What’s in a Symbol? The Case for Culturalization [Kate Edwards Guest Post]

The need for game localization is a well-known necessity in the game industry, particularly with the reality that roughly 50% of the industry’s global revenue is generated from localized versions.  So there’s no question that localization is critical and necessary. However, the need for culturalization is still an often overlooked yet much-needed reality.

Culturalization is going a step further beyond localization as it takes a deeper look into a game’s fundamental assumptions and content choices, and then gauges their viability in both the broad, multicultural marketplace as well as in specific geographic locales. Localization helps gamers simply comprehend the game’s content (primarily through translation), but culturalization helps gamers to potentially engage with the game’s content at a much deeper, more meaningful level.

One cultural artifact often leveraged in games are symbols, whether it’s on a piece of military hardware, a clan emblem or an icon in the UI. Part of the power of symbols is found in their visual compactness, i.e., multiple messages can be conveyed at a glance. In relation to digital content, symbology is used to facilitate user interaction with software (e.g., icons, such as the thumbs-up icon for “Like” on Facebook).

While there are four main categories of symbols – sacred, historical, cultural, and functional — the latter three are most relevant to localization for most businesses:

  • Historical: Historical symbols can be endearing, such as the Macedonian sunburst associated with Alexander the Great, or reviled in the form of Nazi Germany’s right-facing swastika.
  • Cultural: Symbols with culture-specific meanings are usually not universally recognizable. Many hand, face and body gestures differ widely in meaning from locale to locale. For example, the open-faced palm usually meant to signify “stop” or “warning” in the U.S., can be a very offensive gesture in some countries, particularly around the Mediterranean. While the production of functional icons representing inanimate objects (like printers) can be helpful to a PC user, the use of gesture-related icons can be a significant risk exposure since such icons assume that gestures are universal.
  • Functional: Symbols used in transportation, utilities, safety notices and so forth. They serve a straightforward but critical purpose, and the International Standards Organization (ISO) has even created the specific standard ISO 3864 for international safety symbols (many of which are quite effective in their conveyance of meaning – such as the corrosive effect of acid on a hand, one that always induces an instant cringe).

Symbol creation, including the development of logos and trademarks, is one of the more research-intensive forms of content development. Here’s a list of resources that can help you get started:


Kate-PAX2013Kate Edwards is the Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), appointed in December 2012. She is also the founder and principal consultant of Geogrify, a Seattle-based consultancy for content culturalization, and a unique hybrid of an applied geographer, writer, and corporate strategist, built upon a passion for global cultures and media technologies. Formerly as Microsoft’s first Geopolitical Strategist in the Geopolitical Strategy team she created and managed, Kate was responsible for protecting against political and cultural content risks across all products and locales. In the Microsoft Game Studios, she implemented a “geopolitical quality” review process and was personally responsible for identifying potential issues in all 1st party games between 1995 and 2005. Since leaving Microsoft, she has provided guidance to many companies on a wide range of geopolitical and cultural issues, and she continues to work on games such as the Dragon Age series, Modern Warfare 3, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Dance Central series, Mass Effect 3, Halo 4 and Ryse. Kate is also the founder and former chair of the IGDA’s Localization Special Interest Group, a former board member of IGDA Seattle, the co-organizer of the Game Localization Summit at GDC, and is a regular columnist for MultiLingual Computing magazine. In October 2013, Fortune magazine named her as one of the “10 most powerful women” in the game industry.

To learn more about Kate’s work, visit the Geogrify website.