This consultant helps video game developers avoid cultural and political gaffes

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In “Stray,” the adorable cat video game that became a hit in a quiet summer for game releases, players control a tiny cat as it navigates a cyberpunk Hong Kong. You prance around the city’s occupiers – robots wearing stereotypical paddy field hats – and pass Japanese and Korean signs and text.

This cultural mishmash has drawn some criticism from French “Stray” developer BlueTwelve, particularly for drawing inspiration from the walled city of Kowloon without acknowledging or even giving a nod to some of its unsettling history.

Kate Edwards, 57, a Seattle-based cultural and political consultant working in the video game industry, makes it a point to anticipate this kind of criticism – and to help developers solve their blind spots or avoid them altogether.

“Starting with the walled city as inspiration can potentially be a valid choice, but how the game stands out from the original context is a much-needed thought exercise,” Edwards said. “Why choose this moment and this place in history? How does it build or detract from the desired narrative and player experience? (Annapurna Interactive, publisher of BlueTwelve and “Stray,” did not respond to a request for comment.)

Edwards is a longtime video game industry executive who has worked with companies such as BioWare, Google, and Microsoft to make video games better reflect international cultures and geopolitics. Last year, she made Forbes’ “50 Over 50” list and was inducted into the Women in Games Hall of Fame.

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She advised game companies and warned them when their titles contained the potential for international outrage or controversy.

“If you’re going to make a mainstream game, like ‘Cyberpunk 2077,’ you have to be aware that there are a lot of different and diverse people playing your game,” Edwards said. “Your particular point of view as a game designer or narrative designer, that point of view, unless it has an explicit narrative reason for being there and you can substantiate it in the world-building you have made, it must be fundamentally logically consistent with the world you have created.

“If you’re going to represent a specific culture, there are a lot of people from those cultures who are sensitive readers, or who represent that culture, who can give you their input.”

Edwards started working at Microsoft in 1992 as a geopolitical specialist and helped resolve a controversy in the game “Age of Empires” in 1997, when the Korean government disagreed with the game’s description of a Japanese invasion of Korea. So the game could be sold in South Korea — seen as a key market for Microsoft’s growth strategy, Edwards said — the developers have tweaked the details significantly in a downloadable patch. Edwards called the incident a “lightbulb moment” for her to create an internal team that manages geopolitical risks.

In 2004’s “Halo 2,” a Covenant character had his name changed from the religious term “Dervish” to “Arbiter” to reduce similarities to Islam and avoid giving the impression that the game was about the United States. against Islam, according to Edwards. She said she advocated for the word change given the game’s references to Islam, the religious nature of the Covenant, and the protagonist Master Chief’s mission to stop them.

Katy Jo Wright, senior manager of the Xbox team called Gaming For Everyone, said in a statement, “Our goal is to create product experiences where gamers feel at home. This includes recognizing global differences in player journeys, including local needs, barriers and experiences, and developing meaningful products that have local relevance for a global audience. Sometimes that means we have to make decisions guided by our play-for-all values ​​– a commitment to a journey, not a destination. We continue to learn from these experiences and invest resources to fairly represent the diversity of our gaming community.

After more than 13 years working with Microsoft on geopolitical business strategy, Edwards eventually left to start her own consulting company, Geogrify, where she continued to help clients like BioWare and Google tailor their products to a global audience. She still works with games in many cases.

In 2012, she took on an even more involved role in the video game industry: that year, the International Game Developers Association, or IGDA, offered Edwards the role of executive director, where she worked until in 2017. She also served as Executive Director of the Global Game Jam from 2019 to 2022.

Edwards said that upon joining the IGDA as a member, she noticed that localization workers were complaining about being ignored by the industry. So she created a special interest group for them in 2007 and then hosted a localization summit at the annual game developer conference. . Her work led to her being approached by the IGDA for the position of executive director, she said.

“I don’t like to see people complaining about things. I like solutions. I don’t like whining,” Edwards said, reflecting on why the IGDA offered him the role. “At the time, I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I have never been in a leadership role like this. But I was really passionate about organizing and helping developers, because at that point I had been working alongside game developers for many years and I love those people.

She said she is very committed to pay equity, diversity and inclusion, and encourages best practices around overtime work.

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In 2014, when gamers launched a targeted online harassment campaign called GamerGate, Edwards, as director of the IGDA, spoke out against them and, as a result, received death threats and insults. .

“I put on this strong face because I lead the IGDA. I should be that pillar of strength for other developers who are being harassed and attacked. And I did the best I could,” Edwards said. But at the same time, there were plenty of times I was on the phone with my parents, crying, because I couldn’t handle the stress. But of course, we all know what happened to GamerGate. They basically moved to the alt-right and then Trump got elected and they got distracted.

Edwards added that she knew many women who had left the video game industry as a result of harassment, deciding to take jobs at big tech companies where their skills would be applicable. She finally left IGDA in 2017, when she felt she was no longer able to make a difference.

“We understand that those who play games are fundamentally gender parity and across all racial groups and cultures,” Edwards said. “But people who make games always tend to be skewed in a certain direction, demographically, so we always really want to strive to see that those who make games better represent those who play them. And we are not there yet, although we are seeing improvements.

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In recent years, video game companies including Riot Games, Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft have faced allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, as well as allegations that their resource departments human resources did not deal adequately with the complaints submitted to them. Last July, a week after the announcement of a California lawsuit against publisher Activision Blizzard, employees of Ubisoft, another major video game publisher based in Paris, wrote an open letter of solidarity with the employees of ‘Activision Blizzard, sending it to Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot. Ubisoft ousted several executives in 2020 following reports of workplace harassment and toxicity, and pledged to reform its culture.

“It has been difficult to work in this industry for the past five years, where we see signs of change. We are seeing more women in leadership roles and more people of color in leadership roles,” Edwards said. “But then we see the shit that happened at Ubisoft, or the shit that happened at Riot, or whatever happened at Activision Blizzard. It’s really two steps forward, one step back.

To critics who say video games are toys and that asking game companies to address politics is like asking Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog what they think about politics, Edwards said she considers games like a culture.

“The games represent the current evolution of the human narrative. We’re redefining the way stories are passed down from one generation to the next, the way art did and the written word did, and film and radio and all those other forms of creative media did, which are still around,” Edwards said. said.

“Games are now trying to redefine what that looks like: how do we convey the story, the narrative and the emotional connection between generations? And it’s vitally important for developers to understand what they’re doing because that too often in our industry, it’s a business, it’s about the money, it’s about the numbers.

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