Censorship vs. Localization

There has been varied, but relatively constant noise being made by the World of Warcraft community about the Chinese release of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Said in one way it is simply a year late. This is normal practice for some operating systems or languages, but for an MMO expansion pack it is a bit more visible, and with angry waiting fans it’s even more visible.

The thing about WotLK is that it has been ready for release for a year, but has gotten hung up in requirements put forth by the Chinese government regarding its release. These requirements have been dubbed censorship by the fanbase (particularly those on Kotaku and MMO-Champion), but the interesting element is that these are simply localization [L10n] issues from a different angle.

The main points of contention are skeletons: skeletons under cauldrons and against walls, skulls on spikes, skulls on weapons, skeletal knees poking out of zombie bodies, giant bone animals, and I’m not sure about skeletons in armor. The claimed ideological basis for and defense of, the censorship is that ancestor veneration, signified by being good to the bones of ancestors, is difficult when you’re going around destroying those bones/skeletons/zombies or putting them on weapons or spikes. Of course, there’s a slight problem when the the the majority of the expac deals with necromancy and its problems (via the Lich King). In short, the narrative of WoW: WotLK is hard to localize to China.

And yet, it has been done. Skulls are removed, zombies have no bones, and bone dragons and bone griffons are transformed to flashy ghost dragons and griffons. Is this a sign that, indeed, narrative does not matter? Or is it a sign that millions of ravenous players will force certain hands, and this is the best the Chinese government (particularly the the ministry in charge of publications and press (GAPP) and the ministry of culture (MOC)) is going to get (the fact that other games, particularly other, more local MMOs such as Perfect World were not put through such direct censorship, but multinational Blizzard’s MMO was is, perhaps, telling)? Or, is it just a sign that L10n really is the way things work now, and like translation only becoming visible with its mistakes, L10n is only visible when it doesn’t happen ‘properly,’ which is to say when it isn’t localized enough and is thus put through additional censorship. Games that are localized enough (self censored in both the production and L10n phases) do not need censorship; games that are not localized enough get censored before release.

This logic seems to be mirrored in calls to limit indigenous exclamations in Final Fantasy XIII (Koncewicz), which would make L10n easier, or at least possible due to the extensiveness of these noises (one of many places where you can seen these unlocalized noises is in Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks). But what they’re asking for goes part and parcel with the L10n process as internationalization [i18n], the production level planing for L10n. Both Koncewicz and guides to L10n indicate making assets easily changeable is best practice for i18n as L10n can then more easily push the product into some parituclar locale. However, while Koncewicz indicates this was the intention of FFXIII as an internationally aimed game it seems to be opposed by the very imbeddedness of certain games into certain cultures (Subarashiki kono sekai, which is subtitled It’s A Wonderful World in Japanese, but localized as The World Ends With You in English is an interesting example). Thus, the complaints of FFXIII are less against L10n than against Square-Enix’s i18n process and the idiosyncrasies that they do not want to delete from FFXIII and other games.

However, in the case of WotLK, Netease.com, the company releasing WoW in China, wants to censor, but did a poor job self censoring in the L10n process, and Blizzard in fact did not i18n ‘enough’ in the development process. One might also extend this claim by saying their recent, much lauded Starcraft II L10n is a direct step up from the failure of localizing WotLK for China. The ‘enough’ here is actually problematic for two reasons. One is that  they are being forced to change the narrative level significantly, and if such alterations are in fact part of the L10n can one even call the game a translation? If you don’t fight a Death Knight, a Lich and a Bone Dragon are you really playing Wrath of the Lich King? Is WoW: WotLK US/EU and WoW: WotLK China the same game? The second is that while WotLK was hounded by the Chinese goverment locally developed (multinational, but of Chinese origin) Perfect World Online was released with skeletons available for slaying. So how much of i18n and L10n are being enforced where they should not be, how much of cultural particularity or universality are being reinforced by political clout or business acquiescence where it is actually a nonexistent thing?


  • Koncewicz, Radek. Localizing Exclamations in FInal Fantasy XIII
  • Mickey Yang. “Pics: What’s Changed in Chinese Version Wrath of the Lich King.” Chinagame.178.com. Posted: 8/16/2010.

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