Of cultures, sensitivities & fire

Over the past few weeks I’ve been witnessing a heated debate about appropriation and racism in game design happening over at the Story Games forum, sparked by some of the entries in this year’s Game Chef competition. Sadly, my game, Lies of Passage, was one of the games that acted as the sparks here. This post is an attempt to present my views and way of thinking, as they relate to Lies of Passage and the development process.

This is an adapted copy of a post I made in the Cultural appropriation, racism and the trouble with coyote thread at Story Games. Read that if you want more context. Note: it is quite a long and heated discussion.

A couple people noted the paragraph on “Native American names” was unfortunate – after reading it again I have to agree: it’s clumsy as hell and just sounds wrong. This, and a number of other things pointed out, as well as the overall language of the game, will be corrected once the contest is closed (I am not supposed to change the submitted game until the contest is closed).

However, people have also suggested that the game might do just as well without any native american references. And here’s where I disagree.

The basic idea for Lies of Passage came to me when I read about the stories of Coyote, the one who stole fire from the gods (or otherwise gave it to humanity). I was fascinated by the fact that the same basic story that I knew as the myth of Prometheus since I was a little kid, was actually repeated in many cultures, including some native american cultures.

That’s why I felt the need to preserve that connection to the Coyote-theft-of-fire stories, to that particular facet or incarnation of this overarching, cross-cultural narrative about how fire came to be. I am not sure I can be so bold as to call it a tribute, but I can’t seem to find a better word.

It was also suggested that coyotes are seen as crafty, sneaky and all that, and there is no need to add any additional elements to get that across. True, coyotes are crafty. In American culture. I am Polish. And somehow, my gut feeling (which might be way off, but the purpose here is to explain the design decisions) was that people from other regions – regions that do not have a coyote population at all, like Poland – do not have the same images and ideas connected to the coyote (the animal). That’s why I felt the animal by itself wouldn’t be enough. In fact, I was afraid that for some potential players the initial coyote reference would be Wile E. Coyote – which is not what I wanted. The native american elements were supposed to serve as a pointer to a different point of reference.

Now, I concede that both of these goals could have probably been achieved using subtler and more culturally sensitive methods. I plan to iterate on the text until it feels right – and would welcome the help of anybody wishing to lend a hand.

I also offer you this observation: cultural sensitivity seems to differ from culture to culture. None of my Polish friends even mentioned the native american theme in their reviews or comments of Lies of Passage. Possibly because we have no contact with Native Americans or their culture. Now, if I were to write a game about, say, Jews – a group with a history intimately intertwined with that of my people – the reactions would surely be stronger. And it’s not an intellectual problem, I think, more of an empathic and emotional response that is stronger or weaker depending on the context and the “closeness” of a particular culture to ours.

However, I also believe the basic point made in this discussion, “look, this kind of game can be offensive to people”, is something that “cannot be unseen” – i.e. once my reviewers drew my attention to that fact, I cannot “stop” seeing it in parts of the text. Which would mean this sensitivity can (and probably should) be trained.

At the risk of sounding a bit pompous, I view the myth of Prometheus and the story of Coyote and fire (as well as many other examples, the flood myths appearing in many cultures, to name just one) as proof that there is or was a global culture, and it echoes in many of the cultures of the world. I strongly feel this “unity” should be embraced and explored. That’s what I tried to do, to the best of my ability (within a week). Now all that’s left is iterate and/or try anew.

I think I learned something here, and I hope I’m not the only one.

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