What is cultural interoperability?

Colin Campbell, Friday, May 19th, 2023 7:02 pm

One of the many interesting presentations at Nordic Game conference next week (May 23-26) comes from Kate Edwards, head of Geogrify, a company that advises game and tech companies on international cultural issues. Edwards’ talk is titled Cultural Interoperability: The Biggest Challenge to the Metaverse (and Beyond).

We know that interoperability is a technical term mostly used to describe the movement of avatars and digital assets between metaverses. So it’s appropriate that cultural interoperability, as Edwards explains the idea, is also focused on the emergence of metaverse social and gaming spaces.

Edwards is a cartographer – she advised Google on the global roll-out of Google Maps – and uses the history of map-making as an example of cultural bias, and how that is likely to play out as metaverses emerge around the world.

“Most maps out there are a subjective representation based on the goals of both the cartographer and whoever is paying the cartographer,” she says. “The metaverse worlds that are being built have that same process at play.”

Authoritarian overreach

Edwards is referring to a complex and interlocking matrix of players and motivations, but mostly it comes down to governments (especially, but not exclusively authoritarian governments) as well as the cultural assumptions that are widely held by the populations of individual countries and culturally-associated countries.

For example, ever since the age of exploration, Western maps of the world have tended to make the African continent look smaller than reality, in comparison to countries in Europe and North America. While there are technical reasons why this happened, it also suited grandiose Western ideas about the magnitude and importance of their own lands, and it continues to this day.

According to Edwards, a similar process is likely to take place within metaverse spaces, in which governmental goals and cultural assumptions will take precedence over true openness. These differing assumptions will lead to cultural clashes, and the kinds of silos that we see in current mainstream media and social media.

“When you go to Google Maps, you will see different versions of the map if you’re in India, or China, or Russia or the United States or wherever because that’s really the only way to do it. Essentially, we are serving up different realities.”

These alternative realities are borne of the political, historical, and cultural needs of populations and governments. The metaverse will not change those needs. It is also likely – as with social media – that the large companies that roll out metaverse spaces will find it impossible to navigate around these policies.

Edwards posits a potential example. “Metaverses will have similar domain tailoring as Google Maps. Each user in their domain sees a different reality when they access it. Say you have Taiwanese and Chinese people mingling, and somebody in Taiwan is wearing an avatar with a Taiwan flag on it. The China servers might change that into a Chinese flag, or something else. The Chinese user will not see that on the Taiwan avatar.”

Open metaverse

She says that although an international and open metaverse is possible, it’s more likely that large cultural blocks will have their own metaverses that implicitly (or technically) exclude anyone else.

“Do we foresee a situation where Chinese, Russian and American people will be interacting freely in the same metaverse anytime soon? I’d like to believe in that premise but it seems far-fetched at the current time, and I don’t even see it happening in my lifetime.”

The obvious reason why people from different countries might not wish to hang out in the same spaces is language. But Edwards says the problem is more about culture and politics than about translation.

“Realtime translation is a technology solve that is coming pretty quickly. We have a lot of amazing translation technologies now. They’re not perfect, but they’re a lot better than they were even five years ago. Then you add in AI-enabled models, you’re talking about meaning for meaning translation, which is really what we want, and not just word for word translation.”

The problem with silos, she says, is that they stop us from coming together to “find a way to work out our cultural and geopolitical differences”. Metaverse spaces will likely compound a silo problem that is already driving people apart, even within domestic populations, in which different political affiliations prefer their own media spaces.

“If you look at social media spaces now, we are already trending in the wrong direction in terms of coming together with a common basis for reality. In the last ten years, we’ve seen the rise of populism, false narratives, fake news and everything else that social media has been enabling.”

Edwards says that cultural tuning isn’t always nefarious. “In games and virtual spaces culturalization is something that we [Geogrify] do, simply because we want the game to sell in that market. We don’t want the players to encounter things that might spoil their immersive experience. We don’t want the users to be distracted by something that we don’t intend.”

But the bigger problems are likely to come from darker motivations. Companies keen to expand their metaverses internationally are likely to adhere to governmental decrees that warp reality to their own ends.

“You’re serving up government propaganda, but that is the gateway to doing business in that country,” she says.

Ultimately, siloing people from one another going to be a disservice to them, and to the world. “People want to communicate with each other, and we want them to communicate with each other. It’s a net benefit, not just for the sake of the game or the metaverse, but also just for the sake of being human to one another.”

So, is there a solution? Edwards says, likely not in the short term. But recognizing the problem is a good start. “It’s going to be very hard to get where we want it to be. I’m very positive on the technology and on what it promises, but I guess I’m quite the cynic, or maybe the realist, on whether or not common, open metaverse spaces is going to happen anytime soon.”

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist.

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