Thursday, June 21, 2012

Geocultural Elements in Video Games: Religion

Video games as we know them have come an amazingly long way from the old days, when the worst onscreen violence one could expect was a plumber stepping on a cartoon turtle, and “religious” content went about as far as maybe having some crucifixes on top of gravestones in the background of a zombie game. Virtually all elements of video games – from graphics and sound to depth of content and cultural relevance – have evolved exponentially over the past three decades, as have certain elements of Western culture, such as the necessity of cultural awareness and sensitivity in marketing, and the comparatively accelerated rate of availability of and access to a mind-boggling array of data and information regarding, well, everything.

Seeing as how the video game industry is exactly that – an industry, as opposed to a human rights association or humanitarian charity – there are several factors which contribute to the necessity for geocultural sensitivity in game development. One reason is the need for market acceptance, i.e.: if you develop a video game based on the awesome and gallant warriors of Country A decimating the evil, cartoonish goons of Country B, and then attempt to market that game in Country B, you probably shouldn’t expect truckloads of revenue to come pouring in from that area.

Market acceptance, of course, leads to another important factor: profit. If you can make a game that not only avoids offending peoples and cultures of a wider spectrum, but also appeals to people of many locales, then obviously your game will sell better. This also helps with general corporate image as well, which leads to better sales down the road.

There are a number of elements which require a certain amount of attention and sensitivity throughout the process of not only translating but also developing, marketing, and localizing video games, and here I’ll introduce several of them throughout the next few articles. Today, I will discuss one of these elements: Religion

Religion has, for the duration of the existence of the concept itself, been a sensitive subject. And this is putting it ridiculously lightly. Throughout history, hundreds of millions of people have been killed, exiled, shunned, tortured, insulted, discriminated against, and just plain offended over the subject of religion. So it goes without saying that when dealing with religious subject matter, imagery, history, or interpretation, extreme care must be taken.

One recent example of the subject of religion (as well as other social issues, such as gun crime and local violence) in a video game leading to problems was the case of the PS3 title, Resistance: Fall of Man. In March of 2007, the game was released in Europe, and quickly drew fire from the Church of England for several reasons. First, the developer – Insomniac – apparently failed to receive permission to use the image of Manchester Cathedral in the game (this is another important part of geocultural localization, which will be discussed at a later date). Another main reason was the way in which the cathedral was used: the game is mainly based on destroying the hordes of aliens which are invading the Earth in the alternate history of the game’s storyline, and a good amount of graphic violence takes place within the cathedral itself. Being a relatively major symbol of the Anglican/Christian faith, one can see why church officials would be opposed to images of alien soldiers having their faces shot off against the backdrop of the holy sanctuary that is Manchester Cathedral.

Ultimately, it was decided that accusations of copyright infringement were groundless, and Sony apologized publicly to the Church of England for use of the image of the cathedral, but many Christians throughout the world were still upset. The Church demanded that Sony – who had sold over 2 million copies of the game by that time – make a substantial donation to the Manchester-based anti-gun violence program run by the Cathedral, and the issue was even raised with then-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair on television. Ironically, the controversy surrounding the game actually helped to boost not only awareness of the title but also sales as well, which to be perfectly honest somewhat serves to undermine the argument that these issues should be handled with care... but I digress.

Depictions of locales, artifacts, persons, deities, and stories of religious significance on a much smaller scale are also found in many games, to varying degrees of controversy. These include the swastika-like symbol known as the gammadion, or the manji in Japanese, which is actually a centuries-old symbol used in many religions and in many contexts throughout the world. This symbol appears frequently in video games, mainly of Japanese origin, in both positive and negative contexts (for example, in one game it may be used as a “power-up” whereas in another game it may be a harmful item or enemy projectile). Another more specific example would be a scene in the game Xenogears – which itself deals with philosophical and religious themes - in which a number of robots are shown being crucified near the end of the game. Both of these examples have sparked controversy and even, in some cases, outrage among people of many faiths and cultures.

The main point of this article is very simple: when developing, localizing, marketing, or even planning a video game, take extreme care with how you handle anything which could be considered religious imagery, content, or themes. Offending and angering not only direct customers, but also the community to which they belong, at the most basic and primal level is definitely a good way to drive your product – and your corporate image – into the ground.