Culturalization: A Translator’s Ally in the Gaming World

Have you ever considered where your favorite games originate? Most likely, they were created in Japan, Europe, or the US. These regions lead the gaming industry, each adding its distinct cultural essence and meeting various audience expectations. However, as these games enter global markets, the challenge lies in adapting them to diverse cultural settings while retaining their original charm.

While the localization industry employs machine translation and artificial intelligence to help adapt games to different languages and regions, these technologies often miss the cultural nuances that can make or break a game’s reception in a new market. This is where human localizers come in, armed with linguistic skills and cultural knowledge to ensure games resonate deeply with players worldwide.

Culturalization is about tailoring the entire gaming experience — including the storyline, characters, and aesthetics — to a new market. It’s a comprehensive approach to localization that not only maintains a human touch in the gaming experience, but also respects and embraces the cultural differences of players around the globe.

Culturalization goes beyond just translating text — it creates an emotional connection that makes the player feel like the game was made specifically for their culture. By paying attention to cultural nuances, we ensure that games not only cross borders, but also truly connect with players everywhere. A well-localized game is more than just playable — it’s unforgettable.

Adapting Cultural Elements

A game set in a fictional world might include cultural elements specific to its original region. When localizing the game, these elements need to be adapted to ensure they resonate with players in different regions. This might involve changing certain visual elements, modifying character backstories, or even altering gameplay mechanics to suit different cultural preferences. For instance, a game with a festive event based on Christmas might need an equivalent event for regions where Christmas is not widely celebrated.

Another consideration is character and place names. A name that sounds perfectly normal in one language might have an unintended meaning in another. By choosing names that are easy to adapt or neutral across languages, developers can avoid potential pitfalls. Similarly, cultural references, humor, and idiomatic expressions need to be carefully crafted to ensure they make sense in different cultures — where a plain word-by-word approach would fall short.

One real-world example is the case of Fallout 3. In the game, you encounter two-headed cows known as “Brahmins.” This name seems to derive from the Brahman breed of cattle. However, in Hinduism, “Brahmin” denotes a caste specializing in producing priests and teachers of sacred law, with a tradition of revering cattle. This religious association led to the name being banned in Indian versions of Fallout 3, highlighting the importance of thorough research and cultural sensitivity in game development.

The Role of Translators 

Translators are pivotal in the culturalization process. They don’t merely convert words from one language to another — they interpret the game’s content to ensure it fits seamlessly into another culture. This demands a deep understanding of both the source and target cultures and the ability to make creative decisions that preserve the game’s original essence. In this way, translators act as guardians of culture, ensuring that the unique cultural identity and integrity of the game are maintained.

Translators must also be attuned to cultural sensitivities. Themes or images that are acceptable in one culture might be offensive in another. By identifying and addressing these issues early, translators can help ensure the game is well-received by players worldwide.

Knowledge of language and notational conventions are just the first requirements. Other necessary skills include understanding game mechanics and jargon, as well as interpreting the effect of the original version on the player in order to generate a functional equivalent.

The Process of Transcreation

In some cases, it’s not possible to localize the visuals of a video game due to time or budget constraints. This is where transcreation comes into play, where translators have the freedom to modify, omit, and even add elements to convey the original feel of gameplay. Transcreation involves a high level of creativity, including reimagining parts of the game to make them more culturally relevant. This might mean rewriting dialogue to include local humor or references, or redesigning game mechanics to fit cultural norms and expectations.

One example of this is what Riot did with an iconic character’s “skin” (or outfit) in League of Legends. Annie is a playable hero in the game who has a skin called “Prom Queen Annie” in English. In the Latin American Spanish version of the game, this name was changed to “Annie Quinceañera,” which refers to the traditional parties for girls on their 15th birthday. These parties are similar to the “sweet sixteen” celebrations in the US and are more culturally resonant and familiar to the Latin American market than the concept of a prom.

Culturalization’s Growing Importance

As the gaming industry continues to grow, the importance of culturalization will only increase. Games are becoming more complex, with richer stories and more immersive worlds. This means there’s a greater need for skilled translators who can bring these games to life for players around the globe.

The rise of indie games has also highlighted the need for effective culturalization. Indie developers often have limited resources, so they need to be strategic about how they approach localization. By designing their games with culturalization in mind from the start, they can ensure their games have the best chance of success in international markets.

Conclusion: The Key to Global Games

Culturalization is more than just a step in the localization process — it’s the key to creating truly global games. It goes beyond translating words to adapting entire experiences, ensuring that players around the world can enjoy games in a way that feels natural and engaging to them. 

To ensure a smooth localization process, games must be designed with culturalization in mind from the start. Developers should think about how to easily adapt their games for other territories without making substantial changes to the design. It’s like building a house with future renovations in mind — this foresight can save a lot of time and resources down the line.

By embracing culturalization, we not only protect the jobs of translators, but also enhance the gaming experience for players everywhere. After all, the best games are the ones that resonate deeply with us, no matter where we come from.

Lara Lapier
Lara is an English-to-Spanish translator and a business development manager at Terra Localizations. As a Women in Games ambassador, she supports greater representation and inclusivity in gaming, advocating for diversity and equity within the industry.

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