The final step of localizing a video game for a new market is Quality Control. The steps of Internationalization and Localization are meant to make a game that feels natural in a new market. I noted in the last post, the goal is not to make the game feel local, but rather to make the player feel like a local within the game. The game should feel comfortable and immersive to the players in the new market but still have the plot, characters, and objectives of the original game so that people all over the world can “feel” as if they are united as players of the same game.

But there will be mistakes. No work is ever done without mistakes, oversights, and more. In some cases, it may have been done right, but could be done better. My daughter showed me a well-known error in video game localization. In the orginal, Japanese, version of a game (I think it was one of the Pokemon games but I could be wrong), a character buys a rice ball, and then begins talking about how much he enjoys eating rice balls (I don’t remember the Japanese name). Here in the Philippines, there are many possible equivalents— Puto or Buchi come to mine. No problem. But in the American version, rice ball is traded for jelly doughnut. On first consideration this seems like a perfectly good localization. Jelly doughnuts are a nice hand-held sweet treat. It arguably could have worked. But there were a couple of problems— one obvious and one far more subtle. On the obvious side, the picture did not match up. The imagery was part of the game that was held constant in internationalization. It was not changing in localization. While the image did not clearly identify what the food was, it looked quite a bit like a rice ball, and not at all like a jelly doughnut. That pulls one out of the immersiveness in the game. The words don’t line up with the visuals.

A far more subtle problem was in that the change was unnecessary. As I said, localization does not mean making the story look like it is happening in the new culture (such as making a game that takes place in Medieval France, now take place in 21st century Chicago). Rather, localization means making the game so that a person from Chicago will feel as comfortable there in the game world as someone from France, Brazil, or China. So turning a rice ball into a jelly doughnut is sort of like changing the visiting of the Great Wall of China to visiting the Grand Canyon in the game… or turning all of the sushi bars into taco stands. It is an unnecessary change and looks like the localizers don’t really understand what is important for the gameplayers. It is a bit akin to a foreign preacher coming to the Philippines and constantly bringing up famous Filipinos (Manny Pacquio, Pres. Duterte, Vice Ganda, Sharon Cuneta, etc.) or cultural artifacts (balut, adobo, bahay kubo, barong tagalog, etc) in a fruitless attempt to make the sermon “feel local.” IF THE MESSAGE IS NOT DRAWN FROM GOD’S WORD, AND DOES NOT DIRECTLY SPEAK TO THE FEARS AND HOPES OF THE AUDIENCE, IT WILL NEVER BE TRULY LOCALIZED.

In video game localization, quality control is done a number of ways (far above my knowledge) but most famously through lots and lots of gameplay. Just as the saying, “The proof of the pudding is in the tasting,” the proof of the localization is in the playing— by locals.

And this brings up the issue of role. Who does the steps.

  1. Internationalization. Much of this really must be done by the programmers in the home country. They have the code. They know the game. However, it may help to have consultation from outside. Ethnocentrism and mono-perspectivity of the programmers and gaming company can make it so that they don’t have a clear understanding of what aspects of their game are universal, and what things are culturally distinctive. So dialogue with those from other cultures (especially of potential markets is useful). If we say that the initial game market is “A” or “a,” and the future market in a different culture is “B” or “b,” then at Internationalization, the Dialogue/Partnership could be described as “Ab”— the home culture dominates this process, but needs inputs from the potential new market.
  2. Localization. Localization is best done by those from the market culture “B” who are already comfortable with original culture “A.” They should then be bicultural in a sense, but fully immersed and enculturated or acculturated in culture “B.” However, those from culture “A” have a role. After all, part of their role is to help the localizers really understand the lore, characterization, plot, and objectives of the game. These can be subtle things. Of course, to be effective in this, those from Culture A, but also be pretty comfortable in Culture B;, to be able to communicate these subtleties effectively. Still, this Dialogue/Partnership could be described as “aB”— the local culture dominates the process, but with effective communication going on to ensure nuances are not lost in translation.
  3. Quality Control. This process would be dominated by locals of the new market. After all, they are the ones who must feel comfortable and entertained in this new version of the game. Still, the original creators of the game should be part of the process to make sure that the game still “feels” like the original game. Again, this Dialogue/Partnership could be described as “aB.”

This dialogue applies to localization as well. There is need for dialogue between the “Missionary culture” and the “Recipient culture” at each level. At the Internationalization level, outsider perspectives are needed to make sure that theology that is comfortable in “A” (Missionary Culture) is not being passed along to Culture “B” with too much of that Missionary Culture embedded in it. This can most easily happen when theology is passed on with focus on proposition rather than narrative. I noted that case previously of “The Fundamentals” where the death of Christ (and universally relevant story) is boiled down into a limited explanation (substitutionary atonement for sin) that, while true, does a disservice to the broad implications that flow from the story, as well as the wide variety of canonical statements that exist. We want our contextualized theology to be “Biblical.’ However, as Jackson Wu (in the article I referenced and linked to in my previous post) described a statement of a friend of his, there is an unconscious tendency of “We do it because it is Biblical” to become “It is Biblical because we do it.” Culture A theologians need to fight paternalistic tendencies and listen openly to the challenge of Culture B theologians.

I remember when I was attending a Baptist college where we learned Baptist doctrines and theology. In so many cases my professor would express a Baptist doctrine, point to the Scriptural and Theological basis, and it is clear, understandable, and cohesive. They would often contrast this with perspectives of some other groups that appear pretty eisegetic and convoluted. However, then there were certain topics of Baptist doctrine where the professor would suddenly shift. The argument is no longer clear and cohesive but having a muddy dance around Scripture to justify it. One of those examples was the Baptist predilection for having a single pastor in a church… rather than having several pastors or a board of elders. Even as a 19 year old I realized that this was an area where my professor had drifted into “It is Biblical because that is the way we do it.” (By the way, I don’t care whether there is one pastor, many pastors, or no pastors. But this appears to be more of a cultural issue than an issue of sound Biblical interpretation.) Without outsider perspectives, there is a tendency to keep slipping into the same ruts.

Of course, this works both ways. When one looks at Bevans work on evaluating contextual theologies (“Fair or Foul”) he notes a few things relevant to this post. For one, the theology should come from the users. It should not come from an outsider or a single prophetic figure. Ideally, it should come from the community of faith. In the way I am describing it, the localization process is driven by locals. It may not be “from the masses” but it would come from a group within the church culture. A second thing is that the localized theology should challenge and be willing to be challenged by outsiders. Much like in video games, there needs to be challenging dialogue from both sides. A third thing is that it should be understandable and utilized by the populace. In other words, it should not be narrow and esoteric. If it is localized, it should be felt as if at home in the church and the church in it. This is in line with video game localization where the tests are Quality Control where it is evaluated by actual use, and by sales (its use and acceptance by the general gamer population).

I think I have dealt with this topic enough. But I do think that the process of video game localization has value in the localizing of theology. Among these values are:

  1. Recognition that one must identify aspects of theology that must be embraced as universal… in that removing it would its universality across cultures.
  2. See that the distinctive “DNA” of a theology is found more in its characters, plot, and objectives. Propositional statements are more likely to be developed from the stories to give answers to needs that are based in church history or church locality. As such, the Biblical story should be held constant as well as key characters and objectives in the story. These should not be localized by being changed, but presented so that people in different cultures can feel at home in that outsider story.
  3. Theology needs to be evaluated as a two-way street… developed dialogically and challenged dialogically. Its successful localization is determined to the extent that it is successfully used and understood by Christians in that culture.
  4. The church, living out its theology, should look different in different settings. However, it should feel as if it is a common faith worshiping a common God— Savior and Lord.

Internationalization and Localization of Theology— Part 2

A critical step for converting video games to new culture/market is Internationalization. On initial consideration, it seems as if this is unnecessary. Why would one need to “internationalize” so as to ‘localize.” However, this step is needed unliess one wants to make the localization process incredibly distressing.

I must note that I am not a programmer (the only two languages I have ever programmed in are FORTRAN and Commodore-BASIC— pretty old-timey). However, there is a certain logic here. A game has storyline/plot, objectives, characters, language, scenery/scenes, mapping, and so forth and so on. For the game to be effectively localized to a new culture (consider taking a Japanese game and making it appreciated in the United States), many key things should not change. Storyline/plot, objectives, characters, map, scenes, and so forth probably shouldn’t change, or at least they shouldn’t change much. However, some things need to change a lot. The language (narration, dialogue, audio clips, street signs and more) need to change. While characters should stay the same generally, their names may need to change (but not always). Some plot points may need to be explained or modified somewhat to make it more understandable. Music may need to change (or not). Famously, Tetris kept its Russian folk music theme song as it spread around the world, but that doesn’t work.

Changing too many key elements would undermine the game… or at least cause it to lose its “DNA.” That is, an American playing a game should feel like they are playing the same game that is played in Japan, or in Germany, or in Zimbabwe. Change too much and it is no longer “the same game.” Change too little, and the foreigness can be distracting, non-immersive, or even incomprehensible.

To internationalize, the game is structured so that the core elements are kept constant, while the culturally dependent aspects are put in separate files. Additionally, the constant aspects are configured so as to accommodate localization. For example, if there is written text… the written text should be in a file that can be changed for different markets. However, the imagery that doesn’t change needs to be configured so that different languages with different scripts will still have ample room to be read. Ultimately, a good internationalization sets things up so that localization can be done so that it is local and immersive, while maintaining the same identifiable gameplay.

In theology there needs to be a similar thing going on for localization. There needs to be a genuine attempt to identify what is core and what is non-core.

Yes. This is not easy. However, part of the difficulty is that we as Christians have never been that good at identifying core issues. One might say that we have done better at one time with the great historical creeds of the past. And perhaps this is true… but the temptation to spread it out and nitpick on things tends to cause things to get to the point it is hard to identify what is critical and what is not.

<I AM GOING TO USE A LENGTHY EXAMPLE OF CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISM TO SHOW SOME OF THE CHALLENGES WE MAY HAVE IN INTERNATIONALIZATION. IF THIS IS OF NO INTEREST TO YOU… sorry…>

Let me try an example for you. I was raised up a Christian Fundamentalist. Christian Fundamentalism has its roots in American Protestantism. While it seeks in many ways to stand out counterculturally from the broader American society, in many ways it is a product of that same culture. I don’t generally use that term to describe myself… yet in the classic sense of the term, I feel it may still apply to me. In the classic sense of the term, there were identified certain things that were seen as fundamental faith positions. In 1910, the following were set up as Fundamentals by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.

  • Biblical inspiration and the infallibility of scripture
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin
  • Bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus

If I remember right, when I was young, we also had the Trinity (Oneness of God in Three Persons) as a Fundamental belief. Not sure why that wasn’t included. Anyway, if one adds that one, you have six.

But let’s consider a couple of the challenges of using these to provide a basis for internationalization of Theology.

  1. Temptation to keep adding to the list. As time goes on, new concerns come up. As such, some things become less relevant, while other things become more relevant,. In the list above, the Virgin birth of Jesus seems pretty out of place. After all, if one accepts the “infallibility” of Scripture, and “the Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus,” it hardly seems worth mentioning the Virgin Birth. Perhaps it could be justified on the grounds that it stands against Adoptionism— a theological view that pops up in history here and there. However, when the list was made, the “Search for the Historical Jesus” was intense. As such, many thought it needed to be specially singled out. However, as time went on, other issues pushed to the front and those led to more “fundamentals,” For example, some added that Genesis 1 must be interpreted in a very literal (seven 24-hour period sort of literal) manner. I can see how we may say that “God is Creator and Designer and Sustainer of the Heavens and the Earth” is a Fundamental issue. But the question of “literalness” seems to be an argument over genre… not particularly fundamental. Just today, I was reading an article by Jackson Wu regarding the reaction of some religious leaders that Saddleback Church has ordained three women. Some of the language used by Tim Keller, John Piper, and D.A. Carson who were discussing this topic showed how deeply important it was to them that women should not be pastors. The article is HERE. Some others that agree with them in spirit but who are more vitriolic in language suggested that a church that has a ordained woman is not a church at all. Since there really is an awful lot of wiggle room in Biblical interpretation in this area (without even getting into the question of culture), this seems very much like an area where “good people can disagree.” However, the upheavals in society regarding gender roles and norms in recent decades has led to a hardlining (and demonizing) of beliefs, such that it looks almost as if this is a new “fundamental,” despite lacking a good theological basis for its prominence.
  2. What may be fundamental in one culture, may not necessarily be fundamental in another culture. A good example of this is the 3rd fundamental above… “The belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin.” Is this true? Yes, I definitely believe it is. Is it fundamental? In a sense it is… but in a sense it isn’t. What in the world do I mean by this? Well, the Bible does teach that Jesus died for our sins. But the Bible says that Jesus died for many reasons. Perhaps the most well-known passage in the Bible (John 3:16-17) says that Jesus was sent to us because of God’s great love for us (verse 16) and so that people will believe (verse 17). Of course, one could read those verses through a substitutionary atonement lens (God loved the world so much that He sent Jesus to die as an atoning sacrifice for our sins… For God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it but to cover the sins of those who believe). However, it could be just as reasonable to swap it around and say that God’s great desire was to show us how much He loves us, and so chose sacrifice as a way of demonstrating that love in a way that we can identify. I would argue that both statements are true, and one is not necessarily more fundamental than the other. And when one brings in Honor-Shame theology utilizing the Biblical language of Adoption, and Family of God, a whole other perspective is there that is equally fundamental. (One can find other themes in the Bible regarding Christ’s death that are also arguably fundamental.) Of course, it is hard to know where to stop on this path. Going back to the ordaining women issue, if one is bringing Christian theology into a culture that is more gender egalitarian, is it “fundamental” to undermine this and promote a patriarchal structure? Maybe… maybe not. Certainly that is what has often been done here in the Philippines— a country where women have often had more power in society than in the US (including two being President of the Philippines). Yet many churches are horrified at that thought of women taking up prominent roles in church. This has come through both Catholic and Protestant missionaries. A local pastor went to one of our student’s parents to tell them that their daughter was “going to hell” (literally?) because she committed the sin of planting a church while being female. Is this a fundamental issue… or is it a cultural one driven by social conflicts?

Instead of adding other examples… creating even more discomfort… I would like to suggest something. In internationalizing theology, we should consider a more narrative approach rather than propositional approach. I know it has been popular to identify the “kerygma,” the core essence of the Gospel. However, the attempts to do that end up in expressions that tend to focus on contemporary theological concerns in a specific setting. A list of propositional truths commonly are really a list of statements that come from the results of debates in one cultural setting.

The core is the story. The Bible is the story of God… a love story in a sense. The leading characters, narrative and objectives are key. Changing the characters… changing the narrative,.. changing the objectives… these would destroy the “DNA” for the Christian message much as doing these would destroy the unique core of a video game.

I think the 3-culture model of contextualization has value. You can look AT THIS REGARDING THIS MODEL. It seeks to filter the message coming from the Missionary Culture (Culture A) through the “Biblical Culture” (Culture B) to get something that is somewhat ‘supracultural” that can be then contextualized (localized) into the Recipient Culture (Culture C). However, the question doesn’t go away. What is the core… what is supracultural? Charles Hodge felt, back in the 1800s, that slavery could not be seen as wrong in the sight of God because the Bible allowed it in the cultures in which it was written. Is that good theology? Does God allowing a certain practice to be done in a culture separated from ours by 2 to 3 millenia take precedence over God’s actions, and guidance to us as Christians? In the Biblical narrative, the Christian message is one of moving mankind from bondage to freedom. I would argue that it is this narrative that is at the heart of the Christian message— more “fundamental” to the core, the essence, the DNA of the Christian faith.

Will there be mistakes in this effort? Of course. MANY MANY MANY. But that is why there is dialogue in the process. In the next post (hopefully) I will suggest the roles in this process in the next installment.

Internationalization and Localization of Theology. Part 1

I am not a video game person. I am pretty much limited to “Match 3” games. I was addicted to Bards Tale back in the 1980s. However, I have been talking to my daughter who is very interested in video games. She is interested in playing them, but also has a considerable interest in their development— especially in terms of the process of voice acting and directing, and the localization of video games. The latter of these, localization of video games, has do with the process of taking a game that was developed in and for Culture A, and make it localized and immersive in Culture B.

As I was looking into that process, I was interested in a number of aspects of it that arguably may relate to the localization (as part of contextualization) of theology. The most interesting part of it, to me at least, is the step called Internationalization. I can see how it could be seen as part of the process known as the “Three Culture Model.” However, I feel like there is enough differences, that it is worth exploring further.

In general, Internationalization is the step that allows easy Localization. Without this step, the development of a localized version of a video game can be laborious. Also, it may open the door for losing key aspects of gameplay that would ultimately ruin what made the game great.

In the next few posts I will explore this process. The image below shows the process very simplistically. In reality, there is nothing really linear about the process.

The More Difficult Task

A relevant question that could come up here is which is more difficult? Is it harder to to make theology relevant to a community, or faithful to God’s Word. At first glance, it may seem that it really depends on the person. For example, an untrained person who is fully enculturated (born into) culture “B” would be quite well-suited to providing a relevant theology– but one that is likely to be not true to God’s Word.

On the other hand, a seminary student enculturated and trained in culture “A” could be reasonably thought to be able to provide a theology that is true to God’s word, but is not relevant in culture “B.” But this is a mistake.

Consider the following figure.   While there are some definite limitations to this figure, it does show a couple of things fairly well. Culture “A” has within it a number of theologies that are relevant to it. The same is true of Culture “B.” Overlapping God’s Revelation with it, creates smaller regions. God’s Word as canon, provides a standard or limiter of what is acceptable to God. theologies culture

Region 1 is Theology that is well-contextualized to Culture A. It is relevant to the culture and is faithful to God’s revelation. Region 2, is a culture “A” that is conformed to or fulfilled through God’s Word. Similarly, Regions 4 and 3 are well-contextualized theology and fulfilled culture with respect to culture “B.”

But, of course, these are not all of the options. Region 7 is Culture “A” that is not conformed to God’s Word, and Region 8 is the similar situation for Culture “B.” Regions 5 and 6 are Theologies that are not conformed to God’s Word in Cultures “A” and “B,” respectively.

For a new believer enculturated in Culture “B,” poorly versed in God’s Word, it is much more likely that a theology developed by him (or her) would not properly be conformed to God’s Revelation. That is why Region 6 is shown as much larger than Region 4… God’s Word provides a limitation on all theologies that may be seen as relevant to that culture. It is much easier, and more likely, for this person to develop a theology that is relevant, but heterodox, and work towards developing a sub-culture that fails to be fulfilled by God’s Word.

For a seminarian enculturated in Culture “A” and trained in theology from that culture, the challenge is different but no less challenging. The seminarian would be challenged considerably in ministering in Culture “B.” He (again, or she… but I will use he here for simplicity of language) will be tempted to simply transport his theology over based on the presumption that it is the “correct” theology. The same struggle will occur with culture. He will be tempted to simply see the culture of his upbringing and training as the correct culture… and teach it. Unfortunately, the culture brought will seem foreign to the potential respondents, and the theology is likely to not deal with the situation of people in Culture “B.”

But suppose that the seminary graduate does intentionally seek to contextualize. He will be hit by two major limitations.

Limitation #1. His relative ignorance of Culture “B” will make it hard to find a Biblically sound, relevant theology (Region 4). It is a target easier to miss than to hit.

Limitation #2. His relative ignorance of God’s Revelation. One might assume that the seminarian is well-versed in Scripture. But he is versed in God’s revelation as it applies to his own culture (or sub-culture). God’s revelation is much greater than that.

(You may now be noting why I sort of apologized for this figure earlier. Overlapping contextual theologies, cultures, and God’s revelation is sort like overlapping varieties of apples with different forms of government– they are different types of things. Still, I hope that the relationships of the regions can make sense on some level.)

But which limitation is greater for the seminary graduate? It is the second one. Spending time in Culture “B” will gradually reveal the nuances of the culture… and subtleties that are beyond him can be filled in by host believers eventually. However, the expansion of one’s understanding of God’s Revelation to the point that it is clearly seen as it relates to a different culture is much harder. One might even suggest that without the Holy Spirit’s illumination, the task would be impossible.

An Example from the Bible

A.  As the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they eventually arrived at Mt. Sinai. There Moses went up to commune with God, while the Isrealites and the other non-Israelits who had escaped with them waited. When Moses failed to come down from the mountain after a long time, the people feared and asked Aaron to deal with the situation. In Exodus 32, Aaron makes an altar and a golden calf. Why would he do this?

In Egypt, the bull is sacred, and so he may have been drawing answers from the culture he was raised in (heterodox theology from culture A). On the other hand, knowing that they are heading to Canaan, where the bull is a symbol of Baal, “the local god,” this may have been a heterodox theology seeking relevance in culture B.

Before one get’s too critical, it must be noted that there are considerable similarities between orthodox Israelite Theology (as guided by the Mosaic Law) and Egyptian theology. According to Herodotus (The Horizon Book of Lost Worlds, by Leonard Cotrell, page 288ff), the Egyptians:

  • Practiced circumcision

  • Had a priesthood

  • Practice rites of cleanliness

  • Had rules regarding “clean” and “unclean” foods

  • Had animal sacrifice with requirements that the animals are unblemished.

  • Maintained rules of endogamy

In Egypt, the Bull was sacred to Apis, a god popularly worshiped in Memphis (Egypt) and often seen as a go-between of man and the higher gods. It is hardly surprising that Aaron might go in that direction. In Exodus 32:6, part of the worship was to “play,” suggesting the sexual activities associated with the Canaanite faith. This sympathetic magic was tied to fertility of families as well as the land. Apis, in Egypt, was also often seen as a god of fertility.

Aaron, with limited understanding of God’s will, made a pretty good attempt at guessing what God would want based on his understanding of Egyptian culture, and perhaps his limited understanding of Canaanite culture. It wasn’t all that hard.

But he was still wrong. It took God’s Word, coming through Moses, to clarity what God expected of them. The result was something that would “make sense” to most of the people, while still deeply challenging them to change.

Interestingly, God’s revelation to Moses actually was not simply to one culture, but to two. The revelation was to Israel, a nomadic people– but also to Israel, a sedentary people.

B.  In the New Testament, we find the Apostles and church leaders struggling with the issue of how God’s revelation would apply to non-Jews. The Apostles and church leaders would be seen as well-versed in Scripture, as well as the words of Jesus. Yet, they truly struggled with this. The Jerusalem Council was where this was dealt with as a body. The action of the Holy Spirit helped to sway the body to the understanding that Greeks do not have to become Jews to become Christians. Even after the council, however, struggles remained, as seen in differences between Paul’s understanding and the council decision (there is no indication at least that Paul rejected the eating of blood for Gentiles). It is also seen in the Epistle to the Galatians (if one accepts that that letter was written after the Jerusalem Council), where people who were apparently well-versed in the Hebrew Bible differed considerably from Paul and the Apostles in its application to Greeks.

Knowing Scripture is not enough. It is a huge challenge to understand Scripture to see its relevance and application in a different culture than one’s own. In truth, understanding a different culture is “the easy part.”