Off the Map

Growing global challenges to content creation

Kate Edwards

Kate Edwards is a geographer and the principal consultant of Geogrify, a Seattle-based consultancy for culturalization and content strategy. She is also the executive director of the Global Game Jam organization.

Kate Edwards headshot

Back in the “old days” of software creation and distribution (and I’m talking around the time period of the early-to-mid 1990s) most software was distributed on CD-ROMs and DVDs as packaged products that were physically shipped to specific markets. The producing company had the ability to specifically target their products to whichever markets they desired, and in the event that one of their product versions ended up in a non-targeted locale, they could rely upon a certain degree of plausible deniability. In other words, if the software’s content was not culturally or geopolitically compatible with a local market, and the product was not intended to ship there, the company could blame it on the black or gray markets and lessen their accountability.

But in the present, it’s not only the issue of digital distribution that has changed the dynamic of content creation, but also the rise of social media — the enabling of instant, targeted feedback from anyone, anywhere to any content producer. In this often-harsh environment of knee-jerk reactions without context, creators’ intentions have become mostly irrelevant. General discussions and mostly-civil disagreements around issues in early online forums have now mutated into full-blown culture wars, chiefly fueled by tech companies like Facebook and Twitter that make their profit off the clicks derived from this phenomenon. While there remain occasional pockets where people can have constructive dialogues, many have been siloed into online echo chambers that reinforce the inclusion of like-minded people while severely excluding those who think differently. This in turn has created highly toxic online environments where anything and everything is seemingly offered up for vitriolic debate — from religion to politics, from the latest game release or Star Wars film.

This can have a wide range of varying effects depending on the type of media under scrutiny 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, they are still struggling to escape the perception that they are truly art and not just toys. In other words, if a game decides to address serious and challenging topics as a film or a book might, then to some people it fails to deliver a fun and entertaining experience. Thus, those uninformed people (including many politicians) conclude that the game is defective in some way and as with toys, if they don’t do what’s expected, then they 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, art and so on.

So creating content today is not only an issue of how we distribute it, but also how we must manage the immediate reactions from a massive online audience and the toxicity that often accompanies it. But there’s yet another dimension that transcends and, in some ways, overshadows both the distribution and reaction issues. This is the fundamental aspect of the default audience: for whom are we creating the content?

For decades now, most companies often made their content with a Western mindset as the default, thinking of North America and Western Europe as their primary markets. As a side note, I’ve found in many cases even today, many companies don’t even realize that this is what they’ve been doing for so long. The logic was that given the relatively high levels of freedom of speech and permissiveness of content in these regions, a company could create the content they desired — a film, a video game — and still maintain a high degree of creative freedom. If the content ran counter to certain local values or requirements, minor revisions might be made 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 — for the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia and so on — to appease general sensitivities of other worldviews.

What I find fascinating is that we’re starting to see companies pivot their default setting from a mostly Western target toward not just an East Asian perspective but a distinctly Chinese worldview. Why? The answer is obvious: money. For the past several years, China has been the fastest-growing market for film consumption and in 2020 is finally expected to surpass North America to become the top market. In 2018, China became the largest consumer market for video games, finally surpassing the United States, which had held the title for many years. Also in 2018, China overtook the United Kingdom to become the second largest market for television content, second only to the US (and likely to surpass the US within a few years). In short, China has become a consumer superpower and companies are earnestly responding to the demand.

A scene from the animated film Abominable shows a controversial map of China.

A scene from the animated film Abominable shows a controversial map of China.

But what companies are quickly starting to learn, often in the hardest way, is that in the midst of the aforementioned challenges of global exposure and social media backlash, you can’t hide your strategy of wanting to appease China first, and then deliver that same content to the rest of the world. The reason this is so difficult is because unlike Western social norms, which tend 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 default reaction to many of these things is far more restrictive and unforgiving. The flexibility that companies enjoyed by defaulting to a more Western standard gets exchanged for a more stringent standard that grants access to the vast Chinese market, yet at the high price of creating content that is far less adaptable to other markets.

Let’s look at just a few recent examples of how companies have started to encounter this conundrum.

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 in the movie, the girl walks past a map of China, which happens to show the ten-dash line that outlines the Chinese geopolitical claim on Taiwan and the entire South China Sea. Vietnam, which is one of the parties disputing China’s on the South China Sea, promptly banned the film as a result. That action was repeated by the Philippines and Malaysia, who are also parties in the territorial dispute. An appeal to Universal Pictures to edit out that quick scene to make it acceptable to these other markets was ignored, likely in part because DreamWorks coproduced the film with Pearl Studio, a Chinese production company.

For the upcoming film Top Gun: Maverick, the anticipated sequel to the extremely successful 1986 Top Gun, the jacket worn by Tom Cruise’s main character was altered to appease Chinese political sensitivities. In the original film, which has become an American cult classic, the jacket has a patch on the back that includes the flags of the US, UN, Japan and Taiwan. But for the 2020 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 2018, China issued an ultimatum against US airlines that mentioned “Taiwan” as a destination, or else risk government sanctions. American Airlines, Delta and United all promptly updated their websites to indicate that they fly to Taipei, with no mention of Taiwan (previously the websites offered flights to “Taipei, Taiwan”).

Also, in 2019, the game studio Blizzard ran into trouble when it quickly censured and stripped away the top award at their Hearthstone game tournament in Taiwan, when the winner (who goes by the moniker “Blitzchung”) made pro-Hong Kong comments after their victory. The action caused massive public backlash against Blizzard, which eventually reinstated the winner’s prizes. While the CEO of Blizzard claimed that China had nothing to do with their response, many remain highly skeptical, as 5% of the company is owned by the Chinese gaming giant Tencent. The swift moves by Blizzard, which lists “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” as core company values, was seen as a prime example of how the values of a Western-based company are being challenged by China’s particular set of cultural values.

These examples illustrate the fact that the challenges of content creation and distribution continue to evolve and are becoming more complex. It’s ultimately up to each content creator and company to not only understand these changes, but to be mindful of their boundaries when it comes to trading their own set of values for another set just for the sake for business.