03 April, 2012

Are there stories RPGs shouldn't tell?

The words "Cultural Appropriation" are like a red flag to a bull over on Story Games.

Any time you mention them, you'll get a bunch of people cheering you on, and a bunch of people immediately on the offensive.

There are numerous interpretations of the phrase, but generally it means to act of taking on the mannerisms and affectations of a foreign race. It's common associated with those of white European descent in their various "conquered" parts of the world. As an example, white Americans who follow hip-hop are typically considered to have appropriated the culture of the black communities who founded the genre. "New Age" hippies are typically considered to have appropriated aspects of Celtic, Native and other traditions in their amalgamated spirituality.

But in roleplaying it is often used as a buzz phrase when a setting uses a non-european paradigm for the basis of it's fantasy.

I've seen "Cultural Appropriation" used as a taunt against Legend of the Five Rings, for it's twisted take on Chinese and Japanese societal patterns. White Wolf apparently became so worried about the notion that they withdrew one of my favourite Old World of Darkness sourcebooks ("Gypsies") for fear of offending people.

I've had it levelled at me while developing the concepts behind "Walkabout".

I can only wonder how "Steal Away Jordan" would have been accepted if it had been written by a white male.

As a social experiment, I threw the words "Cultural Appropriation" as a hysterical rant against Jason Morningstar's new game "Durance". This is a game based on the concept of criminals and guards sent to a penal colony far from their original homeland. Jason does not hide the fact that this is based on the historical scenario of Port Jackson (which became Sydney, Australia), a place where I have ancestry.

Claiming aspects of my history and using them as a fantasy seems the exact definition of "Cultural Appropriation", but since I was a white male making this claim a lot of people were confused by my remarks. This seemed hypocritical on their part.

I was also highlighting the fact that the people who make these claims typically only level them at "unknown" or "small fish" game designers, but that's another rant.

What I'm really interested in, is finding out which stories should not be told through roleplaying.

To me roleplaying is about putting yourself in someone else's shoes, whether a historical epoch or a fantasy environment. Roleplaying is about making the decisions we an't make in our regular lives due to the laws of physics, social circumstances or biology.

All roleplaying is cultural appropriation to a degree. Without it, why do we game at all?

7 comments:

Rob Lang said...

I'm fine with cultural appropriation as long as the people round the table are comfy with it. I wouldn't play a game on any issue players felt sensitive about. I think every group has to make that decision for themselves.

As far as publishing a game over the internet, people will get offended and it is OK for them to be offended. Just because someone gets offended doesn't mean that you should stop publishing the game. Accept that people find it offensive and move on.

I would only err on the side of caution when there was a safety risk - I would avoid creating a game that was derogatory about some beliefs, for example. Apart from that, make a game about whatever you like and let each gaming group decide what is appropriate.

Matthijz said...

This one is very tricky for me. It seems like there are some things that are impossible to do without making someone upset - specifically, for me as a white male to make a game about a real-world minority culture I'm not a part of. I encountered this working on "We All Had Names", about the Holocaust, where some (mostly non-Jewish) people said (IIRC) that I had no right making this game unless I was Jewish myself.

In general, I find talking about racial/cultural minorities in games is a minefield.

My general principle, though - which I'm not following in this matter, because I don't want to annoy a lot of gamers - is that artists should do whatever they want, even if a lot of people get angry with them. I like Lars Von Trier, Dave Sim, Diamanda Galas and many other artists who piss people off. Sometimes I think we just need to do this more in our game design, too.

GRIM said...

'Shouldn't'? I don't think there's anything you shouldn't cover. I see the same fuss erupt occasionally in fiction (Racefail) and my first instinct is 'Fuck you, I'll write about what I want'. There's a tension between wanting representation of X, Y, Z and excluding people who aren't X, Y or Z from writing about it. Buyer beware, frankly.

Jason Godesky said...

I appreciate a lot of your ideas, but when you get onto cultural appropriation, I'm sorry, but you clearly have no idea what you're talking about. This is just the self-rationalization of someone enjoying the privilege of being in the majority without ever taking any consideration of what it's like to be on the other side. I might be able to just accept that from someone else and just write them off as a typically thoughtless, self-centered person, but I've seen too much careful, well-considered thought from you to accept that. You've proven yourself too smart and considerate for me to buy that.

Why didn't anyone buy that Durance was an example of cultural appropriation? Is it hypocrisy on their part, or a crucial part of the definition that you missed? Sure, you can just accuse everyone else of hypocrisy and leave it at that, but that's the lazy response, and I think we both know that, don't we? So, what might you be missing here? You grew up in Australia, and Jason Morningstar grew up in the U.S. You're talking to each other online in the same language. How is it that you're using the same language when you live on other sides of the world? It's because you both come from a colonial English culture. Shoot, just look at your flags. So, do you actually come from different cultures at all? I submit to you that national identity has nothing to do with it.

So, maybe there's something else to this, something you're missing? Wikipedia defines it this way: "Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture." Ah, notice that. There's nothing negative about it until we get to acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. Why do you suppose that is?

Google "cultural appropriation," at least on my account, and right after Wikipedia, you'll get a great Tumblr called, "My Culture is Not a Trend." The "About" section says:

Hi, I'm a Native American, and I'm fed up with the appropriation of my culture by those desperate to be trendy, hip, ironic etc.

Being a Native comes with a history of decidedly un-trendy events, such as the cultural genocide of an entire continent, residential schools, racism, stolen generations, and the eradication of entire tribes of people and their cultural traditions.

This blog is devoted to calling out those who might think that it is fun to dress like a native for a photo-shoot, or what have you. Just because it's popular, doesn't make it right, and to me, it is just as offensive as blackface.

Although we are a mostly invisible culture, that does not grant anyone the right to appropriate what little pieces of our past we have, robbing them of their dignity.

Part of being seen as "trendy" also makes an entire culture not only a commodity, but also something that people will (and can) tire of; therefore being disposable. And to me, that is unacceptable.

Does that help illustrate the problem? To put it a little more succinctly, cultural appropriation is the final phase of genocide, wherein the people who first tried to eradicate another people reduce their most cherished traditions to a fashion statement.

Jason Godesky said...

And since we continue to benefit from that genocide to this day, how we respond to this is very, very important. If we do everything we can to remain sensitive to it, then we show how we're not like our ancestors, and though we find ourselves in this historical moment, we don't approve of it. And if we don't, we're tacitly aligning ourselves with that genocide.

"Now, wait," you might be saying at this point, "aren't you working on a game called The Fifth World, where everybody 'goes native' after the apocalypse? Where the hell do you get off lecturing anybody about cultural appropriation?"

Actually, that's why I've become so sensitive to it. Most of the native people I've heard from don't really mind if their culture is referred to with respect by people who've taken the time to really try to understand it in its own terms, rather than the terms of their conquerors. There's no reasonable objection to a dialogue, even a dialogue about how cultures change. The really insulting part of cultural appropriation is shallowness.

It's not for you or I to decide what's wrong and what's not here, anymore than we as white hetero men get to tell black people what counts as racism or gay people what counts as bigotry. We have the privileges that go along with being part of the majority, and that means that all we get to do is either try to be sensitive to the concerns of the people who are still being victimized by that system of privilege, or else, align ourselves with that system.

I haven't played Walkabout, so I can't tell you if it's cultural appropriation or not. I can tell you, from the concept, it heads towards that line. The difference between cultural appropriation and not lies in how you handle it, and the depth and respect it pays to the cultures it tries to learn from (or tries to steal from). Notice, you don't hear many complaints about Ganakagok. It all lies in how you handle it.

Though, I have to admit, posts like this don't seem encouraging. How can you even begin to take the time and effort to be respectful, when you write posts like this that openly disdain even the effort to do so?

I'm writing this because I love your work. I wouldn't take the time otherwise.

Reverance Pavane said...

As a mythographer this is indeed a very sensitive issue if handled inappropriately. Then again, the loudest noises generally come from the people who have no vested interest in the matter beyond pushing their own political agenda. I know quite a few stories which aren't mine to tell, and I won't.

But I can use my knowledge of those stories to create my own without compromising them or my sources. It also helps preserve knowledge of a tradition that might soon be lost forever. Oral mythology isn't a fixed tradition. It can't be. The stories have to be retold in a context where they can still be understood.

Culture isn't a possession - a thing. It can't be stolen. The problem is when people know very little but speak very loudly. When they don't understand or haven't bothered to learn, and then claim expertise in the matter and the ability to speak with forged authority. [This is particularly the case with a lot of New Age people, especially when dealing with any First Nation lore. To the extent that it's even difficult for academics seeking to preserve a record of the traditions to collect them these days.]

But one of the best ways to understand a culture is to live it. And it is possible to do this vicariously via role-playing, particularly if the game system encourages appropriate behaviour. And that can be hard to do. The forms are often easily copied, but not the deeper meanings. [This is often true with acadaemia as well; the stories are meaningless without the context in which they are embedded.]

So no, nothing is off-limits. But if you get it wrong expect to be lampooned by the experts and criticised (the best people listen to this). Of course a lot of people will be upset because it's another example of privilege that you, a white male WASP will steal another culture's iconography, but a lot of the claimants will indeed be making the complaint on the purely on the basis of your assigned privilege. Ignore them. On the other hand if you do an excellent job, especially if it helps bridge a cultural divide, then you have enhance both cultures with the richness of the other.

USAians are particularly sensitive about cultural matters, especially pertaining to racial matters, as a side-effect of the Manifest Destiny aspects of their history. [We on the other hand have to deal with both a Colonial Heritage and White Australia Policy of our history. Our sensitivities are different because our history is different.]

I expect people to vehemently disagree with me. But so far none of the people I've worked with, or other people concerned with it, have been upset at me, even though in some cases I am pushing the boundaries at what is allowable (but as an outsider I can do this a lot easier than an insider). The only people who have seriously complained have been the ones expressing outrage at another sign of my use of privilege to destroy the uniqueness of yet another culture.

Legion said...

Oh dear. I guess I'm guilty of this too, having written an RPG about kitsune and other Japanese mythology, and working on one built around Chinese fantasy.

But you know what? I'm fine with that. I don't think there's anything wrong with writing or playing games in a culture or setting that you're not a part of. As long as you're willing to treat it with respect, there's nothing wrong with that.

You don't have to be from a culture to appreciate it, and as long as you're willing to do your homework, then cool.