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Opinion: Cultural influence does not preclude diversity

Opinion: Cultural influence does not preclude diversity

June 12, 2015 | By Katherine Cross

June 12, 2015 | By Katherine Cross
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More: Design



Whether you’re a triple-A dev or a dungeonmaster putting together a campaign for friends, research is one of the most fun parts of making a game. You find yourself falling down a rabbit hole of fascinating stories, histories, travelogues and more. Perhaps you’re reading physics papers to help with a sci-fi game, or you’re reading encyclopedia entries on an ancient civilization to help with historical recreations or fantasy.

The most blessed thing about it all is that the most seemingly innocuous little fact can send you on a creative blitz that fills in your game’s landscapes. One of my D&D characters clicked into place when I stumbled upon a certain line in the work of Immanuel Kant.

It’s a commonplace and normative experience in the world of both game design and gameplay to adorn one’s self with a pastiche of research. Sometimes one’s influences are less a collage and more a clear, naturalistic painting that dives deep into one particular period of history or one specific culture, however, and this is no less exciting. Most commonly, especially in games with a fantasy theme, that overriding influence is Medieval Europe (or, more often, a simulacrum thereof). But what does it mean for your game to be “influenced” by a culture or time period? What claims does that make upon your work, really? And what does it preclude?

***

Of late there’s been a (to put it very delicately) acrimonious debate about The Witcher 3 and its lack of non-white characters. A significant and constructive contribution to this discussion was made by South African critic Tauriq Moosa in a Polygon editorial that touched off even more debate. At the heart of Moosa’s argument is the question of what “cultural influence” on a game means and what, if anything, it renders the game immune from in the world of criticism.

The Witcher 3 is, as has been trumpeted with ample justification, a distinctly Polish game-- and this is assuredly a triumph in a market dominated by Western European and American cultural influences. This does indeed mean that critiquing aspects of its whiteness should be handled with sensitivity to that reality, and in a way that does not delegitimise or disrupt CD Projekt’s chosen cultural influences. As Giant Bomb’s Austin Walker notes:

“Writing about diversity and The Witcher 3 is especially complicated because of the perspectives involved. Polish history is filled with outsider groups minimizing, controlling, ignoring, and erasing the nation's unique ethnic and cultural character.”

But as Walker goes on to note, critics of color like myself are put in an awkward position, not least because we’re told questions of “cultural influence” always trump our own cultural concerns and must, by default, exclude our existence and even our opinions on the matter. The backlash against Moosa’s article was severe, likening him to an imperialist and even saying he was acting on behalf of “American culture” and projecting a distinctly American “white guilt” onto The Witcher 3 (a blog post here on Gamasutra ascribed Afrikaner motives to the non-white Moosa for some reason, claiming he was projecting their white guilt onto the game).

Are the critics’ critics right? Are we being too uppity and stealing CD Projekt’s thunder by projecting our ineluctably American (or Afrikaner) values onto a Polish game?

No. It comes back to the question of just what “influence” actually means and does.

***

“Influence,” by definition, does not mean carbon-copying. It connotes a distinctive flavoring of a wholly original product. Beaux-Arts architecture had clear Classical influences, but it was not merely a recapitulation of, say, the Parthenon. Nineteenth Century odalisques were both influenced by--and militating with--nudes from earlier centuries, producing a distinctive artistic style. The recent film Ex Machina’s cinematography wears very clear influences from 2001: A Space Odyssey, yet does not copy it.

And to take an example from gaming itself, Posthuman Studios’ excellent tabletop RPG Eclipse Phase actually provides a list of influences from science fiction and horror in their primary sourcebook, yet the game is an obviously original product of those myriad spices.

Again, “influence” does not mean “copy,” and attempting to use cultural influence as a bulwark against criticism about a lack of diversity is frankly disingenuous and borders on the insulting. It is also insulting to the source of the influence in question, as if something like  "Polish culture" can only be interpreted in one way.

The idea that “diversity” is a uniquely American value, for instance, would come as a shock to NIGDY WIĘCEJ (Never Again), a major Polish anti-racist organisation that campaigns for, among other things, “building a broad and inclusive movement against racism and discrimination, for respect, inclusivity and diversity.”

Influence is always malleable by its nature. One takes certain things and leaves others. As Luke Maciak, himself Polish, points out in his critique of Witcher 3:

“Yes, some of the names of the monsters in the game are indeed based on Slavic, and more specifically Polish folklore. But the rest is almost entirely made up. The Witcher novels on which the game is based are pretty standard Fantasy with some “domestic” themes and folklore thrown in… The books are standard Fantasy pulp, with very standard Fantasy elves and dwarfs imported directly from Tolkien.”

Incidentally, we wouldn’t have “Tolkien Elves” if the good professor had not been liberal with his interpretation of the Norse myths that influenced the setting of Middle Earth--they’d look more like Santa’s Elves--but that’s another story altogether.

So the question then becomes: if influence is so flexible, so very buffet-like, why are some infidelities perfectly acceptable while others are verboten? The question arises all the time with the much-vaunted “it’s based on Medieval Europe!” defence; we can be awash in dragons, goblins, wizards, and phantoms, but heaven forefend we dispense with the presumptive patriarchy and racism that must seemingly attend anything remotely redolent of Medieval Europe.

The actual sources we depend on as creators are immensely complex, themselves diverse, and the product of myriad cultural conflicts. Consider the beloved example of Japan, one of the few non-white countries to have left a major stamp on the settings of games. It is often used as the catch-all response to criticism of titles like Witcher 3. The aforementioned Gamasutra blog by Dave Bleja opened with a sarcastic rejoinder to that effect:

“I watched an Akira Kurosawa film the other day. It was good, but it was too Japanese.

No, not really.”

The silliness of such presumptions lies, of course, in the idea that Japan is a monoculture and that the distilled essence of what it means to be Japanese can be captured in a single Kurosawa film in a way immune to question, or that a film produced in a non-white culture about itself (athwart the influence of America’s Hollywood) is comparable to a white-produced game that expresses a hegemonic, status quo view of race to a diverse audience from a position of some security.

But to go beyond even this: do all Japanese people look like those seen in a Kurosawa film? Well, no. Consider this 2013 documentary, Hafu, about the growing population of mixed-race Japanese, many of whom express a variety of racial characteristics. It’s not wholly unreasonable to ask why we can’t have more games about them, or when we’ll see a game about the Ainu, for instance, or for ludic explorations of the difficulties inherent being a Chinese or Korean immigrant in Japan.

Regarding gender, one might wish to read the excellent criticisms of women like Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow and Atsuko Kameda of the Japanese media’s portrayal of women, or view a perspective on the complicated history of Japanese women expressed in films like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Waga Koi wa Moenu (“My Love Has Been Burning”), about sexism at the start of the Meiji era. Or they could consider the very modern literature of Natsuo Kirino which explores everything from the struggles of working class Japanese women to providing feminist reimaginings of Japanese mythology. All are Japanese and all are possible influences for games.

Yes, Virgina, there are ways to critique the lack of diversity in Japanese games too.

***

It’s worth concluding with reminders of how to do things better. For instance, The Lord of the Rings Online, although a profoundly faithful recreation of Tolkien’s expansive world, nevertheless dispenses with the implicit sexism of his world. One can play as a strong woman, and they exist in abundance. In many other ways, the influence of the source material is robust and beautifully rendered; the developers decided, correctly, that gender imbalances were not needed to accomplish that effect.

Or an even more apropos example: Harebrained Schemes’ staggeringly fun Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall is set in a cyberpunk Berlin a few decades into the future. The influence of German culture is abundantly clear, from dialogue, to graffiti, to Wagner references, even down to the look of the phonebooths. But they also had the savvy to realize that German culture is not entirely white.

There were Turkish-Germans present in the game as well-- and this is wholly in keeping with the spirit of Teutonic influence; they are Germany’s largest minority group, after all, and an inextricable part of modern Germany, even if some racists would prefer that were not so. 

The sources of our influence are not Platonically pure things beyond the reach of messy, modern political concerns, which I fear some people treat them as. They are laden with diversity, conflict, and fractal blooms of competing meanings that should serve as fuel for inspiration, not a hard brake on it.

We also need to stop arguing that the artistic integrity of every single game renders it immune to this kind of criticism. Under such a critical regime, every game is an exception, which can only ever lead to grim trends like this.

Being influenced by something should not mean being shackled to it; that’s the opposite of creativity. Influences are merely that: ways to flavour your creation, expressions of what you have learned over the course of your life, the threads that comprise your unique creative fingerprint. But they are not a prison, and they most definitely do not demand prejudice.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.



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