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?
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