24 September 2012

RPG cultural appropriation

Geek culture has recently seen a series of heated and messy online conversations about the intersections of genre, cultural appropriation, sexism, and racism. Long overdue. The racism implicit in our cultural symbols needs a good hard look and a vigorous response, and I feel delighted that this part of the world has started having the conversation.

That said, I have to confess my own ambivalence about some of the rhetoric of “cultural appropriation”, which implies that Group X “owns” some ideas/images/practices/etc such that if Group Y employs them this constitutes “stealing” from Group X. This carries a whiff of Maintaining Cultural Purity which spooks me. Plus it seems to suggest an unrealistic conception of culture, which in practice always transmits itself across borders of all kinds and manifests a stew of crisscrossing influences. One cannot simply say, f'rinstance, that White people stole rock ’n’ roll from Black people. That succinct summary points to injustices which birthed rock ’n’ roll as a White genre, but a close look reveals a much stranger and more complicated story. Rock ’n’ roll, like so much cultural innovation, comes not from within a unified people but out of an encounter between different people, embedded in a history of injustice but not wholly authored by one group.

Plus, if a White guy like me enjoying Stevie Ray Vaughn playing the blues is wrong, I don't want to be right.

While I have no shame about enjoying hearing a White guy like Vaughn play the blues well, I also recognize the need to face the underlying ugliness of the story of how a he came to perform in a musical style primarily developed by Black people in a context of horrifying oppression — indeed, largely as an expression of that horrifying oppression — and how a White guy like me ends up enjoying the result. I confess that my pleasure comes born of a history of injustice, and at the very least I must not shrink from that awareness. Even as we enjoy some things, we can — we must — criticize the problems inherent in culture even while we enjoy it. Rachael at Social Justice League has a terrific piece How to be a fan of problematic things which talks about this problem.

Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups.

That constitutes the very least a person in a position of privilege must do. Sometimes awareness of the problems with things we enjoy does not constitute a strong enough response. Sometimes we have not just “problematic” culture but minstrelsy, in which a people and a culture become twisted into cartoon parodies of themselves, and I think we have to reject that completely. So I support and take seriously the growing critique which travels under the banner of “cultural appropriation” despite my discomfort with some of its arguments.

The foment over this in geekkultur reflects in large part how the genre literature which geeks love has racist symbolism sewn deep into the tradition. Can we clear away the problematic implications of genre literature while retaining as much as we can of what people love about those stories? We need to figure that out. I suspect that in many places it will turn out that we cannot square the circle. Perhaps the charms of something like Star Trek depend too much upon the elements of the colonial narrative to rescue, and a decade or two from now we will find it hard to enjoy it at all. As I have said before:

I sometimes reflect that Al Jolson, the famed blackface singer from the dawn of recorded music, is inaccessable to us. He was reputedly a master of his art, brilliant and moving, but he sang in blackface and like most contemporary Americans I just can't get past that; it goes past offensive all the way to baffling. So his artistry is lost to me ... and I insist that it is a loss. Any artist's work that we can no longer enjoy diminishes us. But I would have it no other way. The dignity which that loss buys us is more than enough compensation.

I have this on my mind because in recent years I have made a middle-aged return to one of the very geeky pursuits of my youth, tabletop roleplaying games. It turns out that middle-aged social skills, plus drinking beer at the table, make this much more fun. Though I will not deny the deeply geeky character of tabletop roleplaying, it owes more to improvisational theatre than most uninitiated folks realize. In order to make the story of the game work, players need to share an image of the world in which the story takes place, so RPGs tend to rely heavily on genre imagery. The granddaddy of tabletop roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons, of course draws on the heroic fantasy genre spawned by Tolkien's work. Other games imagine worlds drawn from Westerns or cyberpunk or spy movies or post-apocalyptic science fiction or superheroes or other geeky genres. So if we bring the critical tools that look for racism and sexism and cultural appropriation and so forth to the gaming table, as we should, some tough questions start to surface.

My reëntry into tabletop roleplaying came when a few years ago I started gamemastering a steampunk game about a zeppelin-borne group of adventurers in an alternate-history Victorian era. I tried to dodge the Kipling-esque colonial tropes that lurk in that space ... mostly unsuccessfully. So I have had this collision between RPGs and genre and culture on my mind for a while.

Other middle-aged guys like me have started asking themselves similar questions about games and what stories they tell, and have had the internet as a tool for discussing them. As a result, the last few years have produced an energetic movement of experimental “indie games” created by hobbyists; weird and wonderful games about cops in a fantastical version of 19th Century Utah and the hardworking minions of master villains and chivalric tragedy at the end of time and academics using an evil alien cockroach to get tenure and more.

With H. P. Lovecraft lurking on the bookshelves of many of the people making games (and Call of Cthulhu a hugely influential early roleplaying game) we have seen several recent attempts at Lovecraftian games.

The racism in Lovecraft presents a problem.

All horror literature has fear of the Other as a part of how it works, and many of the moves which play on that carry racist symbolism. But Lovecraft's world presents bigger problems than this fundamental note in horror, and many people have remarked on how racism animates much of his work. It contains ooga-booga cults of “savages” and fear of miscegenation and more. Lovecraft was an exceptionally racially bigoted man, even for his time. So contemporary writers and game designers try to avoid surfacing that aspect of his work.

A group of designers recently announced a Kickstarter for tremulus: a storytelling game of lovecraftian horror, and I threw in a few shekels. The fundraiser has been going well, so as the pledges have piled up the authors have been offering expansions to the game as stretch goals if the game reaches a higher funding target. So a couple of weeks ago, they circulated this announcement to project backers:

We shall now turn our attention away from the creepy litle town of Ebon Eaves and cast our eyes to strange, foreign soils with The Congo Playset. That's right. You'll be able to quickly create a framework to let your characters explore the heart of darkness. And it comes with three playbooks: The Captain, The Guide, and The Wild Man.


Seeing that, I tried to gather my thoughts and comment on the Kickstarter page about the problems with it. Before I got to it, other backers were also on the case.

Just ... be careful with this one. Reading the phrases “Congo”, “Heart of darkness” and “Wild Man” makes me worry that you're coming dangerously near some cultural third rails like racism and colonialism. Obviously the original material of the Mythos is full of that stuff, but Lovecraft had the excuse of writing in the 1930s (and Conrad in 1899). Revisiting those tropes nowadays will require some tricky balance between faithfulness to the original works, respect for different cultures, and healthy fear of creating a shit-ton of bad feeling.

Anyway. Sorry to go all Edward Said on you, and maybe you've already thought through all this, but I thought it was worth bringing up.
Put me down as another person whose red flags went up upon hearing “The Congo”
Ah, so “the Congo” is all about exoticism, going to the Other Place, and experience the primal alienness there. And the home you return triumphantly to is presumably an industrialized nation. With Tarzan.
I have to say, I'm really, really, REALLY not cool with this playset, and the update/comment intended to be reassuring really isn't. Taking someone's home, and then saying “well pretend the PEOPLE aren't there, and just the cool exotic place is, and it's all okay”...no. That's not okay. I'm going to have to reconsider this.

So the game designers dropped it.

We pride ourselves on planning and foresight, yet none of us anticipated the strong reaction by some to our announcing the latest stretch goal of The Congo playset, so we have had some meetings over the last few days to decide what we’d do. You see, we aren’t trying to advance any secret agendas nor is it our desire to offend anyone, so at this time we are presently setting aside The Congo ....

The critique of cultural appropriation has reached the geeky sphere of roleplaying game enthusiasts, a territory rich in middle-aged White guys.

Little victories. We don't have this worked out yet, but we are working on it.

I'm proud to say that this article was included in RPG Review #17.


Zed said...

These are issues that bug me a lot in thinking about games, too. 1890s London is an interesting setting, and part of me would love to run a Cthulhu game there. But that comes with the baggage of either telling the players they all have to white men, or, for women or people of color (not mutually exclusive, of course) to have freedom of motion outside of highly restricted spheres, setting it in a profoundly different alternate universe. Much the same would apply to most things set in the U.S. before the '70's.

Of the two, I'd rather have the alternate universe, though that gets my world-building hackles up... you can't have the changes necessary for basic equality without a hell of a lot also being different. (But I'm playing in a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in 1932 mostly in the U.S. that goes the anachronistically egalitarian route and, in play, it hasn't given me pause.)

The Kerberos Club has the best example I've seen of navigating this territory in a fashion I find palatable. It's Victorian London. Some people have been "touched by the strange" (read: have superpowers.) The Kerberos Club is open to anyone from anywhere in the Empire touched by the strange and is simply anachronistically egalitarian about sex and race. The Club is a pet of the Queen, so they enjoy some quasi-official authority and concomitant freedom of motion. (There are, of course, other issues in fighting to preserve the status quo of the British Empire...)

Jonathan Korman said...

Just so, Zed.

I know a lot of games (and genre stories) operate on a rule for quasi-historical settings like steampunk or the European Middle Ages of heroic fantasy of being anachronistically Not As It Was, But As It Should Have Been. Sometimes I can roll with that.

But more than in film or even books, the worldbuilding in game settings has to make coherent sense; you need to know what can and cannot happen in that world. And you want the setting to be vivid, instead of just being a little window dressing. So if you're in the 1890s but the world is full of women piloting airships and Black doctors and whatnot, the seams start to show ... and the whole endeavor starts to feel a little too much like whitewashing history.

Cobb said...

This is somewhat interesting. I'm actually on my way into deeper realms of this dimension. In particular I'm considering all of the NeoVictorian everything as a useful countercultual metaphor / narrative/ critique of the failures of globalism. I suspect that there's more than a bit of white boy worry going on here, which for people like myself amounts to little more than 'hey are you sure your sensitive oppressed little soul can handle this?'. That's especially the case when such white boy worry anticipates rather than reacts. I mean you just can't win as a white boy, which is why criticism is always better than prior restraint. (In general anyway). Of course I understand that some folks are doomed to only think of themselves as white boys, more's the pity.

All that said, I agree that the entire culture vulture argument is wrong and always has been wrong. And the presumption that cultural artifacts can serve political purposes is faulty as well. Either it's racist terrorism & propaganda or it's not. Everybody's mileage varies, but not by race. I just went over this matter in my head a couple weeks ago viz Resident Evil 5, and it was bad, but it was the kind of bad that was clearly artistically bad. Any attempt to read a political intent into that is foolish.

I'm also going to qualify myself via the 'six pounds of racism' excuse because although I've not read all of Kipling, I've yet to find something in him that makes me all queasy. Again, I don't put a lot of stock in post-colonial narratives of oppression. There might be enough racism in all that to give some folks the vapors, but that's hardly criminal facilitation.

Korman, I presume you are referring to Pynchon's Against the Day re: female airship pilots etc. If it's whitewashing history, then it's only another form of revisionism. I mean have you actually read Molefi Asante? I think any historical fiction is just as fair game as science fiction and the more any writer tries to make of the races of their characters in any contemporary political context, the more they are writing themselves out of the ultimate humanities.

I haven't been influenced by any racialist reading of Tolkein but I can't give that bit any more cred than I would of a literal interpretation of the meaning of putting sentient animals into any story. I mean who of us are actually hares and who of us are tortoises?

I have encountered a rather stilted Barbie system in EVE Online, which I have on trial at the moment. And I've played enough RPGs to judge how strict their racialisms are. But I have never encountered one that warrants prior restraint that wasn't transparently racist propaganda. The only thing that comes immediately to mind is Ghetto-opoly, which crashed and burned in a matter of weeks.

I am ultimately convinced that any writer sufficiently in touch with the actual nature of humanity should have no problem writing out any length of work strictly within their 'own' ethnic realm. I was even relatively certain of this back in 1989 when I was writing the Great American Black Novel.

tcpip said...

Good sir! I wish permission to reprint this excellent piece in the next issue of RPG Review!

Jonathan Korman said...

I'd be happy to see it reprinted, tcpip.

There are a couple of bits I've included in service of making the piece accessible to non-roleplayers which I'd think you would want to omit. The sentences beginning "Though I will not deny ....", "The granddaddy ....", "Other games imagine ...." and the entire paragraph beginning "Other middle-aged guys ..." can probably go.

Jonathan Korman said...

Cobb, this is definitely White boy worry at work. On balance, I think White boys could stand to worry a little more.

At the same time, I think you're right that it's easy to worry overmuch and that doing so serves no one. As you say, it may be well that I think of myself as a White boy, but it would be ill if I think of myself as only that. I'm reaching for balance. The totalizing identity politics school insists that the political valence of a work --- how one may read in terms of power relationships between identity categories like race and gender --- constitutes a work's only relevant measure. I vigorously resist that framework as both simplistic and poisonously opposed to art. Yet I want to recognize that pervasive cultural images do matter and merit a critique. Some imagery carries enough baggage that a White boy should know better than to use it.

It was evident that the authors of that Kickstarter simply hadn't given this a responsible amount of thought. The gamer community, to my pleasant surprise, had. I wouldn't say that no one should do a game which plays off of the imagery of Darkest Africa, but if one plans on taking that on, one had best do it thoughtfully.