I Want to Make a Game About Samurai

edited August 2012 in Make Stuff!
Hey Story Gamers,

One of my guys requested a game loosely based on fantastical Japan (ala Afro Samurai and to some extent Samurai Jack) so I've started working on a game where you can choose to be a samurai, a ninja, a monk, or a sorceror. It's looking pretty cool so far and last night I got excited about the prospect of sharing it on Story Games. Then I remembered all the fuss that went on a few months ago regarding cultural appropriation and as I much I believe that people can be way too sensitive, I do want to avoid a flame-war.

So, I ask for help. How do you make a game about ninja without being offensive? Sounds like a silly question, but I've seen people getting offended over stuff I never thought would be offensive.

Comments

  • You should ask a ninja. Do you have any ninja friends?
  • Some people get offended easily, or even claim to be offended by stuff not even remotely offensive towards them. Many roleplaying games deal with cultural (or even popcultural) images, which are derived from books, movies, stories and not actual history, people etc. If you believe there is something bad about it, you obviously shouldn't do it. Otherwise just make your game the way you want it.
  • Sounds like you're already on the right path, Zachary, by being open to talking about it. Ultimately, only you can decide who and how much you're willing to offend. While it's true that people can make a big deal about anything, when you make games that involve ethnic stereotypes, I feel like you should be prepared to at least say -- if asked -- why you made certain choices. If you do that and are civil about it (maybe even if other people are less civil), it'll probably be okay. Often, with situations like this, it's not so much what you do but how you do it and how you respond to feedback. After all, maybe other folks will bring up things that will make your game better! No need to be afraid, really, as long as you don't plan to be a giant jerk to anybody who points out things that make them uncomfortable.
  • +1 to Graham.
  • edited August 2012
    What Jon said, but let me throw this out:

    However much you express unreal, ahistoric, not-grounded-in-reality messy appropriation of Ninja or Katanas, you will be no where NEAR--NO WHERE NEAR--the amount of appropriation the Japanese have done themselves in relation to Ninja and Katanas. (specifically those two items in particular: We tend to attribute all sorts of crazy bullshit to them, but so do the Japanese, times ten.

    However, do a little research on monks (in particular) and sorcerers. Wikipedia is a great jump-off point to start your learning interestingly enough on Japanese Buddhism. I thought only updaters on comic book history and the civil war were thorough, but the kickoff for Buddhism in Japan, with its articles on the history and all the little sects, are surprisingly as thorough as you would find in a book. Dry, and devoid of real interesting narration, but (again surprisingly) good! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_Japan

    I'd like to hear more in particular about what monks do (do they fight, like shaolin/shorinji? Do they exorcise? etc). What's the setting like in general? Samurai Champloo style "hip hop Edo"?

    Unfortunately, I don't know any sorcerers. BTW, you're probably looking for "ONMYOJI" (taoist sorcerers), not "SHUGENJA" (hedge mage, but for some reason all western games latched on to this word). The Onmoyji/Onmyoji 2 movies are a good start to learn (and fun, culturally rich too!) but that era is about 800 years before what you're doing. Still, though.

    Also, Mendez aka @Lula is a ninja. So is @Jürgen_Mayer. If you want to ask a ninja, there they are. For real!
    (well, Bujinkan anyway. Not, like, IGA or KOGA or OBORO or anything. Still)

    I'm kinda buried with my own Japanese fantasy project to be much help right now, but at least I can help point out stuff that might be cool to add, stuff that might be cool to change, etc. Frex, I think the L5R setting is okay, and excels in its setup of things to do and people to be. However, there are some really disappointing things, like their use of language (twitch) but mostly that there is no real impact of Buddhism and Shinto in the game. Both should be driving the magic system if nothing else, and the addition of it - even a stylized slight misrepresentation (show me an anime from Japan where they don't have Christian nuns carrying around revolvers, as an example from the other side) - seems to me would have been a better choice than total silence.

    -Andy
  • Onmyoji 1 & 2 are also great films. And fun to say! Everybody loves androgynous/transgressing sorcerer detectives.
  • ZW, just flat out say that this game is inspired by Afro Samurai and Samurai Jack. Any resemblance to an actual culture is purely coincidental.

    That sets the bar and the expections, done. If people can't handle the source materials, then they should know well enough to leave your game alone unless they're trolling.
    --
    TAZ
  • Thanks for all the replies guys! I think I'll just keep it as bare-bones as possible and let the people playing it fill-in-the-blanks.
  • Definitely agreeing with Todd, here. If you flat-out state your source material and don't try to make claims to anything actually historical, how many people are genuinely going to bother you about it?
  • Huh, looks like I accidentally killed my earlier comment.

    Thing is, Afro Samurai, Samurai Jack... they both also had a minimal amount of research into the source material. So from that standpoint, going beyond them to the source will likely provide you with more real things, more cool things to use in your game. Don't think of it as being scared into doing research to not offend people; rather think of it as being in love with the material enough that you want to aggressively do research in order to pull out cool, cultural things (even if you bend them a bit, like in Avatar The Last Airbender, etc) to share with the world through your game.

    -Andy
  • edited August 2012
    Also a really good point...I mean, I can see both sides. Either doing the research into the actual history or just watching all of InuYasha and Samurai Champloo seem like valid research for the type of game you're going for to me, though. But my gut says that I'm not who you're looking not to offend. And my clock says that it's 0224. [/ramble]
  • I'm with Andy - research is great! You find out all kinds of random little details that make your game richer, that you won't get if you stick to just one or two media sources. It's kind of like, every translation layer you get away from the original material, the more you lose context and nuance, and the more you have to rely on other people to have done a good translation first, and you're limited to just the funnel of information that they're choosing to give you.

    I'll also say from my own experience that having a good think about the cultural issues and where you stand on them is really helpful, if for no other reason than it's a lot less stressful to have a conversation with someone who is offended if you've already done some homework on the subject. There's no right answer to have, but at least knowing something about why some people have concerns, whether you agree with them or not, can go an awful long way. (I'll also put in there that leading that kind of discussion if you get into one with "I think people are too sensitive" will put you on the back foot. It frames the conversation as that you're not interested in hearing about what they think before they've even opened their mouths, which is likely to steer things in the direction of a flame war.)
  • Seriously, people, "research" is also tricky, and the results of research done by an amateur are often weird and laughable. Blatant cultural appropriation cases, offensive to all of humankind, invariably result not from people not doing their research, but rather from well-meaning people underestimating the complexity of the topic at hand and thinking they have done their due amount of research already. For any given topic, some of the "reference" material you can easily find around is actually prejudiced bullshit, and you probably have no way to know if you're not knowledgeable about the field already.

    As for the specific project this thread is about, I believe the honest thing to do is recognize "ninja and samurai" as a genre to be a global pop-culture thing with little if any relationship with historical Japan at all (just like, I dunno, D&D-fantasy is basically unrelated with the history and culture of Middle-ages and Renaissance Europe). Once one admits to that and states that upfront, then their intellectual honesty is warranted. The real "research" to do here then lies in movies and other pop-culture sources (Quentin Tarantino-style research): that's what to focus on to do a labor of love in this case, and please leave poor "Japan" alone for a change.
  • edited August 2012
    Very interesting points from all. I think I'm going to forgo the inclusion of monks for a few reasons. One, I'm not that deeply familiar with the subject matter, and two, the history and culture associated with monks is probably more generally meaningful to people than ninja and samurai. And I'll still keep sorceror in the mix cause magic is cool and I don't think I can step on cultural toes a lot there (correct me if I'm wrong). Onmyoji are very cool (and is a cool word) but I'm not sure I want to frame the type of character I'm looking for at what onmyoji really were - would it be lame or insensitive to just call them "sorcerors"?
  • Okay, Zachary, I find this difficult.

    You asked for feedback. You got some, but, from what you say, you're not going to take it. And now we're talking about sorcerers.

    What do you really want here? Do you actually want to inform yourself and write something that's culturally appropriate?

  • Have you read Blood and Honor? It provides some really good focus on samurai drama.
  • My gut reactions echo Graham's, but I'll try to assume the best anyway. Zachary, I just checked the Wikipedia article about Onmyōdō and, despite being unsourced, it looks decent enough: an appropriate starting point for researching the topic.
  • edited August 2012
    No offense Graham, but your feedback was "to ask a ninja" which I took as cheeky sarcasm, though maybe I took it wrong.

    But, I agree, let's not get on the wrong foot here. Let's back up a little bit. I'm reaching out to prevent backlash, not create it. Given the generous responses to the thread, here is the useful feedback as I'm gathering it:

    - Be upfront with your influences. Be honest and open with potentially touchy subject matter
    - Research is key to making a game where cultural influences are important
    - Research not to be politically correct, but because it can help make your game awesome and is fun
    - Research doesn't have to be historical - if your influence is anime, watching said anime works fine too
    - Amatuer research can be dangerous as well, as you might know just enough to accidently stumble into something offensive
    - Some japanese culture (ie ninja and samurai) has been popularized so much that it's now considered by some to be global pop-culture

    So based off of the feedback given, some research, and some critical thinking - I made the decision to not include monks in my game. Am I being insensitive by deciding not add a certain class to the game? What feedback am I ignoring?

    As for calling the class "sorceror" as opposed to labeling them "onmyoji" or "shugenja" - well, that's why I asked. As I said, I didn't think I'd be stepping on cultural toes by calling them "sorcerors", and I'd like it if someone were to correct me if I'm wrong. The way I see it, there are definite cultural and religious connections with onmyoji (taoism) and shugenja (Shugendō) that I do not want to touch on. Calling them sorcerors was a way to pull back from the real-world culture so as not to associate either real-world religion with my game's fantasy spell-casters. Is that wrong of me?

    To clarify, I am not looking to make my game historically accurate, culturally rich, or associate the game with any real-world religions or belief-systems. Maybe that in itself is offensive to people who don't like the idea of a game based off of a culture yet having no concrete ties to the real-world history and culture of those people, other than those the author wished to highlight.

    Again, I am honestly trying to understand the expectations and the boundries involved here.
  • Also, very interested in locating Blood and Honor. Good suggestion.
  • edited August 2012
    So, you've got a military-aristocrat, a mercenary-assassin and a sorcerer-scholar, as character types.

    What does the monk-priest bring or not bring to the game?

    You can do Samurai, Shinobi, Onmyoji or Shukenja, and Oshō or Shinshoku. Or you can go with the more generally conceptual and neutral English names.

    I wouldn't suggest going half-way as you're proposing, though. Why is Samurai or Ninja less problematic than Monk or Onmyoji? I doubt you're as familiar with the Hagakure as you are with the Sutras. Especially if you're not interested in Shaolin monks and 'Kung Fu' but rather Buddhist monks in the Japanese traditions.

    I guess what I'm saying is you might be better off with a globalized and syncretic fantasy that draws broadly.

    You've got honorable master-swordsmen that live and die by their blades, rogue mercenaries equipped for all manner of skulduggery, and mysterious sorcerers able to ply arcane sciences. An exciting premise - colour it how you want!

    The Japanese aren't the only ones to have these kinds of characters. Borrow from whatever culture, historical or modern, fill off the serial numbers and blend until you get the taste right. That's how this stuff works in the real world.

    Hell, you could do mysterious swordsmen able to ply arcane sciences, honorable mercenaries that that live and die by their blades and rogue sorcerers equipped for all manner of skulduggery.
  • Thanks for the insight Orlando. I see what you're saying about not going half-way with the character class terms. I agree that this is probably not the best way to go about it - from both cultural and design-consistency standpoints. And I'm not really interested in going so generalized and globalized with the game that it ceases to be a game about samurai and ninja.

    As mentioned, and I agree, ninja and samurai have been popularized, glamourized, fantasized, and bastardized so much by global media that there really isn't any further damage that can be done to the culture behind them. I could probably make a game about ninja pandas and nobody would bat an eye. Actually, I'm pretty sure that is already a game. But yeah, my game's vision of ninja and samurai will be tame compared to some of the popular concepts out there that are generally accepted by society. So ninja and samurai are not the issue here. That leaves sorcerors and monks.

    Now, I don't want to jump to conclusions, but I get the sense that people did not like the fact that I chose to drop monks and call the spell casters "sorcerers". I'm curious as to why people find this is distasteful, lame, uncool, or bad design?
  • No offense Graham, but your feedback was "to ask a ninja" which I took as cheeky sarcasm, though maybe I took it wrong.
    If I can make an attempt at unpacking Graham's dry British sarcasm… I think his point was, from the beginning, that if you suspect a topic to be somehow touchy then polling this forum about its touchiness is not the sensible thing to do about it.
    "What's the sensible thing to do, then?" you may rightfully ask. Well, this is just a very personal addition of mine, but I personally believe that the sensible thing to do is to do a lot of very serious research about the topic, and do it with a passion: once you have acquired a deep enough understanding of the topic (not a "polling a forum about it" level of understanding) you will presumably be able to decide for yourself what's touchy about it, to whom it concerns, what's the respectful route to take, and so on.
    - Amatuer research can be dangerous as well, as you might know just enough to accidently stumble into something offensive
    No, I don't believe this is an accurate summary of the point I tried to make about amateur research — thus, I'll try to explain my mind more clearly.
    The problem with insufficient research is that when you do insufficient research you gain a superficial understanding of the subject matter. When you have done insufficient research, but you believe your research to be sufficient, then typically you write something about the topic or otherwise deal with the topic incorrectly — thus showing your insufficient understanding of it. Dealing with a topic you don't sufficiently understand is offensive: it just is.
    Consulting with scholars of the field, concerned communities or other voices you identify as authoritative (hint: not an Internet forum about role-playing games, in this case) may help you discern whether your research has been sufficient and your understanding of the topic is deep enough. But, ultimately, it's on you — and you're responsible for it.
  • I would suggest reading this blog entry by Ursula Vernon that gives another perspective on why research is important (and then you can go ahead and read the rest of her blog, because it's hillarious).

    Relevant quotes include:

    "In fiction—most particularly genre fiction—there are plots that Nobody Ever Wants To See Again. (..) for the most part, when your reader figures out where it’s going, they’re going to roll their eyes and go play video games. (..) Feel free to fill in your own, but there’s a good dozen twist-endings-that-aren’t, and you wouldn’t know unless you knew the genre. Some of them may have been great once. Now…not so much."

    "you owe it to any genre that you respect enough to write in—and, if to no one else, to your poor long-suffering editor who deals with enough crap already—to make sure that you know enough about what you’re writing to know what cliches not to commit. And as there may not be handy lists floating around, you need to read around the genre so that you learn that it’s never lupus and the butler didn’t do it."
  • edited August 2012
    If I can make an attempt at unpacking Graham's dry British sarcasm… I think his point was, from the beginning, that if you suspect a topic to be somehow touchy then polling this forum about its touchiness is not the sensible thing to do about it.
    Thanks Rafu. Honestly I'd like to hear it from Graham, but assuming you're close to the mark, I'm not sure how I was supposed to ascertain all of that from one snarky little quip. Honestly, I thought he was just trying to be cute and I didn't mind the clever bit of humor until he seemed to get upset over some of my responses. I thought I was taking a step in the right direction by posting here and being open with my concern. You guys are my target audience and ultimately the ones I'm seeking to not offend. What's wrong with talking about it with you guys?

    Thank you for the elaboration on your point regarding amateur research. Sorry I misunderstood initially. Let me modify that bulletpoint.

    - Do serious amounts of research, then when you think you're research is done, research some more

    Does that sum it up better?

    I do ask that you and/or Graham respond to my earlier inquiries. It seemed pretty clear that you guys shared a negative reaction to my plan of dropping the monk from the roster and calling the spell-caster "sorcerer". As soon as I said that you guys changed your tone and I'm trying to understand why. Please respond to this if you don't mind :)

    @3Jane

    I read that article. It is very interesting - thanks for sharing! I don't plan on writing any stories, so I think I'm safe from re-hashing the same old cliches, at least in a literary sense. But the main point of "Do lots of research" has sunk in.

    So, the majority of feedback has revolved around doing plenty of research. Is research all it takes?
    What does the monk-priest bring or not bring to the game?
    It's not that the monk-priest doesn't bring anything cool or interesting to the table. It's that this archetype is inherently associated with real-world religion. I want to avoid adding this class to my game only to have someone turn around and tell me the use of the monk is offensive because it doesn't accurately reflect what real monks were and are about. Does that make sense?
  • Let me modify that bulletpoint.

    - Do serious amounts of research, then when you think you're research is done, research some more

    Does that sum it up better?
    I does.

    I won't answer your other questions because your last post successfully made it clear to me that we have different, irreconcilable world-views regarding such basic (to this thread) concepts such as "audience" and "offend", plus some more.
  • Wow Rafu. That kinda sucks. I apologize, but I'm not sure exactly what I said that causes you to want to withdraw from the conversation. How did I make it clear we have irreconcilable world-views? I feel like Graham, and then you by extention (albeit tentatively), called me out but now I'm left with no idea why. I feel like you're copping out now. I mean seriously, I wouldn't be asking unless I cared about what you guys are thinking and feeling. Maybe a PM at least?

    I do just want to thank everyone again for kindly responding to my inquiry. This so far has been very helpful and enlightening for me. :D
  • I think his point is that we, as Story Games, are not the people you should be researching. The cultures from which you wish to draw are the people you want to learn more about. The reason is that your game can be a respectful celebration of those cultural elements, or a caricature of them. I'm not really in that camp, though. I'd say watch a ton of the anime's you plan to base your game on, and that's your research.

    TLDR: Your target audience is not whom you should avoid offending. Instead, avoid offending the culture from which you draw your inspiration.
  • Yes, I admit I am withdrawing from the conversation. That's because this form of communication has limits. We're way past the line of "things I'm sworn not to discuss in the kind of casual, noncommittal conversation I can have over an Internet forum", sorry.
  • Eh, it's okay. I think the thread has served it's purpose and I appreciate your participation Rafu.

    I'll keep working on the game and keep researching the concepts I plan to draw inspiration from. When i get something of a rough draft, I'll post it up here for comments.
  • edited August 2012
    Zachary,
    I think I know what you're getting at. You just want to make a fun game and not get a ton of flak over missteps you might unconsciously make. I've been there too.

    The problem as I see is this.

    Historically, there were groups of people about whose opinion noone cared. These people include: women, children, people physically or mentally disabled, people of colour, the poor, religious minorities. There were also people whose opinion was important out of proportion; generally white, male, Christian (whether Protestant or Catholic depends on where one lived), and rich.

    Whenever you want to use something that symbolically "belongs" to people about whose opinion noone cared, you need to ask for their opinion first and foremost, and actually take it into consideration (and accept that there is no "the" opinion of some particular group, and that different members of the group might like/dislike different things). But the thing is to break the pattern instead of perpetuating it.

    In this case, you're using elements of Japanese culture, but instead of asking the Japanese themselves, you're going by your own estimate of whether the elements are generic enough or not (afaik you're not Japanese), and also asking your peers who (it's my impression) are mostly not Japanese either. So you're following the pattern of the problem to the dot. Break it. Actually ask a ninja.

    As to what else you need apart from research: I'd say empathy, and understanding that there is no easy, convenient shortcut around deep seated cultural problem of discrimination, and courage to tackle that.
  • So, the majority of feedback has revolved around doing plenty of research. Is research all it takes?
    No and honestly, as a PoC, I find these discussions extremely distasteful and your flippant attitude worrying. No amount of research will grant you the capacity to understand how or why something would be offensive.

    My advice to you, is if you're going to do it, divorce your fluff far from anything cultural. Why do you have to have samurai, ninja and monks? Why can't you just take the route of Do and Dogs in the Vineyard and not fall back on cheap iconography.

    Have some depth and go beyond stereotypes.
  • So you're following the pattern of the problem to the dot. Break it. Actually ask a ninja.
    In case it's not clear what "ask a ninja" would mean or you don't know any ninja personally, here are some people you could contact:

    -There are ninjitsu classes taught in some cities today. You could contact an instructor at a ninjitsu dojo and ask to buy them lunch and talk about authenticity and representation. If they were busy, maybe they'd put you in contact with someone who was knowledgeable.

    -There are Japanese scholars of history who've spent a great deal of time studying the history of ninja, and so they have both a lived knowledge of their own culture and a strong academic knowledge of this one specific, oft-bastardized element of their culture.

    -You maybe have some Japanese friends. If so, you can start with a casual conversation with them about their opinions and perspectives, if they're willing to have that conversation with you. They don't owe you anything, which might mean that they don't want to get into the topic with you. They also represent only one viewpoint, and cannot speak for all Japanese people. ie, their opinion is not The Japanese Opinion.
  • Or you may just visit this site: http://askaninja.com/
  • edited September 2012
    Hey guys. I kinda tried to put this thread to rest, but since it came back up, I figure I should respond. If you read earlier up in the thread, I came to the personal conclussion that the iconic figures of samurai and ninja were as much up for creative grabs as knights and assassins are seeing as how they have become part of the globalized culture much having to do with Japanese arts and media from the past century. The reason I bring that up is because that kind of makes "ask a ninja" a moot point. Further, I currently know two people that are technically considered ninjas and neither of them are Japanese nor do they have any strong opionions on this subject. According to them, it's whatever. The real question as far as I'm concerned became how to include sorcerers in a game about samurai and ninja. Some suggest sticking with a modern cultural archetype (onmyoji) while others suggest divorcing the whole cast from their Japanese roots, which I'd rather not since it then ceases to be a game about ninja and samurai which is the goal here. In the end, I did more research on onmyoji and went with that term to be consistant.
    No and honestly, as a PoC, I find these discussions extremely distasteful and your flippant attitude worrying. No amount of research will grant you the capacity to understand how or why something would be offensive.

    My advice to you, is if you're going to do it, divorce your fluff far from anything cultural. Why do you have to have samurai, ninja and monks? Why can't you just take the route of Do and Dogs in the Vineyard and not fall back on cheap iconography.

    Have some depth and go beyond stereotypes.
    A PoC? By that, do you happen to mean a Product Office Coordinator? Or a Pirate of the Caribbean? Because, based off of the context, I take it you're referring to yourself a Person of Color, which is a term that, to me, perpetuates the point of view that some people are different from other people and should be differentiated by terms like the one you chose, which as far as I can tell is the root of racism as a whole. I'm sorry you see my attitude as flippant. If you read the bullet lists, I think I did a fair job processing the feedback into clear ideas which I definitely took into consideration. If I were any more serious, I'd be grim about it. That's not how these discussions need to be.

    Based off of your advice, as a non-Japanese person, I should just avoid using any cultural references to Japanese history or current culture and media. I think that's taking an extreme stance. It suggests a closed, sheltered, and introverted point of view towards how cultures on a global scale should interact.
  • edited September 2012
    A PoC? By that, do you happen to mean a Product Office Coordinator? Or a Pirate of the Caribbean? Because, based off of the context, I take it you're referring to yourself a Person of Color, which is a term that, to me, perpetuates the point of view that some people are different from other people and should be differentiated by terms like the one you chose, which as far as I can tell is the root of racism as a whole. I'm sorry you see my attitude as flippant. If you read the bullet lists, I think I did a fair job processing the feedback into clear ideas which I definitely took into consideration. If I were any more serious, I'd be grim about it. That's not how these discussions need to be.

    Based off of your advice, as a non-Japanese person, I should just avoid using any cultural references to Japanese history or current culture and media. I think that's taking an extreme stance. It suggests a closed, sheltered, and introverted point of view towards how cultures on a global scale should interact.
    Zachary, go back and read your first couple of sentences. That's pretty flippant friend. You're not making a good impression and I refuse to talk to you further on the subject if this is your attitude. Also, you don't get to make the call how the tone of these discussions go. If you didn't want a dissenting opinion, from somebody who is sick of their culture being appropriated, then don't make the thread.
  • edited September 2012
    Redacted as Andy is in the right. I stand by my stance of openly discussing, sharing, and celebrating culture. If anyone would like a peek at the pdf, pm me.
  • Hey folks, when we get to talking about how we talk, we've pretty much come to an end. If you intend to take that part of the discussion further, please do so in whispers or move to private blogs/G+ etc. If you have more discussion on the game or how to address potentially problematic material, feel free to continue.

    Contacting various folks in private. Thanks.
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