Mapping Game Culturalization
By Cameron Rasmusson
Lynnwood in Los Angeles, California
– 1983-1984: Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo – Aerospace Engineering
– 1984-1986: Cal State Long Beach, Industrial Design
– 1986-1988: Cal State Long Beach, Bachelor of Arts in Geography, Certificate in Cartography
– 1989-1991: Univ. of Washington, Master of Arts in Geography
– 1991-present: Univ. of Washington, Doctorate in Geography
Raising an amazing and talented daughter, who works as a costume designer
FAVORITE PLACE VISITED
This is so hard to answer, but I’ll reply with Wadi Rum, Jordan
I’ve played several instruments in my life, but currently the only one I can play are the Scottish bagpipes
With products, entertainment, and services reaching more customers and audiences around the world each year, lives are becoming just a little more similar. People half a world away may be consuming the same movies, games, books, music, and more — albeit with a few key differences.
Those differences start with translating the language, sure. But thanks to a growing focus on culturalization, the right experts can ensure that products are easier to sell and experience irrespective of cultural differences. And there are few people with more expertise built over three decades than Kate Edwards. Listed among “The 10 Most Powerful Women In Gaming” in 2013 by Fortune, Edwards pioneered a geopolitical strategy team at Microsoft and now works full-time helping companies — particularly video game developers — ensure their products respect regional sensitivities while maintaining their business or artistic vision.
There are some fascinating stories about how people have gotten into language and culturalization work, but yours is especially interesting, given you studied geography and cartography. Can you tell us how that course of study led you to Microsoft and the culturalization work you specialize in today?
My career path has been unusual, even for someone typically pursuing geography. I actually started out wanting to be an astronaut (yes, for real) and pursued aerospace engineering, but the calculus proved quite challenging for me. I switched to industrial design to build on my artistic background, towards the goal of being a conceptual artist for Lucasfilm — just so I could work on a Star Wars film. After two years of study and vastly improving my skillset, I was considering a minor in geography because maps, travel, and cultures have always interested me.
So on a whim, I changed my major to geography and cartography, and I could easily leverage my design skills with cartography. After obtaining my bachelor’s degree, I worked as a production cartographer for a year. Still, I felt I had more questions and too much curiosity about the subject matter, so I headed to graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle. Within that program, I focused on visualization and geographic information systems. I wrote my master’s thesis about using virtual reality for cartography — in 1991 when VR barely even worked — but I have always firmly believed in the technology’s vision.
As I began the first year of my doctoral program, our geography department received a call from Microsoft, who was looking for a cartographer to help with the maps for their new Encarta Encyclopedia product. A school colleague of mine and I applied for the job. He got it, but then called me shortly after he started with a panicked request for help — we had to create about 400 maps in roughly six months! So I started as a contract cartographer, expecting a quick six-month project. But they kept extending my contract to help on other projects — and I must admit, I was having a blast! It was really interesting and challenging work, so I ultimately kept putting my Ph.D. program on hold.
Eventually, I was offered a full-time role as Microsoft’s first geopolitical strategist to initially help the (former) Geography Business Unit ensure the maps used across various products were devoid of geopolitical sensitivities (for instance, how we portray Taiwan, Kashmir, Western Sahara, and many other disputed issues). This focus was a natural fit for my interests and academic background.
As I was in that role, and other employees started finding out about my skillset, I started getting questions from across the company about various issues — gestures, flags, cultural color usage, and more. I could easily answer most of the questions (or quickly find the answers).
In 1997, we made a grievous cartographic mistake in Encarta World Atlas that yielded government relations problems with South Korea. We fixed the issue, but then three months later, the first Age of Empires game was released, and it had a Korean scenario that did not fix the same issue we dealt with in Encarta. Why? Because Encarta was made in Redmond HQ, and Age of Empires was produced by Ensemble Studios in Dallas, the two teams are deeply siloed and have no real reason to communicate with each other. But this failure that opened up Microsoft to huge risk exposure in one market is what gave me the idea for a solution.
I quickly wrote up a proposal for a new type of team at Microsoft, eventually called “Geopolitical Strategy.” The vision was institutionalizing accountability over these cultural and geopolitical risks across all product teams. It took me seven months of pitching the idea to five different VPs, and the final individual — the only VP I talked to who was not from the US — instantly approved the idea. Within a week, I was sitting in another building with a new title, manager, and a team of people waiting for me to figure out what we should do.
For the next seven years, I evangelized our mission through Microsoft’s product teams and subsidiaries, which included all the game teams. As a lifelong gamer, the video game portion of this work was a highlight. When I departed Microsoft in 2005, I focused my consulting primarily on games (to this day, games comprise about 80% of my consulting). By 2004, I got a line item for geopolitical and cultural checks placed into the master release checklist for all Microsoft’s products, which meant the practice was institutionalized companywide. And at that point, I decided my job was done, and it was time to move on — which I did by the end of Q1 2005.
You are a pioneer in geopolitical strategy, what were conversations like about geopolitical strategy back then, and how have they changed over the past three decades?
The early days of getting the Geopolitical Strategy team off the ground and discussing culturalization were challenging. Let’s face it: The concepts of diversity and inclusion were not at the forefront of many companies back then, much less about ensuring our content is globally ready to meet local expectations. While I was constantly pushing the argument that this is the “right thing to do” for our customers — to respect their cultural identities and worldviews — the only argument I discovered that worked back then was the money argument. In other words, if we take these steps to better culturalize our content (and I mean adaptation beyond only language localization), then we can maximize the reach of our products, which in turn can generate more revenue.
Now three decades later, I’m pleased to say that the cultural inclusivity argument isn’t difficult at all to make, and far more people are open to it now than before (although I still have to use the money argument at times). But we have new challenges today we didn’t have in the ‘90s, such as social media. This technology has radically shifted the corporate accountability landscape, and I see that many companies are still struggling to cope with how to manage the discoverability of their faux pas and potential mistakes. To some degree, social media has actually meant a bit of a step backward because some content creators are paralyzed with fear of doing an incorrect representation, to the point that they choose “safe” approaches that I feel are ultimately a net loss of inclusivity.
Tell us how you came to establish Geogrify and the work you do. What kind of projects keep you busy from day to day?
In my final days at Microsoft, I was ramping up my consulting company — Geogrify — to prepare for my post-Microsoft life. I had never tired of the work I was doing at Microsoft, I just felt that it was time to move on and that other companies could benefit from my help. Like any start-up, the early years were a bit rough with all the typical ups and downs, because while I had established my credibility within Microsoft during those 13 years, I’m now on the global stage with relatively little clout since much of my Microsoft work wasn’t too visible.
Like many people, I wasn’t keen on marketing myself, but I learned to do so and leaned into the practice of giving culturalization lectures at industry events as my primary form of “marketing.” I’ve obtained a lot of clients through that form of seed-planting, as well as through a lot of word of mouth (much of it from former Microsoft colleagues who moved on to other companies). And here I am, 18 years after leaving Microsoft, and I still travel about 75% of the year to speak at various conferences and events (and yes, I love both travel and public speaking).
As far as the kind of projects I work on day to day, it varies quite widely. Usually, I’ll be working on at least two or three major game projects, so I hop between the tasks and some of my non-game projects. I’ll usually have a few calls daily with clients or other stakeholders, which I tend to push to my mornings to be more in a heads-down work mode for the rest of the day. Since the work can be somewhat cyclical, I might be only focused on one or two projects some weeks, and other times I could juggle as many as ten or more. I also mentor people and serve on various boards and in advisor roles, so calls and emails for those duties will also fill up time.
Your focus is on video games in particular. How did you arrive in that particular line of work? Can you tell us about a few titles and projects you’ve worked on?
I confess that my first video game was Pong (yes, I’m that old), and I’ve been a gamer ever since. But even that being the case, I had never aspired to work on games and didn’t see that as a career option. As I was performing my duties when running Microsoft’s Geopolitical Strategy team, I had a mandate that extended across all the company’s products — including all their games. So that opened the door for me to explore how my culturalization skills could help that kind of creative content, and it proved to be a very mutually beneficial partnership. So while at Microsoft, I worked on most of their games, including Halo, Age of Empires, Forza, Fable, Gears of War, and many others. Since departing Microsoft, I’ve worked on so many games such as Tomb Raider, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Apex Legends, Final Fantasy, Assassin’s Creed, and almost every BioWare game (all the Mass Effect titles, Dragon Age, etc.). In fact, I worked for four years on BioWare’s Star Wars – The Old Republic, so I actually got to work on something related to Star Wars. And at the moment, one of the many projects I’m working on is the forthcoming Indiana Jones game, which is really exciting. I recently compiled my master list of game projects, and as of June 2023, I’ve worked on 258 games over the past 30 years.
What is the importance of the video game vertical to the language and localization industry, and how do you see that relationship evolving in the near future?
With games having long surpassed the film and music industries combined as far as total revenue, they represent the fastest-growing entertainment on Earth with no sign of slowing down. While forms of creative media like film, music, and television will persist, games are where the evolution of narrative is on the cutting edge — as they redefine how we pass stories from one generation to another. This is incredibly exciting, especially as we must remember that games are an activity humans have always done — stretching back to the dawn of human history.
A stronger focus on games will be necessary for the language and localization industries to remain competitive in the media space. Localizing a game is not the same as film, medical documents, or legal transcripts; it’s a special skill set that must be cultivated, especially by linguists who understand (and hopefully play) games.
Given the global reach of video games, your experience in culturalization seems well-matched to the field. What are some of the biggest challenges in culturalizing these titles for regions worldwide?
One key reason culturalization came so easily to me is my foundation in geography. At its core, geography is about comparing the differences across space — or in a business context, we could say across markets. So with that mental framework optimized for thinking about the comparative differences, I think it accelerated my ability to adapt quickly to the task. It also helps that I’m insatiably curious about, well, everything. So any new client project is a potential opportunity to gain new knowledge and insights — that inevitably will help inform another project in the future.
But performing culturalization can be quite a complex series of tasks and decisions. It’s about discerning the “truth” about a certain issue and analyzing a proper pathway forward based on many factors. For example:
- The client’s values/business goals and how those dictate their willingness (or not) to change their content.
- The context in which the content is generated; if the content team is primarily all from a specific geography or culture, that can affect the assumptions about what’s “appropriate.”
- For larger clients, a single decision on a game could affect the business strategy in their other non-game verticals (Microsoft and Sony make many products beyond games!).
- The market strategy for a specific locale (how you sell into China differs from Saudi Arabia or Brazil).
The market strategy for the specific product (different game genres are perceived very differently across various geographical regions).
- The changing geopolitical, cultural, social, and legal factors. As we realize, the world is very dynamic, so I’m constantly striving to stay informed of current conditions in various markets and regions, to understand how a client’s content might be received at the moment of release.
- And on top of all these, there is a persistent fear in many companies of doing something wrong — even unintentionally — and being called out on social media, so many are constantly fighting off a form of creative paralyzation that can haunt their work.
What role can language and localization vendors play in helping companies develop a geopolitical strategy? Have you worked with such vendors in your work?
Over the years, I have worked with several language localization vendors. Many of them have outsourced culturalization projects to me, mainly because that specialty is not within their core expertise. I’ve seen more and more companies start promoting that they do “culturalization,” which makes me feel great because back when I started this work nobody was using that term. I’ve had great relationships with many localization companies, and have either worked on several projects for them or provided internal lectures to their teams about what culturalization entails.
But to be able to assist with geopolitical strategy, a company needs to maintain internal expertise that is beyond language translation. Developing a localization strategy across markets is not the same as developing a geopolitical strategy for how a company’s content will be received (or not) by various cultures and governments. And that culturalization aspect often dives deep into discussions about a company’s values — what do they stand for, and how do those values get represented in their content? Are they willing to adhere to their values and give up potential revenue from specific markets? In my experience, those conversations don’t often arise when discussing the language localization strategy.
As globalization evolves in the coming years, do you think culturalization will become more or less important? In other words, will the world’s internet-connected cultures become more used to different sensibilities, or will differences become more pronounced?
My answer is biased, but I believe strongly that, given today’s dynamic information landscape and the ongoing fragmentation of social media and elsewhere, culturalization is more critical than ever. We absolutely need the language localization experts to continue doing their work to bridge the legibility gaps. But a greater focus on culturalization — how ideas and worldviews can better work together and find compatibilities in the midst of so much distrust, disinformation, and dissonance — is vital.
For all the good that social media has brought in global connectivity, it’s also brought upon us the ability to optimize information bubbles in which we limit our access to a wide range of viewpoints. And at its worst, when often wielded by governments, it intentionally shapes and distorts the perspective of the citizenry so that they are living in a different reality than the rest of the world. To that end, I think it’s critical for all of us working in the localization and culturalization space to do what we can to rebuild those cross-cultural connections and open dialogues.
Is there anything or anyone that’s been particularly inspiring to you in developing your career? Perhaps it’s a book, an artistic work, an intellectual or historical figure, or anything else that might come to mind.
Over the years, I’ve had a lot of great mentors — who, at the time, I didn’t perceive as mentors, but in hindsight, they were. A handful of key Microsoft colleagues were instrumental in my career because they believed in my vision for implementing companywide culturalization strategies. Without their support, I doubt I would have reached the level of effectiveness and degree of change I aimed for.
I could cite so many creative works, favorite authors like Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov or amazing artists like N.C. Wyeth and Ralph McQuarrie or favorite films like Lawrence of Arabia and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Overall, it’s just a large body of works — many very “geek” related and many — that have fueled my imagination and helped me maintain an optimistic outlook (despite fighting off my own cynicism at times).
I will say that I’ve always been partial to Mark Twain’s various bits of wisdom, and one of my favorites of his quotes is that “travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness.” I think that quote partly inspired my ultimate pursuit of geography as I feel my core job, above all else, is to help people see the great commonality we have as human beings, even in face of the divisiveness we see occurring around us.
Is there anything you want to add?
Beyond my culturalization work as my core career, I would also want to mention the great joy I’ve had in leading nonprofit organizations like the International Game Developers Association, the Global Game Jam (the world’s largest game creation event), and Take This (focused on mental health in the game industry). My impetus for taking these leadership roles was simple: I’ve worked alongside game creators for years and adore these amazing, talented people who often do not work in the best conditions (for the most part, the game industry is not unionized like the film industry). So I felt that I could help make things better for the people I work with by taking on tough topics like crunch culture, sexism, ageism, and other detriments. This was all while I was still doing my culturalization consulting on games.
While I’m no longer in these leadership roles (after a combined ten years), I am still serving on several boards to help support the efforts as I feel that as much as we can, we need to help our industries be better, more inclusive places to work for everyone, and not just a job for ourselves.
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