumer superpower, and companies are eagerly responding to the demand and market potential.

Yet many companies are quickly learning that with the challenges of global exposure and social media backlash, the China-first strategy isn’t easily hidden. Unlike the Western perspective which tends to have more liberal standards on many issues — such as the depiction of violence, sex, nudity, and controversial topics like politics and religion — China’s approach is far more restrictive. The flexibility that companies enjoyed by creating a default version for Western expectations gets exchanged for a more stringent default that grants access to the vast Chinese market yet at the high price of creating content that is far less backwards adaptable to other markets.

Let’s examine a few recent examples of how companies have started to encounter this challenge.

For the upcoming film Top Gun: Maverick, the anticipated sequel to the extremely successful Top Gun (1986), the jacket worn by Tom Cruise’s main character was altered to appease Chinese political sensitivities. In the original film, an American cult classic, the jacket has a patch that includes the US, UN, Japan, and Taiwan flags. But for the 2022 sequel, the same jacket was revised so that the Japanese flag is now a white field with a red triangle (instead of red circle), and the Taiwan flag has been replaced entirely.

In 2019, DreamWorks Animation released the film Abominable, a story about a Chinese girl who helps a mythical yeti (also known as the “abominable snowman”) find his way back to his home in the Himalayas. Sounds innocent enough, right? Well, in one very brief scene, the girl walks past a map of China, which happens to show the 10-dash line that indicates the Chinese geopolitical claim on Taiwan and the entire South China Sea. Vietnam, which is one of the parties disputing China’s claim, consequently banned the film. That action was repeated by the Philippines and Malaysia, who are parties in the territorial dispute as well. An appeal to Universal Pictures for a simple edit of this one scene was ignored, likely in part because DreamWorks co-produced the film with Pearl Studio, a Chinese production company.

And perhaps one of the starker examples of the growing gulf between a Western versus a Chinese default version came about in late 2021. China announced a host of new restrictions on video game content, which included a clear disapproval of the representation of LGBTQIA+ individuals and relationships in game content. This comes at a time when the great majority of Western companies are explicitly striving to improve the presence of underrepresented people and groups in their creative media. Thus, for many companies publicly supporting diversity and inclusion in their workplaces and in their content, this action is a line in the sand they cannot cross, or else undermine their own values.

Truly, we are experiencing a very different world of content creation compared to when I started working in this field way back in February 1992. The examples I’ve cited are not intended as a rant against China specifically but illustrate the fact that the challenges of content creation and distribution will always evolve and are becoming more complex. Each content creator and company must strive to not only keep in step with these changes but be mindful of their boundaries over compromising values for business.