Localization and Censorship


WARNING: This is an opinion article. You are allowed to disagree.

In the previous part to this article, I discussed what localization was, and why it occurs. However, sometimes people claim that all, or most of localization is censorship. Since this is a very controversial subject, I decided to ask MaskedMan for his opinion on this topic.

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I’m extremely interested in censorship and rights as a topic. As a writer, it’s probably no surprise, that I’m against most forms of censorship in most cases. However, with video games I understand that when translating a game from one market to another, certain things must be changed in order to accommodate different cultures and ideas. Therefore, I personally believe that most of the time, localization is not outright censorship but merely adapting a piece of work so it can be commercialized.

Censorship is the forced limitation of speech that is deemed harmful or sensitive by a higher organization, usually governmental. Let me take a quick moment to discuss censorship and free speech as I think it’s vital for understanding why localization is not censorship.

In Germany, it’s acceptable to blow up robots, but not humans.

In the United States, Americans are protected by the 1st Amendment in public spaces. Public spaces is a place which are not owned privately. Therefore, even though the 1st Amendment can guarantee free speech for Americans, and has perhaps has the broadest protection of any nation, there are still limitations on Americans. Besides private spaces, there exists the The Prong Obscenity Test which can limit speech which is deemed obscene and regulations on speech which inspire ‘imminent lawless action’. There are several more instances where the U.S. government can legally censor speech.

However, most forms of localization is NOT censorship. The reason being is that the companies are voluntarily changing their product in order to sell it in a region. While some may argue that companies are de facto required to change content in order to avoid higher ratings (and this might be an interesting topic to tackle later), I believe that they change content for a lot of reasons besides rating boards. For example, video games are subjected to a lot of media scrutiny and are blamed for a lot of things — even for things that you might not think about. For example watch this news report on a DS game that “reportedly” said Islam is the Light.

Localization is done not only to pass ratings, but to avoid negative media attention. If Animal Crossing: New Leaf had kept the comments about “nice tan” when referring to black Miis that would have created a media storm about how Nintendo was promoting racism. The breast size slider removal in Xenoblade X, probably conflicted with Nintendo’s image of being ‘family friendly’ as pundits would label the game as ‘pervy’. I know similar adjustments can be done in other games, but those aren’t Nintendo games. Nintendo could have taken the higher rating, but they decided to forego the unnecessary controversy.

There are some cases in which censorship is actually required. The main difference is that it’s a forced change that is unwanted by the author and the company. For example, South Park: The Stick of Truth was censored in Germany (because of swastikas), but I wouldn’t say that the other versions were necessarily “censored”. Here is a quote from the PEGI board from the Guardian:

“Let me emphasise that we did not censor or edit the game in any shape or form. Some time later, the publisher made a decision to make alterations to the game which meant it had to be re-submitted to us as a different version. We are not privy to reasons why the game was edited and cannot, therefore, give you any other details. This version was subsequently rated 18 uncut also.”

In Germany, it’s illegal to distribute materials that contain ‘symbols of outlaw organizations’ under Strafgesetzbuch section 86a. Therefore, when Ubisoft removed that content from only the German version it did so in order to compile with the law. This is 100% censorship as Ubisoft had no choice but to alter the content in order to sell the game in the region.

There are a lot more reasons why games will change from region to region, but I think it’s important not to have a knee-jerk reaction and automatically cry ‘censorship’. Understanding why games are localized, and how is going to be very important as we continue to share the differences that exist between our favorite games across regions. If you are interested in learning more about localization, I’d strongly suggest Legends of Localization and Kantopia as they served as part of the original inspiration for Source Gaming. I look forward to covering more differences, and possibly explain why they probably changed in the future.

Masked Man

Webster’s defines “censor” as:

to examine [media] in order to remove things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.

Thus, “censorship” (as it regards the localization of games) refers to the intentional change or removal of content potentially considered offensive or inappropriate.

For example, the Western release of Fire Emblem Awakening’s Summer Scramble DLC saw fan-favorite Tharja hiding her hiney behind a dark curtain. The original Japanese release, however, left little to the imagination.  

screenshot-docs.google.com 2015-12-08 22-13-17

Or take the Western release of Bravely Default. The two female leads—Agnès and Edea—saw their ages boosted from 15 to 18. Some of their costumes also received a few extra folds of fabric, namely the Bravo Bikini, Bravo Bunny, and Vampire garb.

But what does all this say about Western (particularly American perceptions) of “acceptability” in the media, and how does it affect localization?

screenshot-docs.google.com 2015-12-08 22-12-50

The American public is typically more sensitive to suggestive content than the European and Japanese markets. Recent studies even suggest parents are more averse to sexual content in films than violence. Given this knowledge, the localization teams did exactly what they were hired to do: localize each game by adjusting the content to better fit the trends and needs of Western markets.

Did they censor certain outfits and images? Yes. But is this necessarily a bad thing? As a fellow industry professional, I would have to say “no.”

Personally speaking, I feel localization and censorship decisions only truly “cross the line” when they edit or remove content in such a way that it negatively impacts or completely changes a player’s experience. No, Western audiences are no longer be able to freely ogle scantily clad female characters. But does this prevent them from completing the game or enjoying the storyline? Not at all.

Purists will always gripe about even the most minute changes to the source material, but without localization teams, many players who cannot speak Japanese would never have access to these games in the first place. Some decisions may not be to everyone’s enjoyment, but unless adjustments deny players access to crucial in-game content, I don’t see much of a problem.

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  1. When I finally bothered to google the Street Fighter V Rainbow Mika scandal, I was blown away by how incredibly trivial and petty the whole thing was. Gamers are way too averse to anything that reminds them that a game isn’t being made solely with them in mind. This is perfect; thanks! I’ll pocket this for the inevitable overreaction to Fire Emblem Fates.

  2. I’m probably the only person in the world who would ever make a blanket statement like “I’ve never had a problem with censorship in games”, even though I can point to more than a few of my favorite games that were altered in some way before it reached my hands. To be honest, I never really considered it to be ‘censorship’ in the first place. I get why some gamers would want to experience the game as it was originally intended, but I’ve never run into a case of localization where the nature of the game as a whole was severely changed as a result. Heck, I can point to a few cases where I prefer the localized version, such as Edea’s and Agnes’ Vampire outfits. I mean, really. The Japanese version is just belts.

    On the topic, I just recalled a scene in Xenosaga 1 which I only found out years later was changed in the English version (this scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sg9OYyPIYNk – *FAIR WARNING*, this scene is quite disturbing). Both versions of the scene remain intentionally shocking, but for different reasons, This may be a case where the localization may have unintentionally ended up changing the depiction of the character involved in this scene. I highly recommend people to watch this and give their thoughts on the differences.

    1. Honestly beyond ratings and removal of content critical to a game (South Park), why should most people overhype these sorts of issues. When I played the original Xenoblade, I didn’t use the bikini outfits for Sharla mostly because they were pretty low stat-wise. Even if they were to change an outfit to cover more skin, you don’t play those games for stuff like that (hopefully). I’ve never had a problem with censorship either. If you want to gaze at that sort of stuff, there are much easier ways to do it.

      1. Yeah I think censoring is fine and should always happen.

        Wwho cares if before you had an option to do something before but now you can’t anymore even though you could before, I mean it makes complete sense, I don’t have any responsibility, I am like a child so it is better for someone else to choose for me what I should see or what I should not see.

        I mean it’s not like I could just not buy a product that has content I am not comfortable with, why should they leave me out of the fun for the sake of keeping stuff intact? Just butcher the product up so I can have my 3 year old play what should be an adults game! Now THAT is genius!

        So please, let us continue needlessly censoring stuff up, I can’t stand these people whining over little stuff either.

  3. This is a pretty interesting subject to me. A lot of times, just for curiosity’s sake, I check out if there are differences between the U.S. and Japanese versions of games (if the game was made in Japan, that is.) Usually I just check out title / character name differences, but sometimes I stumble upon story and content items that differ.

    One of the more interesting ones I found was the NES version of Bionic Commando. The Japanese version, IIRC, roughly translates to “Top Secret: The Plan to Revive Hitler,” and features Nazis as enemies.

    I remember reading before too that Gears of War was toned down a bit in Japan because CERO had a problem with the “excessive violence” involving the chainsaw bayonets… and I think I recall the same thing happening with Resident Evil 4 when Leon gets decapitated by chainsaw-wielding enemies.

    I agree with Masked Man in that as long as changes don’t detract from the overall experience, I don’t really have a problem with it. I tend not to be fond of overly sexual and overly gory games anyway (mostly because they fall in genres that I have little interest in.)

  4. Great article PushDustIn, there’s some good stuff to think about here. Man am I tired of all the whining about the tiniest change to a game that really doesn’t affect the experience at all (Xenoblade bust slider anyone?). I am wondering what kind of changes between versions we may see in futures releases namely, Fire Emblem Fates, however I’m sure it won’t be that big of a change that negatively impacts the game play experience.

  5. So first and foremost these companies are businesses and they are trying to make their products pleasing to the largest groups possible in their regions.

    I honestly think most people who complain about censorship in games believe censorship can only be a negative term (most likely because growing up on the internet and seeing the extreme backlash over censorship on the internet and things like wiki leaks where our ‘age of knowledge’ seems threatened by government muddling.) In Japan most of these games are slanted towards an ‘Otaku’ audience and some westerners use Otaku as an badge of honor similar to geek or nerd in western culture, but in Japan, Otaku is seen as a heavily negative term.

    NOA/NOE are only doing what they see best for their regions where Nintendo is marketed more as a Family/’fun for everyone’ device.

    I still can’t believe all the comments that bash them for removing the breast slider saying it ruined Xenoblade X or changing the characters hate from an Native headdress to a cowboy hat in Bravely Default 2- the latter I personally hope they don’t deviate from her ethnic background/ inspiration as long as it is respectfully done. (For those who don’t know the Headress is very important to Native culture and their spiritual beliefs- you have to earn it, it isn’t really like crowns or Halos in Western culture where we are much more likely to slap them on or wear them for play.)

    1. “NOA/NOE are only doing what they see best for their regions where Nintendo is marketed more as a Family/’fun for everyone’ device.”

      And I think that’s where those stereotype of saying “silly grown-ups, Nintendo’s just for kids!” happening…which I disagree on that.

      1. At the same time they really can’t battle that image of ‘gore and greys = mature’ alone. The issue is that is what is selling and that is what other systems are marketing towards creating a feedback loop. I think the other issue is graphical prowess vs. aesthetics and art style. Games push for ‘uber gritty realism’ because they think it makes their games look superior graphically wher as cartoony games can’t show off the same power, but that really isn’t true. Also the stylized games end up aging much more gracefully. This generation seems like it’s having a more varied palette so maybe in due time we will see this ideas become less prevalent.

  6. You’re definitely right, but the removal of features already in a game I think is just unnecessary. It would be like removing marth and roy from smash bros because they don’t appeal, or that removing breast sliders (which can easily be ignored) in xenoblade chronicles x because of some image they want. I think it’s just stupid. Even though it is small the fact that they take such steps is more concerning than not taking steps. It means they have a low value of the americas in comparison to japan. This is the stuff I can not tolerate.

    1. In there eyes they see it as games getting bumped up in ratings because they didn’t change these things (the rating boards in each region are very different) and potentially costing them sells, as would damaging their brand image.

      It is kind of like the argument that games should feature multiple dub settings for different languages all the time. I mean it seems like it wouldn’t affect costs- it is already recorded! Except they would have to pay licensing fees for the different territories and follow the contracts between the voice actors, the talent agency, studios, and unions which might have stipulations about where the voice could be used and include higher wages if it is multiple times outside of said region. Also Union laws can be tricky when they cross borders and seas so sometimes the hassles and man hours aren’t worth it- it isn’t like someone didn’t buy brawl because they couldn’t change the dub to Japanese in the NA version.

  7. It’s a touchy subject…and also one that gets blown out of proportion a lot. There’s no simple solution to this kind of localization, which is why it frustrates me to no end when some people get up in arms about any changes whatsoever without bothering to look at the context.

    1. It honestly seems like a lose/lose situation no matter what they choose. They either alienate an audience or piss off purists.

  8. Sorry for some few days of absence. Since my laptop PC has been infected by real pests (probably bed bugs?), I’ve sent my laptop to the repair shop to clean it up for me. I use my laptop because typing here is really faster than my tablet, but since I don’t have it right now, I’m using tablet by typing through Google Doc and copy/pasting it here. So, here’s my opinion!

    Although some localization are censoring strong visual contents like racism and religions, I could see that sexual contents are seem to be the most highly targeted content for censorship than the others. For example, in the Japanese version of Street of Rage 3, the enemy character “Electra’s” outfit has been changed from her highly exposed latex outfit to fully covered dress. Another is in Earthbound, they made Ness wear pajamas instead in Magicant since he’s actually naked in the Japanese version. However, there were some games that wasn’t released in the west because of probably it was ultimately impossible to edit, such Nintendo games like Captain Rainbow and Reginleiv, and even Sega’s Sakura Wars series. Others are seem to be fine somewhat, but mostly the sexual contents are the one to be more victimized by localization than any other contents.

    But…I know I might not be right on saying this…but this seems more of a contradiction. There are other western games that contains sexual contents too like Mortal Kombat, Sims, Killer Instinct, etc., but I don’t see any of those games getting any complaints about it! Or is it just because those characters aren’t even “sexy” enough to have claims? 😛

    But overall, I hardly play any of those sexual and violent games because I’m not interested in it. However, we already know that video games are no longer a children’s plaything. It belongs to everyone who are gamers, people who love video games. And this is why we have CERO/ESRB ratings; it helps warn players of what content involves so players could understand if it’s safe for them or not. Furthermore, although there may be things that they don’t want to show to under aged players as it’s reasonable and understandable, censorship shouldn’t be used entirely if that’ll damage the game’s productivity. But I hope that type of problem will be fixed in the future…

  9. Small costume changes aren’t the worse, but things like Bravely Second completely changing a class (Native American) for a Cowboy is just insulting.

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