So, this thread
about cultural appropriation in IGC games went its own way, and I'm being a bit unsatisfied by the lack of substance, because I think that the basic idea is interesting. Specifically, I've been only peripherally aware that "cultural appropriation" is a thing
with a name that people use routinely, and that there are moral viewpoints involved with it. Live and learn, and here's a chance for me to learn more. Specifically, if I'm doing something where I should morally speaking be doing better, I'm interested in knowing the arguments and judging for myself. (Or having somebody else be the judge, whatever - as long as I'm convinced as well, otherwise it's not going to do much good to me practically.)
I'll tell you how I understand this thing, to begin with. First, the definition: cultural appropriation is where you "take" something that "belongs" to some culture you are not part of. So making a computer game about cowboys and indians is cultural appropriation, because you're using the IP (not literally in the legal sense, but it's the same idea - cultures should own their heritage) of native American tribes to make money. Building a sauna is appropriating Finnish culture. That sort of thing. I understand that it's especially considered evil (I'm in total philosophical mode here, so saying things as I understand them) when your appropriation is shallow and you're taking from people in a weak position, who are not in a position to exploit their own culture themselves.
Also, I figured that this has to have a Wikipedia article
on it. I see that it has a more nuanced view on the matter. There are even arguments there about how cultures can learn from each other, and how appropriation of influences enrichens us all. The alternate viewpoint that occurs to me while considering this idea is that creative work is largely appropriating cultures. How could that be bad? Can you appropriate your own culture? What is the difference? How about, can you utilize your own culture's understanding of a different culture, or is that just more appropriation?
If you're into this thing, let's discuss cultural appropriation in roleplaying, both play and game texts. To start off, I'd like to present exhibit A, an excerpt of text from a D&D adventure I wrote last year; it's being published in the Fight On! magazine soon. The text describes GMing instructions for how to treat an imperial Chinese city a bit before the Opium War in the context of a one-shottish D&D adventure.
Posted By: Foo Dogs of the Heavenly Jade TempleThe referee may provide a map for the city, but for the purposes of the convention environment outlined above the city is more of a distraction than an opportunity: the referee happily describes Amoy and its adventures, allows the players to get lost in its exotic mysteries, and closes the session with utter failure for the HEIC mission.
The PCs may opt to wander the city and verify for themselves that it's a modern yet exotic locale of a culture with a rather different history than their own. My take as referee would be to keep orientalist glasses on all the way through: emphasize the inscrutability of the citizens and cast a wide mix of suspicions and fears at any European PCs, who will see fearsome arts and mind-boggling ignorance mixed up, inviting totalizing interpretations that cast the Chinese civilization as a whole in the role of mysterious super-people or reprehensible degenerates, or both at once. The cultural context of the PCs makes this place look like Menzoberranzan to any without experience of Chinese locales.
The reactions of the locals to any "foreign devils" will be magnified, they will point and gape as PCs travel the streets. Many are hostile or fearful, as the imperial creed has demonized foreigners for a long time; others will be curious and seek out the foreigners for their supposed amazing powers or superior knowledges (or entertainment value, as the case might be). The party may make purchases of most types of equipment in the city with the preferred amount of folderol regarding currency exchanges and haggling and widely variant prices offered to the exotic customers.
So, that's appropriation, I think. Furthermore, I'm not just appropriating Chinese culture, but rather I'm appropriating the culture of 18th century European orientalists (who were in turn appropriating from the Chinese) and using it as a instructional backbone in advising a GM on how to treat an exotic locale at their table. Good stuff? Bad stuff? Racist stuff? For myself I was very satisfied at my take here - I got the idea for the adventure first, and then had to think for a couple of minutes about how to transmit a functional picture of the city of Amoy in a very tight space. Then I realized that actually, the most true to life and flavourful way of doing this would be to go to town with the way this era is traditionally depicted in European sources, as that would then contrast beautifully with the types of exotism you usually see in D&D.
Considering my piece and my reaction to it, should I be ashamed, or in general, is there something that I'm obviously not considering here morally. Am I using my arts for vile purposes without even realizing it myself?
If you have any thoughts on cultural appropriation, or your own examples to consider, or comments on my specific example, feel free to discuss! Also, please: if you feel that you need to disengage from the discussion and say something meta about how even having to discuss this is a travesty or things like that, do it in that other thread where we're currently hashing out whether it's cool to act like a political commissar of the red army on a discussion forum.