In Digital Games for Social Change, Translation Is Not Enough
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In Digital Games for Social Change, Translation Is Not Enough

In Digital Games for Social Change, Translation Is Not Enough

Games for social change

As a sponsor of Translators without Borders, Moravia understands the value of translation in meeting the critical needs of communities in crisis worldwide. Last week, we took an opportunity to speak with Asi Burak, the president of Games for Change, a social innovator that helps spur the creation and distribution of social impact games to aid in humanitarian and educational efforts worldwide.

We spoke with Asi about the initiative, its annual festival, and his take on the role that the translation and localization industry can play in socially responsible gaming.

What is Games for Change all about?

Asi Burak: Games for Change was founded in 2004. It supports the gaming sector by showing that the field can offer more beyond entertainment — games that can impact society.

We are most famous for the Games for Change Festival, a yearly event that really brings in all the people who are interested in making games for social change — not only game makers but also funders, researchers, and people from academia. In the past, we’ve had former Vice President Al Gore, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, as well as celebrities from film and the gaming itself. It’s kind of a TED-like event in the games calendar.

Although I joined five years ago, I made one of the earliest social impact game examples, PeaceMaker, in 2007.

How are game industry players addressing cross-cultural communication and language issues in gaming?

Asi Burak: It’s interesting. We’re dealing with social change, but there are not many examples where developers place language and cross-cultural understanding at the top. However, over the years, there have been a few games that did interesting things with language.

One of them is the game I made. We launched PeaceMaker in Arabic, English, and Hebrew. That was an important decision for us — we’re dealing with Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and Europeans so we’ll have those three languages there.

Another example — and one of the first games in the community — was created by the United Nations Food Program. Food Force (video), as it was called, was translated into 17 languages. It was a success because, being created by the United Nations, they really cared for going wider internationally. This was an example where the game was treated like a commercial product, almost like a blockbuster game where it’s really being translated across the board.

We also made games with journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, based on their book Half the Sky. We localized the games for India and Kenya — translated to Swahili and in India, obviously, you have many more languages that you could translate to.



The interesting thing is that although we translated the mobile games and had the budget to translate the Facebook game, people in local countries told us that we shouldn’t do that — that when they play a Facebook game versus a mobile game, people in Kenya and India would like to play in English. It was almost like a lifestyle choice that they played in English. We didn’t anticipate that.



What are your thoughts on the opportunities and roles played by localization in the global gaming market?

Asi Burak: It’s certainly a challenge. It’s costly. More than that, it’s very tough to do in a way that preserves the authenticity and creativity of the content. If you rely on a lot of text in your gaming, it’s especially tough for the original creative team to validate that the translation is actually good.

I’ll give you an example. I’m an Israeli and I speak both English and Hebrew. So when we did PeaceMaker I could review the Hebrew translation. I immediately saw that the first pass was accurate — let’s say 90 percent. But the tone was very technical. The translators did a huge bulk of translation without the creative context. And, as a result, it was very dry — not necessarily the tone that we have in the English version.

But in Arabic, I couldn’t even do that, because I don’t speak or read in a level that is enough for review. So I actually brought in someone that we trusted who could do the review, someone who understood the game and the context and could look at the translations. But can I tell you with certainty that it is good? I don’t know; I needed to outsource even the creative review.

This is something that I see a lot. The thing with games is that the people you go to for translation don’t even play games: It’s not their medium. They don’t understand it. They translate almost blindly. Yeah, you can explain to them the context and you can show them screen shots and you can do a lot of things to help, but if they aren’t actually the consumers that’s always a challenge.

There are people that specialize in translating games. But we found people that were specializing in e-learning or education. It makes sense to go to people who are from the education side, but then you miss the gaming knowledge. If we went to the commercial people, we would have missed on the social impact.

So it’s a challenge, especially in games for change, where you need an intersection of multiple disciplines.

Still, I think that the business is just going to grow. You have more and more people playing games. You will have more opportunities to translate games. And not only text. A lot of blockbuster games actually have voiceovers — it’s almost like dubbing and kind of voice acting. I think that you’ll have more educational software that will require that, and that have more qualities like commercial games.

What challenges are unique to this overlap of social innovation, gaming, and translation?

Asi Burak: We will always have a tension because people will say, “At the end of the day, we want to do something generic that will fit everyone. We can’t create a game for every country. It just is not cost effective. It is not sustainable.”

So people want to create something generic, something that they can just adapt, but you need to adapt more than just translation when you deal with games for social change. It is not pure entertainment. It is not a fantasy world. You need to adjust things because some of them are very crucial.

For example, in the game around pregnancy for Half the Sky, the health guidelines in the Kenyan and Indian versions are different. It’s not just that the way that they name things are different, it’s three injections versus four or how people are dressed.

When it comes to issues of representation, it’s critical to get the content right for each country. People are going to pay a lot of attention, and the NGOs that work on the ground will be very critical because they are looking for those cases where you bring things that are top down and insensitive. You need to work with them not against them. It’s a balancing act between doing something that is generic enough but also ready enough for more than script changes to adapt to local cultures.

What are some other opportunities for gaming in the public interest space?

Asi Burak: The other thing I see — beyond education and awareness — is the idea of behavior change. Research has proven that games are stronger than other passive delivery methods. People get very immersed. People are engaged in a way that is deeper and longer than just watching something and reading something.

On top of that, technology allows for new interfaces. One of the games that was nominated for an award at this year’s Games for Change festival is MindLight, a game that you operate with a helmet that is able to track brain activity. The game is designed to help kids deal with anxiety and stress — when you are calmer, the helmet receives the information and something in the game happens. Your goal is to keep your stress level low in order to see where you’re going.



Again, the whole idea — that beyond education and social awareness and communication — that games can actually drive behavior change, those are kind of the things I’m seeing trending now. And I think we’re only scratching the surface. If people start to understand how effective it is, a lot more funding, investment, and effort will go into it.

What exciting developments can we expect next for Games for Change?

Asi Burak: The community is becoming stronger. You feel it with the energy level. You feel it by the quality of the games being presented. You feel it by the conversations that are happening. More and more people come to me and say, “I actually got a contract or a game project as a result of the conference.”

But, trying to be objective about it, while we are witnessing growth it’s still slow. And it’s slow mainly because of the business model: people are trying to figure how they can make money from it and funders are still very shy about putting money into games, even as government is putting in more money (in the U.S. at least).

We just did a whole day with the U.S. Department for Education — a three-way partnership with them, Games for Change as the host, and the Entertainment Software Association, the lobby of gaming companies. So, as a result, you have a day about games for education but it also opened the door for commercial game companies. It’s the beginning — we’re not there yet — but the fact that they even start to understand this as an opportunity is a big thing.


Our thanks to Asi Burak and Games for Change for the interview. Interested in learning more? Visit