Culturalization, game localization and China

Image from Heroes Evolved game.

Image from Heroes Evolved game.

Kah Hui Teo

Kah Hui Teo is the global localization manager of Keywords Studios, leading the localization teams in Singapore, Shanghai and Taipei, with more than ten years of experience in game localization.

Joelle Tjahjadi

Joelle Tjahjadi is a localization project lead at Reality Squared Games, working at the intersection of language, computing and gaming in China.


he video game industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and one of the pillars of the global entertainment industry. Based on a report released in April 2018 by Newzoo, the global games market is expected to grow with a compound annual growth rate of +11% in the ten-year period from 2012 through 2021 and is expected to generate a total of $137.9 billion in 2018. Though China is expected to account for more than one quarter of the global game revenues, China game publishers are setting their sights on international markets, with attempts to ship their games overseas or what they refer to as “出海.” With incremental cost spent on localization, publishers can increase their revenues from international sales of the localized products. The growth of the game industry and the elevation of video games as a form of global entertainment can be attributed to language transfer in bringing the products to global markets, hence the significant role played by game localization.

One of the challenges that many localization teams face when handling products like games, which inherently contain a lot of cultural elements, is how much to foreignize and how much to domesticate the products. Each decision made in handling character names, place names, plot rewrites or transcreation can result in a product that is so foreign that it is difficult for non-Chinese gamers to pick up, or so similar to other non-Chinese products that it loses the qualities that make it a unique Chinese game.


The classic translation approaches of foreignization and domestication in translation studies, as explained by Lawrence Venuti in his book The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, were widely used to categorize the way in which video games are translated in the target market. In game localization, the domestication approach involves rendering the cultural specific elements in the source culture to equivalent elements in the target culture, which the players in the target market are more familiar with. Using the domestication approach, the cultural elements in the source culture are mapped to the elements of the target culture by the translator, with the intention of bringing the game closer to the target culture. The foreignization approach, on the other hand, would retain the culture-specific elements in the source culture, when translating the text for a target culture. Using this approach, the atmosphere and flavor of the source culture are recreated in the target culture by the translator, thus preserving the foreign characteristics of the game in the localized version. Although the foreignization approach is more didactic and risks alienating players, it is often chosen over domestication because the emphasis is placed on adapting games for the receiving culture. As Alberto Fernández Costales says in his 2016 article “Analyzing Players’ Perceptions on the Translation of Video Games,” “foreignization strategies are generally preferred as games can be best enjoyed when the look and feel of the source text is maintained.”

Despite a general tendency toward a foreignization approach in game localization, game developers often emphasize that each game is unique, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, a customized approach is required for each game. Games are multidimensional products, so conscious choices must be made on both technical and cultural aspects of a game during game localization, and not a standardized approach that is applied to all games regardless of the game genre or the original intention of the creators.

Localization is identified as one of the three phases of game culturalization. As Kate Edwards states in The Game Localization Handbook, “Culturalization takes a step beyond localization, making a more fundamental examination of a game’s assumptions and choices, and then assesses the viability of those creative choices in both the global, multicultural marketplace as well as in specific locales.” Games, especially console games with complex storylines or plots, are designed for deeper levels of user engagement and generally come with more cultural-embedded elements. In comparison to localization, culturalization allows player engagement at a deeper and a more meaningful level in the target culture, hence sustaining longer player interest in the game. In her 2014 article “Beyond Localization: An Overview of Game Culturalization,” Edwards identifies history, religion, ethnic conflict and geopolitical friction as the top four cultural variables for consideration in content creation. Similar cultural awareness should exist in both content creators and translators. General assumptions made during content creation might not be valid across all cultures, hence translators should still exercise caution during localization and adapt the translation for specific cultural references.

In games localization, companies typically define their target markets in the form of locales, which serves to differentiate regional differences in a language. The categorization of locales often uses national borders or geographical regions as the parameter, which makes it convenient to define markets and to dissolve all the linguistic variants and cultural diversity into a homogeneous zone. An example will be Spanish, which is differentiated as Spanish used in Spain and Latin American Spanish, which includes Spanish spoken in countries to the south of the United States. The nuances and subtle differences between, for example, Chilean and Colombian Spanish is assumed to be negligible such that they can be considered under the locale of Latin American Spanish. The concept of locale helps to separate regional or national sub-groups in a language group, and also serves as a classification system for social and cultural norms.

There is an increasing awareness that the contexts and consequences of such localization practices should be examined. Game developers are turning toward focus testing to gain a deeper understanding of the users’ perception of gameplay and design. However, the focus testing seldom includes players’ reception on the cultural adaptation of a localized game. If the localization industry continues to abide by guidelines on cultural appropriateness without supporting evidence from players in the target culture, the industry will continue to apply the same set of filters across their game localization, complete with stereotypes, assumptions and sweeping statements on cultural appropriateness.

Unique properties of Chinese games

The choice to domesticate or foreignize a product, and to what degrees, is not just a theoretical or independent decision. There are multiple reasons for choices made during the localization process, each of them impacting the decision to foreignize or domesticate in big or small ways. Most of these issues are deeply rooted in the way the Chinese game market functions, in the unique characteristics of the Chinese language, and the deep cultural and historical roots of Chinese culture itself. All of these issues affect decisions that localization teams make when they choose to either foreignize or domesticate a game.

Short product life cycles. An Accenture report titled “The Digital Lives of Chinese Consumers” notes that Chinese consumers are faced with a multitude of product choices, and as a result, are becoming pickier and pickier, switching between products with greater frequency, creating a “switching economy.” This is quite evident in gaming, where many Chinese games have extremely short life cycles when compared with their foreign counterparts. It is not unheard of for a Chinese-made mobile game to last for one year or less in the Chinese market before closing down, while its localized international version continues to operate two years after the Chinese version has closed.

Short product life cycles mean that less time is accorded to product development, which affects the entire product life cycle. Developers have less time to create a quality product, focusing purely on gameplay and monetization to the exclusion of all else. As a result, localization, an often-overlooked process to begin with, is even more squeezed for time and resources. In many cases, this means that there isn’t enough time to consider domestication, and almost-literal translations without thought of context becomes quite prevalent. Furthermore, the short product life cycle also often means that other aspects of a game aren’t necessarily prioritized. One area where this heavily affects localization is the plot.

Incoherent, incomplete and non-final plot text. Most of the time, the in-game plot is written by the Chinese developers themselves. In many instances, the plot is shoved into the game with very little thought and is merely used as a device to move the game along and encourage the player to play more and pay more. As a result, source text quality is variable, and it is common to find typos and grammar mistakes in these texts. In a best-case scenario, there is a general plotline to follow and the meaning of the text is clear, allowing the localization team to do a direct translation, or perhaps some transcreation to make it meatier and make more sense in the target language. In a worst-case scenario, the plot text itself is incomprehensible, even to Chinese players, resulting in the localization team having to do a complete rewrite and restructure of plot, a time-consuming process when time is of the essence in a product-cycle that is already in a time crunch. In situations where a complete rewrite of the plot is necessary, it is almost inevitable that a certain degree of domestication occurs.

Highly culturally-specific references. While obviously not an issue unique to China, game products often contain highly culturally-specific references, which run the gamut from Chinese history and literature to modern slang. Furthermore, the canon of Chinese history, literature and culture comes from an uninterrupted 5,000 years of history. Chinese developers often reference these liberally, as they usually write games targeted to the domestic market, with the assumption that the gamer understands the cultural references, in-jokes and insinuations without any explanations necessary. Unfortunately, when this type of game is then localized for international markets unfamiliar with the culture, the localization team has to find a way to handle these references.

Of course, industry-wide there are many ways to manage these situations. In some cases, the addition of explanatory text in dialogue or in character backgrounds could give the non-Chinese gamer sufficient context to understand what is going on in the game. Transcreation or a rewrite of the Chinese text is partially done with this in mind. However, in many cases, due to a variety of restrictions, omission is the most common way of handling these issues.

User interface (UI) with tight space constraints. Of all major languages, the Chinese language is the one language that can convey the most information while taking up the least amount of space. Furthermore, due to how concise the Chinese language inherently is, Chinese developers optimize their UIs for Chinese, making lack of space in the UI a massive barrier for localization teams. To complicate matters, the UI of Chinese games tends to be incredibly cluttered and crowded, with a plethora of menu buttons and text strewn across the screen. As a result, when handling a project with a Chinese source text, the localization team’s primary objective is to reduce the amount of space text takes up, meaning that contextualization by addition is sometimes not a viable solution. Indeed, in certain extremes, text is deliberately omitted so that the UI becomes less cluttered.

Localization strategies used

In general, localization teams use many different strategies to handle these issues, all with their own pros and cons. Depending on the type of game and the context of these games, one strategy might be favored over another at different times.

Rewriting. The most drastic form of domestication would be completely rewriting plot text. In many cases, this is deliberately chosen as a localization strategy due to the poor quality of the source text. Indeed, in some worst-case scenarios, a complete rewrite of plot would actually be of greater time savings than translating text that doesn’t make sense. Another scenario where a rewrite would benefit the localization process is the case where the original text itself is offensive in some way to the target culture. Of course, in most cases, a partial rewrite is often sufficient, but in these cases, it is up to the localization team to select which areas are most in need of a rewrite.

However, choosing something this drastic can result in a slowdown of the localization process, as rewriting the plot to fit the game can be time consuming. Further, if going into a language that the developers themselves can more or less understand, there is always the case where they will raise objections to the changes made by the localization team. Another issue to keep in mind is that a one-time rewrite decision in the early stages can often result in the team writing themselves into a corner in the future as the game evolves. Thus, rewriting must be done very carefully with an eye to the future.

Transcreation. A less drastic localization technique is transcreation. Often, the goal in transcreation is to elicit the same emotional response from the target text as the source text. Often, this is used with flavor text, creative plot elements, dialogue and the like. Transcreation necessarily adds a degree of domestication to the process, with the goal of making sure the game itself is accessible to the target market. Due to the high amount of creativity required, transcreation can also cause delay in the localization process, which is something that needs to be considered when handling projects in a time crunch.

Contextualization by addition. When localizing games that are deeply rooted in Chinese culture, it can be necessary for the localization team to add explanations in the game that are unnecessary in Chinese. In some cases, this contextualization can be done by simply adding a clear title to a character name, or in adding an additional sentence in dialogue so that the non-Chinese player understands the context better. Perhaps this is one of the best ways to tread the fine line between foreignization and domestication, and build a bridge between different cultures.

However, the biggest barrier to this solution lies in how uniquely concise the Chinese language is. Due to how little space the written language takes up, often very little text space is left available in games for languages like English, much less languages that are even longer like German. Often, additional steps must be taken before localization starts, and also during the language quality assurance (LQA) process, to find solutions that provide sufficient space for the target language to display properly. Often, when localizing Chinese games, translators have to find ways to make text more concise, and more often than not, more text is cut during LQA than is added. As a result, contextualization must be done very carefully as well.

Omission. One of the most liberally used localization methods is straight up omission of source text. This is often used when handling UI text, as the UI of Chinese games tends to be quite cluttered. Cleaning up the UI by removing all text and leaving button graphics to do the talking is often a good way to handle the clutter so prevalent in Chinese games. Some other things omitted also include problematic cultural references. In some cases, instead of doing a text rewrite, simply deleting the problem text is an easy and quick solution that also alleviates the space problem.


Another area that requires some thought toward foreignization and domestication is the naming of in-game items, people, and locations.

Literal translation. In a situation where time is of the essence, sometimes literal translations are a good choice that walks the fine line between domestication and foreignization. In Chinese the names of proper nouns are often quite descriptive, and a literal translation often gives the player better insight into the character or the location. For instance, the famous mountain range 五指山 was translated literally as Five-Finger Mountain. When a mountain range is described as Five-Finger Mountain, a player can picture a mountain range that sticks out of the ground, perhaps like a hand with five stone-like fingers, which is not too far from the real Five-Finger Mountain, or Wuzhishan (the Chinese transliteration) in Hainan province.

The drawback of this kind of literal translation is that names can get quite long, and in a Chinese game environment, especially in mobile games, there rarely is enough space to fit more than 8-12 characters in a space. As a result, there is insufficient room to fit descriptive names in the space provided. Another issue with this is that names can get quite cumbersome and dialogue between two characters with long descriptive names discussing places with equally long descriptive names can become quite a pain.

Transliteration. Another popular strategy nowadays is transliteration. Transliteration, whether in the modern mainland Chinese form of Hanyu Pinyin, Wade-Giles, or any other variation, is the very definition of foreignization. The benefit of using this system is that it makes character naming very easy and straightforward for translators and localization specialists alike.

Unfortunately, the drawback of this is that players lose out on the deeper meaning behind a character’s name, especially if the character is drawn from a particularly obscure time in Chinese history or is not well-known in a non-China context. Another issue is the fact that some names, when written out in pinyin, look very similar. For instance, Zhao Yun and Zhou Yu, two famous generals from the Three Kingdoms Era in Chinese history, have similar-looking names. So players completely unfamiliar with both characters had a hard time differentiating them from each other.

Renaming. This brings us to our third strategy, which is to rename the character, giving them a name entirely unrelated to their original name in the game. This strategy was used for some characters in the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game Heroes Evolved. The heroes in the game were drawn from Chinese history, Chinese mythology and Chinese literature, as well as Greek and Norse mythology. The naming of these Chinese heroes, such as the Chinese general Zhou Yu, generally followed the pinyin convention. As the game was a MOBA game, most players had little interest in who the heroes were, and more interest in what the heroes could do. Indeed, hero backstories tend to be unimportant in games of this sort. When the hero Zhou Yu was to be released, the team felt that his name was too visually similar to Zhao Yun, and since many players would not understand the character’s background, a decision was made to change Zhou Yu’s name to Pyrrhus, a name chosen because of all his fire-related abilities.

Completely renaming a character in this fashion is a pretty radical thing to do. If the game had a strong plot element connected to the Three Kingdoms Era, which both generals were from, then the storyline could have enabled players to identify which general was which. However, the game was completely unrelated to the Three Kingdoms Era (indeed, heroes included such luminaries as Zeus and Athena), and so there was little for players to associate difficult-to-pronounce, similar-looking names to, except for the hero artwork and hero abilities.

The ultimate goal

The aim of game localization is to deliver equivalent player experience in the target market, which often requires a high degree of creativity and decision making in the translation process. When localization fails to do so, players will develop a sense of disconnectedness, where they are unable to associate the cultural element with anything in their own culture.

It is important for the localization industry to acknowledge that game localization must be understood as involving both cultural convergence and cultural differentiation. Cross-cultural communication poses challenges for the localization process, but removing culture-specific references as a method of addressing cross-cultural issues will render a localized game bland due to the loss of the unique cultural characteristics it was originally created with. The decisions undertaken by those within the localization industry with respect to games will eventually define the relevance of games beyond their own borders, and the global reach of games as cultural products.