Thursday, January 8, 2015

Another Example of Things I Don't Understand

This morning I was reading through RPGnet's forums when I ran across a topic titled "Cultural Appropriation in Games." Now cultural appropriation is a term that I haven't seen since college as most adults are too busy living their lives to be concerned about a bunch of kids in headdresses and face paint who are cheering for the Braves. As it turns out not everyone left behind such foolishness when they parted ways with higher education.

Bountiful Braves Fans by Bill Quick
The topic began because the original poster has a semi-regular podcast and wanted to know if it's possible for someone outside a culture to understand its values, strengths, and shortcomings. From there things just went down a rabbit hole that I find utterly disturbing. Essentially the majority of posters seem to be under the impression that there is no way that anyone can move beyond a pseudo-European setting because white people can't do that. Hell, one poster (who is apparently a moderator for the site) even went so far as to say that the "most respectful course I could take would be not to do it at all and instead devote my free time to volunteering at a soup kitchen.

I don't understand this line of thinking. 

Look the majority of settings are pseudo-European based and were designed by Americans who are outside the cultures their trying to emulate but that isn't a problem because white people live there? That doesn't make any more sense than arguing that I shouldn't enjoy Al-Qadim because it wasn't a perfect emulation of an imaginary world where genies and flying carpets were common place; or that I shouldn't play with Oriental Adventures because it was written by Gygax.

Let me put it a different way because I'm actually using the reasons that I have seen for not playing in those settings. If I'm playing a game where I am role-playing an imaginary creature who goes out exploring the world, and often kills other imaginary creatures to survive, and the setting provides me with a fun atmosphere to do that in why should I care if it's an accurate representation of a real world culture or that it was written by a bunch of white skinned people and the culture used as a starting point was filled with brown skinned people? The answer is simple: I shouldn't and I don't. 

If I'm playing in the Al-Qadim setting I'm not actually playing in a Medieval approximation of the Near to Middle East, I'm playing in the world of Al-Qadim. That world is its own thing and should be valued on if it provides me with a fun game experience - not on if its an accurate representation of the Ayyubid Empire under Saladin.  The same goes for every setting: it's either fun or it isn't. I play and enjoy Al-Qadim, Greyhawk, the Savage Coast, Soverign Stone, Rifts, Oriental adventures and whatever else will provide me with a fun place to explore. See I'm getting too old to waste my time pretending to be outraged over my silly games because of a bunch of extraneous things that have no impact on the enjoyment I find in the setting. That's a waste of time that will only keep you from enjoying the things you actually like. 

18 comments:

  1. Part of the issue, it would seem from an outsider (so it's just IMHO, and to be taken with a grain of salt), is exposure.

    The major of the hobby is white, and male. This is no prejudice in this statement, no slight against any group one way, or another. That is just what it is.

    For this to be true, it stands to reason, most groups must be quite unlike my own. We have a large, diverse group of players, with a mix of ethnicities, religions, ages, etc. While my current group has no female players (actually none of the groups I game with currently have regular female players. Sad face), this is actually unusual for me. I've regularly had women in my groups over the last 37-38 years.

    In a mixed group, you get mixed opinions, mixed reactions, and mixed source material. Although of Russian descent, Jewish cultural background, and largely Atheist religious beliefs (or lack thereof), I am an Anglophile, and deeply fascinated by British humor, food, folklore, comics, etc. I bring these to the table when I game, along with my Russian Jewish heritage.

    When Marcus plays a North African Magi in Ars Magica, he knows exactly where he is from, and what the people were like, even if the NPCs all call him a Moor, or a Saracen. He's done his research. I get to learn about it from him, and as his GM, I need to do my research as well.

    Dave is deeply knowledgeable in the areas of Egyptian, West African, the Dominican Republic, and a wide variety of other places in African, the Caribbean, South America, and beyond. When designing Superheroes, his names, and origins, don't all originate from Northern and Western Europe. Hi Thor! Greetings Shining Knight, formerly of King Arthur's court. Have you met Anansi, the Spider Spirit, or Magec, Sun Deity of the Canary Islands?

    What I'm getting at is this; I get other cultures because I'm around other cultures. I enjoy them because the diversity of Humanity intrigues me. I appreciate the real differences, and all too many similarities, in all the world's people.

    Many don't. Sadly, many more still enjoy a façade of those cultures, because they are either not exposed to more, or they're too lazy to do research, and discover the real deal, or both.

    Take it from this White Guy, you can not only understand other cultures, but you an enjoy them, feel their plights, celebrate their accomplishments, and include them accurately in your games. You just have to want to. You have be interested in trying.

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    1. True words, Holmes!

      And just because I feel like sharing my groups have included mixed races, sexual orientations, genders (currently two women and three men), religious backgrounds, and from vastly different economic backgrounds. I couldn't imagine not being open to playing something because I happen to be a white guy, or black woman, or asian transsexual. #peopleareweird

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  2. Wow I am so glad I'm not the only one who was disturbed by the weird, disturbing direction of that rpg.net thread.

    Personally, I would think any environment which encourages players to role-play different ethnicities, even ones in which that ethnic group or culture is being filtered through the eyes of an outsider, is better than avoidance.

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  3. There's a lot going on in the Real World right now that has scared people into self-censorship. For example, my wife & I wanted to go see The Interview in a theater, but we mutually decided--back when it was scheduled for theatrical release--to wait until it had been out a day of two before heading out.

    People are a little afraid of offending certain groups right now, especially in Europe. There's a move to make it "liberal" and sensitive, but still... Even owners of websites get drug into it because they don't want to be hacked, attacked, etc. they wind up saying things like, "we shouldn't even be gaming. We should all work at a soup kitchen."

    But really, people should stand up for free expression.

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    1. I think the self-censorship angle is right on.

      As an example, one might want to explore a Middle Eastern or Indian (southwest Asia) character concept, but if you are a white American with only a limited exposure to those cultures, you might as yourself. "Am I truly trying to explore another culture through role-play, or am I just pretending using the Americ stereo-types of that culture?"

      You might truly want to play a revered cleric of Ganesha but at the table it comes out more like Apu from the Simpsons. Even if it's not on purpose, people sitting around the table are going to start feeling a little awkward, and there goes the fun.

      I can sympathize with that view. You wouldn't want your barbarian modeled after a Native American Plainsman to come off like some racist portrayal or appear in the others imaginations like a face-painted college kid, rather than a noble warrior.

      It's especially difficult if the other players at the table aren't more than gaming acquaintances. If everyone is a close friend, you probably wouldn't worry about them thinking you a racist because they'd probably understand you are genuinely trying to portray a different culture through role-play.

      But a gaming group of people who are not especially close to you might start to wonder if they should kick the racist guy out of the group.

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    2. Perhaps that's the key. It comes down to how well you trust the others at your table to be role-playing and not parodying.

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    3. Dan, you're totally right.

      Marty, I get where you're coming from but I think they're going beyond self-censorship in a "I feel awkward with strangers role-playing a character different from myself" way and more towards a "I'm white, therefore it is insulting and inappropriate for me to even consider doing anything that doesn't reflect my cultural background."

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    4. That wouldn't necessarily surprise me. I haven't had time to absorb the RPG.net thread, so I'll defer to your understanding of the conversation.

      I do disagree with that view point. I don't have problems trying to play a different culture, but I am also careful about the trust I have with the other gamers around the table.

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    5. Trusting your fellow gamers at the table is arguably one of the most important things you can have for a fun time.

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    6. That's worth several blog posts right there.

      I'm having an issue with the current game I'm in where there is some outside-the-table tension (personality clashes) that is manifesting in the game. It's rapidly becoming a less-fun zone and I have to figure out what I'm going to do about it since the DM is part of the problem.

      Bit of tangent from the topic, but it's what's brewing in my brain right now.

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    7. Holmes, you have inspired me! I will write you a stratagem the likes of which Attila the Hun would shake his head at. I will sleep now though, for my mind is foggy, I have a belly full of hate, and a desperate need for the embrace of my pillow.

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  4. as most eurpean cultures are poorly understood and portrayed in RPG games it doesn't really matter when you start getting down into the details if a game takes place in fake 8th ecntury france or fake 12th century china when it come to cultural authenticity and understanding in most RPGdom.

    I recall my character buying and sacrificing a slave to a sea god in one semihistorical campaign and most of the other players freaked out and i explained... that's what men of our class did before such an important endeavor as we are setting out on...the DM luckily didn't zap me as he knew a little about the culture of his campaign.
    Part of the fun of roleplaying is pretending to be an alien person from an alien place and time, the whole of the world even just europe is not and was not fairytale peecee land.

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    1. Absolutely. Plus, I kind of wish I was in that campaign now.

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  5. As a European, I'm now deeply offended because all these "pseudo-European settings" habe been written by Americans. How could you! You Yankees have no idea about the culture and customs of us Europeans and just depict us as walking stereotypes. I think, you "triggered" me! (another one of those buzzwords)

    Seriously, do these posters even realize how they undermine their own agenda when it is obviously ok for Americans to write "pseudo-European settings" just because of their skin color?

    I'm getting to old for this stuff.

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    1. You an me both!

      Bob Lai kind of added a new layer to it for me on Google+ when he wrote, "That's like saying all portrayals of other cultures are inherently racist.

      "And while Hollywood is replete with examples of white-washing and blackface and Charlie Chan, that doesn't mean it's impossible for a 'white man' (an external appearance) to tell a story or describe a setting from a culture not theirs by birth. (For example, my wife is not Chinese and kept her maiden name for business purposes, but is familiar with Chinese cultural practice. Is she barred from holding an opinion because she is 'white'?)"

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    2. Every 17th of March I get treated to Americans appropriating my (European) culture all over the friggin' place; so yes, I agree that his assumption that "Eurofantasy" was somehow exempt was a bit eyebrow-raising.

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