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Should game designer learn foreign language?

In this article I will present important concepts and arguments about culture and language differences in industry. Article is about upsides and benefits of learning additional language for game developer.

Instead of intro

Hello my name is Andrii Goncharuk, but you can call me Andy, I'm a senior game designer working in CI Games, Warsaw, and to be honest... I’m a little bit worried right now… I’m not very good with polish language and everyone here(surprise!), speaking it. I thought to myself do I need to learn a foreign language? Is there actual benefits for a game designer to do so?

---   *disclaimer*   ---

As usual in this article I will present important concepts and arguments about topic, language and culture differences and how they affect video game industry, I'll provide links to resources where subjects can be study more deeply. I strongly encourage to give your opinion on subject in comments, it’s highly appreciated. 

---   *end of disclaimer*   ---

Cultural differences in video game industry

Cultural differences nowadays is one of the reasons why some games are being altered content or narrative wise compared to world wide versions, sometimes games are not even released in some countries.

One of the strongest examples that exist nowadays is difference between US or western type of games and Japanese or asian type of games.

Nintendo's age of censorship

At early ages of video game industry in years 1980-1990 when market was dominated by Nintendo a Japanese based game development company there were many examples of censorship and cultural “fixes” to games that were released on their consoles, as Aleks Krotoski writing in his article for The Guardian:

  1. Clothing nude statues in Castlevania

  2. Removal of "blatantly random and gratuitous violence" in Maniac Mansion

  3. Changing a character's name from "Vodka Drunkenski" to "Soda Popinski" in the game Punch Out!

  4. Removing crosses willy nilly from in-game hospitals, cemeteries and churches

This is only a small shortlist but it’s already shows how games were altered to fit certain cultural limitations of what is considered accepted and what is not.

Many may think that this is something from old times, but today we have many examples, most recent could be an alterations done to a latest game in Wolfenstein series for a German version of the game because they have very strict rules about Nazi symbols.

Culture is affecting games and industry greatly even today, and not all changes are censorship sometimes they are more of stylization to fit marketing needs, to make product more feasible for certain regions.

Many studies shows that players preferences are vary drastically from country to country and from culture to culture this is why it is important and it is what we gonna talk about.

Player’s preferences

Games being played all over the world and popularity of certain games, genres and types can say a lot about culture of any specific region. All this implies that different cultures have different player preferences.

For sake of simplicity we will discuss two extreme examples, US and Japan(for more details I suggest to make yourself familiar with amazing work done by Anita Ching Yi Ngai “Cultural influences on video games: players preferences in narrative and gameplay”.)

Here is what Anita tell us about situation in Japan and USA:

Japan has a distinctive historical, institutional, and cultural foundation. Its culture emphasizes conformity, loyalty and stability of the old, and the ever-changing creativity and trend-setting of the new. Development of consumer products and services feed off of the youth population which provides a source of creativity. Japan is skillful in regenerating ideas from all over the world to create their own, keeping new ideas new. It is this ability to discover, recognize, and understand changes in the culture that keeps creativity alive and moving popular culture forward.

The Japanese culture has a long history of animation and manga (Japanese comics). They are very much into the daily lives of people from all age groups. Serious issues, such as religion, race, war, and social justice are presented in long complex storylines of animated films and manga series.

Japanese video game industry has benefited from this strong foundation of character production, graphic design, storyline writing. Skills are concurrently developed and effectively shared among these industries, making cross-influences of contents very apparent. In the consumer market, players are well aware of such integration between anime, manga, and videogames.

The US is a highly individualistic society, with a strong sense of self independence. They respect and value individual autonomy and self-determination. Its culture emphasizes self achievement, self-reliance, personal goals and ambitions. (Aoyagi, 2000) The American entertainment media mainly consists of pop music, movies, and television programs as major forms of expression.

Comics and cartoons are categorized as children’s entertainment, which often consist of perfectly preserved, overwhelmingly safe fairytale-like storylines. It is through these media that the US has been spreading its popular cultural 14 products to the rest of the world, without any effort of altering its cultural message for the global audience.

On the other hand, the US has been relatively less receptive to foreign popular cultural products. Such an imperialism of American popular culture has long been dominating the global entertainment market. (Shiraishi, 2000; Allison, 2000) It is common to see popular movies, television programs, or American celebrities in video game titles as the industry taps into the revenue stream of the entertainment industry. These games often lack original narrative or compelling game-play, even though they generate market awareness and recognition.

The American video game industry has also been integrating computer game designs into console games, since players are familiarized with the styles and game-plays of computer games through the popularity of PCs

Sales and popularity by game genre presented above, shows great difference between US Japan and China. Role-playing titles currently overwhelming in Japan, while US is currently more into sports and action games. Game genres are categorized by the type of interactions being offered in a game, it indicates the kind of interactions and the level of narrative being valued by players.

Role-playing games often present highly structured plots with a logical progression in which players must follow, unfolding the series of events as directed by the designers. Thus, interactions are mostly restricted to collection of items, battling with enemies for level-ups.

Action games, such as the first-person shooter games, use narrative to create scenarios for game-play. Other action games, such as sports, do not require any narrative framework at all. Interactions are much more flexible in action games, as players can explore and manipulate game-play to their own experience.

All this differences exist because of many parameters, culture and more important for us here, language is one of them.

Culture differences and language

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In our industry all of this cultural differences apply not only for preferences in what games are being played but also what games are being created, because games designed in different cultural spaces usually have big differences between each other, as developers subconsciously convey their values and culture in their products.

More details about different way of thinking in different parts of the world can be found in works of Richard E. Nisbett

Nissbett makes a statement, in his study on cultural differences, is that Westerners tend to assume linearity but Asians assume circularity. Westerners tend to think that stable set of circumstances signal about trend and that things will continue in same way but for Asian, stable set of circumstances is an indication of the potential change and later some elements return to state that were established already earlier.

One of other important conclusions of Nisbett's works is that if given an image, someone from Asia will take in the images as a whole and the relationship between things since they tend to give a complete account of a scene while most of Westerners will tend to focus on prominent details of an image.

Difference in culture plays a major role in the way of how meanings and things are interpreted, and this is one of the reasons of different cultural preferences in games consumption and creation.  Language plays important role in all of this and directly affect our day to day life more than we think and here is how.

Language and our daily life

Image result for language in daily life

One of the main ideas behind language affecting our daily life is linguistic determinism. Idea that language structures limit and determine human knowledge or thought, as well as thought processes such as categorization, memory, and perception. The term implies that people who speak different languages as their mother tongues have different thought processes. Though it played a considerable role historically, linguistic determinism is now discredited among mainstream linguists. Linguistic determinism is the strong form of linguistic relativity (popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis), which argues that individuals experience the world based on the structure of the language they habitually use.

In short they way you speak both aloud and in your head affect your decisions and perception of world, that not hard to follow if you already read my previous articles about how human brain and memory works (Biological foundation of emotions pt.1), each word have an associative connection to many other terms words and meanings and different languages have different set of synonyms and antonyms that immediately appear in memory when person is presented with one of the word from group.

One of the examples can be a word for Four in Japanese language (Shi) also means death that can create some tension during conversation that involve something about 4th floor on 4th street in 4th of april in year 2004…

Framing and bilingual thinking

Foreign language not only allow us to avoid cultural and linguistic traps it’s also provide an interesting tool that can increase quality of our decision making process, so called bilingual thinking(thinking in a foreign language) can increase rationality of your decisions, and avoid language framing effect(when certain presentation of information can mislead into making wrong choice).

In the social sciences, framing comprises as set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies, organize, perceive, and communicate about reality and events.

According to a model created by Association for Psychological Science fellow member Daniel Kahneman, there are two at least cognitive systems: a fast system (System 1) that relies on heuristics, intuition, and affective processes, and a slow system (System 2) that is more rational, effortful, and systematic. System 1 is more likely to be utilized when performing tasks that are easy, while System 2 is more likely to be utilized when performing difficult tasks. The intuitive nature of System 1 makes it more easily influenced by the effects of framing, while the effortful and systematic nature of System 2 resists the effects of framing.

And as you understand System 1 is usually use native language and foreign language is operated by System 2 thus making process of thinking in another language more rational and systematic.

But for our industry narrative and quest designers can be very interested in language framing and how information presented in a certain way can affect players decision, so from perspective of game developer being aware of language framing and how to avoid or cause it is important and powerful skill.

Here is a video from Wilbert channel that perfectly illustrates this effect with an example:

As you can now understand language framing is something that make us perceive information in different ways and framing is not the only effect that can be seen, language structure and logical rules behind sentence creation, patterns and tempo also affect way of thinking of a person and in the end reflects in persons creations and daily life.

Language that you use to think in directly affect any creative product(design, art, music) that you work on. Language with simplified and more straight forward structure can result into designs both game and visuals with same features simply because creation reflects authors way of thinking want author this or not. Even this article is a good example of my personal way of thinking in interconnected patterns from different areas of subjects that don't have linear straight connection between them, but this is mostly because this is how my native language is structured:

  • Words can have many different meanings that don't have any logical connection between them
  • Sentences can be as simple as one word and be fully complete and viable or they can have multiply layers and be as long as one paragraph without loosing integrity or meaning
  • There is no strict rule that one need to follow or certain pattern of structure of a sentence
  • Order of words can have significant effect on meaning and completely opposite soley dependent on context

Russian & English example

Image result for russian english

In well written article of Lera Boroditsky for Edge, she provide a really powerful example that shows how information can be obtained or loss due to language differences and how it affect viewers world perception and way of thinking.

Here what she explains in her article:

"Most questions of whether and how language shapes thought start with the simple observation that languages differ from one another. And a lot! Let's take a (very) hypothetical example. Suppose you want to say, "Bush read Chomsky's latest book." Let's focus on just the verb, "read." To say this sentence in English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we have to pronounce it like "red" and not like "reed." In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) alter the verb to mark tense. In Russian you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender. So if it was Laura Bush who did the reading, you'd use a different form of the verb than if it was George. In Russian you'd also have to include in the verb information about completion. If George read only part of the book, you'd use a different form of the verb than if he'd diligently plowed through the whole thing. In Turkish you'd have to include in the verb how you acquired this information: if you had witnessed this unlikely event with your own two eyes, you'd use one verb form, but if you had simply read or heard about it, or inferred it from something Bush said, you'd use a different verb form.

Clearly, languages require different things of their speakers. Does this mean that the speakers think differently about the world? Do English, Indonesian, Russian, and Turkish speakers end up attending to, partitioning, and remembering their experiences differently just because they speak different languages? For some scholars, the answer to these questions has been an obvious yes. Just look at the way people talk, they might say. Certainly, speakers of different languages must attend to and encode strikingly different aspects of the world just so they can use their language properly."

One of the important subjectshere is that when we perceive information and remember it, we often may use language as a medium to "store" this information in our memory, and when we trying to get access to this information we usually can recall only parameters of a subject that we "translated" into our language, this result in a huge difference when you collecting, remembering and trying to recall information.

learning one more language, worth it?

All this is interesting but more important question is how this is important for game developers? First that comes to mind is marketing and cultural alteration for a game that you are working on, but believe me there is many more benefits that additional language give:

1.More rational decision-making process

As was presented above already thinking with different from native language can lead to better and rational decisions because other zones of brain are used, more rational ones since even to think in different language is a hard cognitive task compared to native language.

2.Improved creative process and brainstorming skills

Imagine you have a brainstorm session and you need to came up with a mind map for next feature, you use several keywords as starting point and starting getting words and meanings that you have in your association tables to build your mind map, well if you use only native language you will end up with a really limited range of words that connected between each other, and most of the times your results will be really close to people with same language simply because synonyms and antonyms are first things that usually came to mind due to close relationships between words. But if you have more than one language you can also simply add synonyms and antonyms from different language pretty fast, coming with concepts and ideas that will be unique in their nature.

3.Having access to foreign literature, movie and internet content

If you really familiar with other language and can read and/or listen effectively content in this language that dramatically increase your informational reach. All books, movies, science shows and programs, all that content that stays untranslated you have access to it and combined with previous statement that will make your creative process and research even stronger!

4.Better understanding of foreign culture and market

You also should not forget that simply being able to understand different language also give access to better understanding market and cultural differences, this will give ability to make correct decisions during feature selection process. Choose correct and appropriate game mechanics and visual style to fit market needs and create compelling product. This can be beneficial not only for marketing team...

5.Better memory

As was stated above, being able to remember more written or verbal information is directly correlate with our language capabilities, if you have access to 3 or more languages you may endup describing subject for yourself to store in memory using words from all 3 languages thus saving more important details about subject in your memory. Also simply learning new language trains memory so this is also a plus.

So what’s now?

Image result for learn another language

There is no any reasons why you should not learn one more language the only downside could be is time required for actually doing it, but hey if you want to be good at your job you have to work hard. If you can come up with more additional benefits please do comment, I’ll be happy to invest more of my time to research this topic even deeper, but I need your help!


  • Cultural differences always were on market and game industry is not exception

  • History know many examples of content and gameplay alteration to fit different cultures

  • Player’s preferences are different from culture to culture and there is strong reason that lays not only in different history and values but also because of language

  • Japan vs. USA is great example of culture differences in video game industry

  • Culture differences directly correlate with language that prominent in this culture

  • Language greatly affect our daily life

  • Game designer to be competitive and creative should learn more and foreign languages is on this list!

  • There is strong benefits from at least being able to read and listen in different language


Nintendo's draconian censorship

Cultural differences in gameland

I say tomato. You say it’s a warm day

Taking games global: Cultural differences can make or break you

Anita Ching Yi Ngai

Cultural influences on video games: players preferences in narrative and gameplay

Richard E. Nisbett, Professor of social psychology

Sapir–Whorf hypothesis

Player motivation, part 1: Biological foundation of emotions


Willbert's small channel about Behavioural Economics

How Language ‘Framing’ Influences Decision-Making

How does our language shape the way we think?

Thinking in another language: what happens and why?

How Knowing a Foreign Language Can Improve Your Decisions

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