East to West: The Major Differences in Game Releases Based on Geographic Locations

There are a lot of changes video games go through when they release in different nations. From sex and violence to religious issues, we go through what happens and why these changes are made.

Ever since video games started being released internationally, developers have been changing or removing certain pieces of content. These changes usually end up being cosmetic only, with some larger changes required depending on the region,and the most common things to be changed are depictions of violence, sex or nudity, and religious content. However, it's not just games released in the US that end up changed. Japan, Europe, and some Middle Eastern countries adapt releases to suit their particular cultures or needs as well.

Censorship or Localization?

Many games go through a variety of changes when they are released for different areas. These are often minute changes to fit the cultural differences between the areas they are being released. The changes do not mean that a game is censored, however; it's more that they are localized for that specific region.

Censorship means that there is a suppression or prohibition of parts from a game and other forms of expression, such as books or films, whereas localizing a game is the process by which a company adapts something to be local in character. So, in other words, "localisation is not outright censorship, but merely adapting a piece of work," while censorship deals more with the suppression of thought and ideas.

With that in mind, a lot of games that move between regions fall under the category of localization, rather than censorship. These changes are typically made because of cultural differences, tragic circumstances in the region, or for religious purposes. Some regions may have issues with nudity, with North America being one of the major regions where this change is made, alongside Middle Eastern areas, such as Saudi Arabia.

Or the culture could have issues with certain religious depictions, and these are changed in the localization process to fit that region's perspective. It doesn’t restrict free speech, as it doesn’t tend to restrict ideas, but change certain cosmetic effects to fit the sensibilities of the region.

Nudity and Sex

This is one of the major aspects of video games changed for all sorts of launches. It is especially true of releases in North American and Middle Eastern nations, since they tend to have a greater aversion to nudity, rather than other things like violence, but other nations aren't always happy with certain depictions of sexual content.

Cover-Ups

You can find numerous examples of localization changes made for American releases when it comes to sex and nudity, especially with a series like Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI were games that were changed for American releases by removing anything risqué. For example, the town dancers in bikinis were covered up with leotards in Final Fantasy IV, and all nudity was covered up for the Espers in Final Fantasy VI. More recent games were localized for nudity and sex too. Games like Indigo Prophecy and The Witcher had graphic sex scenes removed, and most of the nudity was removed as well, unless the scene happened to be integral to the story.

The FFIV remake, however, stuck to the original intention for the dancer's design.

Although countries such as Japan are more open about nudity and sex in video games, that doesn't mean every instance is permissible. GTA V, for example, was changed for Korean and Japanese launches, removing or modifying a lot of controversial sex and nudity. However, the examples and instances where this is changed for Japanese audiences are fewer by far compared to North America.

Why Bother?

So why is there a massive difference between places like North America and Japan when it comes to sex and nudity? 

There is a substantial cultural difference between Japan and America, which explains the frequent level of localization between the two countries. Culturally, Americans are more sensitive to nudity, and sex is a particularly sensitive topic. The 2015 Parents Ratings Advisory Study showed that 80% of Americans studied were more concerned with sex scenes in films than violence. This was a study predominantly looking at films; however, considering the gaming medium's similarities with the film industry, the concepts involved are still closely linked.

There is not the same stigma in Japan and European countries, especially regarding female nudity. My own experience can attest to that. When I was working in a gaming store, a woman wanted to bring back a copy of GTA V that she had bought for her 8-year-old son. She told me she knew about the violence in it, but didn’t realize there was nudity and brought it straight back. Whereas traveling through Europe, I saw many of the beaches throughout Europe are topless, and the Scandinavian spas normally have a clothing optional policy. Being in Spain at the moment, I see even their advertisements featuring full-frontal nudity, as long as they air after the watershed.

Religion

Religion is another reason why games can be altered, because religion is central to lives of those who worship, regardless of the creed. Insulting or demeaning someone's religion, even without meaning to, can send people into a fury and cause backlash against the company.

Holy [Censored] Batman!

One issue that caused mass controversy was the design of Hindu gods in SMITE, especially Kali. The Hindu community in India was not pleased with the representation of their goddess and asked Hi-Rez to make changes. The developer eventually removed Kali from the website, but not much more. 

Kali is an important goddess within the Hindu community, and some sects worships Kali as the ultimate goddess or the true form of Brahman. She is the goddess of death, time, and sexuality, but has always had strong roots in motherhood too.  Hi-Rez didn't want to issue a statement on their removal of Kali from the website, but the Hindu community is still pressing for their other gods to be removed as well. 

However, Hi-Rez's Todd Howard believed that:

Hinduism, being one of the world's oldest, largest and most diverse traditions, also provides inspiration toward deities in our game. In fact, given Hinduism's concept of a single truth with multiple physical manifestations one could validly interpret ALL the gods within SMITE to be Hindu. And all gods outside of SMITE as well. Ponder that for a minute. Anyway, going forward SMITE will include even more deities, not fewer.

Although this opinion suggests that Todd Howard would have preffered not to remove the gods altogether, the Hindu community still wants their gods to be removed from the game. Rajan Zed, a Hindu statesmen and the President of Universal Society of Hinduism said that the removal of Kali from the website was "a 'step in the right direction,' thanking Hi-Rez Studios for being so understanding."

Games like CoD 4 have been banned in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates because of the perceived negative presentation of Arabs, along with passages from the Qur'an being added into the game. Since the games are banned outright, these issues come under censorship, rather than localization. But the religion and culture of these places will not permit these offenses, so it also relates to localization and shows how the two are often closely connected. 

The Devil in the Details

It isn't just the Middle Eastern and Asian worlds affected by religious imagery in video games. Many localization changes from Japan to America change the religious imagery presented as well.

Religious imagery had to be removed in games like Final Fantasy IV and Super Castlevania IV. Any references to Christianity in FFIV were removed, including Holy, and religious imagery and all references to prayer were taken out or altered, such as the Tower of Prayer being changed to The Tower of Wishes. Even direct references to death were taken out.

The other early Castlevania games were no different, with a lot of crosses taken out of the North American release, among other things. The only piece of religious imagery to stay throughout Castlevania was a piece of rosary that was integral to the game and it's overall image.

There was also the infamous chanting debate surrounding the Fire Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. There has been some controversy about what happened with the Fire Temple and whether the chanting was removed from the game before release. It has always been argued that the chanting was removed to avoid religious controversy, along with changing the original Gerudo symbol--which resembled the Islamic crescent and star--over misusing religious elements. Continuing with the Zelda series, but on a smaller scale,the Bible was turned into the Book of Magic, even though Link's shield retained its cross.

Violence

Violence is another aspect of video games that is often changed for releases. However, we mainly tend to see  North American games being changed to accommodate European and Middle Eastern standards of what constitutes over-the-top violence.

Some interesting examples of these changes relate to North American games released in Japan. Games like Crash Bandicoot 2 and The Last of Us were altered for their gratuitous violence. One of the death scenes was altered for Crash, where he was just a squashed head and feet, as it resembled the work of a serial killer in Japan at the time. The Last of Us was mainly altered in multiplayer to remove any dismemberment or exploding heads. The change doesn't feature in the main story, and the dismemberment is obscured and covered by camera angles, rather then removed.

Other games, like Manhunt, were banned for their excessive violence in a variety of different countries, from the East to places like the United Kingdom.  Germany has strict rules for their games, as decided by the USK, that limit the amount of blood and gore that is visible in their video games. (The USK "is the officially recognized institution responsible for the classification of computer and video games in Germany.") For example, the German version of Team Fortress 2 has no blood or detached body parts shown as part of the required regulations for the game. The USK is responsible for the protection of children and youths particularly in the gaming industry and the content they are available to see.

One theory for Germany's censure of video games is that:

due to its history and a cohesive nation opinion, the legislature limits content severely, much more severely than the surrounding European nation.

This is why the USK exists, as the general consensus of those living in Germany is to limit profanity and violence in video games.

You Decide

Perhaps all these changes are limiting our gaming experience and we're putting too much pressure on the companies. Yet some also argue that many of these changes are purely cosmetic and do not alter the story. However, one anti-censorship opinion is "it is no one’s responsibility but yourself to determine what is offensive or not."  Video game development is a business, though, and companies, at all cost, want to avoid backlash, since it is much better for business if they aren't involved in a major scandal. In the end, there are multiple sides to the story that make it difficult to arrive at an easy answer. 

Do you think that games should be changed at all? Or is it not worth worrying about? Let us know in the comments!

Published Nov. 8th 2017

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