On the Culturally Appropriate Game
July 5, 2019 11:57 AM   Subscribe

"When we, as DMs, present a part of our world to the players, it’s all too easy to go, 'You know, like the [insert culture here]' and trust our players’ (perceived) knowledge and (probably biased) perceptions of that thing inform their understanding of that thing in the context of our game." The author of the Crossing the Verse tabletop roleplaying blog writes about representation and cultural appropriation when running TTRPGs. The essay discusses ideas from a video by MeFi favorite Lindsay Ellis and one by Innuendo Studios (previously).
posted by Caduceus (13 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, I saw that video. When your half-hour discussion of the nuances of cultural appropriation in film not only doesn't mention any distinction between *adopting* things from other cultures and *depicting* things from other cultures, but blithely goes ahead and assumes there is no such distinction to be made, I think you're doing it wrong. A movie being set in New York, even if it's 100% made by people not from New York, does not in itself make it an example of cultural appropriation, unless you define the term so broadly that you end up a very small step away from simply claiming that all culture is appropriated, as some people do.

It did make me wish I could go back in time and see Pocahontas instead of The Lion King.
posted by sfenders at 1:07 PM on July 5, 2019

There is no meaningful distinction, at least from an art criticism standpoint, since art itself necessarily involves "depiction". Your distinction would go all the way in the other direction in claiming that nothing is appropriation, since it's all merely "depiction".
posted by tobascodagama at 1:33 PM on July 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

After the Problematic Fave Orc FPP earlier this week, I was expecting a furthering of that conversation and analysis. But this article is barely there, and its advice is terrible. While its points (cultural borrowing isn't necessarily offensive, depending on who's doing it; you're allowed to use details from other cultures if you do it with care; know your audience) aren't exactly wrong, the article is really brief and lacks nuance. It brings nothing to the table that the previous FPP did not, and that one had some great and concrete guidelines for how to better depict cultural analogues with care: provide diversity within any given culture, include a variety of human cultures and skin tones, tie culture to history and environment, decolonize violence.

I feel like the advice here boils down to "don't worry about it as long as you don't offend anyone at the table." And I think that's terrible advice. DMs and GMs need to set a good example, because if we're doing a good job our stories will reach beyond the table and into people's lives. And I hope to god we're past the point where it's okay to tell an offensive joke just because it won't personally offend any of the people listening to it.
posted by rikschell at 2:08 PM on July 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

When your half-hour discussion of the nuances of cultural appropriation in film not only doesn't mention any distinction between *adopting* things from other cultures and *depicting* things from other cultures, but blithely goes ahead and assumes there is no such distinction to be made, I think you're doing it wrong.

What an odd distinction. Could you please help me understand -- what's an example of a film that *adopts* things from other cultures, rather than depicting things? I've never seen a film that did anything other than depict stuff.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:24 PM on July 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

what's an example of a film that *adopts* things from other cultures, rather than depicting things?

A clear-cut example would be some hypothetical film in which they take culturally meaningful symbols from somewhere or other and use them wholly out of context as part of the design aesthetic for unrelated world-building. I dunno, there have to be a million examples but I'm not good at thinking of any. Some versions of The Mikado? It's complicated, but a case could be made. How about Leprechaun (1993)?
posted by sfenders at 2:38 PM on July 5, 2019

Never seen it, but from what I hear, Avatar adopted a lot of Native American cultural references for its blue aliens. The other Avatar (The Last Airbender) also made up a whole world with multiple cultures that were based on Asian themes. In both these cases, the creators were white dudes.
posted by rikschell at 3:04 PM on July 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another type of example would be lifting a whole story from another culture. If your movie tells the story of Romulus and Remus, odds are you've culturally appropriated it from ancient Rome. That it depicts another culture isn't what makes it a (different) type of appropriation, it's that you're performing their cultural thing of telling their story. At no point did I intend to suggest that depicting another culture prevents something from being called cultural appropriation, only that it isn't sufficient to make it so. A majority of the pitfalls of depicting other cultures that Disney movies typically get flack for are just ordinary pitfalls of depicting other cultures, rather than appropriating things from those cultures, not that they don't sometimes do that too.
posted by sfenders at 3:05 PM on July 5, 2019

Merit in the argument. For example, no fish and chips in the Village of Hommlet but 2 evil temples mere leagues away..
posted by clavdivs at 4:02 PM on July 5, 2019

By depicting a culture, you're using that culture as raw material for your creation. In copyright terms, if the culture was a form of intellectual property, then your creation depicting it would be a derivative work.

Conveniently for the purposes of creators from dominant cultures like Disney, cultures are free for the taking, whereas it's their corporate creative works which are actually protected in the intellectual property regime. ("Conveniently" with the most vigorous of air-quotes in the case of Disney, since when it comes to copyright and other IP they're kind of like a fairy-tale supernatural evil that corrupted the mortal world in a previous age.)

So yeah, the state of affairs is "a very small step away from [...] all culture is appropriated."

You couldn't permeate your own work with another piece of intellectual property and say you were "just depicting it": under the rules our society abides by for IP, you'd be garnering benefit from the original. And even even below the level of a derivative work our conception of intellectual property can construe illegitimate ways of garnering benefit... such as trademarked Disney characters, which you're not supposed to use even to tell original stories.

Sure, you can conceptually distinguish cultural appropriation from depiction of a culture, and as the OP embedded video points out all instances of cultural appropriation aren't equally objectionable, it's just that by making such a distinction you don't really create much daylight between the concepts for purposes of discussing cultural appropriation, not without getting pretty hypocritical about how our society evaluates garnering benefit in creative domains.
posted by XMLicious at 4:28 PM on July 5, 2019 [7 favorites]

Copyright is another whole thing of its own that isn't cultural appropriation. If beauty itself was something you could copyright, then I suppose any depiction of it might be counted as a derivative work, under whatever convoluted intellectual property regime might apply. But it isn't like that. Not much in the "real" non-legal world is like copyright law, that stuff is weird.

If depiction of any culture other than one's own is all it takes for the label of cultural appropriation to apply, I'd be engaging in it by writing my novel to include a character who's Italian. Is it cultural appropriation just to make reference to Italy, or do I have to give my Italian character a name for this comment to qualify? Let's call her Donna, just to be sure. I don't see how it's possible to think sensibly about this stuff if you *don't* distinguish between [what I think people would more usually refer to as] cultural appropriation and the depiction of [some part of] a culture.
posted by sfenders at 5:05 PM on July 5, 2019

It's not because intellectual property is "real" that its rules and their application serve to demonstrate the exploitation which is possible through cultural appropriation. Think about it through the lens of plagiarism instead, if you want.

However if you can handwave away all of copyright law, (or all of law, is it?) I think you're going to be able to absolve yourself of any sort of exploitation along these lines by also declaring it to not be real.
posted by XMLicious at 8:48 PM on July 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

A clear-cut example would be some hypothetical film in which they take culturally meaningful symbols from somewhere or other and use them wholly out of context as part of the design aesthetic for unrelated world-building.

Admittedly, I am not 100% sure I follow or agree with your definition here, but it seems to me a clearcut example of this would be the Vulcan salute 🖖, which Leonard Nimoy lifted from the shin gesture he had seen kohanim doing in synagogue when he was a child.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:47 PM on July 5, 2019

Trope Talk: Planet of Hats, or why having a world where each race is just a cultural shorthand is boring at best.

I really don't think white people should be the arbitrators of what is and isn't cultural appropriation. I do have my qualms with a lot of cultural appropriation discourse (people are SERIOUSLY REDUCTIVE about Asia's takes on it, for example) but the reason I specifically say white people probably shouldn't talk is because they keep missing the most important elements that set appropriation apart from borrowing or exchange: power dynamics and context.

Power dynamics got alluded to in Lindsay's video, but not further. Who stands to gain from the exchange of culture, and who stands to lose? Who is able to explore other cultures freely and who isn't even allowed to explore their own culture? Black people get suspended from school or lose jobs due to having dreadlocks, but the worst thing a White person with dreadlocks might face would likely be grumpy responses. If this was more of a cultural exchange, Black people wouldn't face nearly as much backlash just wearing their own hair: the hairstyle itself becomes value-neutral. Similarly, T-shirts and jeans are pretty normalised now (for the most part), but clothing that codes more "ethnic" can still carry a lot of baggage.

Bollywood is kind of an interesting choice because financially it is a much more powerful entertainment industry than Hollywood, and in some ways more culturally influential, but also Bollywood's portrayal of White Western culture isn't likely to have as much effect on how South Asians interact with White Westerners compared to the reverse as a result of Hollywood portrayals of South Asian cultures. (That being said, this is not without problems. The common depiction of Western culture as "bad" and "corrupt" has been used against certain marginalised groups in Asia, notably LGBTQ people and activists, as we're seen as being "part of the colonizing infiltrating foreign culture", to the point of conspiracy theories of being paid off by Foreign Zionist Agents to disrupt local harmony. Such portrayals may have some effect on how White people in Asian countries are treated, but most of the negative fallout ends up on local marginalised folk who "don't conform".)

Context also makes a difference. Lindsay Ellis talks about the Claddagh ring and how her wearing it is appropriation. Would it? Is there a particular context that the Claddagh ring is meant for, like a particular sacred cultural ceremony, or is it a design that originates from a specific culture but has a more general purpose? One of my biggest bugbears with the CA Discourse is that people tend to put too much context on certain cultural artefacts and forget that other contexts are possible or that other cultures do genuinely have something similar - it's like everything is sacred and there's no possibility that Global South cultures have any kind of profane pop culture. As an example, some people seem to want mendhi/henna to be a purely Hindu Indian Wedding thing and decry every other wearing of it as appropriation, but a lot of other South Asians who aren't Hindu Indians wear it for all sorts of reasons, including Just Because (I just got some done this morning for a personal photoshoot!) and a lot of other cultures have henna too and consent to it being shared. Some things that are Ethnic are also Open Access, it's not limited to one situation or another.

HOWEVER, the caveat to the above is that sometimes people take the Open Access stuff and use it to turn into a stereotype. For instance, henna - there's a difference between a White person getting decorative henna done at a stall by a South Asian but just staying normal/regular with the rest of their look, and a White person getting henna so that they can turn into some kind of Indian stereotype caricature. And it's especially worse when these people demean and disrespect the very same folk whose cultures they've borrowed - which leads to the first issue of power dynamics.

A D&D GM going "imagine XYZ culture is like This Other Culture" is daft, and yes racist, because what exactly do they mean by "like this other culture"? What kind of cultural stereotypes are they assuming and how much of it is true? How much are they homogenizing in the process? Does everyone even have a shared understanding of the culture they're meant to be alluding to?

Be specific. What exactly is going on in your world's culture? Why is it like that? (The Trope Talk video above has some great worldbuilding questions.) These traits don't exist as a vacuum - if you're going to borrow them, at least know what you're borrowing.
posted by divabat at 12:51 AM on July 6, 2019 [27 favorites]

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