Cultural Appropriation and Gaming

Kevin sat down with Megan and Todd from the JankCast, Clyde Rhoer and Victor Raymond to talk about cultural appropriation and its impact on gaming. What is it, why is it wrong, and how can we approach these topics? This discussion touches on a lot of sensitive issues (including sexism and classism as well) and gets quite heated.

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 Trigger Warning:

Racial and gendered slurs used as examples of oppression.

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20 Responses to “Cultural Appropriation and Gaming”

  1. Ego Says:

    Enjoyed the discussion a LOT. Through most of it I had a couple questions sitting in my head, but the discussion of “game as genre” rather than “game as examination of culture” cleared up most of it.

    Here’s my long and short of it: I’m designing an Apocalypse World hack called Avatar World based on Avatar The Last Airbender (and Korra of course), as well as other wuxia films. As a version of the ApW engine, it’s a genre emulator. I use words like Samurai and Ninja in reference to the things they represent in common media. Trouble is, those particular images are stereotypes. By designing my game to represent a genre that implicitly is supporting stereotypes, am I accidentally furthering those stereotypes and slowing their dissolution? On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a good portrayal of the genre without those stereotypes. Is it still okay to support a genre if I’m explicitly modelling the genre rather than the real-world dynamic, even if the genre is itself somewhat problematic?
    Just lookin’ for other takes. Awesome discussion folks.

  2. Clyde L Rhoer Says:

    Hey Ego,

    That sounds awesome! I fucking love both those cartoons. What is striking me weird about your statement is neither of those cartoons use specific Japanese mythos, do they? There are people who are sneaky, and there are people who fight with swords, there are people who do bending, and some might do all three. None of them seemed to be bound up with those particular words.

    I think you can easily and appropriately avoid the issue, by dumping those words and finding something closer to the media you’re borrowing from. Like perhaps “Some Element” Nation Warrior. As in Avatar they might be a Fire Nation Warrior.

    Or a more fruitful path might be making playbooks off character personality archetypes, rather than their physical representation. Sokka might be The Comic Relief. Something like that.

  3. Ego Says:

    That’s a good solution! And that’s true, Avatar doesn’t use the blatant terms. However, martial arts films and other wuxia media very commonly are bound up in them, and I’m trying to mirror those as well. Also, while Avatar doesn’t SAY the words, it’s fairly obvious in some cases that a given character is meant to evoke the idea (especially for the Ninja – Azula’s friends are obviously ninjas, as are Suki and the rest of the Kyoshi warriors), so using the terms lets me be quite broad in the interpretation of the playbooks.
    That’s where my big concern is: I’m using the words in a mostly metaphorical sense, evoking the IDEA of ninjas and samurai, not just the literal interpretations of those words. Ninja, for example, is a name that very much evokes the flavor of the genre while describing the more general “fast, sneaky warrior using unconventional techniques”.
    I could change the name, but I risk losing some of the evocative power inherent in the name. Then again, the name is mostly evocative BECAUSE of the stereotype, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing really?

    Going off the personality archetypes is a great suggestion, and if I was to completely restart today I probably would have considered that option first. Having written 8 playbooks already though, that could be a very laborious path…worth it if there aren’t other sensitive options, but if a cosmetic change could be pretty much effective I’ll look at that first. But I definitely like using personality archetypes.

    Also, as for the wonderful people who do All 3 of sneaky/swords/bending and all that, dividing those pieces into their own playbooks isn’t too bad with the rules for taking moves from other playbooks.

    Thanks for the suggestions! Good thinking stuffs. :)

  4. JHL Says:

    Something I was hoping to hear more of, but only caught a hint of here or there: What are some examples of appropriate culture-portrayal in gaming? Are there some clear contrasts that can be drawn between those and portrayals that may be inadvertently insensitive/problematic (as opposed to obvious examples like WoD:Gypsies or RIFTS: Spirit West)?

  5. Clyde L. Rhoer Says:

    Hey Ego,

    You can still get around it by using just English words like warrior, and rogue.

  6. Ego Says:

    Yeah, that’s true, and that option is definitely on my design table. “Warrior” and “Rogue” and the like just feel much less interesting than using the current terms (which is maybe related to feeling “exotic” which is an issue itself anyway, but I do think it’s more fitting still). The more I think about it though the more I lean toward renaming, it’s just a matter of figuring out what still works in an interesting fashion alongside:
    Airbender (+ Earth-, Fire-, & Water- bender), Aristocrat, Monk (monastery/temple-style, not kung-fu monks), and Scholar playbooks.
    (also are any of those also problematic? I don’t think so but maybe I’m missing something)

  7. Troy Says:

    The important thing about what makes Ninjas…Ninjas, as opposed to Rogues in black body suits, is the idea of a community of people, that to survive are raised from birth to be good at espionage and selling their services in a culture that expressly forbids those services. Think about who those people might be in your world. You could name them after the tribal group who does this, or a nickname based on the fear or social approvation of the larger cultural set that surrounds them. (perhaps they are called Soulless because their actions remove them from the sight of the gods of mercy) Basically build some new myth into the name to give them some of the cool your looking for.

  8. Zeronine Says:

    First apologies, this is off-topic and to CJ & Dan:

    PLEASE, bring us another Comics Cast!!!

    and, now back to topic. Thank you for this one. Discussion was stimulating although at times I felt that sting of dominant culture enforces tis norms on the givens of perception. All in all great work.

  9. James Says:

    Victor must have a PhD in White Guilt and Political Correctness, talk about sanctimonious. I’m glad no one I hang around with is like that, because I like my games to be “fun”. It’s a good thing for him too, he’d probably have a heart attack or a brain aneurysm.

    Playing pretend is one thing, but that guy’s SERIOUSNESS is just plain SILLY.

  10. Kevin Weiser Says:

    There are many ways to disagree with an opinion, but what James does in the above post is what’s known as “silencing”. One does not actually address the issues at hand, but instead shames the person for even bringing it up. Basically, it’s saying that Victor is being “uppity” for even having the opinion he does. How DARE Victor care about the representation of oppressed people in gameplay, or how that tends to reinforce harmful stereotypes. He cares because it is real to him. James’s post is a perfect example of a silencing technique known as the Tone Argument: don’t attack the points being made, attack the way they are delivered, in this case, call it “sanctimonious” and simultaneously “silly.” This does not further the conversation, it shuts it down (silences it) by dismissing both Victor’s feelings on the subject and his right to express them.

    I allowed this comment to get through moderation because it presents a teachable moment: this is how not to do it, folks. Further posts of this ilk will not be approved, because they don’t do any good for anybody. Thank you, James, for providing us with such an excellent example. Class dismissed.

  11. Marcus Says:

    I’m sorry, but this entire discussion rubbed me the wrong way. My gaming table is the bloody definition of multiculturalism and the tasteless jokes and comments fly left and right, and are enjoyed by every one of us because we’re all friends. What this entire episode seems to scream is political correctness and a fear of offending others. Cultural appropriation? I suppose that’s one way to coin what is basically liking something you saw and trying to find a way to make it relevant to your game. Cross-cultural influence is part of what’s given me some of my favorite works of fiction, from Star Wars to Big Trouble In Little China, to Trigun, to Cowboy Bebop. If you’re the kind of gamer who’s worried about offending someone at every turn, you’re not going to have much fun, because you’re never going to take any chances for fear of being offensive.

    Political correctness is for the masses. Not my friends. Not my table.

  12. Kevin Weiser Says:


    “What this entire episode seems to scream is political correctness and a fear of offending others.”

    Yes. That is exactly what we are trying to say: You should be careful not to offend others. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request. Do you know what kind of person doesn’t care about how the things they say and do affect others? An asshole. We’re trying to tell people that when you appropriate the culture of a marginalized group of people, use it as a plot crutch full of simplistic and inaccurate stereotypes, that’s bad.

    I also want to clarify that borrowing from another culture is NOT appropriation. What we are talking about is a very specific thing: its using the culture of oppressed or marginalized people carelessly. Take, for example, Avatar the Last Airbender. No one cries cultural appropriation in the case of A:TLA because 1) the cultures being drawn from are not being oppressed, 2) it was carefully researched and lovingly produced, and 3) Actual cultures were not used or named, they just took inspiration from them. Compare that to, say, the recent Lone Ranger movie. Same with most of the examples you cited, except Star Wars, but that is a topic for another time. Suffice to say Star Wars doesn’t straight up steal cultural aspects and keep them in the same name. We all know Jedi are just Samurai Monks. But they never CALL them samurai monks. The problem comes when you portray REAL cultures from the REAL world, and are sloppy and inconsiderate about it.

    I’m the kind of gamer who’s always careful to make sure I’m not offending people, and I manage to have LOTS of fun at the table. You can listen to proof of that every week on this podcast. As I final comment, you seem to take pride in “tasteless jokes and comments”. I would urge you to unpack just what about these things you think are funny. The easiest way to dismiss a problem is to make fun of it. This doesn’t help anyone, especially the people who’s misfortune you are taking so much joy in pointing out.

  13. Sharklazers Says:

    I wonder how the people in this episode feel about the cultural appropriation of so called ‘geek culture’? I’d be interested in their thoughts on seeing so many people walking around in shirts that SAY ‘GEEK’ as a fashion or the omnipresent tweets along the lines of ‘I washed my own clothes today. I’m such a nerd. XD’

  14. Kevin Weiser Says:


    There’s a key difference between geeks and people we’re talking about. Geeks, for all their claims of persecution, are not a marginalized or oppressed people. They are in fact quite mainstream nowadays. That said, if you think about how angry people get at The Big Bang theory for it’s malicious humor at the expense of geeks, that might give you a small idea of what it feels like to have your culture appropriated. It’s not anywhere near the same thing, but thinking about how much things like that piss you off might help you understand where marginalized people that cry foul about cultural appropriation are coming from.

  15. Victor Raymond Says:

    I’m actually a little sympathetic to Marcus, if only because he seems to get some of what we were talking about. Marcus, here’s the distinction I think you’re missing:

    Cultural appropriation != Cross-cultural influence

    …as Kevin explained, cultural appropriation involves a power differential between groups, usually (but not always), ethnically or religiously distinct from one another. Some groups have historically gotten the short end of the stick in terms of power and autonomy (and I know you know who they are). Those groups are the ones that have had parts of their culture grabbed by other groups, to be used for various purposes without getting any sort of okay from the original culture’s group – THAT’s cultural appropriation. If you don’t actually see this, take a look at the different reactions to, say, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and the University of Illinois’ old “mascot” Chief Illiniwek. (yeah, I know one’s religion and the other is ethnicity, but they are more connected than you might think. Google “Plastic Shaman” and ask me about that later.)

    I get it that at your table you’ve got lots of diversity. Good – more power to you for having that going on. But it’s pretty clear that you assume a degree of equality in your joking and interaction. Cross-cultural interaction can be pretty cool, when you get everything from fusion cuisine to various kinds of anime to guys in Germany coming up with their own fantasy RPG and then translating it into English to sell back to us. That’s when groups exchange ideas and elements of culture on a roughly equal basis.

    But outside of your group, things aren’t so equal. Could you imagine if somebody came in to your group and believed some of that tastelessness your friends joke about? Could you imagine something that might really piss you off? See, the entire point of this discussion is that – as much as we might have it under control for ourselves – the rest of the world is still out there, and people still do stupid shit. Cultural appropriation is just one aspect of it. Pretty soon, we’re talking racism, sexism and a lot worse – and yeah, it’s all bundled together.

    Which side of that do you want to be on?

  16. Victor Raymond Says:

    James: “white guilt”? Fuck that. I don’t want people to feel guilty, I want people to stop grabbing other people’s stuff and acting all offended when somebody points out that it wasn’t their shit in the first place. (Go look up George Carlin for the difference between “shit” and “stuff.”)

    Sharklazers: ya know, when they start putting nerds and geeks in nice little camps and reservations, y’all come back and talk to me about the equivalence in their relationship to the dominant culture with people of color, or women, or…you get the idea. Or you should.

  17. Marcus Says:

    I had actually stopped listening to this podcast after this episode, and happened to recall it while listening to another show. I came back out of curiosity to see if there had been any responses, and predictably found a comment from the staff no less, that indirectly asserts I am an asshole for daring to differ from what is obviously a very liberal, walking on shells approach to a gaming table. I’m not sorry for my position. I’m sorry only that we exist in a society that has become an absolute nanny state. Someone is always going to be offended. No matter what, no matter where. The very act of existing is an affront to someone else by today’s standards, and there’s just as many opportunists looking to exploit that sort of social conditioning.

    And by the way. You aren’t the sole judge of what constitutes cultural appropriation. You, like everyone else, have opinions. Unlike everyone else, you have decided your judgements to be final. No.

    I will not be returning to this site. Enjoy your sense of self-righteous, progressive accomplishment. I’m sure you will.

  18. Kevin Weiser Says:

    Since Marcus has made it abundantly clear we’ve lost him as a listener forever, I won’t bother to reply to him. Nor can I shoot him an email as he declined to include an email address with his account, such a man of strong principals is he. I will however make a few closing comments about how I feel this conversation as a whole progressed.

    What I’ve noticed after wading through all the comments for this episode is they fall into two general categories: people who agree, and people who deny the problem even exists. Those who deny it usually throw around words like “nanny state” and “political correctness”. As John Scalzi said on Twitter: “Remember, kids: If you’re unironically using “politically correct” in 2013, this sign goes up over your head: “Probably racist and sexist.” They say things like “everyone is too sensitive nowadays.” What this position ignores is the fact that people have ALWAYS been this sensitive, it’s just that the social power dynamic in place made it impossible for them to express their feelings in the past. What would happen to a black man in 1960 North Carolina* spoke up and said “Hey, these Minstrel Shows aren’t cool!” ( What are the chances he’d get anywhere? What are the chances he’d be lynched for being “uppity”?

    Yeah, things have changed, and a big part of that is because of the progressive dialog has MADE it change. This episode (and the comments that follow) are part of that progressive dialog. It is no where near the end of the conversation. It is by no means a “final judgement”. It is our contribution to the conversation. Macrus’ conversation, on the other hand can be summed up as: “This isn’t a real problem, and even if it is, I don’t care, I’m not going to change how I behave just for the sake of other people’s fee fees.” And he wonders why I indirectly called him an asshole (I thought it was pretty direct, myself).

    It is important to acknowledge that changing your language and behavior to be more accommodating to the feelings of others is hard work. It can be a painful and frustrating process. You might have to give up on words or phrases (or even character classes in games: I’m looking at you, Diablo 3 Witch Doctor) that you really love and enjoy.

    And yes, there’s just no avoiding offending some people. Some people are looking for a reason to be offended, like, for example, people getting educated on how their behavior might be hurtful to others. What Marcus fails to delineate is between people who have a legitimate reason to be offended, and those just looking for a fight. I think people who’s entire culture and lifestyle has been oppressed for centuries have a pretty legit claim to being offended when some post colonial white dude takes their holy man and turns it into a baseball mascot, or a vehicle for people to make racist jokes at a gaming table. People who are offended by the mere thought that others might live in a different world that was built AGAINST them instead of FOR them, people like privileged dudes in the fucking SOUTH, for chrissakes, I’m less worried about offending.

    *A state pulled at random, and not at all because Marcus’s IP address points to Monroe, North Carolina

  19. Beej Says:

    So I was digging through the older episodes and found this one. There is one thing that Victor said that bugged me and I would disagree with; that it’s not his job to educate.

    If you are motivated enough to point out a problem/error/fault and that person asks you to help/advise/suggest reference material, I would say you are obligated to help. I’m not saying hold their hand and spend hours and hours with them but throw out a name of a book on the subject or a documentary or a website. Personally (and I think a lot of people would agree) if someone tells me I’m doing something wrong and I ask them for some manner of help and they take the position of ‘it’s not my job to teach you’ then I’m doing to consider them a dick and ignore them or move on with something else.

    I’m a Byzantine nut, i have a shelf of books on the empire and two audio recordings of two full college lecture courses on the subject. If I call someone out on errors and they ask for help and I don’t throw out the title of a book or point them in the direction of more material, then I’m being a dick.

  20. Shimmin Beg Says:

    There’s a bit of a difference there, though, because it’s not personal. It might annoy you that someone messes up some Byzantine facts, but it doesn’t contribute to an ongoing injustice against you. You want to correct them because you care whether the facts are right. If you care enough to mention it but not enough to help them correct things, it seems like you don’t actually care but just want to show off or put them down. It’s a very specific level of caring.

    Also, I suspect you don’t daily run into misrepresentations of Byzantine issues that wear down your tolerance for it and your patience for explaining things to people you suspect don’t really care.

    Putting the burden on the discriminatee to justify and explain everything every time is a form of silencing. It doesn’t have to be deliberate and I’m not suggesting you’re aiming for that; by making it even more difficult for people to highlight problems, it deters them. Of course it’s great if people feel like giving advice, but it’s already really difficult to get people to acknowledge these problems, and many respond with hostility when it’s pointed out. This sort of thing puts an expectation on discriminatee that they remain calm, level-headed and helpful in the face of upsetting things, which is starting to move towards the Tone Argument.

    Hope that makes sense.

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