20 October, 2012

Stereotypes, Labelling and Relationships


I’ve been thinking about the notion of relationships within the mechanisms of Walkabout. All characters are defined by a series of traits that define their ability to impact the world around them using the forces within. All characters also have a range of relationships that provide a more powerful ability to transform the world using allied forces linked spiritually to concepts that they identify with.

Someone calling themselves a “warrior”, who does the leg work to become a “warrior” and who acts as a “warrior” gains a bonus when performing the actions traditionally associate with a “warrior”.

Similarly, someone calling themselves a “drug dealer”, who does the leg work to become a “drug dealer” and who acts as a “drug dealer” gains a bonus when performing the actions traditionally associate with a “drug dealer”.

A person known for carrying a “surgical kit”, who regularly uses their “surgical kit” and who works regularly to maintain their “surgical kit” gains a bonus when performing actions involving the “surgical kit”.

This has been dealt with in a few of the posts regarding Walkabout.

But I’ve been thinking about the deeper implications of the core concept.
Stereotypes are controversial things. This has become especially noticeable in recent game related discussions about “cultural appropriation” and gender equality in “geek culture”. A number of people have commented about these two ideas in regard to Walkabout, and I guess it doesn’t help when the game includes notions of spirituality, groups of people desperately clinging to shattered fragments of lost cultures, and a reinterpretation of religious concepts in a twisted reflection of our world.

But I think a roleplaying game is a “safe zone” to explore these types of concepts; a shared imaginary space where the consensual beliefs of the players can be used to push envelopes. Novelists have been using their mediums to push the agenda of a single voice to their readers; roleplaying games (and story games) have the unique opportunity to share the voices of several participants to explore a world within a paradigm constructed by the game’s designer.

Walkabout’s focus on “relationships as a game mechanism” is a deliberate paradigm choice. If you don’t like it, then Walkabout simply might not be the game for you. This has sat in the back of my mind since reading some of the comments from Angelus Morningstar when discussing his game “Eidolon”. In a few places he has stated his uncompromising artistic integrity, especially when people have told him that the poetic voice of the game’s narrative might make it unapproachable to some players.

I respect artistic integrity, and despise design by committee or the compromise of principles just to appease the lowest denominator. The place of artists is to open vistas of the mind, sometimes people like their work and have their minds expanded, sometimes people don’t like their work but find the underlying themes insidious in their transformation of the viewer’s mind, and sometimes a closed minded individual will perceive an artwork and instinctively rebel against the underlying concepts…sometimes closing their mind further as a response.

The problem is that human nature often makes it easier to close your mind than to open it. It’s easier to troll, claiming things like “that’s not how real life works”, “what about this obscure situation where the rules don’t seem to work”, or “back up your fictional world with facts otherwise I won’t take it seriously”. It’s harder to say… “I see how I could use that in a story”, “that’s an interesting interpretation of the world”, or “I hadn’t considered things that way”.

This brings me back to relationships. Establishing the first relationship is easy. In life we often establish a relationship to the people we grow up with, this may be our families, our local communities or religious groups, or childhood social groups. These set the tone for our future life, we might define ourselves by our fondness for these social circles and belief systems, or we might define ourselves by our rebellion against them. Either way, our relationship with this core element of our being functions as a defining factor of our life. If my skin is white and my genetic descent is generally of the type Caucasoid (and more specifically Scottish with a fraction of Romany), do I declare myself a proud Scot, or do I turn my back on my heritage and get apologetic for the historical actions of the British against the rest of the world in the colonial era?  If I were of dark skin and my genetic descent were generally of the type Australoid (and more specifically of the Tharawal people in the Wollondilly shire), do I claim the ancestry of my people dating back tens of millennia in this region, or do I focus on the cultural disconnect that occurred when recent generations were forcibly removed from the land and had the ways of “civilisation” thrust upon them?

It’s a culturally charged issue. It’s the kind of thing that can be explored through roleplaying, the choices made can form the basis of interesting stories.

In Walkabout, I’ve specifically avoided the notion of racial typology. In the modern world, the Australian government might define aboriginality as a percentage of genetic make-up in a person’s ancestry; but in a post-apocalyptic setting, it doesn’t mean much. Almost everyone in Walkabout has suffered a cultural disconnect with their past…except for those who’ve hidden themselves in underground bunkers for decades, the world has had to start over. Those who have remained secluded in their bunkers have found the world dramatically changed; their educations based on the golden age of the past have rendered them locked in a nostalgic era out of sync with the outside world.

The population of the Walkabout world is less than a hundredth of the current level, and in some parts of the world even less. Discrimination based on skin colour may still exist in the setting, but those who wanted to prolong the human race by bringing new generations into the world often had to put aside those thoughts. Someone who survives the darkness and ice age with a hatred of people outside their race might find themselves with a moral dilemma if they want to raise a new generation but everyone from their race has been killed, turned into a mutant or rendered infertile by radiation.

It is also said that stressful situations cause relationships to form or break apart. The drama of a life threatening incident draws people together against the events conspiring against them, or drives a wedge between individuals who may have been close but who share different outlooks or perspectives on the situation.

The problem is, no-one knows how they’ll react until these events occur.

Is it a way to remove the “race” card from the setting? Yes, but it’s also something important about the stories of Walkabout. The cultures of the new world are something familiar, perhaps more akin to class lines than racial typologies. The stereotypes that these groups feel for one another are just as strong as the stereotypes that riddle our world. Groups hate one another due to slights in the past (whether real or imagined), they bear suspicion for groups that have the potential to erode their power base, and they have resentment for others who have gained advantage through luck, heredity or nepotism. Groups like others for the potential opportunities they see in one another, whether trade alliances, or other mutual benefits.

Could you add the “race” card back into the setting? Sure, if you wanted to tell the stories of an ethnic minority who had kept their power when the rest of the world went to hell then there’s nothing to stop you adding in a sutable relationship option for the groups characters. Bvious examples in this setting might be “Jewish” (because the Jewish people have always had a strong sense of cultural identity despite their diaspora across the globe), or “Muslim” (because even if the world gets tilted, all the mosques still point toward Mecca), or even “Redneck” (with all the off-road drivin’, gun-totin’ survivalism you can handle). Note that all of these examples offer more than just skin colour as their identifier.  Yes they are stereotypes, yes they pigeonhole people into a specific category for the sake of shorthand…but the world does this. The world isn’t a perfect place.

Once a relationship category has been identified, the players can determine where they stand in regard to it. Remember that in Walkabout, all relationships are optional with regard to all characters.

If we run with “Redneck” as an example…

Do you consider yourself a true die-hard “redneck”? Do you drive an off-roader, carry a gun with you, speak in a country drawl, live off the land, gather with other folks who consider themselves rednecks” and do all the other things that “rednecks” do? If so, you’ve got a strong positive relationship to the “Redneck” community.

Do you simply have “redneck” leanings? Perhaps only a few of the above examples apply to you, or maybe you try to lead another life outside the redneck community, and consider this to only be a small part of your personality. If so, you’ve got a weak positive relationship to the “Redneck” community.

Do you know of the “rednecks” but haven’t really decided whether you feel comfortable with them? Perhaps you watch the occasional motor race, maybe you know about guns ad might have even fired one, you might have heard “redneck jokes” and laughed at them as a guilty pleasure (or just thought that they were  bit crude). If you know a lot about the community, you might have a weak general relationship toward them; if you don’t know much about them, you don’t really have any relationship to the concept of “Redneck” community at all.

Do you know about the “rednecks” and consider them to be uncivilised hillbillies? Do you prefer your urban life, and even treat those identifying as “rednecks” with mild contempt? If so, you’ve got a weak negative relationship to the “Redneck” community. Your relationship to the “redneck” community is a part of your persona because a part of you identifies as being opposed to the concept.

Do you actively hate them? If so, you’ve got a strong negative relationship to them. Once again, a part of your persona has identified with the “Redneck” community as a staunch opponent of them.

Let’s play the blatant stereotype game…

Nazis versus Jews, World War 2.

In a simplistic and stereotypical story, each is defined by their relationship to the “Jewish” community.

A naturally born Jewish character might retain their strong connections to their Jewish heritage.

Another might sacrifice their heritage in the hope for survival.

A typical German citizen might not have any relationship to the Jews at all. They might feel sympathy for their plight, they might simply ignore the situation, they might have a life that is so caught up in other events that they don’t have time to think about what is happening.

A lowly soldier or officer might be forced into contact with the Jewish people and the events unfolding around them. If this were to happen enough times they’d automatically gain a connection to the Jewish people, but they’d have to decide for themselves whether to advocate for the rights of their charges, take on the mentality of the Nazi party, or remain coldly detached.

Higher ranking officers would find it much harder to stay detached from the situation as they are the ones being forced to sign the death warrants. Their relationship to the Jews goes up to a strong connection, but will they be known for the positive or the negative? Both of these options can have serious ramifications in a story.     

A more complex version of this story might include “Romany”, “Homosexual” and other “minority” relationships. With characters pulled into conflict determined by their relationships to each of the respective groups.

The aim of relationships in Walkabout is a single linear axis of belief. It’s not just “Good/Evil” or “Lawful/Chaotic”, there is something deeper here.

Relationships like this could easily be brought into other games (Apply up to 3 relationships to a task, positive modifier to a die roll if the action works with your relationship, negative modifier to a die roll if the action goes against your relationship). It’s not for everyone, because it actually makes you think about the character’s motivations and agendas. For every opportunity opened, another is closed and impetus is applied to the character within the story.  

I could write plenty more, but that’s enough thoughts for the moment.
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