Badass Larp Talk #19: Bias Cut
The Appropriation Conversation
This is one of those posts that I’ve started four or five times, but had trouble finishing each time, because while I think there’s something that needs to be said on the subject, I’m not sure right now if there’s a solution as such (and if there is, I sure don’t have it). So what I have to say may not add up to more than a longer version of “Hey guys, this is a thing, you should consider it when designing your games” – but you know what? The hell with it. I’ve had the itch to write about this long enough, it’s time something got said, even if I don’t have as many answers as I’d want.
Whew. Here goes.
There’s a lot that can be said about race and culture in the context of gaming in general, but to the surprise of nobody who reads this blog even semi-regularly, I’m going to choose to focus on how it applies in larp. Not just larp, even, but primarily in live combat or “boffer” games, as they seem to be the biggest examples of what I’m going to be talking about in this post. They are not the only ones who encounter these subjects, particularly with the rise of many experimental freeform and Nordic larp games dedicated to exploring issues like race, culture and identity, but once again I’m going to try to stay within my wheelhouse here, and I’ve been doing boffer games for almost 15 years now. The issue, I think, is best phrased as the following question:
When do real world analogs and their resulting cultural appropriation cross the line from inspiration to insult?
Let me explain what I mean by cultural appropriation, here. In many games, the various fantasy cultures, kingdoms and even races that players portray are based at least in part on actual peoples and cultures from real world history. It’s a fairly rare fantasy boffer game that doesn’t have some kind of Norse analog, for instance, not to mention a Celtic one and often a loosely defined “you know, like, Asian” one. These cultures are often called different things in the game, naturally, as befits the fictional nature of the world, but players are directed to use their real world inspirations to guide their costuming, makeup and prop choices, sometimes even encouraged to attempt accents or speech patterns based on these cultural touchstones. (Some games even borrow religious or cultural language from these cultures directly, like a fantasy game with Thor as one of the deities or using a term like ronin in their otherwise entirely new fantasy culture.) When I was younger I took this in without thinking too much about it – it was all make believe, after all, and anyway we weren’t actually supposed to be real world individuals, we were just borrowing parts of the real world to help give this fantasy one a solid foundation. Now, though, I look on them with a bit of hesitation, because sometimes I’m not sure we’re putting our best foot forward as a community.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
As a designer and a player, I have to admit I’m torn.
On the one hand, I totally get the advantages of this sort of world-building – rather than try to build something as complex as fashion, language and culture from the ground up, using real-world analogs allows a designer to focus on the parts unique to their game world and gives players to an easy way to handle what they’re being asked to portray. This is often crucial for new players, particularly those new to larping altogether. After all, it’s already fairly taxing for them to try to take on the imagination load of being another person in another world surrounded by other imaginary people, but chances are they know what a Viking is, so imagining that they’re a Viking-type person makes it just a little easier. Not to mention that it’s easier to construct costumes and props, since there are already a lot of references and patterns available. Using an existing culture as a reference point is therefore a good way to help people identify with the game world more quickly and easily, which in turn helps them engage with the stories going on there.
It can also be a lot of fun to do some culture-and-genre mashing, as far as more advanced designs go. For example, in the past I played a game with dark elves, who are long since a staple of modern fantasy gaming, but gave them an interesting twist by combining standard dark elf makeup with feudal Japanese costuming and etiquette, rather than sticking with their traditional vaguely Western European dress and matriarchal organization. They also had a regal culture that combined elements of Victorian England with ancient Rome, which sounds like an utter sartorial train wreck but actually hit a lot of great notes conveying a sort of instinctive sense of power, dignity and imperial superiority (for better or worse), which is exactly what they were shooting for when they created it. I love these sorts of mashups, because when they’re done well it can breathe new life into what might otherwise be all too familiar territory, and let’s face it, fantasy games in particular often cover a lot of very familiar territory.
Just to be clear, then: There are definite upsides. I get that, do not deny it. In fact, I think real world cultural analogs can be powerful tools for designers who think them through and use them respectfully and deliberately. After all, it is certainly possible to create a fantasy setting that uses elements inspired by feudal Japan without venturing into caricature and stereotype – Legend of the Five Rings certainly did so very ably and respectfully, after all, in both tabletop and larp form.
That said, there are the parts that start making me a bit uncomfortable. Because while a lot of these cultural appropriations are harmless or nearly so, there also quite a few that are at best rather painfully simplistic and at worst, well, extremely insensitive and offensive. I think the main culprit here are the “vaguely Asian” cultures I mentioned earlier – they are common to a large number of fantasy games, and all the more striking because while many games have a number of very distinct cultures drawn from various European roots – Norse, Greco-Roman, Celtic, Elizabethan English, etc. – those same games then turn around and simply hand-wave everything east of Transylvania or so into one big catch-all category.
Now, I understand where this is coming from. While the gaming community is thankfully becoming more diverse, games still tend to have a player majority drawn from various varieties of Western European descent. So that’s the historical and cultural backdrop they know best, and therefore they’re more aware of the distinctions in those real world cultures than they are of Asian, African or South American cultures. Doesn’t make it any less simplistic and potentially insensitive, but I can see the why, if that makes sense? Still, it’s rather shockingly patronizing when you step back and take a good look at it.
I mean, let’s try a little thought experiment here: Imagine if you described a game culture as simply “European” and left it at that. You’d have players asking questions about exactly what that’s supposed to mean, how the designers could possibly lump the Greeks with the Spanish and the British, do they think Vikings are the same as Roman centurions, etc? And yet that’s pretty much exactly what’s being done in a lot of these game cultures that simply say “Asian” or “African” then dust off their hands and walk away.
When I first started boffer larp, I played at a game that has one of these “we-say-Asian-but-we-really-mean-Japanese-and-a-few-things-like-tie-shirts-we-think-are-Japanese-but-are-actually-Chinese” cultures, and looking back it makes me cringe to think of just how staggeringly insensitive it was. The name of the culture was simply a real world Eastern culture with r’s substituted for the l’s – get it? – and players were encouraged to use the sort of thick “Asian accents” you don’t hear anymore outside of old time race comedy and the worst sort of hack stereotype characters coughed up by Hollywood. Looking back I just want to facepalm myself into unconsciousness, or perhaps better yet smack the designer on the back of the head. That’s probably the worst example I’ve encountered, but there are quite a few other games that come awfully close to that same line, and really there’s just no excuse for it – not then and certainly not now. I mean, if nothing else, this is the Age of Search Engines. You don’t have to say “Asian” anymore – you can tell people to reference the Edo period, the Boxer Rebellion, the founding of the Joseon Dynasty or any other specific country and era you like, and references are just a few clicks and an image search away.
Speaking of lines, this is just a friendly heads-up for the gaming community at large: inasmuch as one can say an entire culture agrees on anything, generally speaking the Romani consider the term “Gypsy” more than a little offensive, essentially tantamount to using a racial slur. I didn’t know this myself until a few years ago – it’s so pervasive in our language and the Romani are such cultural outsiders that it’s unlikely to change any time soon – but still, now we know, and knowing is half the battle, right? I’m not asking anyone to give up their game cultures based around a nomadic people dressed in bright colors, but maybe we could stop using a racial slur to refer to them? I mean, if you want to use the culture as the basis for a culture in your game, try referring to the Romani instead of using the term Gypsy. Take it from a writer who has his own flamboyant “Gypsy cavalier” larp character in his back catalog and did a big Vistani writeup for Ravenloft back in the day – it’s not any harder and you get to be less offensive too. Win win.
Now, I know that there are probably at least a few people out there saying something along the lines of “Wait a minute, I’m of Scandinavian descent and I gotta tell you, I find some of these ‘Norse’ game cultures pretty damn offensive too – why don’t you say something about that?” Well, for one, consider it said. I’m not disagreeing with you – I’m not saying it’s only non-European cultures and ethnicities that can be appropriated in offensive ways. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who are proud of their heritage, take one look at fantasy game “Celts” and want to throat punch everyone with a terrible Lucky Charms accent. Insensitive is insensitive – just because a lot of gamers are of Western European descent doesn’t mean they can’t be just as patronizing and clueless about those cultures too.
So … What Do We Do About It?
Before anyone accuses me of trying to launch some sort of witch hunt or anti-fun crusade, bringing games to their knees with political correctness run amok and whatnot, let me stress that when these offensive things are done at a game, I’d say about 99% of the time it’s done out of ignorance, not malice. (It certainly was in my case.) People are playing a game to have fun in a make believe world, and because of the distance that fantasy provides they don’t always see what it might look like back in the real world, especially to people from a different background than their own. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything, but it does mean that you should look at it as a chance to educate, not harangue.
Designers and game runners, when you’re considering using real world analogs, make sure you understand what you are carrying over and what it might bring with it. This doesn’t mean that you should feel paralyzed with indecision, worried that every little move might offend someone somewhere. (Any creative project will offend someone, as the Internet will be only too happy to point out for you.) But it does mean you should stop and think through your decisions – are you using parts of a culture that will add to the game in a meaningful way, or do they encourage the perpetuation of stereotypes and caricatures? If a player starts taking one of your cultural analogs in an offensive direction – for example, showing up in an outlandish caricature outfit and speaking with an offensive accent – what will you say to them?
For example, I was at a game recently where some folks playing dumb redneck NPCs started going off on “lazy Mexican” stereotypes, which needless to say, made more than a few other players angry and uncomfortable out of game. This dumb redneck culture is part of the game, and they probably just figured they were acting in character, but at the same time there’s no question that tossing around real world racist stereotypes crossed the line for their fellow players, and with good reason. Fortunately the game staff was on top of it and addressed the problem quickly, declaring the behavior out of bounds and telling players to refrain from real world insults and stereotypes in favor of insults based solely on the game’s fictional “races” and local cultures. Still, when you draw on real world analogs, you have to realize that sometimes players may miss the point, take it too far, or otherwise cross the line, and you should be ready to handle the situation if it does.
It’s worth mentioning that a lot of games now post rules about inappropriate material, and a discussion point about real world analogs is definitely considering if your game includes them. Let players know that real world elements are there for inspiration, not caricature and stereotype, and let them know the proper method for expressing concern if they feel that something has crossed a line. That alone can go a long way to making sure your game stays a safe space for people to feel comfortable while they’re playing.
Players, for your part, remember that when a game uses a real world analog, it’s generally designed as a quick reference and a jumping off point, not as a final destination. Unless the game actually encourages you to bring over cultural and historical elements, you should look at it as more of a visual reference than a cultural mandate, and therefore feel free to take it in new and interesting directions rather than recreating what we already know of in our own world. Games are a chance to really unleash your imagination, after all, so even if a game culture has a lot of Celtic analogs, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have Gaelic sounding names or make references to existing traditions. (Not unless that is what the designer intends, I suppose.) Instead, use it as jumping off point and chart new territory.
In the end, I think the key is remembering to be respectful and understanding that what may seem like just good fun to one person can be quite different to someone else, especially if they feel their racial or cultural identity is being slighted by material presented in the game. Because even though the characters are imaginary, the people behind them are not, and as our hobby grows we owe it to everyone to leave behind some of the mistakes of our past and build better worlds for the future.
Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates!