In “Stray,” the adorable cat video game that’s become a hit in a quiet summer for game releases, players control a small cat as it navigates a cyberpunk Hong Kong. You prance around the occupants of the city — robots wearing stereotypical rice paddy hats — and skitter past signage reminiscent of Korean and Japanese text.
This geographer helps video game developers avoid angering countries
That cultural mishmash has prompted some criticism of “Stray’s” French developer, BlueTwelve, particularly for lifting inspiration from the Kowloon Walled City without acknowledging or even giving a nod to some of its troubling history.
Kate Edwards, 57, a Seattle-based cultural and political consultant working in the video game industry, makes it her business to foresee these kinds of criticisms — and help developers address their blind spots or steer clear entirely.
“Starting with the Walled City as an inspiration can potentially be a valid choice, but how the game distances itself from the original context is a very necessary thought exercise,” Edwards said. “Why choose this moment and place in history? How does it build or detract from the intended narrative and player experience?” (BlueTwelve and “Stray” publisher Annapurna Interactive declined to comment.)
Edwards is a longtime video game industry executive who has worked with companies such as BioWare, Google and Microsoft to get video games to better reflect international cultures and geopolitics. Last year, she was part of Forbes’ “50 Over 50” list and was inducted into the Women in Games Hall of Fame.
She’s advised game companies and cautioned them when their titles contained potential fodder for international outrage or controversy.
“If you’re going to be making a mainstream game, like ‘Cyberpunk 2077,’ you have to be mindful of the fact that there’s a lot of different, diverse people playing your game,” Edwards said. “Your particular viewpoint as a game designer or narrative designer, that viewpoint, unless it has an explicit narrative reason to be there and you can justify it within the world building that you’ve done, it needs to be basically logically consistent with the world you’ve created.
“If you’re going to represent a specific culture, there are plenty of people from these cultures who are sensitivity readers, or they represent that culture, who can give you feedback.”
Edwards got her start working at Microsoft in 1992 as a geopolitical specialist and helped address a controversy in the game “Age of Empires” in 1997, when the Korean government disagreed with the game’s depiction of a Japanese invasion of Korea. So the game could be sold in South Korea — considered a key market for Microsoft’s growth strategy, Edwards said — the developers significantly altered the details in a downloadable patch. Edwards called the incident “a lightbulb moment” for her to start an internal team that manages geopolitical risk.
In 2004′s “Halo 2,” a Covenant character had its name changed from the religious term “Dervish” to “Arbiter” to reduce similarities to Islam and avoid creating the appearance that the game was about the United States versus Islam, according to Edwards. She said she argued for the word change given the game’s references to Islam, the religious nature of the Covenant and protagonist Master Chief’s mission to stop them.
Katy Jo Wright, senior director at Xbox’s team called Gaming For Everyone, said in a statement, “We aim to create product experiences where players feel at home. This includes recognizing the worldwide differences in player journeys, including local needs, barriers and experiences, and developing meaningful products that have local relevance for a global audience. At times this means we need to make decisions guided by our values of Gaming for Everyone — 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 over 13 years working with Microsoft on geopolitical business strategy, Edwards eventually left to start her own consultancy, Geogrify, where she continued to help clients like BioWare and Google adapt their products for a global audience. She still works with games in many cases.
In 2012, she took 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 2017. She also served as executive director of the Global Game Jam from 2019 to 2022.
Edwards said when she joined the IGDA as a member, she noticed localization workers complaining that they were being ignored by the industry, so she started a special interest group for them in 2007 and went on to hold a localization summit at the annual Game Developer Conference. Her work led her to being approached by the IGDA for the executive director position, she said.
“I don’t like seeing people complaining about stuff. I like solutions. I don’t like whining,” Edwards said, reflecting on why the IGDA offered her the role. “At the time, I’m like, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’ve never been in a leadership role like this.’ But I was really passionate, though, about the organization and about helping developers, because at that point, I’ve been working alongside game developers for many years and I love these people.”
She said she felt strongly about pay equity, diversity and inclusion, and encouraging better practices around working overtime.
In 2014, when gamers launched a targeted online harassment campaign, called GamerGate, Edwards, as IGDA director, spoke out against them and was, as a result, a recipient of death threats and insults.
“I put on that strong face because I’m leading the IGDA. I’d have to be this pillar of strength to other developers who are being harassed and attacked. And I did that 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 take the stress. But of course, we all know what happened to GamerGate. They basically evolved into the alt-right, and then Trump got elected, and they got distracted.”
Edwards added that she knew a lot of women who left the video game industry in the aftermath of the harassment, deciding to take on jobs at major tech companies where their skills would be applicable. She ultimately left the IGDA in 2017, when she felt that she was no longer able to make a difference.
“We understand that those who play games are basically at gender parity, and across all racial groups and cultures,” Edwards said. “But the people who make games still tend to be skewed in a certain direction, demographically, so we still really want to strive to see that those who make games better represent those who play them. And we’re not there yet, even though we are seeing improvements.”
Over the past several years, video game companies, including Riot Games, Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft, have faced allegations of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination, as well as claims that their human resource departments have failed to adequately address complaints brought before them. Last July, a week after news of a California lawsuit against the publisher Activision Blizzard surfaced, employees at Ubisoft, another major video game publisher based in Paris, authored an open letter in solidarity with Activision Blizzard employees, sending it to Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot. Ubisoft ousted several executives in 2020 following reports of workplace harassment and toxicity, and has vowed to reform its culture.
“It’s been painful to work in this industry over the last five years, where we see some signs of change. We see more women in leadership roles and people of color in leadership roles,” Edwards said. “But then we see the crap that went down at Ubisoft, or the crap that went down at Riot, or the stuff at Activision Blizzard. It’s very much two steps forward, one step back.”
To critics who say that video games are toys, and that asking gaming companies to address politics is akin to asking Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog what they think of politics, Edwards said she thinks of games as culture.
“Games represent the current evolution of human narrative. We are redefining how stories get passed from one generation to another, in the same way that art has done and written text has done, and film and radio and all these other forms of creative media have done, which are all still around,” Edwards said.
“Games are now taking a stab at redefining what that looks like: How do we convey story, and narrative, and emotional connection between generations? And that’s vitally important for developers to understand what they’re doing because far too often in our industry, it’s a business, it’s all about money, it’s all about numbers.”