By Lloyd Morin, Localization Editor at Playrix
Who We Are
At Playrix, we make mobile games that blend casual puzzles with storytelling, an approach that has proven to be popular. Playrix has always been a global company with players in every corner of the world. However, most of our designers, artists, and writers live in Russia or the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States — a union of former Soviet states). It may seem in our era of globalization that the differences between diverse regions have shrunk, after all, we all play the same games, and binge-watch the same shows. However, a sharp divide politically and culturally remains between both China and the West — where the bulk of Playrix’s players are from — and with the region where we are located, the CIS.
These differences aren’t always apparent, that is until you do something like start translating content made by people in one region with the goal of localizing it for another.
Now Vs. Then
Not long ago, I had an interesting discussion with the writing team working on one of our games. They wanted some feedback about a drafted storyline. Their concerns were focused on how people in the West might perceive the characters’ discussion about body image, weight gain, etc. As I reviewed the plot summary and dialogue, I realized that the storyline was built around the idea of a sauna. This, of course, is not a problem, but more as an aside, I reminded the team that the average person in the US doesn’t have their own sauna, and they probably don’t know about any of the culture and traditions surrounding one.
“Maybe not a sauna,” the writers asked, “but what about a banya? Surely there are lots of those in American villages?!”
Life to our writers is impossible to imagine without a village of small wooden houses, sheds, and banyas, clustered together and surrounded by open fields or thick forests. A situation that most of our American players would see as being extremely unusual. A side note for those who aren’t familiar, a banya is the Russian analog of a Finnish sauna — traditionally an outbuilding near a lake or river that consists of a steam room, parilka, a bathing room, moyechnaya, and a room to change and relax in after steaming, predbannik.
A year ago, that type of conversation wouldn’t have occurred until after all texts were edited, proofread, and all art finalized. Only then would it have landed on the desk of the localization department. There we would’ve struggled to present the plot in a way that would be more familiar to our players.
Though Playrix is a Russian-based company, our goal isn’t to immerse American players in Russian culture. Quite the opposite actually. We want players to feel at home in our games. Although a sauna is unlikely to offend anyone, the same can’t be said about identity representation, such as gender roles and the portrayal of people of different ethnicities.
Providing feedback on sensitive topics at the end of the line in the game development process was disruptive, to say the least. Changing art is time-consuming and expensive and no one wants to rethink a whole story arc with just days left before submission. The fact that we were reporting things that the developers couldn’t see themselves didn’t help our case.
We needed to be able to report things without throwing other teams into disarray, and much more importantly, we needed a strategy that would allow us to avoid the need to report things at all. Culturalization was a perfect fit.
Top image: We received complaints from players about our assumed support for President Trump because of quests where players would build garden walls and drain swamps in abandoned garden areas.
Second image: Our correction which aims to avoid ambiguity.
Top image: This is from a story about a woman trying to redefine herself, but because of the tone of some of the lines, it seemed as though we were reinforcing old ideas about gender roles.
Bottom image: Our correction which aimed to remove the emphasis from the discussion about gender.
Our first step was to develop a system to provide clear feedback about the risks we came across—often called reactive culturalization. This included specific issues we encountered such as using flags to represent locales, differences in attitudes towards gender roles, representation of diverse individuals and cultures, and accurate depictions of holidays.
Our next step was to gather evidence to support our position (usually by consulting with focus groups and experts) and rate the level of risk from low, medium and high. A low rating served as an FYI for developers to keep in mind, a medium rating was given for items likely to cause complaints, and a high rating was given for anything that could risk our games getting blocked or censored.
We then compiled a history of the decisions we made through our localization and culturalization processes. Transparency and respect were crucial in this process. The goal being to find solutions that required the least amount of corrections and to keep our decision making as open and transparent to others in the company as possible.
Culturalization can easily get confused with censorship. But the reverse is also true—we want to make the intentions of the developers clear to our players. After all, our mission is to bring joy to players, not make them wonder about our position in the so-called culture wars. We began developing tools to inform our development and localization teams about previous cases and issues that we’d encountered and how they were resolved. However, we soon found that our suggestions weren’t being successfully implemented, and saw the same issues repeating in different projects.
Now a major part of our strategy is PR. Often joking about ourselves as culturalization evangelists—“Do you have a few moments to talk about culturalization?”—we tell people in the company about what we do at every opportunity. We have a Slack channel that we write articles for and have recently sent out surveys to find people for our focus groups and to find out what information the developers are lacking.
This new approach seems to be working. More and more we are being included earlier on in the development phase of different projects and in-game events. In some cases, we even collaborate with artists and writers in the very first steps in their search for concepts and new ideas. Rather than being disruptive, we strive to shine a light on potential opportunities that can be developed.
The Next Frontier
The question we are facing now is, how to quantify our success. We base many of our choices on the idea that players like seeing themselves and their cultures portrayed accurately in games, and they certainly let us know when something goes wrong! Here I’d like to point out the obvious caveat that a lot of our players want to escape their own world for a taste of the Western culture that we present in our games. But how do we prove that what we are doing actually has an impact on the bottom line?
It’s a question that we haven’t answered yet, and it’s one that I haven’t found much compelling information about from my experience with other companies. It’s hard to prove the gains made by avoiding a hypothetical situation.
I’d love to hear about your views and experience with culturalization. Have you successfully tested your culturalization ROI?