How Not to Fail at Writing Inclusive Games and Game Settings [Part 1]
March 31, 2014 14 Comments
So let’s say that you’re a writer looking to do some game writing. Maybe you’ve got a game you’re looking to design, or a setting or piece of game fiction to write, or an adventure to create and you’ve decided that you want your next project to not fail at being inclusive. (Hooray!) But how exactly do you go about doing that?
Inclusive game writing is something that takes practice, and sadly you’ll probably never get it one hundred percent right (almost everyone has some sort of privilege). But it’s a habit that can be developed over time and mostly boils down to simply checking your privilege while you create.
Oh god. There it is! I said it!
A lot of people freak out when they hear that phrase, but do try not to get your knickers in a twist about this. When I say “check your privilege”, I simply mean that you need to be aware of the ways in which you benefit from the unconscious assumptions that come packaged with living in our society. All of us have privilege of some sort. All that I am saying is a moderate level of self-awareness is beneficial when you’re trying to avoid creating work that is shitty toward your fellow human beings.
With that said, here are some basic ground rules:
1) Cultural Appropriation is bad
There can be a tendency in game design to look to real world cultures for inspiration. That’s all well and good! But if you’re going to use a real world culture as the basis of a game or game setting, what have you, it’s important to do your homework; half an hour on Wikipedia cherry-picking the stuff you think is “awesome” isn’t going to cut it. And it’s especially important that your use of a particular culture doesn’t bring with it any unfortunate implications when paired with the other game elements.
Not too long ago there was a game that successfully funded on Kickstarter called “Going Native: Warpath”. [FOOTNOTE: Really, even just the title should be a giant red flag] Going Native: Warpath is a minis war game in which players have armies that are based on real-life native and aboriginal cultures which has been written and developed by (of course) a white dude.
Because nothing says “sorry for that one time we committed genocide against your people and then forced the survivors into institutionalized poverty” like casual cultural appropriation. Bonus points for managing to convey the added baggage of “well killing your people wasn’t as bad as it could have been since you were already doing it to yourselves”.
Now does that mean you shouldn’t attempt to portray cultures aren’t white and European for fear of getting something wrong? Absolutely not! Gaming is full of white crypto-European settings, which not only erases the importance of non-white cultures but is also hella boring to boot. (Seriously. I am just so. Damn. Tired. Of white crypto-Europe.) Just don’t do things like setting out to write a game and then making it about Natives (or Japan, or any other culture that’s not yours) simply because it’s “cool” without ever stepping back to critically examine the implications of your creative decisions. You’re not going to catch everything, but even a modicum of critical thinking will weed out the really awful stuff.
2) Don’t erase marginalized groups
One of the problems with the culture we live in is that it conditions us to want to tell the stories of white het cis men at the expense of… pretty much anybody else. Even when this imbalance is remarked upon, it’s often explained away by saying that white het cis men are more “relateable” and “universal” than other groups.
This is bad from a creative standpoint because it can cost you a potential audience; those of us who are not white het cis men (ie, most of us) get pretty sick of not seeing ourselves well represented. Honestly, if I encounter a piece of media in a genre that I enjoy that is well reviewed and features a not-fail-worthy female protagonist, I’m probably going to throw at least a few bucks at the creator because it doesn’t happen all that often. It’s also bad from a ‘shitty human being’ standpoint because you’re helping to reinforce the cultural narrative of the supremacy of the white het cismale, which sucks.
Include members of marginalized groups in your settings. Include women, and LGBT, and people of color, and the disabled because their stories also have value. And absolutely don’t write about a real period from history and erase a group of traditionally marginalized people. This kind of revisionist history is especially damaging.
That’s how you wind up with games like Into the Far West – a game that mashes up Wild West and Wuxia tropes and which doesn’t include Native people at all. Which is awful, because our culture has been erasing the history of Native peoples for centuries. And we’re not just talking about stupid bullshit like casting a white woman to play Tiger Lily here. (Although that is indeed stupid and bullshit.)
We’re talking about killing people, taking their land, forbidding them to practice their culture or speak their language, taking children away from their families, abusing and murdering those children, segregating the survivors of that abuse, and perpetuating systems of government that allow for unfettered violence – physical, sexual, economic, you name it – against their modern descendents.
2a) Don’t combine #1 and #2
This is depressingly common.
Simply the most recent example of this I’ve seen was Scarlet Heroes. I came across it when it was linked by someone on my Google+ as a project with “cool Asian flair”, a phrase which never fails to set off alarm bells. Sure enough, when I check out the KickStarter, there are no characters in the preview artwork that I would peg as definitely Asian and only two non-focal figures that I would peg as maaaaaaaybe Asian. But there are a whole lot of white people in traditional Asian outfits!
And then of course there’s the boobs. So many boobs. So very many boobs. Because, you know, boobs sell games, doncha know. (/HEADDESK)
Most egregious, however, is the image of a white-seeming (at least to me) daimyo-type guy in a Throne of Asianness +1 (seriously, it’s like the illustrator kept looking at the chair and was like NEEDS MOAR ASIAN) who is watching WHITE WOMEN BELLY DANCE in clearly Middle-Eastern belly dance costumes. Because, you know, belly dance has become popular in China in the last decade, so good enough, you know?
Jesus. When are publishers going to stop throwing together stupid pastiches of awful Asian stereotypes for a quick buck and marketing as “cool Asian flair”? This is fucking awful.
Of course, the cherry on top of this fail-cake is that this is the same publisher behind Spears of the Dawn – which was actually something that looked like it was done pretty well. Spears of the Dawn is an African-themed game, and the preview art features people who don’t look gratuitously sexualized and who actually look African. So it’s a little hard to understand what the hell happened with this one.
3) Don’t reinforce stereotypes of marginalized groups
When representing members of marginalized groups, don’t let yourself be drawn into portraying them as nothing more than a flat stereotype. Make sure to portray them in ways that contravene existing stereotypes.
This one is HUGE. So huge, in fact, that I’m going to come back to this point in a bit.
4) Don’t include -isms in historical settings “because history”
When you’re writing a historical setting, don’t fall into using -isms and using history as a justification. A lot of what you might know as the “established facts” of history are, in fact, heavily biased. History is written by the victor, and as demonstrated by the white-centric patriarchal nature of our Western society, white men are the clear victors. A lot of what we think of as history is the recorded experience of white men, whereas the experiences and stories of women, non-whites, LGBT, etc were either not recorded or actively removed from history books.
Most people tend to think of medieval Europe in terms of the “Dark Ages”. But the narrative of the Dark Ages belies the fact that there was a thriving Muslim empire on the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain). Muslim Iberia was a highly cosmopolitan society full of art, beauty, and scholarship. Scholars from the Middle East, Africa, and China came to be part of the cultural flowering that happened there. But despite that Islamic rule in Iberia persisted several centuries, their story is ignored and erased. And that’s just one example!
The truth of the matter is that history was far more diverse than most history books would have you believe. Fantasy settings based in medieval Europe are almost always depicted as being overwhelmingly white, but medieval Europe was actually much more racially diverse. Similarly, despite what history books would have you believe, women did have important roles to play in society, and not everyone was heterosexual. (Seriously, gay people didn’t just pop out of a hole in the ground fifty years ago, people.)
History is not an excuse to make your setting revolve around the stories of white het cismen. Ditto for crypto-historical fantasy settings. Calling it “fantasy” doesn’t absolve you either.
5) Write fantasy settings that aren’t based in crypto-Europe
It has always baffled me that with the wealth of time periods and cultures available to use as inspiration for fantasy settings, fantasy as a genre seems stuck in medieval crypto-Europe. Yes, admittedly, it’s a time period that we’re all familiar with. But fantasy based in medieval Europe is so omnipresent that it’s pretty much impossible to do anything with such a setting that would make it stand out from the crowd.
Instead, do some reading about non-European history. You’re bound to find something that would make an interesting jumping-off point for a setting. (Remembering, of course, to keep #1-3 in mind.)
6) Over-represent if you feel comfortable with that (optional)
To use an example from my gaming life: there are several writers I enjoy who make a point of including LGBT characters in everything that they write. Sometimes you hear the counter-argument that such authors inevitably wind up over-representing LGBT people when compared to their percentage of the total population. But that’s really not such a bad thing when you consider just how invisible LGBT people are in gaming and in the media in general.
This isn’t a commandment to write only characters that represent marginalized groups. But certainly, don’t get bogged down in worrying that you’re including “too many” minority characters.
7) Write a first draft, then look for where you failed (Hint: you did.)
You’ve finished your first draft! Hooray! Now set it aside for a day or so so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes and look for the places where you failed. Because the odds are pretty damn good that you did. And that’s okay! Everybody fails. What’s important is where you go after that initial failure.
For instance, despite the fact that I blog about feminist issues in game design on a regular basis, I still catch myself unintentionally writing sexism into my settings. When I was writing the Ruined Empire campaign setting for Tenra Bansho Zero, I did a first pass of writing NPCs, assigning gender mostly at random. When I came back to look at what I had written, I realized that I had written all the passive, diplomatic characters as female and all of the powerful warriors as male.
Or how about the time when I was proposing a setting based around a village that was being harassed by bandits, and my initial draft contained the note that the bandits were demanding a tribute of the village’s young women? …Yeah. That’s why it’s important to keep a critical eye on your work, because no matter how “aware” and “enlightened” you may be, you will still make mistakes.
Fear not. A lot of the time, the awful things that slip through will be minor and easily fixable without “ruining” the core of your idea. That’s the thing about using -isms in your work. So often, falling back on stereotypes is actually lazy writing. A lot of the time, eliminating stereotyped representations from your work will actually make your work stronger.
8) GET A SECOND OPINION
This is probably the scariest part of the process, but it’s also the most important. If you’re going to write about a group of people that you don’t belong to, it is imperative to speak to members of that group. This can be nerve-wracking for those who have privilege, because so often people in positions of privilege are fearful of examining that privilege. But it’s important because without this step, you’re just engaging in more thoughtless cultural appropriation.
So get a second opinion. And more importantly, listen to that opinion. They might tell you something that you don’t want to hear. You need to hear it anyway. Or they might give you the thumbs up. You don’t know until you ask!
9) If someone from the group you’re writing about says you screwed up, LISTEN
Back to Into the Far West for a second. Back when the KickStarter was still running, blogger Bankuei wrote about how messed up it was to write a game about the Old West that completely erased native peoples. So what did Gareth Skarka, the game’s author do? Say – hey, you’re right, maybe I need to consider re-working my idea? Or double down on the douchery and try to start a public witch hunt against Bankuei?
If you guessed B, you’re (sadly) correct. Gareth really went for the gold, too, saying things like CHARACTER ASSASSINATION and LIBEL and complaining about his FEEEEEEEEELINGS. Because, shit. He wrote something that had genocidal implications, but criticizing it made him FEEL BAD so clearly Bankuei was the villain in this scenario!