No More Asia Slaw

I’ve been debating with myself how I want to handle this, because what I have to say affects people who are friends of some of my friends. On the one hand, that seems like a place to walk carefully, but on the other hand that’s exactly the problem that perpetuates privilege: not speaking out just because you “know” the people. It perpetuates privilege because it leaves the task of criticizing people to those who are outside the group, people who are inherently less likely to be listened to.

So screw it – I’m going to be blunt.

Fellow white dudes, we need to do better.

We need to do better at a lot of things, and frankly that’s probably 75% of my blog, but today I’m going to focus on a particular trend that seems way too pervasive. I’m going to talk today about Asia slaw.

Definition Time!

Asia slaw – Any setting in media (games, books, movies, etc.) that chops up various cultures from around Asia, mixes them together, and covers them in white garbage.

The “white garbage” in this case is almost always a defense of the use of tropes. Tropes can be useful for telling stories in shorthand, but these tropes come from Western media and (sometimes) Western perspectives on other cultures’ media, so they are inherently limited and flawed in their understanding of those other cultures.

So, if your setting uses terms, concepts, clothing, names, historical markers, weaponry, and so on from more than one Asian culture and then blends them into one thing because TROPES, then you have created Asia slaw.

Example #1

The first example of Asia slaw that I’m going to throw out there is not the worst, but it is the one that prompted my thinking about this topic: High Plains Samurai.

The Misdirected Mark Podcast did a multi-episode series in which they played through the adventure included in this book and discussed the mechanics. They did not spend any significant time talking about the setting, and I think that’s an issue.

High Plains Samurai is intentionally a mash-up setting that mixes a steampunk-flavored post-apocalypse with a variety of pan-Asian themes. And though the post-apocalyptic approach is supposed to mask the slaw, there are several red flags:

  • Blending “samurai” with “wuxia”
  • The technologically advanced nation is coded European/Western, while the Asian-coded nations are traditional, savage, or mystical
  • Names of people and places sound Asian themed to Western ears but don’t necessarily follow actual cultural or linguistic conventions

The first one is also the cardinal sin of my second example, so I’ll go more into that in a bit. But the second and third points relate to a fundamental problem of Asia slaw settings – they are built to cater to Western sensibilities. Rather than making people more interested in other cultures, these kinds of settings make people more interested in stereotypes of other cultures. And that’s ultimately harmful rather than helpful.

Example #2

The second example is much worse. It was a recent attempt to Kickstart a setting for both D&D 5E and Savage Worlds: The Art of War.

This is a setting that is proud to be a slaw. It has ALL the tropes, and it starts right away by putting a slash between Bushido and Wuxia. It has everything from kitsune to youxia to shinobi to elemental benders (because of course it does). But to put it into perspective, I feel I need to do a bit of a historical analysis. You see, the description includes the following mind-boggling statement:

Art of War meshes influences of the Three Kingdoms (China) and Sengoku period (Japan) into a world of three states controlled by 3 Great Clans.

In case that statement doesn’t jump out at you, allow me to explain what’s going on here.

These two periods not only took place in completely different countries with completely different political contexts, they took place OVER 1200 YEARS APART. The technological, philosophical, and cultural underpinnings of these two periods have nothing to do with each other. A comparable Western analog would be if someone were to create a setting that blended the Peloponnesian War with the conquests of Charlemagne, mixing their aesthetics and technologies as if there were little difference between them.

Even if the setting chose two more closely related periods in order to set Bushido and Wuxia next to each other, this sort of thing needs to be done extremely carefully. A skilled historian might be able to thematically connect Ancient Greece with early Medieval France, but without a ton of research, it’s going to come across as ham-handed and nonsensical to anyone who knows even a little bit about European history.

And that’s the major problem with Asia slaw – it relies on the ignorance of the audience to overlook its glaring flaws. Almost every defense of Asia slaw settings I have ever seen is essentially an appeal to ignorance, a request to worry less about the truth of history. And any game that is more fun when I know less is not a game I can respect.

Next Steps

This has gone a bit long, so I think I will plan for a second blog post on “how to do better,” but let me at least say this for now:

Creators – do your research, and be specific and intentional about your influences. Stop skimming the surface. Be thorough in your explorations of history, culture, and language, and use them in ways that appeal to the source culture, not just to Westerners. There are plenty of games that demonstrate how even fictional settings that are just inspired by real cultures and real history are made richer when the creator takes the time to understand the source. If you want to see a master class in this, check out Hellas.

Until next time!

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