Cultural sensitivities in the Tech world: A bottleneck or a blessing?

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Of late, we have seen a growth in instances where some softwares/games were banned or denied entry in some countries due to their ‘dubious’ content. The recent controversy is about LittleBigPlanet which was delayed due to Quranic references in the song ‘Tapha Niang’ which was a part of the game. There was a huge uproar among both the Muslims as well as those who believe in the freedom of expression.

The inclusion of a song which had Quranic verses was considered highly objectionable by a group of Muslims – the majority – while some were not-so-happy about the delay. Zuhdi Jasser, President of American Islamic Forum for Democracy opined,

We personally do not endorse the mixing of Koranic verses felt by Muslims to be the words of God with non-educational videogames. The fact that the music writer is a devout Muslim should highlight that at the core of this issue is not about offending ‘all Muslims,’ but only about freedom of expression and the free market.

The free market allows for expression of disfavor by simply not purchasing a game that may be offensive.

Microsoft also called off the sales of Fall Out 3 in India due to ‘cultural sensitivities’. Apparently, the game included a two-headed cow named ‘Brahmin’ which could spark a huge controversy in that country. First of all we have to define what cultural competence actually is. According to Wikipedia,

Cultural competence refers to an ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures. Cultural competence comprises four components: (a) Awareness of one’s own cultural worldview, (b) Attitude towards cultural differences, (c) Knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews, and (d) cross-cultural Skills. Developing cultural competence results in an ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures.

Interaction and understanding of cultures is the core of cultural competence but by imposing restrictions on freedom of expression can be counter-productive. However, I also agree that there is a very thin line between freedom of expression and blasphemy. While one can’t tolerate downright offense on one’s religious, ethnic or cultural identity (Fitna and caricatures was an extremely shameful episode) but subtle jibes or passing mentions (friendly, not offensive) should be tolerated.

In the case of LBP, the song already created a hype when it was nominated for Grammy Awards in 2006. I am sure that thousands, if not millions, of Muslims have heard the song before the LBP controversy. As it was sung by a Muslim, so there were no objections but now as it’s used in a video game, every one is voicing his opinion.

Fall Out controversy also has no air in it. The earlier versions of the game had Brahmin and no one had any issue with it. Having said that, now the main reason for these controversies is the penetration of technology and Internet in all corners of the world. Till recent past, many such things were left unnoticed as we don’t even knew about them. Thanks to new media, one can make an issue out of anything.

Now let’s turn to the companies. Isn’t this idea of being hyper-careful by these tech companies a bad idea? Isn’t cultural sensitivity disconnecting people online – as in isn’t the promise and real value of the Internet its abilities to transcend borders and bring people together and enable them to understand each other better?

The answer is little complicated as every one has got one’s own opinion on this issue. Without sounding controversial, my answer is that it’s a bad idea. We already have seen a lot of global mayhem and conflicts. It’s time to mend our ways, but, in a careful manner. The companies have to be careful about cultural sensitivity but not to such an extent that it creates huge controversies. Religious references, on the other hand, is a very sensitive issue and one has to be extra careful about it.

Osama jokingly said that if this continues, companies will use ‘bloke’ for users in UK and ‘mate’ for those in Australia. What do you guys think?

Facebook comments:


  • And lets not forget our recent rent-a-coder incident… why the mere mention of the word Pakistan seems to be becoming a sensitive thing.

  • I think often the controversy is a result of perceived or actual racism rather than cultural insensitivity alone. Has anyone noticed how the new first person shooter games have muslim terrorists for villains as opposed to the traditional russians.

    A show like ‘Southpark’ finds acceptability despite its offensiveness because it makes fun of Americans, Canadians, Jews, Muslims and Homosexuals alike.

    So paradoxical as it may sound, if you want to be culturally insensitive then do it to everyone, dont single out a certain race, nation or people.

  • “traditional russians”… hehe Yasser are you saying they’re dispensable as a stereotype?

  • Good point :-) I didnt mean to condone the act of painting Russians as villains. Just that that used to be the tradition, not necessarily a justifiable one.

    With capitalist markets crumbling to pieces, pro-communism russians are probably gloating anyway, thinking “who is the villain now?”

  • Heh possibly.

    I agree with you completely that if you do need real-world antagonists in a story make them comprised of multiple ethnicities and make them villans as a consequence of desperation rather than portraying them as being the embodiment of baseless evil.

    Hollywood and tv sometimes nails the morally conflicted villian who is guilty about doign wrong but is doing it out of a desperate perception of nobility.

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