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Fun vs. Offensive: Balancing the ‘Cultural Edge’ of Content for Global Games

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Fun vs. Offensive: Balancing the ‘Cultural Edge’ of Content for Global Games

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  1. Fun vs. Offensive: Balancing the ‘Cultural Edge’ of Content for Global Games • Tom Edwards • Geographer & Principal Consultant • Englobe Inc. – • March 24, 2006

  2. Agenda • Introduction: A Recent Scenario • Content and the Cultural Iceberg • The Intent of Good Game Design • Defining Geocultural Content Issues • The Cultural Edge and its Aspects • P.R.O.P. Methodology • Questions/Comments • Appendices: Recommended Resources Please silence your mobile devices and hold all questions until the end - thank you!

  3. Regarding a Recent Event… Imagine you are a Manager for a major information service provider… An actual approval pipeline scenario: • Content was created to reflect on a specific cultural market. • Normal channels approved the content. • Some concerns were raised, but content was published anyway.

  4. Regarding a Recent Event… • Few months later, your content is seen as extremely offensive by certain cultural groups. • Public/government backlash escalates quickly and spreads across locales. • Your management debates corporate policies and searches for the person(s) responsible while quickly formulating a response.

  5. Which Event Are YOU Thinking About? • Kakuto Chojin is of course the event to which this refers. Chanting containing verses from the Qur’an was included as background audio in the game. • The game reached negatively-affected non-US locales via the gray market. • Local governments and consumers vocally protested and criticized after discovering the content. • The game crossed over a “cultural edge” and required a global recall. • There are strong parallels to the more recent event you may be thinking of…

  6. Content’s Course to the Customer Your Game • Content interacts with customers after passing through “layers” or “filters” that shape decisions, strategies and perspectives. Each layer has complex sub-themes. A problem within any one layer can incubate a potentially offensive content issue. Your Specific Company The Game Industry The “local market” isn’t just international; the U.S. is also a diverse market with many cultural sensitivities. Local Market Dynamics Your Local Customer

  7. Religion and Beliefs Politics and Regulation Social Trends Cultural Practices Language and Context The Iceberg Model of Culture • Some cultural characteristics are obvious above the surface, but many critical aspects cannot be seen. • Deep-level geocultural qualities greatly affect local customer perceptions; reactions to content issues in games typically occur in relation to one or more of these deep aspects. Your Game Your Local Customer

  8. The Intent of Good Game Design • Generally, most games aspire to be “Fun” for their intended audience, not “Offensive”. • Consider 2 broad categories of generally positive and negative game traits:

  9. Defining the Cultural Edge Cultural Edge (noun): • The tipping point at which a content element stretches the limits of the intended context, changing the game from “fun” to potentially “offensive”. • The panic zone in which a lack of time, knowledge, and/or process results in an unwanted controversy. • A place of opportunity where various diverse outcomes are discernable, when proactive.

  10. The Intent of the Cultural Edge • The majority of “Fun” games are worry-free and contain little or no sensitive cultural content. • “Offensive” content in games might fit 2 categories: • Indiscretions: Edgy content that is challenged but might be forgiven, and is sometimes valuable (GTA3, Mortal Kombat, Doom, etc.) • Insults: Overt attempts to rile public sensitivity that have little defensibility (GTA: Hot Coffee, JFK Reloaded, Postal). • The Cultural Edge is not about “Censorship” or “Political Correctness”. • The Cultural Edge is about viewing your game from the cultural perspective to proactively anticipate a local response and revise if necessary.

  11. The Type of Audiences • A quick word about the audiences for game content: • Intended: Game players and those who understand the general context issues of a piece of content in a game. • Unintended: Non-game players who have little or no exposure to game content/context issues. • The Unintended group is a larger concern for Cultural Edge issues, those more prone to label a game “Offensive”. • The “Offensive” perception can drive revenue and popularity among the Intended audience while isolating the Unintended.

  12. Why Consider the Geocultural Factor? • Primary Goal: Protect the game creator’s (and industry’s) image and revenue stream and allow local customers to really enjoy a “Fun” game. • Additional Goals: • Build player loyalty and trust in your content. • Expand revenue potential by increasing appeal across cultural boundaries (break out of the ‘typical’ demographic). • Review yourself, or else expect potential legislation by government(s) – including your own. • Break the perception that only “Serious Games” have redeeming social value.

  13. Geocultural Content Example – 1 This much-publicized error resulted in an Indian government ban on Windows 95 due to missing coverage of Kashmir within India’s territory in this time zone control panel. • Cadbury’s 2002 campaign for Temptations chocolate in India was a serious marketing error which yielded much backlash. Text within the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region reads: “Too good to share”

  14. Geocultural Content Example – 2 In 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt designs (at left) caused much protest from consumers who found it racially offensive; it was quickly discontinued.

  15. Desktop Image for Indonesia Flag of The Netherlands Geocultural Content Example – 3 • Even a simple photographic filter technique can send a strong, negative message to your target customers. • Indonesia gained its independence from The Netherlands in 1949. • Quick Fix: Change the color balance.

  16. Types of Game Content in Question Primary content types and associated examples that can incubate geocultural issues (i.e., just about anything people see, hear or read): • Scenarios: Historical events, figures • Cultural Derivatives/Allegories: Religious, ethnic, cultural themes derived from “real world” cultures. • Text: UI elements, country/region lists, geographic names, comments in lines of code, user documentation & manuals • Images: Maps, flags, icons, clip art, photos, cinematics • Audio: Voice, music, lyrics, sound effects • Packaging: Box art, box text, reply addresses • Branding and marketing: Brand names, advertising campaigns, promotional items • Messaging: Press interviews, executive speeches, corporate events

  17. Game is “Fun” Game is “Offensive” Discerning the Cultural Edge Cultural Edge Zone Potential consequences of going over the Cultural Edge: • Loss of consumer trust in your delivery of a positive experience • Brand erosion with negative PR and customer backlash • Loss of revenue and market share • Loss of political position, possible punitive legislation and litigation • Punitive government actions against local subsidiary staff • High customer loyalty • Strong revenue • Positive image • Consumer/gov’t support • Waning customer loyalty • Decreased revenue • Questionable image • Consumer/gov’t inquiry • Low customer loyalty • Low/negative revenue • Negative image • Gov’t/punitive actions The key is finding the ‘tipping point’ at which any content type can remain marginally acceptable. It will be different for every game and every locale.

  18. Four Critical Aspects of the Edge • The Cultural Edge is a complex place to discern, often requiring experience, practice, trial and error. • Four key aspects can aid in your discernment of the appropriate Edge for your specific project: • Context: The original source of the content element and its placement in other environments. • Discoverability: The likelihood of a player noticing sensitive content in the game context. • Defensibility: The ability to defend your content decisions from an authoritative, informed position. • Intent: The end user perception of your decisions, whether general or specific.

  19. Context – An Example • Context Dependency: When an element is more dependent, it blends in more with its intended environment and is thus less discoverable. • Example: Consider the following 2 graphics. Both are considered offensive, but which one is the more context independent?

  20. Context – An Example, continued The Nazi-style swastika in a historical context, such as Medal of Honor, is nearly acceptable but still remains a sensitive image. This Pokemon card was banned in Israel in 1999 for containing a swastika (even though it’s left-facing Buddhist style). The context independence of the symbol has been pervasive.

  21. Context - Explained • Key question: Is the content element we’re deploying sufficiently context-dependent? • Beware of context-independent elements: the more independent an element, the greater potential for sensitivity. • Some content elements are so culturally ingrained and/or widely-recognized that their original context is not enough to mask the potential sensitivity. • Context-independent examples: Religious symbols, political emblems, historical events/figures, national flags

  22. Discoverability – An Example • The “ROC” name and Taiwan flag issue in Ninja Gaiden was very sensitive yet easily discoverable. • How can this be brought back from the Edge? 1. Use the name “Taiwan”, not “ROC” 2. Do not show the Taiwan flag 3. Do not use “Country”, use “Country/Region” or “Locale”

  23. Discoverability - Explained • Key Question: How easy will it be for the player to find potentially sensitive content? • Basic Rule: Content that breaks the game context, particularly without logic, is far more discoverable. Discoverability is often interrelated with context. • Easter Eggs: Hiding controversial content in such a feature is a potential risk: • Positive: Usually decreases discoverability • Negative: Perceived as insidious, untrustworthy • Maintain a rationale: If you ultimately choose to include known, sensitive content then have a logic for why it’s there (this relates to defensibility).

  24. Defensibility – An Example • A clear defense of JFK Reloaded can be difficult to discern – even when the title was intended to be more edgy and controversial. • How can this idea be brought back from the Edge? 1. Drop any use of the word “game” and use only “study” or “simulation”. 2. Avoid weak rationales like: “We’re encouraging youngsters to take an interest in history.” 3. Consider alternatives to teaching about the JFK assassination that utilize game design but do NOT require you to re-assassinate him.

  25. Defensibility - Explained • Key question: Are we prepared to fully explain and defend our content choices to a local government? • All decisions regarding potentially sensitive content must have a rationale based on solid, informed and authoritative decision-making. • External Locus of Defense: On subjects that lie outside the core function or expertise of your company, it’s prudent to base your defense on an external, authoritative source. • Examples of an External Locus: • Subject-matter expert(s) • Authoritative information source (CIA, UN, EU, etc.) • Credible research bodies, think tanks

  26. Defensibility - continued • This is NOT about passing the blame! • You are accountable for your content decisions, and will still receive feedback. • Realize your own limitations in terms of subject matter. • Critical Point: Before responding externally, check with your team to be 100% sure about any hidden issues. Your game title Your defense • External Locus of Defense: BACKLASH Your company BACKLASH External defense External organization

  27. Defensibility and GeoLiteracy Consider the Global Geographic Literacy Survey(National Geographic-Roper, 2002). Out of 56 questions that were asked across all countries surveyed, young adults (age 18-24) in the United States averaged only 23 questions correct! • One primary reason why such content issues are often overlooked is an issue of sufficient geographic literacy (i.e., geoliteracy). • Simply stated: The more you know about your target audience, the greater your chances of proactively discerning, resolving and defending your geocultural content decisions.

  28. Intent – An Example • This particular game concept (title and publisher to be unnamed) was wholly intended to appeal to Native Americans, who found it very offensive prior to release. • How can this idea be brought back from the Edge? 1. Don’t assume the desires of a certain demographic: Consult with Native American consumers and game players prior to finalizing the concept. 2. If intending to create a totem pole-type character, try making it appear like an authentic totem pole. 3. Don’t use sacred symbols of any variety from any culture.

  29. Intent - Explained • Key question: How clear will our content decisions and rationale be to the local market? • Local market perception is a very powerful force. • Despite all your proactive, defensive measures and best preparation, mistakes can and will likely occur (the geoliteracy factor). • 90+% of geocultural issues result from completely unintentional circumstances. • 90+% of geocultural issues are perceived by the local market to be completely intentional on the part of the content developer.

  30. Intent - continued • Ultimately, your key to managing the content risk is responding appropriately to the local market’s perception of intent: A word about Backlash… Your positive intentions Perceived negative intentions Your game title BACKLASH Your company Local market Stop it early! Backlash typically occurs in waves of escalation. Your careful response in each ‘wave’ is critical to prevent further escalation. You must respond to this perception; not your own.

  31. Putting Edge Aspects into Action • To recap the Cultural Edge Aspects: • Intent drives decisions on Context • Context drives decisions on Discoverability • Defensibility supports your proof of Intent • How can you deploy these in the context of a game’s product development cycle? • Actions which compliment your existing process can be deployed to account for Edge issues during normal development.

  32. P.R.O.P. Methodology Concept • Proactive Review/Pass: Early triage of potential issues with the concept, design. • Reasonable Risks: Content that could be sensitive but is a reasonable risk given the local market conditions. • Overt Offenses: Content that is known to be a problem and should be avoided. • Post-Process Issues: Managing issues and expectations after release, on the shelf. Phase of Game Development Production Final

  33. P.R.O.P: Proactive Review • Do it Early, Do it Often! • The sooner an potential issue is identified in concept phase, the sooner it can be contained. • Discovery costs very early in product cycles are far less than repair costs late in product cycles (or post-cycle recall costs). • This is the stage at which you examine and re-examine your general Intent and Context issues. • Institutionalize Geocultural Review • If it’s not built into your product cycle, it will never be a priority. • Assign Ownership and Accountability! • Program management, content coordinators, and editors typically own the geocultural issues. • Leverage input from appropriate individuals, groups and resources (see Appendix 1 for some ideas).

  34. Performing a geocultural review differs significantly as these aspects are not usually covered by the major review boards: Socio-historical scenarios, either global or local Political depictions/similarities (symbology, nationalism, etc.) Religious/Ethnic/Linguistic sensitivities (hate speech and some ethnic issues only) Sensitivity by content types (flags, maps, etc.) By design, review boards maintain a confined scope built upon a more quantitative approach; this does not account for the more qualitative geocultural aspects of game content. Ratings boards cannot adequately predict the risk of your individual game content in the context of your company’s business goals and your target audience. How does a Geocultural Review differ from an ESRB, PEGI or CERO Review?

  35. P.R.O.P: Reasonable Risks • During primary development, respond quickly. • If a geocultural issue is identified, action should be swift to resolve as soon as possible. • Assemble pre-formed, cross-discipline action teams to deal effectively with the issue (content, localization, legal, etc.) • Use the Edge Aspects to weigh Reasonable Risks • Reasonable Risk: a content element that could be potentially offensive to some players, but careful management of the 4 aspects – especially context – keeps it within acceptable risk. • Purging All Possible Risk is Unrealistic • Key responsibility of management: Provide guidance on what risks are considered acceptable for the company. • Trade-offs are possible: lose a key market to gain 5 others, limit Title X to 10 countries in order to sell Title Y in 25.

  36. P.R.O.P: Reasonable Risks - continued • Depending on who you ask, the makers of Grand Theft Auto may or may not have properly balanced the game’s reasonable risks against its overt offenses. • Pre-existing unintended legislative perceptions of GTA as “asocial” and “debased” • “Hot Coffee” Mod Issue in 2005 – July 2005 • Lawyers Target “Grand Theft Auto” maker – Jan. 2006

  37. P.R.O.P: Overt Offenses • Some content will always be a problem to avoid: • Context: For context-independent content, there is rarely a time when it will be fully acceptable everywhere. • Discoverability: If found, you know 100% it’s a problem. • Defensibility: There’s almost no defense that will save you. • Intent: Even your best intentions won’t prevent backlash. • Content that has a known, overt offensive quality makes your job easier: Just (Do Not) Do It • Themes with Offensive Tendencies: • Religious: Any use of a real-world religion/belief system • Ethnic: Using ethnic stereotypes or cultural conflicts • Historical: Varies widely, but generally the modification of real-world history (past or present) is a volatile practice

  38. P.R.O.P: Overt Offenses - continued Japan: Use of 4 fingers with human figures is a very sensitive cultural issue. Germany: Counter-Strike was banned in 2002 after fatal shootings were tied to the game; the country already bans Nazi-related content and is seeking bans on any game with extreme violence. • Examples of Known Local Issues: China: Hearts of Iron was banned by China in 2004 for how it portrayed Taiwan and Tibet during WWII (as not as part of the PRC).

  39. P.R.O.P: The Cost of Offense • The costs related to fully crossing over the Cultural Edge fit 2 broad categories: • Revenue: Loss of current/future revenue. • Image: Loss of respect, clout, market access for the company; also negatively reflects on the game industry. • Examples: • Aforementioned Totem pole game spent $400K out of $4M budget before being cancelled for concept reasons. • Take Two’s doubling of net loss from $14.4M (Q3 2004) to $28.8M (Q3 2005) is primarily attributed to fallout from the “Hot Coffee” issue. • For larger companies, revenue and image damage are likely absorbed over time. For smaller companies, a single issue can be a disaster.

  40. P.R.O.P: Post-Process Issues • Root Cause Analysis • Reexamine your process and trace the origins of the issue. • Focus on the key junctures at which the process failed or is insufficient to identify and contain a potential issue. • Educate and Reinforce • Define the required actions to improve the identification and containment process and educate the team. • Re-assess ownership and accountability if necessary. • Crisis Response: Don’t be a Knee-Jerk • Companies can compound the effects of an issue by reacting in knee-jerk fashion to appease a market’s will (remember the waves of backlash escalation). • While speed is important, careful discernment of the issue’s implications and risks is critical.

  41. P.R.O.P: Post-Process Example • Marketing for the Japan-only special edition DOA Xbox included a kasumi pillow. • The kasumi is not unusual for marketing a game in Japan. In the US, the unintended audience (e.g., parents) were alarmed at the idea.

  42. Closing Remarks • Balancing the “fun” and “offensive” aspects of content is completely achievable without the specter of “censorship”. • Understand your own game content from a cultural perspective, or else risk further misunderstandings and knee-jerk regulations. • Navigation around the Cultural Edge of content requires proactive knowledge and built-in strategy. • Developing more culturally-attuned games can help broaden revenue streams and also promote a positive industry image among the “unintended”.

  43. Thank you for attending.Questions or Comments?

  44. Appendix 1: Recommended Resources Where do you find the geocultural information you need to perform a content review? Here are a few suggestions to get started: • Cross-cultural Guides and Resources: Many types are available: business Do’s and Don'ts books, Travel Guides, Culture Shock series, etc. • Standards: CIA World Factbook, UN publications • Online resources: Country embassy sites, cultural group sites, encyclopedias, atlases, etc. • Internal resources: If possible, leverage your own company’s internal cultural diversity to help in early identification of issues.

  45. Appendix 2: Recommended Reading The following are a few selected texts the presenter recommends to read further about this topic: • The Game Developers Guide to the Real World, Tom Edwards, forthcoming in late 2006; a more detailed and thorough handbook on the ideas presented herein. • A History of Video Game Controversy,, • The Culturally Customized Web Site, Nitish Singh & Arun Pereira, 2005. • Content Critical, Gerry McGovern & Rob Norton, 2002. • 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey, National Geographic,