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The Steps To Localize and Culturalize Your Content

Jan 22, 2021

Kate is a unique hybrid of an applied geographer, writer, and content culturalization strategist with a passion for global cultures and media technologies. With broad experience in the fields of geography, cartography, geopolitics and cross-cultural issues, Kate is a recognized thought leader in applying this knowledge to ‘real world’​ business solutions and problem solving, particularly in the information industry as related to inclusive representation, content management, and cross-cultural impacts of information and globalization.

During her time at Microsoft early in her career and since, she’s worked on many game franchises, including Halo, Fable, Age of Empires, Dragon Age, Modern Warfare, Mass Effect and many others. She’s also the founder of the IGDA’s Localization SIG and co-organizer of the former Localization Summit at GDC. Kate has been a columnist for MultiLingual Computing magazine since 2005 and she plans to publish a culturalization handbook for game developers in the near future (possibly by 2021).

You Can Listen To The Full Episode Below, or Any Of Your Favorite Podcast Hosts

The following is a transcript of the interview created by A.I. We have time-stamped the segments for your listening convenience. 

Kate’s Journey From Microsoft Encarta to Microsoft Games

1:30. → 05:23. I’ve always had a passion for games. Like many families, we were huge board game players and card games. And you know, when we would go camping, my dad would teach my brother and I all kinds of poker. Then when my first video game was Pong, it was the pong console because I’m old. So I remember seeing that yellow pong console in a store where I grew up in Southern California. And ever since then I’ve been fascinated with video games and all through high school. I was in high school during the early eighties, so the arcades was our Facebook. That was our network because there was no Internet. There was no, you know, smartphones or anything. So our social network was all around the arcades. And so I’ve always been a huge game player and at Least academically had always had a creative focus to it because I actually at one point wanted to be a conceptual artist for Lucasfilm just so I could work on a Star Wars movie. That was my number one goal, because I am a massive geek in all kinds of things, and I did industrial design for a couple years. But then I switched to geography because I’ve always loved maps and I’ve loved travel. I love learning about other cultures, and I also knew I could use those artistic skills and cartography. So I went in that direction, and I basically at that point, thought I’m probably not ever crossing the creative path again. It’s that I’m leaving that behind me. I mean, I still drew and stuff like that on my own, but I never thought it would intersect again as a career. And so, you know, fast forward a bit. I got my geography degrees. I got my master’s degree, which was focused on using my master’s degree, was about using VR to create better maps, and this was wayback in 1991 when VR was really nascent at the time, and it didn’t work that well, but it was, You know, it was starting, but then when Microsoft called our department, this was in 1991 just like almost right after I finished my my thesis. That’s when they were looking for a cartographer to work on Encarta Encyclopedia, which was just cranking up at Microsoft. And I know a lot of people don’t know what Encarta is, but it was basically the last major encyclopedia in digital form before Wikipedia showed up online. So my colleague at the in grad school got the job because they only had one job. But Then he called me up a few months later in early 1992 needed somebody to help him.

So, yeah, he came on board as a contractor initially and helped him create all these maps for Encarta encyclopedia, which was great fun. I loved it. It Was basically about applied geography and applied cartography. You know, creating a product with your work is going to be seen by millions and millions of people and help millions of people around the world. And yeah, that was kind of how I got into it. And that’s, you know, at that point, there are a couple dimensions, one I never imagined working in tech at all. That Was not the direction I was going in with geography and the other part of it. And I was a huge apple fan. I was not a Microsoft fan at all. HatedWindows, But, you know, I kind of had to shift a little bit, you know? AndI’m still a fan of both, but yeah, I got absorbed into Microsoft. And what was funny is that they kept renewing my contract because I thought it was just gonna be, like, a six month term, and I would be done, create the maps and leave. Well, they kept renewing the contract. They offered me to be the cartography lead on Encarta. And then I shifted over to Encarta World, that list to help with help create that product, and by then, this is where I’m three years in and I get a full time headcount position.

Early Implementation of Localization in Microsoft Flight Sim

05:35. –> 09:17. So when I was at Microsoft, the first game I worked on which at the time was the only game at Microsoft was FlightSim. So I worked a bit on flight Sim and I was being asked, You know, I was still very much in that geographers role, working on Encarta and working on a lot of other mapping products and kids products and, you know, basically information products on DNA, not on games, but then in the mid nineties is when Microsoft really started cranking up their their games focus. And they started a lot of PC games like the Age of Empires franchise, which I worked on all of those games. And I worked on a lot of other titles of the time, and this was all pre Xbox because F box was still kind of churning in the background.Um, and so I had, oftentimes, because of my unique function doing this, what I Call the geopolitical work at Microsoft. I wasn’t doing localization, but I worked a lot with localization people, obviously, because we’re all kind of in that same space where we’re trying to make sure that the software is being adapted for other cultures and markets. And so, while they’re focused primarily all on the linguistic issues, I was focusing on everything else, like the correct flags for countries and the right nomenclature for countries. In my focus, in my initial job within Microsoft, the full time job I had was called geopolitical specialist. And so my function there was to help the company avoid making missed aches that could get them into big trouble, especially on the map. So boundaries that are incorrect or, you know, cases like India and China both have laws that require the math to be a certain way in order for you to sell your product into those countries. And so in that capacity, of course, I was working with the teams, doing the localization for Hindi and doing the localization for, you know, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese and everything else, So basically, throughout the rest of my Microsoft career until I left in 2005, I have been working very closely, hand in hand with a lot of the localization people. And In fact, when I created an internal team at Microsoft, which I called geopolitical strategy, my team was created within the group at Microsoft called International Products Services, in which most of the localization was also housed. So basically, I was right there next to them, so we worked very closely together. And so that was my first exposure with all that process. 

And so then, within just a couple of years, by 2007, I had created the Localization special interest group. And I thought that, well, localization is such a huge part of the game industry. There needs to be a community for localization people within games. And so that’s why I created the Look Sig, which happily is still around to this day. And then eventually, a few years later, after running the Look sick and also running the Seattle chapter of the IG.A. 

The Definition of Localizing Content

09:18. → 11:05. For me, it’s about adapting and or enabling legibility in content founded or based on language and linguistics. So for me, localization is mainly about language, and I know there’s people who disagree with me. I know some people have different views on what localization is. I tend to feel that culturalization, the complete adaptation of content to another culture or market. I see culturalization as I as basically the broader sense of what we’re doing with content adaptation. So localization is part of that, Um, it’s not, you know, it’s not the other way around. Least that’s the way I see it. And I’ve had people in localization vehemently disagree with me.It’s like no culturalization is part of localization. It’s like, you know what it doesn’t. What matters is that we’re doing the work it does. I don’t really care who you know, who subsumes who. What matters is that we have people who are dedicated and focussed on the linguistic adaptation of content because that is vitally important, obviously, to legibility and understanding. And on the other side of it is all the other aspects of communication. The non linguistic aspects, which also are part of communication and part of perception, and so localization for me is more about focusing on the linguistic part. The spoken and written part in the e culturalization part is focused on the non linguistic aspect, so symbols and semiology and you know the use of history and religion in content, the use of allegory and stories, all kinds of other things.

How to Localize and Culturalize Video Games

11:24. –> 14:10. Yeah, well, for me, it’s really about. If they’ve already finished their game, then they’re too late. They might regret some of the decisions they’ve already made because really to do both localization and culturalization. It’s something that they have to consider from the very inception of their idea. One of the differences I see between lateralization and localization is that whereas both are involved from early on and they should be involved early on, ah, lot of the localization is dependent on the text in the text content being complete or complete enough so that the translators could do their job and, you know, did not have to constantly redo it over and over again, even though that does happen at times, Culturalization is more about discussing the foundational world building decisions that are being made in the

And so often when I’m starting a new project, I’m sitting down with the writers and the artist and the producers and everyone in the core creative team very early in the project during the concept phase. And I’m trying to understand, you know, what is the world you’re making? Who is in it? What do they do? There are the political factions, are the religious groups. Are there whatever is? Is it based on the real world, or is it a completely fictional world? Um, there’s a lot of different layers to that basically that process of discovering what they are making? Because very early on, I can help do some course correction with the just the overall, uh, game idea before they eventually get into full production. And obviously, when you’re doing it at that stage, it’s really cheap and easy to make a change because nothing’s been done yet. The bigger problem is when I’m brought on board like late in the product cycle. And they’re like, Yeah, we created this character. And now we’re having second thoughts because we’ve been getting a little pushback, like from within our company or from some user testing. And now we’re not so comfortable with what we’ve created. Um, and of course, at that stage, it gets, it’s expensive and it gets complicated to change things. So that’s so really when I Sit down at the beginning of a project I usually am given, like the draft of the script, the concept, art and basically all the foundational pieces of what is going to go into building this world. So then I can understand what they’re trying to achieve and what the creative vision is, And then I could basically help guide them at that point and then after we’ve kind of reached some understanding and hopefully there hasn’t been any major changes that happen to the concept phase. Once it goes into full production, then oftentimes there will be checkpoints at which I’m sent batches of content to review what’s

Are There Any Genres of Video Games That Can Not Be Localized?

14:17 –> 17:00. So far, I’ve pretty much worked on every kind of game you could imagine. From sports games to first person shooters to RPGs and real time strategy. I’ve worked on three games for Mobile. Um, it’s pretty much every single thing you could imagine. There. There could be a component to it, which might have a culturalization dimension. Obviously, there are themes that are used by different games, regardless of the genre. But there’s the the misuse like if it is a real world game that uses, like, takes place in our world now in a specific country or region or a city, you have to make sure you’re getting it right, you know, are you? Or if you’re not intending to make it the real place, then what are you doing to differentiate it?  I call it, You know, like Grand Theft Auto. Five did a great job with their creation of Los Santos, which is obviously Los Angeles, but it isn’t it’s It’s what I call hyper real. It’s not the real world, but it’s really close to it. So they’re trying to basically show you by allegory that this is L.A. And this is an L.A. Like Environment. But by making it fictional, this Los Santos city that is based on L.A. They have a lot of liberty to take, and they could do all kinds of things in that place where you may not get away with. Or you might get some kind of backlash if you’re doing it about Ella specifically. And so having that allegorical distance could really be useful in the narrative, if that’s what they want to do, you know, whereas if you have a game, for example, like Assassin’s Creed, as all of the assassins creed games use real world locations, they’re all accurate on but their historical, you know. So like when the assassin’s creed did a fantastic recreation of Venice during the Renaissance, and it’s amazing what they were able to achieve. But then, of course, they lay a fictional narrative on top of it, in which you do cross paths with some real world characters within the narrative. And so you have that responsibility of making sure that you are being accurate to the legacy of that character of the rial person or the real place, or what the real history. But if you’re going to basically go off in a different direction, like, you know, some games become like alternate histories or alternate realities kinds of games. That’s totally fine, too. But you just have to make sure it’s clear, you know, that that’s what you’re doing. You know, like the Wolf in the latest Wolfenstein Games are obviously a huge departure from history, but they still use a lot of historical elements.

The Trend of Localizing Sports Games

17:00. → 19:17. Well, I think with games like that, especially games that have had a long, long history, I think the Madden franchise at this point, they’ve probably pretty much know what they’re doing from version to version, you know, for a lot of those games. The most important part is the accurate representation of the players. You know, making sure you’re doing them correctly and making sure they’re basically you’re capturing these real people in an accurate way that honors who they are as a player and as a person. But you’re not trying to make a stereotype or caricature of them. You just want to represent who they are, you know. And so, for I think for most sports games, it’s pretty straightforward. Um, it’s not, too. It’s not nearly as complicated as some other games. But although there have been examples like, there was this UFC fighter game that came out, I think a few years ago, in which one of the main, the main characters, he’s a really fighter who’s on the UFC circuit. He’s from Uzbekistan and he is Muslim. And when they coded into the game, play that when a player, when one of the UFC fighters winds of fight, there’s certain, like coated actions like random actions that they’ll do, you know, like kind of pumping fists and, you know, stuff like that. One of the coated actions was to do this was to do the like, the Catholic forming the cross and So That was just a random action. Well, it turned out that this character who’s Muslim, he actually did that in the game is like there’s no reason why wouldWhy would this Muslim character be doing this? He would not. He would not do that form of the cross. So it’s one of those things where they made assumptions about the kinds of random actions that winners might do. And they made assumptions about, you know, the faith background of every one of the real people. And so that’s one of those things where you just have to be really aware of.

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