Multicultural thinking

Multicultural thinking

By Sylvain Liege

March 21st 2011 at 8:00AM

As the games industry becomes increasingly global, doing business across cultural boundaries can be an increasingly important skill

We all know that games development has gone global. This globalism is in line with the trend of developing offshore, in less expensive or more competent countries, creating in fine a multicultural project.

In places like London, you’ll find people from all over the world in the same workplace. At first, this multicultural approach may seem to present real cost efficiencies, but what is the real price we pay?

Team human dynamics are a complex issue and looking at the outsourcing savings alone can prove to be a false economy. Unfortunately, this little gremlin will only show himself late in the project, costing ridiculously high amounts of money.

We all know that if you are British and work with a Japanese, Indian or French contact, the nature of the relationship might be more or less fluid and smooth.

As Richard Lewis, one of Britain’s foremost linguists and author of When Cultures Collide summarises it: “A working knowledge of the basic traits of other cultures (as well as our own) will minimise unpleasant surprises (culture shock), give us insights in advance, and enable us to interact successfully with nationalities with whom we previously had difficulty.”

So what does it mean to be British, American, French, German, and so on? Several definitions of culture have been provided and we will retain the definition given by Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist who did a pioneering study of cultures across modern nations:
Culture is the unwritten book with rules of the social game that is passed on to newcomers by its members, nesting itself in their minds. In other words, it is the sum of all the rules you have learned when you were a child without necessarily knowing you were learning them. It is important to note that no culture is better than another, they are just different.


Most authors who have worked on this question have identified several ‘dimensions’. The general idea about cultural dimensions is that human beings have been confronted by the same problems all around the world.

What makes them different is the answers they have assigned to these challenges. Understanding these, and the answers given, is the key to a better relationship. Let’s illustrate this point with an example.

One of the earliest authors working on the structure of culture is Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist best known for his work in intercultural relations and communication. Among other dimensions, Hall identifies the concept of rich or poor context in the language we use.

A rich context would correspond roughly to a lot of assumptions made when we communicate. A poor context would reiterate what is ‘already known’ in order to remain clear and unambiguous. For instance, Latin countries like Spain are using more of a rich context in communication while Germans will use a poor context.

Make them work together and it is likely that they will despise each other’s way of writing a report or running a meeting.

The rich context worker will produce shorter reports due to assumptions made compared to the poor context worker who will play safe by reiterating the ‘already known’. Hall also identifies the concept of culture monochronic and polychronic.

To simplify, a monochronic culture tends to do one thing at a time when a polychronic culture tends to do more than one. Put a polychromic worker in collaboration with a monochromic and it won’t be long before they declare that it is impossible to work together. The polychronic worker will declare the monochromic worker as a mono-maniac where the monochronic worker will believe his polychronic colleague is unfocused.

Have you ever felt that you couldn’t understand the work pattern of a colleague? Has it brought you to the conclusion that, “you just can’t work with these ‘blank’ ”? (Replace ‘blank’ with the country you can’t understand) Well, here you are, it might well be the first key to your problem.

The games industry is by nature a very international one and without due consideration the cultural backgrounds of staff can be a project killer. Unfortunately, judging colleagues is what we do instinctively. Regrettably, being judged is also what we personally dislike most. It can create very strong negative reactions that most of the time will never be shared in the open. This can be killing your projects slowly, including the ones with the best people.


Building a fruitful relationship with someone comes in two stages. Firstly, study and know your own culture in the first place and then secondly, investigate what makes your team mate different. Always keep in mind that the global issue will be about ‘normality’, not about what is right or wrong – that’s judging again. This normality will be very different depending on what you have been taught was ‘normal’ as a child and experienced in your community.

Seminars, workshops and special team building events are key elements to the success of your international projects.

Finally, be aware that these cultures’ specifics actually have the potential to kill your project twice – once during the development of the game, and once again when it goes on sale. We all know that a proportion of games do not work worldwide. It is likely that cultures have something to do with it.

Do we believe that Raph Koster’s definition of ‘fun’ once applied will have one and only one version in the world? Studying cultures can help you to create better games, with a wider global appeal, whilst improving your development team’s efficiency.