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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.