Breaking Stereotypes for Better Settings

My last post was a rant, so now we get to the follow-up on how to do better.

Specifically, I want to discuss how we can do better as designers. Private games are private games, and we don’t really need to discuss what you do on your own time with your own friends.

But if you’re designing and publishing or talking about your games on a public platform, then that is my concern. It’s everyone’s concern, because it’s public. What you contribute to gaming is part of the ongoing conversation of who we are as a community.

Why we should do better

I hope that my previous post (as well as my entire series on this stuff) explained this clearly enough, but here’s the executive summary:

  • Breaking stereotypes makes a setting more inviting to the group being represented
  • Avoiding tropes fosters creative thinking
  • Researching beyond one’s own culture can expand our empathy as designers, and this empathy shows in our writing and design

The Goal: Cultural Faithfulness

In order to break stereotypes, we need to focus on designing for cultural faithfulness. Since this is a concept I’m developing myself, here’s my definition:

cultural faithfulness: attempting to create fictional stories, settings, and characters based on a culture which adhere to one or both of the following:

  1. the accurate and complete history of that culture
  2. all of the ways in which that culture represents itself

There are a couple of important things in this definition that I want to point out. First of all, the things that you are trying to adhere to are comprehensive. Cherry-picking history or popular media is how we get tropes in the first place. Context matters. I frequently hear people say, “but I got this from an anime,” but Western audiences view those things differently. We may not understand the full context, and so we may very well be reinforcing stereotypes. (If you ever want to hear me rant in person, ask me about what I call “the ninja problem.”)

The other thing I want to point out is the word “attempting.” Because we’re never going to be perfect. We just have to keep doing better. There are things I would change now about Steamscapes: Asia compared to what I did three years ago, but I know there are plenty of people who aren’t even trying. You gotta try before you can get better.

Cultural faithfulness expands options, tropes contract them

A few people have suggested that being “historically accurate” (which actually isn’t what I’m asking for) is somehow more restrictive than following tropes. This honestly baffles me. When was the last time you played an elf that was bad at nature? Or a dwarf that couldn’t blacksmith? Tropes definitely narrow our options a lot more than “realism” does.

Tropes narrow our thinking because we follow them uncritically. They lead us to Japanese characters that are all ninja, geisha, or samurai. They lead us to Chinese characters that all know martial arts. They don’t even lead us to Indian, or Thai, or Burmese characters for the simple fact that we don’t have tropes for those cultures (until certain modern stereotypes).

But when we aim for cultural faithfulness, we open up the full range of human experience. We are not forced to boil down an entire civilization into a couple of archetypes. We can have a thief from Nepal, a physician from Korea, or a warrior from Indonesia. We can do that because such people actually existed. But if we tie ourselves to tropes it’s far too easy to forget that.

Because of this, cultural faithfulness is inherently more fun. I saw at least one person suggest that “history is boring,” which just tells me they haven’t been looking at history. One of the largest pirate fleets in history was commanded by a Chinese woman. One of the greatest lawmen in the West was a black man. Real history is full of fascinating and highly gameable stories about non-stereotypical people that you’ll miss if you stick to boring old tropes.

Doing the work

I’m going to be very practical here. I know people have varying levels of willingness to do research, and I want to offer sort of a three-tier set of suggestions based on that. However, I would strongly encourage anyone to consider “any research” to be the bare minimum.

Look at it this way – if someone has only ever played one game for their entire roleplaying life, they’re not going to have a very deep understanding of mechanics and structure. It’s exactly the same when it comes to media and culture. If (to pull a not-so-hypothetical example) your entire understanding of Japan has been filtered through anime, then your game’s representation of Japanese culture is going to be inherently limited.

Tier 1 – Just Getting By

If you’re not terribly interested in history or accuracy or real people with real feelings, but you think maybe there’s something to what I’ve been saying, this is where to start. Here are some steps you can take to avoid the most common traps and be a little better than the absolute worst:

  • Every time you make a prominent character (in setting, fiction, or pregen), change one major identifying feature away from your first instinct. This could be gender, ethnicity, profession, or position in society, or something else equally significant. The more uncomfortable this change feels to you, the better.
  • Do a Google search for [nationality] names and read both the Wiki article and the baby names lists that come up. Build all your names following the conventions of that culture.
  • Stop using the phrases “Asian-themed” and “Asian-inspired.” Be specific about your theming and inspiration. It’s never a whole continent.

Tier 2 – The Wiki Warrior

Okay, so you’re not lazy, but your time and resources are limited. You’d like to do better, but you’re just not sure how. Here are a few ways to efficiently improve your awareness and setting:

  • Spend time on the Wikipedia history pages for the culture and time period you are adapting. Then start browsing Atlas Obscura and other “historical trivia” sites for gameable concepts. If you are working in a genre that is typically Euro-centric (like steampunk), read sites that are specifically working to diversify that genre.
  • In your research, look specifically for historical figures that break common paradigms, particularly in terms of gender role, religious background, governing style, and so on. Use those individuals as models instead of the most well-known leaders and influencers.
  • When representing real cultures AND when creating fictional ones, add internal factions with different ideals and methods to show that culture is not a monolith. Ideally, make sure that no faction or nation is painted as uniformly “good” or “evil.”
  • Hire (yes, as in “pay”) at least one sensitivity reader. Then make the changes they suggest.

Tier 3 – Try Hard With a Vengeance

You’ll never be perfect, but you’re always getting better. You’re not going to release this game into the public until it’s ready, and that means making it the most representative and inclusive thing you can. Here’s how you’re going to do it:

  • Hire diverse writers and artists as part of the development team very early in the process, and empower them to tell you when you’re wrong. Give them veto power and encourage them to use it.
  • Read relevant history books written by and published in the source culture (often in translation). Explore critiques of relevant popular media from the source culture.
  • Examine your inspirational media using a variety of literary theory schools, especially critical race theory, feminist theory, Marxist theory, post-colonialism, and new historicism.
  • Participate in ongoing community discussions about diversity and representation in gaming, always making sure to listen 90% of the time and speak no more than 10%. (This is a reference to a previous post.)
  • When you make a mistake, go back and fix it. And never ever complain just because someone has called you on a mistake, even if you disagree. If you show that you are open to criticism, people will feel more comfortable helping you to improve your work.

There are certainly more suggestions, but hopefully this will give you a few things to consider. And though I have focused mostly on Asia in this and the previous post, I hope you can see that these ideas can translate to other areas of problematic representation habits.

Until next time!

-Eric

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2 thoughts on “Breaking Stereotypes for Better Settings

  1. Somewhere between 2 and 3 is, check out Edward Said’s “Orientalism.” It is dated now, and it is a bit of a slog, but he really started one major trend in not-being-racist-while-talking-about-other-cultures-ism.
    Its on Audible, so you could listen to it instead, which is… a little easier going? Just reading the introduction can be a revelation, and I would say reading that is somewhere between 1 and 2.

    And again, it is dated. A lot of the language is problematical, and some of it is downright cringe-worthy. But … the *reason* we see it as problematical is that it was written in the first place. It was one of the first shots fired in the “hey, stop treating everyone East of Greece as a monolithic culture as invented and imagined by people from places West of Greece.” As Eric says, you have to start trying in order to do better, and for all his assumptions, we have a lot to thank Said for.

    Liked by 1 person

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