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Play Matt: Cultural Vacuuming

MT Updated
Play Matt: Cultural Vacuuming
There Will Be Games

Have you ever seen My Left Foot? It’s a film in which Daniel Day-Lewis portrays an artist with severe cerebral palsy. Day-Lewis is phenomenal in the role, as he always is, and it won him a deserved Oscar. He prepared for it by spending eight weeks in a cerebral palsy clinic and learning to paint with his feet. It’s an astonishing performance but in retrospect, it begs a huge question: why not cast an actor with actual cerebral palsy instead?

Questions like this are everywhere in the modern age. One of the most egregious examples is the casting of Tilda Swinton, a white woman, as an Asian character in Doctor Strange. This rankles because the world is not short of talented Asian women to act, but Hollywood is pathetically short of roles to offer them. So when one of the few opportunities to widen that representation goes to waste, it stinks.

Yet if we take that argument to its logical extreme, we’d never have been able to admire Day-Lewis’ astonishing turn in My Left Foot. An actor in desperate need of a role would have got work instead, and we’d have a better representation of disability on screen. Yet it’s unlikely we’d have got such an incredible piece of art. Getting the right balance is very difficult.imageOf course, these examples are not quite the same, but they spring from the same place. A reluctance on the part of directors and audiences to embrace the authentic in place of the familiar. If you want an example of how My Left Foot might be problematic today, look at the controversy over musician Sia’s choice to cast a non-autistic lead in a film about an autistic girl.

What does this have to do with games? Well, a lack of cultural insight has not stopped a long parade of white designers from publishing games full of awkward stereotypes. The most recent example is Italian designer Daniele Tascini, whose oeuvre contains a lot of acclaimed but tone-deaf games about Asia and Mesoamerica. So it’s no great surprise that comments have now come to light suggesting he is, at best, also tone-deaf about racism and sexism. Why not leave it up to Asians and Mesoamericans to make games about themselves?

Issues like this become more problematic in historical simulations. Some older games gave thoughtless, one-sided portrayals of colonial barbarity that were horrific in their blindness. Things have got much better in that regard but there are still errors. Labyrinth caught a lot of flack for its broad assumptions about the motivations and mechanics of Islamic terrorism. But as designers improve, there remains a shocking absence at the heart of historical games.

This was exemplified on Twitter by a British-Libyan gamer asking why there were few historical games that took the perspective of colonised nations. It’s easy to respond that designs are more alert to cultural insensitivity now but the key point is that that’s not the same thing. An Infamous Traffic might present the opium trade as the brutally cynical exercise in addiction for profit that it was. But it still casts the players as English traders snaking their tendrils into China. The Chinese are passive resources to be exploited and while the cruelty of that exploitation may be front and centre, their viewpoint and agency are not. 

Finding counter examples is difficult but there are a few. Conquest of Paradise is an example, which depicts the growth of Polynesian civilization across the Pacific. But this was still designed by a middle-aged white guy. And while Conquest of Paradise didn’t raise any eyebrows, another design of his on Maori history did cause a bit of a stir. You’d have thought there were plenty of Maori already able to deliver a game on the subject.pic3681529Yet, to my knowledge, they have not. And one reason why we have few games on the experience of being colonised is that we have few designers from the relevant backgrounds. That’s not surprising. Game design is an overwhelmingly white, male space. Historical gaming, in particular, tends to attract an audience that is actively hostile to progressive views. Those whose culture has suffered under the colonial yoke may not wish to revisit those horrors. They may have had enough of dealing with daily discrimination without bringing it into game design. They may have no cultural context for turning conflict into a game. 

One way to solve this is to ensure more diverse hiring among publishers, but that’s a difficult ask in an industry where design remains focussed on freelance pitches. A more realistic goal is partnership and mentoring. If you want to make a game about an unfamiliar culture, reach out to the player base and find someone of that culture to help you. That way your game will be better, diversity will be improved and you’ll have given a leg-up to an aspiring designer. But even that may still be difficult for the reasons given above.

We’re left with a chicken and egg problem. To get more games on cultural subjugation we need more designers from the affected cultures. To get more designers, it would help to have more games, to show that the gaming world treats the subject as important. Which takes us back to the beginning. Perhaps the fastest way out is to be more receptive to white people designing sympathetic games on the topic.

After all, there’s not a long trail of justified outrage about Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Which begs the question of why that is, compared with Swinton in Doctor Strange? The answer is both simple and complex: context. Doctor Strange took no care with the cultures it plundered, offering gauche Asian stereotypes to appease the audience. The crass casting of a white woman in an Asian role added insult to injury. My Left Foot, by contrast, made an effort to offer a thoughtful, realistic portrayal of disability which mixed humour and awkwardness with the usual tired tropes.

When it comes to questions like these, everyone wants clear dividing lines about what is right and what is wrong. Well-meaning white folk are anxious not to cause offence and look for strict rules to avoid making insulting mistakes. But the problem is that no such rules exist. As our examples from the movie world show, it always depends on the wider context. And there’s no way to judge that context until you’ve seen the whole of the finished product.

This is not an excuse for appropriation. If people want to try their hand at cultures and histories that are not their own, the onus is on them to do the research and get it right. It is only a suggestion that those who stand to be misrepresented bide their time before passing judgement. It may be that Sia’s film is a rich and insightful portrayal of autism despite the casting. It may not. But outrage should be saved until we know either way.

I’m not immune to the irony of me, a white male writer, making this plea of clemency for other white men. But I hope that all I’m doing here is raising a question, and it’s not a question for me to answer. That’s for the people on the sharp end. The oppressed, the marginalised, the people with Cerebral Palsy watching My Left Foot. While it may be okay for white people to carry on dipping into these subjects, it’s still on us to listen to the feedback we get and to act on it to grow and to change and do better.

There Will Be Games

Matt Thrower (He/Him)
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

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Articles by Matt

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trif's Avatar
trif replied the topic: #318633 01 Feb 2021 01:12
I understand Eric Lang's trying to redress this with mentorships for POC designers but I think you hit something when you mentioned the lack of agency on behalf of the colonised in most games on the subject. (I kind of love Archipelago for allowing the game state to trigger the natives into murdering the players in their beds. The graphic design though - shudder.)

Spirit Island was meant to redress this but I still think there are issues (as you're playing spirits, not the inhabitants themselves.) Doesn't Geronimo put the players in the position of the Indian nations during the Plains War? It's still a design thread that needs to be explored.

The only criticism I have to your much needed piece is that somehow you transformed Tilda Swinton into Cate Blanchett.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #318641 01 Feb 2021 10:22
Interesting topic. My Left Foot is a great movie. I watched it with my grandfather, who was crippled in World War II after his tank was blown out from underneath him. That didn't stop him from helping his two brothers when they worked together to build a lakeside cabin after the war. All three of their families shared the cabin for decades afterwards. He admired the Day-Lewis character for his "grit," and it never dawned on him to criticize the actor for playing something he was not. Arguably, that is the essence of acting, and directors should always be concerned more with acting ability than stunt-casting for an exact physical match for each part.

The Ancient One is never explicitly identified as either asian or white in the comics. His name gives no hint of his ethnicity or, for that matter, gender. He did have a beard, so it's reasonable to complain about his gender being changed for the movie, or else that a female character played a male character. Older people of either gender tend to get more androgynous looking aside from facial hair, which is probably a reason why so many old men grow out their facial hair. More importantly, the Ancient One was consistently depicted in comics with the same skin color as Doctor Strange and other white characters, at a time when the limited four-color palette of comic books often led to asians colored as either yellow or even orange. Anyway, unless somebody has a particular grudge against white males, complaining about the Ancient One's race or gender in the movies is right on par with complaining about Heimdall, Valkyrie, or Nick Fury being black when their characters were white in the comics.

Board games are not movies or comics. Inclusion in movies is limited by the available talent, but inclusion in comics is easy to improve and so it has in modern times. Respectfully representing diversity in board games should be easy, but it is probably not a priority for most designers, so it would be great if publishers made it a priority to seek diversity in their game designers. In theory, Kickstarter could offer a meritocracy, but that brings us around to the lack of diversity in players as well as designers. There are a lot more women playing board games now, but not many people of color. Maybe we players could take on some responsibility by encouraging people of color to try board games. It's been too many years since I last did volunteer work, but when I did, I was playing board games with kids in a community center in a latino neighborhood.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #318677 01 Feb 2021 15:53

trif wrote: Spirit Island was meant to redress this but I still think there are issues (as you're playing spirits, not the inhabitants themselves.) Doesn't Geronimo put the players in the position of the Indian nations during the Plains War? It's still a design thread that needs to be explored.


Grab a copy of Comancheria or Navajo Wars for this, they're very good for this perspective.
DarthJoJo's Avatar
DarthJoJo replied the topic: #318711 01 Feb 2021 23:51
An important difference between film and boardgames is the levels at which representation appear. There are an awful lot of people involved in a film, but we can mostly say the most important representation comes from the writer, the director and the actor. In other words, whose story is being told, how is it told and who is telling it.

In boardgames we can say roughly that it’s the designer’s story that is being told and the publisher determines how it’s told through graphic and physical design, but it’s the players who tell it. When we play a game, we are representing the actors within it. This is a huge difference and an important one in this particular discussion of representation. Where films hold us at the distance of the screen while asking us to empathize with these characters whose lives are so different from ours, boardgames invite us to be those characters and societies and institutions. We assume new identities. Sometimes they bend to us and sometimes we bend to them. A vegan begins to chant “Blood for the blood god,” and a different player refuses to sacrifice a single pawn for a superior position.

What this means for how designers of historical games should orient themselves, I don’t know, but I can say it gives me a little more understanding of Spirit Island. I’ve never really bought its acclaim as the anti-colonial game for the same reasons as trif: you’re not playing the resisting natives but “spirits.” The natives ares still, more or less, powerless and dependent. But what if the players were different clans or families rather than the supernatural? What if they they were burning homes with families within them? What if they were breaking legs, poisoning fresh water with rotting corpses? Would that have been better?
engelstein's Avatar
engelstein replied the topic: #318733 02 Feb 2021 12:39
Thanks for the article! I agree with your points. The Zenobia Award (started by Volko Ruhnke and Harold Buchanan) is specifically trying to deal with representation in simulation games, and just accepted 99 applicants to move on to the next phase. My own New Voices In Gaming is also trying to promote more diversity in the ranks of designers.
mtagge's Avatar
mtagge replied the topic: #319015 09 Feb 2021 03:09

Shellhead wrote: The Ancient One is never explicitly identified as either asian or white in the comics. His name gives no hint of his ethnicity or, for that matter, gender. He did have a beard, so it's reasonable to complain about his gender being changed for the movie, or else that a female character played a male character. Older people of either gender tend to get more androgynous looking aside from facial hair, which is probably a reason why so many old men grow out their facial hair. More importantly, the Ancient One was consistently depicted in comics with the same skin color as Doctor Strange and other white characters, at a time when the limited four-color palette of comic books often led to asians colored as either yellow or even orange. Anyway, unless somebody has a particular grudge against white males, complaining about the Ancient One's race or gender in the movies is right on par with complaining about Heimdall, Valkyrie, or Nick Fury being black when their characters were white in the comics.

From his origin he is from Central Asian areas West of Central China. The Ancient One was whitewashed so that the movie would be allowed to air in China which is a huge market for action movies with blockbuster effects. So this one was done to appease the Chinese Communist Party who only allow their "citizens" to view a limited number of Western films. The mouse is notorious for caving to CCP sensibilities.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #319038 09 Feb 2021 15:33
Great article for discussion and presented in a very diplomatic way.

I've often pondered why games choose the themes they do. Mechanically most games could be reskinned or even deskinned into such an abstract concept that the theme is literally window dressing yet it is VITAL to player engagement. How many mediocre games are there that survive because a viking berserker is on the cover?

I think it would be difficult to make a game about the colonized if in the end they lose. Thus most games allow for victory or at least post both players as equally likely to "win". There ARE games about countries that successfully resist occupation, anything about roman conflict, El Cid, the crusades, etc. Colonization was at least attempted to pretty much every place on earth.

As for acting, how many CP actors can there be? I only know of 1, the boy from Breaking Bad. So the pool is very shallow because opportunities to act outside of their disability is probably quite limited. Same with the actor who played Corky from "My so called life" back in the day (or the DS girl from American Horror Story for a more contemporary example). There just isn't enough work for many to survive. There are a few, Peter Dinklage most prominently but also Jamel Debbouse etc that can get "normal" work that essentially ignores their handicap or doesn't revolve around it. I don't require my actors to have lived life experiences identical to the character, it's called acting for a reason. Plus characters like Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump would be more difficult to represent on screen if it cast a double amputee from the start.