Cultural Appropriation: RPG Version

January 2, 2015

I’m watching a horrific thread over on rpg.net on Cultural Appropriation, which is… basically 90% people arguing about strawman ideas back and forth.   The usual two arguments dominate the conversation: “Well you can only write about your own culture, that’s racist!” and “Well, no one can define a line therefore it’s a completely bunk idea” etc.

A Useful Question

Let’s start with this first question: does your media perpetuate stereotypes of a group?

That’s really the first, and biggest hurdle most games fail.  Those stereotypes might be obvious racist caricatures from 1800s racist propaganda, stereotypes which were used to justify genocide, current racist ideas still carried forth, exoticized projections based on stereotypes, or oversimplifications which effectively fall back into stereotypes. grossly misrepresenting cultures and beliefs in ways simple google searches could resolve,  or just a plain a mix of several of those problems.

When we talk about this first question, the issue isn’t even ownership, or who has the right to write/create about any given culture.

The issue is whether your game or media sits in a larger scale of racist media which exists over generations?   There’s a far, far difference between writing games or creating media that deals WITH racism, vs. media that promotes it, and that difference is primarily whether it critically addresses it, or gives tacit or outright approval about it.

Racist propaganda comes from people who absorbed racist propaganda

Now, it’s not like anyone sat down and said, “Man, I’m going to write a racist game! This will be great!” (well, there is the RAHOWA RPG, literally the white supremacist term for “Racial Holy War”… ).  People make racist shit because they don’t realize it’s racist much of the time. They actually think these stereotypes are “real enough” or “Cool” or good.  Sometimes they imagine this stuff is actually COMPLIMENTING the people it’s insulting – much like how football teams with racist slur names claim they’re “honoring” indigenous people

While in most situations one doesn’t ascribe malicious intent to ignorance, but the problem in this case is that when someone does something out of ignorance, and is told what they did was harmful, they stop.  When someone does something malicious, they go out of their way to defend it, excuse it, but most importantly, to KEEP DOING IT.

This issue of intent and action becomes more clear when you consider how much work goes into making any form of media, or a game.  It requires a lot of work to say, “I am going to make a product about X topic” and somehow never come across known issues which are well documented with writing going back at least to the 1960s if not further in many cases – in other words, at least 50 years of people pointing out the use of media in racist ways.

You don’t even have to take college classes for this information – google will take you far.  Basic research into this would even cover the issues of power differences and what historical factors are loaded into the imagery and depictions you’re using.

Another Useful Question

Given that in many of these cases, there’s either direct sources someone can talk to, or descendents of a given culture, a really interesting question comes up, “What is interesting about this culture or group of people that you want to make a game about, BUT you absolutely do not want to interact with the actual people in any way?”

See.  This is where we talk about this as appropriation.  It’s about having the power to define others because your own attachment to your projections and delusions takes precedent over actual harm (centuries of media warfare…) to actual people.

To be sure, most rpgs reach a few hundred people at most – a tiny drop in the bucket of media.  And most people playing?  Play with 3-8 people in their circles – again, tiny numbers.  It’s like if someone draws a nazi swastika in their notebook – ultimately it’s not affecting a lot of people, individually.

BUT, when you consider that whatever media you create is part of a larger whole, larger movement and message, the question of “Why would you even want to do this anyway?” and “Wow, even these small arenas of escapism can’t escape this shittiness” both come up.

The Root of It All

You’re not responsible for the fact a few centuries of racist stuff came out before, but you are responsible for joining into it.   The fact that you can put in hundreds of hours of labor into creating something towards harm and never bothered to do the minimal amount of research or consider it, reveals the priorities at hand.  And that’s why when people end up critiquing games for mirroring longstanding hate media, the creators usually go straight to talking about how hurt their feelings were or how much effort they put into the product.

These things do not actually constitute real defenses, but rather further self-incriminations: “It’s really more important you don’t say anything bad about what I did, even if it’s part of a massive action over generations with actual, documented harm to millions of people.”  Really you’re being too sensitive!  Racism is often a society-wide groomed form of narcissistic personality disorder.

Can’t Win for Trying!

The other channel to which people fall into is “I guess I can’t make ANYTHING then!!!” (pouting).   This is rather like saying “It’s not fair I can’t go into public because I am unable to restrain myself from hitting people!”.   Well, if you can’t make media that’s NOT horrific stereotypes, maybe you should consider what you need to do to fix that.  Again, it’s not really a defense as much as an admission of how deeply one has accepted racist thinking.

A subset of this is simply erasing the core group, under the rubric of “no THOSE people, no racism” which, again, becomes akin to an admission of “I really want to use (the culture/setting/ideas) but I can’t actually see those people as human enough to NOT make horrific stereotypes about them so let’s just not have them at all.”

Can’t See the Forest

Inevitably these conversations spin out into details about exactly WHO has the right to say what, “well no game is historically accurate”, or whether culture can be owned, or historical cultural drift – but all of that happens to be dodges for the core questions at hand.  The forest is around you, no matter how much you want to argue the definition of a “tree”.

Does your media fall into a larger historical context of racist media?

Are you deliberately avoiding research or feedback from the actual folks you’re busy making games about?

Do you need to participate in a legacy of hate for your fun?


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