Culture is when people share the same beliefs and values within a group, be it national, be it any other type of group. Culture is important for designers because it is a human characteristic. There are many things involved in culture: rituals, values, beliefs, religion, arts & crafts, cultural expressions, symbols, meaning, language, heroes. When looking at interaction design, Culture can help to convey emotional connections between products and people. That is, if the user experience is culturally-situated, people would have a stronger emotional connection [1]. It is like the way products are designed triggers some kind of “decodification” in people’s minds, based on their values. Right, so when we think about the design of games, it is the same situation. As Ian Bogost said in this video “Feeling that you’re having FUN with something is a sign that you’re giving it respect”. That is, if you if you give it some kind of respect, it satisfies your internal needs – and values – making us enjoy the games.

Culture and games

Understanding culture and games is crucial. You need to be aware that we live in a global world and many people will play your game – and of course – you hope that everyone will play your game and share with others. There are at least three ways to see the influence of culture in games: (1) you should be careful about stereotypes, (2) people might feel offended if you design something that evokes different connotations for other people and (3) people might love you if you trigger and represent the right symbols, which could build an emotional connections between players and the game. Well, in their book Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman [2] mentioned that culture and games occur in two ways: one as representative and another as transformative; that is, one is the reflection of culture and the other is the way people interpret the game. Thus, how can we design meaningful games and incorporate culture in our design process?

Games and localisation

Localisation is crucial while dealing with culture and games. Most of the times, though, it focuses more on the language and obvious stereotypes than other elements that might convey meaning. The first example was a localisation of titles. Pac-Man is an invented name as it was “puckman” from the Japanese, and it didn’t sound nice [3]. The whole point of localisation is to avoid breaking the immersion from the game (because of a lack of understanding due to bad representations). Strategies that designers could consider in this case is to add a variety of ethnicities for avatars and local brands, in order to make it more relevant for players. Also, localisation can expand game strategies of monetisation in mobile games. Thus, localisation can be extremely important if you want to design revenue models in your game.

Games and values
Another aspect to mention is that games and values work together. In 2014, Flanagan and Nissanbaum wrote a very inspiring book  (Values at Play) [4] about values and games. In their book, they mention that values are “similar to goals and purposes” but it is what merges communities; it is like a community glue! This also includes ethical and political values. What is more, the research group has developed a toolkit for teaching Values at Play, which might be super useful! There is definitely a shift towards more inclusive and activist games design. Therefore, values in games is a twofold situation: first we can incorporate the values in the game, as a design element and second we can embed values through play. For example, players can play a game that has been designed around sustainability values and perhaps change their behaviour accordingly.

The video above shows Quest Atlantis (Sasha Barab 2005) which is a game developed for children to engage with school curriculum; as Flanagan and Nissanbaum said in their book, the game was developed for educational purposes but had values in its core since children could explore feelings and had enough agency in the game to change the environment.

Conversely, games such as My Child Lebensborn do the job of incorporating values in the gameplay very well. It is all about feelings, choices and consequences but all reflected on gameplay. The game tells a story, and people learn from that story and relate to that narrative. Surprisingly, the game was also a success in China and it has already a version in Chinese. This means that some values are universal and some stories might be similar, but with different contexts, heroes and villains.

Based on these examples, I can conclude this post with some notes (in form of a rules-list) about culture and games. These are:

  1. Incorporate values in your games design. What is your core? What does it mean to you and the team? What is the background story and why?
  2. Think about localising or translating your game. It is good to have more people playing your game but also think that some values are universal
  3. You can make people think and reflect if your game is “value-congruent
  4. Values at play research group have a toolkit for teaching values through games; but we need also a way to incorporate this in our games design in a systematic manner
  5. Open your mind to other stories, from other countries and in other languages. Sound yourself with new people!
  6. Embrace diversity. Listen.
  7. Check for biases

Anything you think should be in this list? Leave a comment! Next post on games and culture will definitely discuss more examples! :)

References

[1] Desmet P, Hekkert P (2007) Framework of Product Experience. Int J Des 1:57–66.
[2] Salen K, Zimmerman E (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
[3] Bernal-Marino M (2011) A Brief History of Game Localisation. Trans 15:11–18.
[4] Flanagan M, Nissanbaum H (2014) Values at play in digital games.

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