Taking this cultural appropriation thing on the road

edited May 2012 in Play Advice
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.
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Comments

  • Here's the thing on "exotic".

    If you are describing a culture as exotic, that is already assuming that no-one FROM that culture is going to play that game. To a Chinese person, China isn't exotic, is it? It's just... where they live. The Chinese don;t wonder around going "hey look, chopsticks! Buddhism! Kung fu! How EXOTIC!"

    Is it racist to write a text assuming only white people will read it?
  • edited May 2012
    I dunno...Sengoku spends an inordinate amount of verbiage explaining Japanese culture, presumably on the assumption that primarily non-Japanese people will play it. I don't see that as racist in any way.
  • Posted By: MeserachIs it racist to write a text assuming only white people will read it?
    The question is good, I'll answer it in a second. First I'll just note that my text above strictly speaking only assumes that the player characters are European; that's part of the adventure hook, they're working for the English far east trade company as special agents. I did not admittedly think about the player background in any special way, I was just writing game text that'd be intelligible to the OSR crowd while also being good stuff.

    But be that as it may, what is racism? I'm curious, because the way I've learned to use that word, it indicates a type of essentialism (a philosophical model that attributes many disparate superficial features to certain essential root causes) that uses human ethnicity as an explanatory tool. That is, you're being a racist if you explain a phenomenon as being ultimately or essentially caused by race. (I'm not hung up on this, I'm just explaining what the word brings to mind first.)

    Considering from this viewpoint, I would not call it racism if a game text assumes that the reader is non-Chinese. It's just a focused target audience.
  • The difference is that Sengoku was the result of actual research into real Japanese culture, rather than snapshots of stuff taken from anime and 70s Hong Kong kung fu movies. If it respects the culture it is representing, and allows other people not of that culture to be accurately educated with regards to the culture, wherein lies the problem?
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenPosted By: MeserachIs it racist to write a text assuming only white people will read it?
    The question is good,

    No, it isn't a good question. It was a rhetorical question. The answer is yes, yes it is racist, to write a text for a general audience and to assume none of the members of that audience will be non-white. It's depressingly COMMON, but it is, in fact, racism in action.
  • edited May 2012
    I think there's a dimension that you're missing in your analysis, which is power difference. Cultural appropriation, when it's problematic, is usually about someone from a more privileged culture borrowing from a culture that's historically been disenfranchised and is currently less privileged.

    I think This TED talk also brings an interesting dimension to this.

    Your example doesn't seem like cultural appropriation to me so much as orientalism, and presented with an ironic distance that makes it very complex to analyse. Seems to me like that text could be read either as a mild critique of that kind of orientalism, or an invitation to enjoy such stereotypes (my reading is more the former, but I can see how an individual instance of play of this could be really tasteless).

    (Crossposted with everyone)
  • edited May 2012
    I think appropriation is most often used in situations where taking someone's culture out of context cheapens or disrespects it. Like using ritual/sacred clothing for a Halloween costume, that sort of thing. It's part of a colonial tradition that puts western convenience and entertainment above even the most deeply important parts of someone's life. I don't think your text is appropriation in that way.

    There's a separate concern that your text might be contributing to Orientalism, or "othering" of non-Western cultures, but you seem pretty self-aware about that. I would have liked just a bit more about how the PCs are wrong in their totalizing interpretations (and ways those false ideas might be interesting in play), but off-hand and without context it doesn't strike me as overly problematic.

    EDIT: Obviously I'm no expert here, and as a white guy I can only go so far in knowing what is going to be problematic to other people. Just giving my perspective as someone who tries to pay attention to this sort of thing.

    EDIT 2: Cross-posted with Liam. Listen to him rather than me.
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenConsidering 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?
    It's not really about whether you should be ashamed. What I would say is that I would feel uncomfortable playing that module; that it clearly assumes that I'm playing a European and forces me into that mold when that's not what I generally picture myself as when I'm playing D&D; that I would be embarrassed and insulted by any exaggerated "Chinese" business such as the paragraph suggests; and that reading or hearing the words "orientalist" or "inscrutability" would make me feel extremely awkward and insulted, tying in as they do into the worst stereotypes of Asian culture, things which are both offensively simplistic and which I have to deal with all the time. If I were younger I think this module would make me feel even more that denying my Asian heritage and identifying as much as possible as white is the only way for me to be comfortable even in the games I play, a feeling I struggled with for years. If I were newer to roleplaying I think I'd feel pretty excluded, since this module doesn't give me the chance to play a character like myself, and the characters that appear that ARE like me are stereotyped and described as strange and baffling. If this were the first game I played I doubt I'd want to come back.

    That's basically my reaction to it, and that's what I would call appropriation, and why I think it's a problem.
  • Posted By: UserCloneThe difference is thatSengokuwas the result of actual research into real Japanese culture, rather than snapshots of stuff taken from anime and 70s Hong Kong kung fu movies. If it respects the culture it is representing, and allows other people not of that culture to be accurately educated with regards to the culture, wherein lies the problem?
    So is Mekton racist? Or Robin Laws' Feng-Shui? Eric Wujcik's Ninjas and Superspies?
  • I can't really comment on any of those, because I haven't read or played any of them.
  • Interesting points, all. I'm grateful for the viewpoints. (I'm not counter-essaying in length because I don't really have a horse in this race - just trying to find out how people think and what this thing is about.) I'll ask a few clarifying questions:

    Thomas: you trapped me ;) OK, so what is racism, if that text is racist? I mean, what does the word mean? I don't follow your train of thought, perhaps because I don't understand what you mean by the word.

    Liam: very powerful viewpoint there, I can see how you might treat this like that. What do you think, is yours a common ethnic perspective, and is that how you approach roleplaying games generally? What I'm getting at is, do you think that it's problematic to ever do an exclusively European D&D adventure, or is it just that you yourself don't like that kind of thing? I mean, it seems like sort of a shame to be unable to do scenarios about e.g. the Opium Wars from the viewpoint of the Europeans because that is exclusive towards people who are not European. I say this as a person interested in European history and identity, obviously. Going the other way is perhaps not as difficult, as I imagine that many people of dominant ethnicities don't have similar hang-ups: I myself, for example, don't think much about playing a character who is of a different race than myself, and I can totally understand why - I've never had to care about my race in the real world, so it's not like I'm going to see it as a huge step to play e.g. an oriental ethnicity in TSoY.

    For a bit more context on that same adventure, here's how the text treats playing non-westerners:
    Posted By: Foo Dogs of the Heavenly Jade TempleConvention and Tournament Play
    This adventure, hook and all, was originally written as a convention one-shot. Some considerations, should you wish to do the same:
    • Prepare to run character generation in under ten minutes, it's possible if you drop equipment purchase - use prepared equipment packs instead. All characters are first level, unless a player brings his own, in which case inspect the character and revise as needed. The referee may also wish to ask the players about their prior experience with old school D&D; the group may choose to unanimously allow players with considerable prior experience to generate characters at level 1d6, but only if they can do it without slowing the game down. In any case only allow one character at level >3.
    • Native characters are allowed, and will have an advantage in cultural terms among the Chinese. However, a racist by-law is in force in the HEIC: if at least half of the PCs are of a single culture (usually western), then the members of all minorities will only be entitled to half shares of xp and treasure. The only exception are minority characters for whom successful Charisma checks are made to establish genuine friendship with the majority; each character may attempt this once per session for themselves or somebody else. (The party may override the HEIC by-law and institute their own after a single successful venture, although that's likely not pertinent in convention context.)
    • Demi-Human characters are allowed grudgingly, but the racist by-law applies to them as well. Additionally, Chinese will find demi-humans just as exotic as Europeans do; only play one if you enjoy being the focus of fascination with the exotic and fear of the unknown.
    • Local knowledge: For each European character the player is free to choose how many years the character has spent in the Orient. For each full three years make a Constitution check and an Intelligence check: failing the former indicates that the character has lost 1d3-1 in Wisdom and Constitution to the ravages of the oriental lifestyle; succeeding in the latter allows the character to possess a working knowledge of one language or similar topic of local knowledge; tripling up on a single language indicates near-native proficiency. Cantonese is a good idea, that being the local dialect.
    • Replacement characters may be further crew of Ceylon, paid mercenaries from the city (50 sp or whatever the players agree upon) or monks from Lo-Chiang-Ze, all at 1st level. No replacements during the last hour of play.
    • Time-limit is that the Indiaman Ceylon will leave harbor 30 minutes before the convention play slot ends, and abandon the party for good (ending the scenario) when time runs out entirely. The players should be made aware of both of these time limits at the same time, whenever they think to ask (although captain Warley won't know his exact departure date before the Chinese warn him). Also, consider using a timer on the table to emphasize the play schedule: the adventure is very much intended to test the organizational ability of the players to actually get shit done under a reasonable time-frame.
    (Reading that, I should note that I use the term "racist" in a very inexact manner there, in an attempt to be encompassing of the reasons behind the rule. And yes, that's still totally orientalist genre trappings, even if it does allow you to play Chinese characters.)
  • ...

    I'm sorry, what's the HEIC?
  • This part is you, Eero, being racist:
    Posted By: Eero Tuovinen• Native characters are allowed, and will have an advantage in cultural terms among the Chinese. However, a racist by-law is in force in the HEIC: if at least half of the PCs are of a single culture (usually western), then the members of all minorities will only be entitled to half shares of xp and treasure. The only exception are minority characters for whom successful Charisma checks are made to establish genuine friendship with the majority; each character may attempt this once per session for themselves or somebody else. (The party may override the HEIC by-law and institute their own after a single successful venture, although that's likely not pertinent in convention context.)
    Racist NPCs and a racist setting is one thing, but telling the DM, the actual person, to discriminate against Chinese characters is pretty fucked up, dude.
  • Posted By: MeserachI'm sorry, what's the HEIC?
    Ah, it's the Honorable East India Company. The British(-Netherlandish) trade company that controlled European trade in the east Asian waters at the time. They were a major player behind the opium-silver-Chinese goods triangle that led to the Opium Wars. There's a pretty clear explanation of the background in the adventure, I'm just not quoting it here as it's pretty long.

    In fact, no reason not to link to it. Here's a link for those who want to read the whole thing. It'll be in the next Fight On! too, I understand.
  • Well, I wrote that bit about the racist difficulties in the spirit of the old school D&D method: don't shy from the difficulties and challenges, and treat them equitably and logically within the setting. So I didn't think that it was I being a racist, I'm just reflecting on a racist organization in a racist environment. That entire adventure set-up is full of volatile cultural issues that can blow up on the party's face if they don't know how to deal with it. (The core of the adventure would, interestingly, work even with a fully Chinese cast of characters. It is no doubt very illuminating that I didn't think to provide that type of background here instead.)

    But maybe I am a racist, then? Who knew.
  • I don't know if this will be helpful, but I'd like to offer a point of contention with your definition. You define cultural appropriation thus:
    cultural appropriation is where you "take" something that "belongs" to some culture you are not part of
    I submit that this definition can be improved upon in two ways, that will help focus the discussion better on the problematic aspects.

    First, when someone raises a complaint of "cultural appropriation", it's not really that they're claiming that their culture belongs to them. I think it's more like, these are cultural practices that someone identifies with, that they are important for their own understanding of who they are and how they live. In other words, it's not "This belongs to me", but rather "This means something important to me".

    Second, the problem with appropriation is not that someone else is "taking" those practices. It's not Western cultural appropriation when Indians wear business suits, or when Arabs go to a Finnish sauna. The problem is when someone emulates a practice without understanding it, or represents it in a distorted way. The appropriator uses a symbol or practice as a superficial way to denote a culture or a way of life, but by taking the thing out of context, without much concern for whether they understand the practice or are doing it correctly.

    The more precarious a culture's position relative to the culture of the appropriator, the more damaging appropriation can be. It can be damaging even when it's well intentioned, because it can still have the effect of belittling others and trivializing their identity and their way of life. That's why the "I'm not racist" defense isn't particularly credible. Cultural appropriation is lazy racism; it's not that the appropriator has negative feelings they ought not to have, but that they don't have the bona fides they ought to have. It's a kind of moral negligence.

    I dunno if this helps, but a European example might be, when someone wears a head scarf and hoop earrings to signify the romantic stereotype of Gypsy life. Because Gyspsies are cooooooool. Except, the actual lives of actual Romani people can be pretty hard scrabble and dangerous. To this day they're the targets of forcible assimilation tantamount to genocide in some "enlightened" Western countries. But they also have their own art and other cultural enterprises that speak to that history and to their contemporary condition. What it means for a non-Romani to play at being a Gypsy has little connection to what it means to a Romani to be a Romani, to be part of a history of Romani in Europe. And that's something people who dress up as Gypsies when they go to costume parties generally don't give the first crap about.
  • This part struck me as more problematic:
    • Local knowledge: For each European character the player is free to choose how many years the character has spent in the Orient. For each full three years make a Constitution check and an Intelligence check: failing the former indicates that the character has lost 1d3-1 in Wisdom and Constitution to the ravages of the oriental lifestyle; succeeding in the latter allows the character to possess a working knowledge of one language or similar topic of local knowledge; tripling up on a single language indicates near-native proficiency. Cantonese is a good idea, that being the local dialect.
    Because it implies that there's an "oriental lifestyle" that is objectively harmful, by the judgement of the system. As opposed to the other rules which are implications of a racist organisation within the setting.

    But!

    a) This isn't about cultural appropriation.

    b) It's not usually useful to try to objectively define a text as "racist" or "not racist". Eero, I think the obligation for you is to look at how this text is read by its audience (us), and decide if that's what you want to communicate. For this purpose, Liam's contribution has been by far the most useful contribution to this thread, I think.
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenPosted By: MeserachI'm sorry, what's the HEIC?
    Ah, it's the Honorable East India Company. The British(-Netherlandish) trade company that controlled European trade in the east Asian waters at the time. They were a major player behind the opium-silver-Chinese goods triangle that led to the Opium Wars. There's a pretty clear explanation of the background in the adventure, I'm just not quoting it here as it's pretty long..

    Okay, so its an institution within the fiction of the game, in this context.

    My question is then: why in the NINE HELLS does this IN FICTION organisation have any say over the OUT OF FICTION currency of XP? How is that possibly justified? If the idea is that the organisation is racist in the fiction, that's... well, it's fine in and of itself, but how can that possibly affect an out of fiction abstraction like experience points?
  • Also, I think the question of whether it's "racist" or not is kinda missing the point. You're drawing on 19th century European perspectives of China, which are racist. So, not much question there. Rather, think about whether it's offensive or not. Portraying disrespectful behaviour is not offensive, being disrespectful is. Playing in a setting that is racist is different than acting racist yourself, outside of the fiction. And even playing racist characters is different than being racist yourself -- I mean, this is old school D&D, a magnification of early British archaeology and its sort-of enemy blatant tomb robbing, and it pretty much requires some sort of appropriation in order to make unexplored locations unfamiliar.
    Posted By: Eero TuovinenWell, I wrote that bit about the racist difficulties in the spirit of the old school D&D method: don't shy from the difficulties and challenges, and treat them equitably and logically within the setting.
    Sure, I get that, I'm not calling you out for including racism in the setting. But xp is not part of the fiction, it is a game element that exists for the players. Genre trappings are things that happen in the game, not stuff you're supposed to do in "real life." Granted, if the way xp is divided up is based on treasure, then the in-fiction racist requirements of the PCs' employers will affect the xp of the characters accordingly, but not everybody divides up xp that way (I don't, for example -- I divvy out xp equally, regardless of who gets what treasure), and telling the DM to divvy it out based on whether the players' characters are white or Chinese is asking the person to act in a racist manner towards fictional representations of actual people. Not quite as bad as divvying up xp based on what race the players themselves are, but getting pretty close.
  • edited May 2012
    Eero,

    I think regardless of whether or not differentiated XP and treasure is racist, what it definitely does is provides negative incentives against forming a diverse party. And a diverse party (where, perhaps, one of the PCs is acting as a guide or cultural attache or just a team member with more local contacts) has a lot of potential interesting room for fruitful play.

    It seems a shame to disincentivize things that have fruitful possibilities, yes?

    And I don't know about you, but the D&D players I know all avoid obvious disincentives like that like the plague.
  • And Eero, I want to say thank you for bravely offering your adventure up for dissection and discussion.
  • Posted By: Eero Tuovinen• Local knowledge: For each European character the player is free to choose how many years the character has spent in the Orient. For each full three years make a Constitution check and an Intelligence check: failing the former indicates that the character has lost 1d3-1 in Wisdom and Constitution to the ravages of the oriental lifestyle; succeeding in the latter allows the character to possess a working knowledge of one language or similar topic of local knowledge; tripling up on a single language indicates near-native proficiency. Cantonese is a good idea, that being the local dialect.
    I think I might disagree with Simon on this one. This tells me a LOT more about the European characters who are in "the Orient" than it does about the Orient itself.
  • Johnstone,

    Fair enough. That's certainly a possible interpretation, and one I'd be inclined to depending on the context. The whole text kind of treads that line, where it's presenting this ironic view of Orientalist tropes, but at the same time, if we're so critical of these ideas, why are we playing a game where we indulge in them so much? What's all the orientalism in the text for?

    I can totally see there being a payoff in the strategic context of the D&D scenario, for example if success in the adventure depends on successfully discriminating between actual threats and perceived threats, which are confused because of the orientalist environment. Without that context though, all the yellowface stuff seems kind of baffling.
  • Posted By: RobMcDiarmidAnd Eero, I want to say thank you for bravely offering your adventure up for dissection and discussion.
    It's cool - I'm not distressed or anything, even, so everybody feel free to say what comes to mind. I knew that this adventure would be topical here.

    I'll discuss the D&D nuances a bit here. I don't think that they're the main topic of the thread, and I don't want you to get the impression that I need to defend myself and prove myself right. I'll just tell you how I myself thought about these things:
    • Experience points are not only an out of game concern, and it depends hugely on the local methodology how they're treated, exactly. I think that it's evident in the context that I'm offering optional, compact guidance about how to set up this scenario in a one-shot context. The OSR gamemaster would presumably know to ignore any advice that goes against their established method. So that entire part is more of a "look how quirky games I run" rather than rules. Insofar as my own game matters, at my own table the part about half treasure is an in-fiction thing (that is, the characters themselves agree to half shares), while the xp part is basically genre stylization (and of course the fact that you get xp for treasure, so half treasure is half xp); it's just like if I said that you don't get xp for killing these baby monsters, for example.
    • Frankly, a party should be able to get by on the "he's a good chink" clause I put in that racist by-law. It is, of course, still a racist setting phenomenon that you need a qualification letter from the majority to not get kicked, but that's life in the HEIC. I would totally expect players to take as many Chinese characters as they need; the advantages are obvious in an adventure that happens in China, and if nobody at all can succeed in one of the dozen Charisma checks implied, then that's just massive bad luck.
    • Kicking player characters is basically what old school D&D scenarios do. I have no pity for characters (not players, note - it's not nice if anybody gets sad) who are in difficult situations, because the entire game is in a certain way sadistic: you push the characters hard, and you see what they can do. Dealing with racism among your supposed comrades is just a part of that, the players are supposed to laugh at how horrible their characters are towards each other in this cruel setting.
    • Johnstone gets it about the "local knowledge" clause: that rule does not depict oriental lifestyle of the natives, it depicts what the Europeans are like who go to the Orient. It depicts the orientalist genre, one might say; the orient is somehow dark and weird and horrid upon your constitution, and you come back a changed man, possibly mad or taken by nightmares. Of course the cause is not Asia itself. Succintly, I can only plead that I put the "oriental lifestyle" there ironically, following the viewpoint of the gentlemen who went there and found that they could live like animals away from home. "Good heavens, Jim, the oriental lifestyle must have taken quite a toll on your constitution over the last year!" (Sure, it wasn't his new drug-dealer's opium habit that did him in, not at all, it was "the orient".)
    Posted By: Simon CI can totally see there being a payoff in the strategic context of the D&D scenario, for example if success in the adventure depends on successfully discriminating between actual threats and perceived threats, which are confused because of the orientalist environment. Without that context though, all the yellowface stuff seems kind of baffling.
    The reason is basically two-folded: on the one hand is the challenge of entering an incomprehensible, exotic culture, just as you say. On the other hand this is a stylistic issue: I wrote this adventure in the Lamentations of the Flame Princess context, which is the context of Euro-centric colonial fantasy adventure. It's the genre of Solomon Kane and such, and it's totally about supposedly protagonistic Europeans going and bringing light to the dark corners of the world. It's not a realistic setting, but rather stylized and romantized and today also constantly deconstructed, a way for us Europeans to explore a period of our history. I personally think that the entire LotFP setting is racist as hell - or rather, exactly as racist as the world was in the 18th century. This doesn't mean that player characters have to be - or the players for that matter! When we play this kind of stuff the players tend to either act ironically according to the cultural context of their characters, or they'll be exceptionally enlightened and liberal for their time-frame. I don't think that the thematic content of the game as we play it is inhuman or unsympathetic; if it's something thematically, then it's sad and ironic about the supposed "heroism" of the player characters.

    But that's just our game table, and of course everybody thinks that their play is great. The game text interests me more, especially in terms of procedures and guidelines: what is allowable to be written, and what is not in good taste, or even: what is evil and wrong against our fellow men who might play roleplaying games without being white-skinned? Or wrong against ourselves, as the case might be, by stunting our own growth as human beings.
  • edited May 2012
    Eero, to start at the beginning with the passage you initially quoted, I can honestly tell you right now that I would walk away from that game. I've had the experience of being a foreigner in an Asian country I didn't understand, and I wouldn't want to play in a game that tried to mimick that unless it was carefully structured by someone who had the same sorts of experiences---someone who really knew how uncomfortable and problematic that is---and your guidance seems to be basically telling the GM to wing it based on partial understandings and stereotypes. That's not really a safe environment or structure for dealing with these kinds of issues, at least not in my mind. If I played in that game, what would I do if one of my fellow players starting saying truly abominable, racist things about Chinese people, just to be "in-character"? That makes me sick just thinking about it, honestly, whether there are Asian players at the table or not (both options are equally terrifying, for different reasons).

    I don't think the overall concept or intentions are awful. I tried to write a game about orientalism for Game Chef this year, in fact, that tries to capture the experience of being a foreigner in a strange Asian metropolis. But, in doing so, I tried to construct a safe(r) situation in which players aren't given free reign to express whatever ugliness or ignorance they have about China and "exotic" locations, but operate in a much more restricted and structured fashion. Basically, my game seeks to educate them about certain things and only give them leeway to take actions that are appropriate to the game and unlikely to be socially damaging or discomforting to their fellow players. I realize that's partially a design decision, but I think---especially when dealing with problematic topics---that doing so in a responsible way is important.

    Overall, labelling things as "racist" or "not racist" or "a little bit racist" only gets us so far, especially if that becomes a reason to stop talking. Erick Wujcik seemed like a great person and an innovative game designer (I think I only met him once, in passing), but Ninjas & Superspies seems pretty problematic to me, though I have more experience with its supplement, Mystic China. Both of those books may been way ahead of their time in terms of engaging Asian cultures in a more serious way, but they still fall way short of what I hope we would aspire to in terms of treating real-world cultures with compassion and respect. And we could have a productive discussion about that, strive to do better, and maybe even discover ways to approach those games that make them less likely to promote stereotypes and harmful depictions of other people. So I hope that noting that something seems pretty racist or problematic doesn't stop the conversation, but is an invitation to begin one.
  • That is a distressing viewpoint, Jonathan, as it sort of casts a strong question at my home game: I would not like to think that it's so awful that Jonathan wouldn't want to play with us.

    This is actually something I want to be a tiny bit defensive about: my defense is that D&D as we play it is a focused challenge-oriented game. It has a powerful ironic layer. The real-world stuff is not intended seriously, it's more of an inspirational baseline and cultural context for what happens. I mean, the game has plenty of extremely complex concerns, but they're mostly not cultural. I wrote that adventure without saying explicitly that it's set in a fantasy-China (about as China as the fantasy-Europe on D&D is Europe), but that's just because it was easier and ultimately more clear for the adapting GM to work this way. I've never had a player express a genuine racist opinion at the game table that I'd have noticed it.

    That being said, I can't get away from the fact that the adventure is basically inspired by Buddhism and some random Chinese lore. It's going to be rude towards anybody who doesn't want to see Buddhist folklore turned into a D&D adventure. I'm very interested by the fact that this might be problematic, as I was mostly delighted at my cleverness and the fresh D&D environment I got by mixing in a bit of Buddhism. I've been thinking of expanding on the fantasy cosmology implied by the adventure, in fact, which is certainly a problem for me if I've turned into a one-man racist pamphlet factory without noticing it myself.
  • edited May 2012
    Aculturation and re-purposing of cultural elements from one culture to another is, I'd argue, natural, healthy, and integral part of cultural ecosystems.
    Linguistically, we do it all the time. That's how cultures take conscience of what they are, by confrontation, and evolve, by transformation - quite often by improper use.
    Japanese people don't feel that tempura is imported Portuguese culture nowadays (hell, they wouldn't even think about stigmatizing the foreignness of the word by using katakana anymore). We use the word pajamas without caring about its Arab origin and original sense.
    That's part of the beauty of the memetic theory; Of course it's mainly a metaphor - but it's perfect to show how defects are integral part of the evolution process.

    If anything, I have a bigger problem with cultural Imperialism - the imposing by one dominant culture of its elements till they saturate the peripheral culture and actively destroy elements of it cultural landscape.

    I'm reminded of that debate there was on the WW forum about the use of the word "Jyhad" and how it was supposedly xenophobic - against which I would personally argue. I actually quite like the word - warty spelling and all. It actually hints at a world that had cultural contacts/exchanges - to the point that the original sense of words could be lost, as often happens. I mean why not begrudge the use of "Danse Macabre" by English speakers, then ?
  • Eero, okay, with all the clarification you have now supplied, I am pretty much 100% definite that the thing you wrote was more than a little racist - and that, perhaps more to the point, would tend to produce problematically racist play with more frequency then it would produce play that was insightful and challenging towards racism.
    Posted By: Eero TuovinenExperience points are not only an out of game concern, and it depends hugely on the local methodology how they're treated, exactly. I think that it's evident in the context that I'm offering optional, compact guidance about how to set up this scenario in a one-shot context. The OSR gamemaster would presumably know to ignore any advice that goes against their established method. So that entire part is more of a "look how quirky games I run" rather than rules. Insofar as my own game matters, at my own table the part about half treasure is an in-fiction thing (that is, the characters themselves agree to half shares), while the xp part is basically genre stylization (and of course the fact that you get xp for treasure, so half treasure is half xp); it's just like if I said that you don't get xp for killing these baby monsters, for example.
    Genre styilization? Really? What? What does XP represent in this game? You're saying its part of the genre that Chinese people learn less form their experiences (while simultaneously being wily and inscrutable and difficult to understand, I note)?
    Johnstone gets it about the "local knowledge" clause: that rule does not depict oriental lifestyle of the natives, it depicts what the Europeans are like who go to the Orient. It depicts the orientalist genre, one might say; the orient is somehow dark and weird and horrid upon your constitution, and you come back a changed man, possibly mad or taken by nightmares. Of course the cause is not Asia itself. Succintly, I can only plead that I put the "oriental lifestyle" there ironically, following the viewpoint of the gentlemen who went there and found that they could live like animals away from home. "Good heavens, Jim, the oriental lifestyle must have taken quite a toll on your constitution over the last year!" (Sure, it wasn't his new drug-dealer's opium habit that did him in, not at all, it was "the orient".)
    Here's the problem with this logic - by presenting this as a rule in the game world, it becoem more akin to a law of physics in the fiction than it does to a prejudice within the fiction. What the rule says is that "in this world, the Asia-substitute REALLY IS like the racists say it is".

    At bottom, here's the deal: I don't personally believe it is ever okay to straightforwardly simulate a genre that features racist content without also problematising the racism inherent within it, somehow. You can't just present it uncritically and pass this off as faithfulness to the source material. That isn't enough.
  • Really good thread, very thought-provoking.

    I did a whole...thing with the character Fu Manchu when I did a Victorian/Edwardian pulp adventure game.

    I worked my ass off on it and I'm not sure how much of that work came across in play, or how much it would have mattered. In a way I felt like I was shoveling a lot of manure out the back of a truck and saying "Okay, how about now, does the truck still smell? It does? Okay, hm, what now. I guess let me shovel some more shit out."

    Maybe I'll go into some detail about how I approached it.
  • Eero, I'll post a more in-depth comment later, but I think it may help you to note that there are an awful lot of things that you and I consume that are kinda racist, sexist, homophobic, or problematic in some other way, right? I mean, if you read books, watch movies, play video games, watch television, or consume any other kind of media, that's hard to avoid. Producing problematic content doesn't by itself make us bad people: it means we live in a society full of racism, sexism, etc. The fact that we enjoy and even regurgitate this stuff in our own creative works shouldn't be a surprise. But we can take responsibility for being aware of this and attempting to limit the potential harm that we cause, yeah? In my mind, that's where the moral responsibility comes in.
  • Posted By: EmeraudeAculturation and re-purposing of cultural elements from one culture to another is, I'd argue, natural, healthy, and integral part of cultural ecosystems.
    Linguistically, we do it all the time. That's how cultures take conscience of what they are, by confrontation, and evolve, by transformation - quite often by improper use.
    Japanese people don't feel that tempura is imported Portuguese culture nowadays (hell, they wouldn't even think about stigmatizing the foreignness of the word by using katakana anymore). We use the word pajamas without caring about its Arab origin and original sense.
    That's part of the beauty of the memetic theory; Of course it's mainly a metaphor - but it's perfect to show how defects are integral part of the evolution process.

    If anything, I have a bigger problem with cultural Imperialism - the imposing by one dominant culture of its elements till they saturate the peripheral culture and actively destroy elements of it cultural landscape.

    I'm reminded of that debate there was on the WW forum about the use of the word "Jyhad" and how it was supposedly xenophobic - against which I would personally argue. I actually quite like the word - warty spelling and all. It actually hints at a world that had cultural contacts/exchanges - to the point that the original sense of words could be lost, as often happens. I mean why not begrudge the use of "Danse Macabre" by English speakers, then ?
    Just curious there, why doesn't your definition of cultural Imperialism include something like ... oh, the taking of something that the experience of a group, or sacred to a group of people and trivialising it for the dominant culture? Because that's what we're talking about here taking a group's experience, that of being at the wrong end of a stereotype and turning it a trivialised product.

    Sharing of cultural things like language, or food stuffs is something different.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyMaybe I'll go into some detail about how I approached it.
    Please do, the notion of a politically correct Fu Manchu is just hilarious. My own instinct would be to run Fu Manchu by the book while being obvious about the ironic distance - I'd show Fu Manchu as seen by the author (Rohmer, was it?) and the times.
    Posted By: MeserachEero, okay, with all the clarification you have now supplied, I am pretty much 100% definite that the thing you wrote was more than a little racist - and that, perhaps more to the point, would tend to produce problematically racist play with more frequency then it would produce play that was insightful and challenging towards racism.
    Could well be.

    Regarding what XP represents in the game, it differs from group to group, but I usually consider it an abstract score-keeping device myself in old school D&D. It's certainly, definitely not a realistic model of how people learn things. You don't get the sort of stuff D&D characters get by just growing more experienced in any kind of real world. Experience points thus are a score-keeping device while experience levels are genre fantasy. One is used to pace the other for complex reasons that are not pertinent here. It's notable that characters get experience points in old school D&D in extremely arbitrary ways: even without going into my own home game, the common practice recognizes ideas like quest experience ("The party gets 5000 xp if they escort the prisoners out alive.") and experience penalties for things like not roleplaying your character class or switching your alignment. My halving the experience points of ethnic minorities working for the HEIC in that scenario is just another clever little bit like this. As a designer I find the bold cut of that suggested treatment interesting: not because of the racist element, but because it treats player characters unevenly and invites the party to deal with that.

    As for how the scenario treats European characters in the orient, it's just a peculiar scenario rules detail. It's not a fundamental rule of the setting or system procedure, it's a trickier thing than that, technically - something that doesn't really appear in later types of games. These old-style D&D scenarios are full of similar rules bits that are given in the spirit of providing a quirky local subgames without any thought as to the greater campaign setting. I would obviously assume that a GM using this adventure in a campaign context wouldn't need to use the HEIC or the framing device that abstracts time spent in the Orient, because he'd have his own ways of dealing with this stuff.

    Regardless, the above's just how those rules seem to me. Text is not the same as creator, so if that text is racist, then it is. Do you have any ideas for how you'd fix something like this, or is the entire topic just wrong-headed? Or does it need fixing - is the text being racist a problem for you, Thomas?
  • Posted By: Eero Tuovinen
    Please do, the notion of a politically correct Fu Manchu is just hilarious. My own instinct would be to run Fu Manchu by the book while being obvious about the ironic distance - I'd show Fu Manchu as seen by the author (Rohmer, was it?) and the times.
    Just something that struck me as I was going through your comments Eero, it might be helpful if you get stuck on a question of what to do about something.

    Ironic racism is still racism.
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenPlease do, the notion of a politically correct Fu Manchu is just hilarious. My own instinct would be to run Fu Manchu by the book while being obvious about the ironic distance - I'd show Fu Manchu as seen by the author (Rohmer, was it?) and the times.
    Well...I wouldn't call my version politically correct. He was still a menace. I didn't change him exactly, other than yanking the overtly racist elements of his physical description. But...well, all right, I'll write somethin' up for ya.
  • edited May 2012
    Posted By: Jonathan

    Just curious there, why doesn't your definition of cultural Imperialism include something like ... oh, the taking of something that the experience of a group, or sacred to a group of people and trivialising it for the dominant culture? Because that's what we're talking about here taking a group's experience, that of being at the wrong end of a stereotype and turning it a trivialised product.

    Sharing of cultural things like language, or food stuffs is something different.
    Because I would argue the harm is not in the taking/modifying, but in the inundating back of the trivialized cultural artifact - to the point of the original's disappearance ?

    To try and expand a bit: cultural elements only exist because and as long as they are exchanged. Degradation is an inescapable byproduct of the exchange process. The problem is never the exchange - not even past a certain degradation threshold. It's the monopolizing of circulation channels.
  • Posted By: J. WaltonEero, I'll post a more in-depth comment later, but I think it may help you to note that there are an awful lot of things that you and I consume that are kinda racist, sexist, homophobic, or problematic in some other way, right? I mean, if you read books, watch movies, play video games, watch television, or consume any other kind of media, that's hard to avoid. Producing problematic content doesn't by itself make us bad people: it means we live in a society full of racism, sexism, etc. The fact that we enjoy and even regurgitate this stuff in our own creative works shouldn't be a surprise. But we can take responsibility for being aware of this and attempting to limit the potential harm that we cause, yeah? In my mind, that's where the moral responsibility comes in.
    I agree on the general shape of this thought, but am uncertain about the details of the application.

    Actually, let me say a bit about how I view the genre of pulp fiction as audience and artist, it's relevant here:

    Pulp fiction and many other genres and styles of culture are relics of our history. I appreciate them and enjoy them on their own terms. I enjoy Greek classics, I enjoy medieval poetry (Torqua Tasso is about 100 times as offensive as I'm at my worst, I should think), I enjoy basically everything that humanity has created. I also think that it's important for us to understand our history. For this reason I don't get offended by say Alexandre Dumas and his royalistic, anti-democratic sensibilities; he's a writer of his times, and he provides me with an intriguing window into what it was like when royalism was still a respectable political ideology.

    When we work with historical material like this, there is necessarily ironic distance because we are not the people these things were made for. We do not need to believe that Chinese are inscrutable or that colonial ventures were necessary in civilizing the world. What we do need to understand, though, are mindsets, philosophies and material conditions that made these ideas able to flourish. Without understanding the people there is no understanding the history. And this is why I think that the answer to the question of ideologically wrong-headed art is not to shut it out.

    My D&D campaign is ideologically atavistic in that it's set in times and conditions where justice is not possible except in a narrow cultural context. I think that this is fundamentally the case for all D&D, it's simply not game about the world as it could be at its best. Few games are, and we understand why as game designers: we make games about imperfect worlds because those are the worlds where it is worthwhile to understand our characters. What would Dogs in the Vineyard look like if Vincent had done his utmost to make the Faith concordant with his highest moral ideas?

    (I think it's interesting how strongly modern D&D design disagrees with me here - the current D&D is totally a game that tries to remove all cultural context and feeling of reality from the problems the player characters face, all so it can maximize the feeling of fantasy heroism. It's a world where nobody is ever ill-treated due to sex or race, and where the answers are always simple and at the tip of the sword.)
  • Posted By: Eero Tuovinen. My halving the experience points of ethnic minorities working for the HEIC in that scenario is just another clever little bit like this. As a designer I find the bold cut of that suggested treatment interesting: not because of the racist element, but because it treats player characters unevenly and invites the party to deal with that.
    How can the characters possibly deal with it? It's an abstraction! The characters ~(as opposed to the players) have no way to actually deal with, or discuss, or in any way engage with their XP totals.

    It seems to me that by far the most likely and prevalent effect of these rules is that people simply won't play Chinese characters,, because the game directly incentivises you not to. A more directly racist game mechanic would be difficult to imagine. I guess you could apply penalties to their Intelligence directly? I'm just shaking my head here, I'm honestly stunned that you could have ever believed this is okay.

    As for how the scenario treats European characters in the orient, it's just a peculiar scenario rules detail. It's not a fundamental rule of the setting or system procedure, it's a trickier thing than that, technically - something that doesn't really appear in later types of games. These old-style D&D scenarios are full of similar rules bits that are given in the spirit of providing a quirky local subgames without any thought as to the greater campaign setting. I would obviously assume that a GM using this adventure in a campaign context wouldn't need to use the HEIC or the framing device that abstracts time spent in the Orient, because he'd have his own ways of dealing with this stuff.
    But would those own campaign methods be any less racist? You're not grasping the core issue, which is that IN ACTUAL FACT, spending time in "the Orient" lining an "Oriental lifestyle" is not meaningfully inherently deleterious to one's health, and it is a racist narrative to present a world in which that is the case. If what's actually meant to be destroying people's health is that they acquire an opium habit, why doesn't the rule talk about THAT? Like: "if you character develops an opium habit, make a Constitution roll, on a failure they lose 1-3 Constitution"?

    Regardless, the above's just how those rules seem to me. Text is not the same as creator, so if that text is racist, then it is. Do you have any ideas for how you'd fix something like this, or is the entire topic just wrong-headed? Or does it need fixing - is the text being racist a problem for you, Thomas?
    Well, I obviously wouldn't even start writing a text about an exoticized Orient.

    But if I did want to engage with these tropes critically, here's what I'd try to achieve: a well-researched and respectful treatment of actual Asian culture in the time period in question, and then allow racist PCs to be immersed in that society, and push the game towards mismatches between their expectation and the reality. I'd aim for a VERY clear separation between racism by characters and setting elements within the fiction, and the game system which itself should not take account of the race of the characters.
  • Posted By: JonathanIronic racism is still racism.
    Well, maybe. Somebody really needs to analyze this term for me, I'm genuinely unable to evaluate the truth values of these claims otherwise ;)

    I would myself have said that ironic racism is only the image of racism. It's illustrational of what the real thing looks like. Me doing ironic Fu Manchu is me saying, "Guys, this is what the author-guy wants us to see and imagine as the yellow threat." It's instructional of what the literary world has once been like. It's not me seriously being a racist any more than me reading Mein Kampf with a funny voice is racism.
  • Posted By: Emeraude
    Because I would argue the harm is not in the taking/modifying, but in the inundating back of the trivialized cultural artifact - to the point of the original's disappearance ?

    That's kind of a chicken/egg argument there. Both are harmful because one is taking something that is a part of the experience of a group and the other is the displaying that you've taken it from a group. I'll use an example that I've a lot more experience with. You have a sacred garb that belongs to a group of people, you popularize it and put it on display for other of a dominate culture to consume. You've trivialized the object in both the taking and repackaging.

    But even then my argument isn't completely valid, because it's taken in isolation. It's like leaving someone on the ground bleeding while you discuss how that one punch you landed wasn't so bad. Why are you so beaten up over it?
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenPosted By: JonathanIronic racism is still racism.
    Well, maybe. Somebody really needs to analyze this term for me, I'm genuinely unable to evaluate the truth values of these claims otherwise ;)

    I would myself have said that ironic racism is only the image of racism. It's illustrational of what the real thing looks like. Me doing ironic Fu Manchu is me saying, "Guys, this is what the author-guy wants us to see and imagine as the yellow threat." It's instructional of what the literary world has once been like. It's not me seriously being a racist any more than me reading Mein Kampf with a funny voice is racism.

    Again, individual examples are kind of like explaining a need to a haystack but here I go.

    Mein Kampf was meant to be a serious explanation of Hitler's philosophy. It's intent is to be full of gravitas of a dominant race (which if you will look around, in a lot of areas being white is the dominant cultural narrative, or part of the larger post colonial narrative). Reading it in a silly voice is an attempt to subvert that, a poorly thought out and cheap attempt to subvert it.

    Ironic racism likes to think that it's attacking stereotypes, but what it does is reinforce them. It takes that image and reproduces it, and holds it up and while you may think that it's ironic when you take a moment to critically look around you'll see that a vast sea of people are also holding up that exact same image as to what that stereotype represents. What we see as ironic, is actually lacking in any critical though hoping that its existence is enough to prove its irony.

    It isn't enough, and that privilege to ignore the fact that it doesn't work only adds fuel to the stereotype.
  • Eero, I think a couple things are being conflated here: (1) games that deal with problematic real-world issues and (2) games that (intentionally or not) promote problematic views of the world or specific groups of people. Dogs is a great example, as is Poison'd. They're both about problematic stuff! And they ask you to dig in and wrestle with it, making decisions about it. Actively engaging problematic material can be productive. The problematic part is often when you present problematic material but don't actually give players the ability to engage it or do anything about it. If a game allows us to wrestle with orientalism, expose it, figure out who's behind it, feel the power it has, even participate in it, etc. then AWESOME. But if it's just color for a game about something else, I'm gonna find it really distracting and maybe too difficult to just ignore. I honestly don't buy the "history was just like that" argument either. History was full of people with agency, who had the power to make their own choices and change things. It was much more diverse and vibrant that people often think.
  • edited May 2012
    Posted By: JonathanPosted By: Emeraude
    Because I would argue the harm is not in the taking/modifying, but in the inundating back of the trivialized cultural artifact - to the point of the original's disappearance ?

    That's kind of a chicken/egg argument there. Both are harmful because one is taking something that is a part of the experience of a group and the other is the displaying that you've taken it from a group. I'll use an example that I've a lot more experience with. You have a sacred garb that belongs to a group of people, you popularize it and put it on display for other of a dominate culture to consume. You've trivialized the object in both the taking and repackaging.

    But even then my argument isn't completely valid, because it's taken in isolation. It's like leaving someone on the ground bleeding while you discuss how that one punch you landed wasn't so bad. Why are you so beaten up over it?

    To your personal experience I'll add mine in a weird hall of mirrors: what happens when a peripheral culture massively adopts sacred items of clothings from a dominant culture, but without the sacred value that went with it ?

    If anything I have no trouble per see with your example too: I do no see the sacred value of the garb diminished by its improper use by non-believers in itself. It's the mass diffusion which *may* be problematic. (though you raise a interesting point: the garb is sacred in no small part because it is not shared. Because it is considered a proprietary cultural artifact, so to say - but culture is shared, it can't and should never be proprietary. At least in my opinion).

    I have more troubles with non-sacred cultural elements. A less glamorous, somewhat humorous case I've met: people in my country asking for their phone call and lawyer when being arrested, when they have right to neither.
  • Posted By: J. WaltonEero, I think a couple things are being conflated here: (1) games that deal with problematic real-world issues and (2) games that (intentionally or not) promote problematic views of the world or specific groups of people. Dogs is a great example, as is Poison'd. They're both about problematic stuff! And they ask you to dig in and wrestle with it, making decisions about it. Actively engaging problematic material can be productive. The problematic part is often when you present problematic material but don't actually give players the ability to engage it or do anything about it. If a game allows us to wrestle with orientalism, expose it, figure out who's behind it, feel the power it has, even participate in it, etc. then AWESOME. But if it's just color for a game about something else, I'm gonna find it really distracting and maybe too difficult to just ignore. I honestly don't buy the "history was just like that" argument either. History was full of people with agency, who had the power to make their own choices and change things. It was much more diverse and vibrant that people often think.
    Fair enough. I myself find that a historical or quasi-historical setting works for me in D&D better than a culturally sterile one because it's more inspiring, and the old school method thrives on a textured fiction that has all sorts of nuances you can spin into bigger things. It's easier to kick up stuff from scratch and answer unexpected player questions, too, when I can draw on my historical knowledge and guesstimate sensible enough facts about whether our fantasy-Brits have like a hundred seafaring vessels or 10 000 of them. Perhaps my not getting bothered by the travesties of ethnic depiction we run into is because I'm quite a bit more racist than I'd have expected.

    (As for what history "was" like, I definitely agree - I write about this several times in the World of Near. That's how I run D&D, too.)
  • edited May 2012
    So I was going to run a Victorian adventure game. Actually I've written about this challenge before. Here's the thread. The key thing to take away from the thread was that I wanted to have a game in which the characters were somehow outsiders from "normal" society's strictures. This was a very common Victorian adventure element: Sherlock Holmes was a weirdo druggie, Professor Challenger was a kook, Phileas Fogg was a lunatic suspected bank robber, Raffles was a thief, and so on. Even among heroes who were not outsiders, they were placed into situations where normal society was torn apart (War of the Worlds), distant (50,000 Leagues Under The Sea) or ineffectual (Les Miserables' Inspector Javert couldn't advance because he was incorruptible), or even quite overtly the problem. (The main villain of Sexton Blake stories was a corrupt Scotland Yard official.)

    This was one way I felt that my fairly light-hearted game group could engage with a time frame and a set of literature that often had racist or misogynistic elements or themes - sometimes pretty central, too. Their characters could defy those structures without erasing them. It was a FATE based game - I required that one of the Aspects of the characters be "why don't/can't you turn your remarkable abilities to the support of the normal organizations or governments of the time". The examples I gave were: "As a Muslim, they will never accept me here" and "'A female mathematician? Bosh, I say!'" The characters that were made included a ridiculed spiritualist/medium, a foreign freethinker, a Bohemian theatrical type, and a female academic who had made powerful enemies in the Church.

    So already before I even got to designing the opposition or other elements of the game and setting I was already setting up lines by which the player characters would be excluded from Victorian "civilization" with all its assumptions and lines and hierarchies.

    I share a birthday with Sax Rohmer, who always claimed (moronically) that he based the character Fu Manchu on real Chinese criminals he knew when he was a newspaper reporter in San Francisco in the last part of the 19th century. Because I shared his birthday, I was interested in his books at a young age and devoured them urgently as a teenager. I remember these books as the first time I understood that books could be racist (as opposed to just characters in books). Yet they were often exciting and action-packed, and one reason that they have persisted when so many other racist anti-Chinese books of the era have faded into obscurity is the compelling nature of the central villain.

    Rohmer is completely in love with this villain, completely fascinated by him. In one novel he has a page-long purple prose description of the guy, elaborate and exact....and in the next novel he uses the same description word for word. He wrote a "letter" to his creation by way of introduction to a collection at some point where he outright states that a world ruled by Fu Manchu would be pretty okay. But the books (begun in Edwardian times but rooted obviously in long-standing prejudices) are very different from many of the Victorian novels I described above.

    In Rohmer's novels, the main "heroes" are Establishment men right to their core, and most importantly, they have almost no agency. They virtually never do anything. Entire novels pass where they take no action whatsoever. Things are done to them, near them, and around them, and they have many daring escapes and moonlight pursuits, but the only person in any of these novels that takes any action to get what they want is Fu Manchu himself (or sometimes his daughter). He is already just a hairs-breadth from being the protagonist of the books by the time I even considered adapting him to my Victorian adventure game.

    I already knew I wanted to create adventures which would explicitly reverse the assumptions of Rohmer's novels and put the establishment hierarchy as irrelevant, blinkered and ineffectual to deal with the threats of the game world, as they are in Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, perhaps a bit moreso. So reversing course on Fu Manchu himself was natural - as I say, he was almost already there.

    More to come.
  • Posted By: J. WaltonI honestly don't buy the "history was just like that" argument either. History was full of people with agency, who had the power to make their own choices and change things. It was much more diverse and vibrant that people often think.
    Hey, I crossposted with this. Agency is a great metric to use to measure these things. Good insight.
  • Posted By: JonathanIronic racism likes to think that it's attacking stereotypes, but what it does is reinforce them. It takes that image and reproduces it, and holds it up and while you may think that it's ironic when you take a moment to critically look around you'll see that a vast sea of people are also holding up that exact same image as to what that stereotype represents. What we see as ironic, is actually lacking in any critical though hoping that its existence is enough to prove its irony.
    I would have said that this depends on the particulars. I mean, yes, my adventure here could be read by somebody as affirmation of their racist ideas about China. I can imagine that person. At the same time, though, I would find it ludicrous that anybody at our own table would consider my depiction of say Fu Manchu as anything but an intertextual reference to an old pulp fiction meme; not one player could mistake my extra-fictional cues and think that I'm doing it unironically. If we had to establish a pedagogical value to what happens when we play D&D, I'd say that it's made our group more aware of the colonial history and mindset. The bulk of our campaign's ethnic material concerns goblins (a sami-like people oppressed by the dominant population), and the group is I think very keen on the D&D presumptions about what you're supposed to do with goblins, and what their characters actually end up doing.

    But, yes - I don't accept that I would so misjudge my friends and protegés that I wouldn't know roughly how they think and feel about ironic racism in our own game. The more general media influence thing I can swallow, though: the printed word, say, is a much less controlled medium than the tabletop game, so perhaps ironic racism can end up merely affirming racist imagery in that context.
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenIt's notable that characters get experience points in old school D&D in extremely arbitrary ways: even without going into my own home game, the common practice recognizes ideas like quest experience ("The party gets 5000 xp if they escort the prisoners out alive.") and experience penalties for things like not roleplaying your character class or switching your alignment. My halving the experience points of ethnic minorities working for the HEIC in that scenario is just another clever little bit like this. As a designer I find the bold cut of that suggested treatment interesting: not because of the racist element, but because it treats player characters unevenly and invites the party to deal with that.
    That doesn't wash. If your intention is to portray a racist setting through game mechanics, then you fucked it up in the text at least, and probably the rules.

    In Moldvay D&D, the party splits xp equally based on all treasure found. NPCs get half normal xp.

    In the games that Blair of Planet Algol runs, characters get xp for the treasure they keep, so if they split it up differently, they get different amounts of xp.

    I believe it's the old Dave Arneson rule that you get xp for gold that you spend.

    XP for doing things is a common house rule, although the OSR seems pretty in love with xp=gold, so I dunno if it's exactly "common practice" but whatever. It's still xp for doing things, not being something.

    All of these systems present different dilemmas for players to negotiate in play. Splitting xp based on what races PCs are doesn't do that.

    Second, yeah sure the DM decides how players get xp. But it's the players who decide how their characters split up the treasure. The company by-law that says minority characters get half-treasure and half-xp is a setting decision, made by NPCs, that you have turned into a rule. You are asking another person (the DM) to behave in a discriminatory manner, out of character. if you want the DM to play racist NPCs, that's one thing, but saying that Chinese people get half as much xp as Europeans, when that is not an in-fiction thing (by your own admission) means you are asking people to be racist outside of the fiction.

    This is not the same thing as using the orientalist lifestyle to depict Europeans in the Orient as fucking scumbags. These are old-school D&D characters, I know what they are like. If I sit down down to play D&D and you tell me I canNOT play a European who has already spent time in China and respects and understands Chinese culture, I am 100% okay with that. That said, I understand Simon's reservations on this point (he knows the genre), and I would take his opinions into account if I were writing this text.

    In fact, if I were designing this setting, I would probably do something like this:
    The HEIC supplies information on treasure sources, and supplies some basic gear. They expect a record of treasure acquired and take a percentage. The rest is split between the principles. The HEIC hires only Europeans, and does not give information, equipment, or sanction to non-Europeans. Whether or not xp is split equally or based on how much treasure each character receives is up to the GM.
    I think that would get you the same kind of character dilemmas without asking people to act in a discriminatory manner outside of the fiction.
  • Posted By: Eero Tuovinen
    Liam: very powerful viewpoint there, I can see how you might treat this like that. What do you think, is yours a common ethnic perspective, and is that how you approach roleplaying games generally? What I'm getting at is, do you think that it's problematic to ever do an exclusively European D&D adventure, or is it just that you yourself don't like that kind of thing? I mean, it seems like sort of a shame to be unable to do scenarios about e.g. the Opium Wars from the viewpoint of the Europeans because that is exclusive towards people who are not European. I say this as a person interested in European history and identity, obviously. Going the other way is perhaps not as difficult, as I imagine that many people of dominant ethnicities don't have similar hang-ups: I myself, for example, don't think much about playing a character who is of a different race than myself, and I can totally understand why - I've never had to care about my race in the real world, so it's not like I'm going to see it as a huge step to play e.g. an oriental ethnicity in TSoY.
    I would second Liam's thoughts that you're referencing here. As a minority roleplayer, I often feel that texts that treat non-Anglo cultures as "normal" are sending me a strong signal that I'm not welcome in the hobby. It's tough to go through a book and realize there is no one that reflects your viewpoint in the work.

    I think it can be great to create a setting that offers players the chance to play a specific culture (I'm a big fan of Werewolf:The Forsaken for precisely that reason), but I also think it's important to engage in some cultural relativism in order to do so. One culture can't be "right" or "normal" if more than one culture is going to interact.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyThis was one way I felt that my fairly light-hearted game group could engage with a time frame and a set of literature that often had racist or misogynistic elements or themes - sometimes pretty central to the piece. Their characters could defy those structures without erasing them.
    Hah, a good point. I do similar things in e.g. Call of Cthulhu, which has this issue in spades. Also D&D, now that I think about it: the players explicitly form their party in the context of a rough and ready mercenary culture that enables their characters to naturally and effortlessly cross boundaries of class, religion, ethnicity and gender. They're outsiders from the society's viewpoint, but that's gonna be the case as long as you don't settle down and play by the rules.
    Posted By: JDCorleyI remember these books as the first time I understood that books could be racist (as opposed to just characters in books). Yet they were often exciting and action-packed, and one reason that they have persisted when so many other racist anti-Chinese books of the era have faded into obscurity is the compelling nature of the central villain.
    Yes. I've had a project of reading through Rohmer for a few years, but I stopped after the first book for some reason. Good of you to remind me, I'll have to see about finding those books again.
    Posted By: JDCorleyI already knew I wanted to create adventures which would explicitly reverse the assumptions of Rohmer's novels and put the establishment hierarchy as irrelevant, blinkered and ineffectual to deal with the threats of the game world, as they are in Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, perhaps a bit moreso. So reversing course on Fu Manchu himself was natural - as I say, he was almost already there.
    Beautiful logic, if I may say so. Fu Manchu as Dr. Moriarty, essentially (which is a good idea, considering how shallow a characterization Moriarty got from Doyle). Do write more if you'd care; I'll read that old thread, too, never noticed it before.
  • Eero,

    I think it's interesting to think about what is so enjoyable about the racist pulp fantasy that your module draws on for inspiration. I wrote a little bit about my own relationship to the racism in Howard's Conan stories here.

    What is fun about exploring this caricatured world? What about the representation of Asian culture in this module makes it enjoyable?
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