Cultural appropriation, privileged narratives, and hypothetical video games

Over the past few weeks there has been what I can only describe as an epic flame war on LJ and elsewhere. I am not going to link to any of it or try to summarize. Suffice to say that it started out about racism, cultural appropriation, and privilege, and that buried in the turd-flinging (which I did not read all of, by any means) there were some really good points made on those topics.

Editor’s note, August 2009: I am talking about RaceFail 2009. If you are unfamiliar with this, I recommend reading Mary Anne Mohanraj’s two guest posts on John Scalzi’s blog; these were written after it was mostly over, and are serious, constructive discussion of implicit privilege (including but not limited to racism) in fiction in general. If you want to know about the argument proper, Anne Somerville summarized it and ryda wong has a comprehensive list of links to its many pieces.

Editor’s note, November 2014: ryda wong’s journal has been taken down; if anyone knows of a mirror of the list please let me know.

This has gotten me thinking about cultural appropriation and privileged narratives in the context of video games, and especially that roguelike I’m not writing. Video games are not where one generally goes for great storytelling or cultural sensitivity, but (assuming I were writing one) why should I make that any worse than it is? And the major motivation for the hypothetical roguelike is that the storytelling in roguelikes is threadbare, so if I’m wanting to make that better, why not be really ambitious and try to fix everything at once? So let’s have another look at the plot of that game with privilege and appropriation in mind.

I posted a plot sketch and some flavor notes the last time I talked about this. The condensed version is: the player character lives in a country with a geographic border with Faerie. Faerie is reportedly all torn up with war and disaster, so the PC decides to go exploring, because maybe there is treasure to be looted. Of course there is, but also it turns out that the entire otherworld is coming apart at the seams, and the PC is in a position to stop that, encourage it, or take advantage of it. I hadn’t decided why this was happening in the first place. Being a roguelike, the PC will die a lot, but there are a whole group of people back in the border country doing this, so the player can just switch to a new one.

The problem I see with this narrative is that it can easily turn into either straight-up colonialism (if the PCs take advantage of the mess to take over Faerie or just steal all the gold and nifty magic doodads) or what these people need is a honky (if the PCs make everything better for the fair folk). But is this really the narrative’s fault? This is a roguelike we’re talking about here. The core gameplay is, by definition, about killing monsters and taking their stuff. And any video game with a plot is going to have some degree of what these people need is a player character, or else the PC has no agency and the player is bored.

Perhaps the problem is with the genre, then? Perhaps the world does not need another game where what you do is kill the monsters and take their stuff. The obvious way to fit that into the roguelike milieu is if it initially appears that you are out to kill the monsters and take their stuff, but then that turns out to be a really bad idea. Consider: even in the midst of war and disaster, we humans take the time to hunt down murderers. Why wouldn’t goblins, kappas, nagas do the same? Kill a monster and the police come after you. Put together a gang of bandits and terrorize a village, and the local military comes after you (like in The Seven Samurai). You can keep fighting but the difficulty curve goes up way faster than you can level. This can even be extended to non-sentient species; there are plenty of stories where the local spirits (or the local game wardens) become homicidally angry when you hunt in the wrong place. Conversely, help out that lion with a thorn in its paw, and you’ve got a friend; be consistently kind to animals and you have a pack.

Okay, so the PC is not killing the monsters and taking their stuff, so what is he or she doing instead? War implies factions, and disasters have causes. If there is a long history of wary relations across the border, one or more of the factions could easily reach out for allies in a troubled time. I envision this as much more of an exploration game than a tactics game, so perhaps the war is over, everyone lost, and the hope is that the mundane PCs are resistant to the magical fallout that is stopping the fair folk from reclaiming their cities. Or at least they’re more expendable. This puts a lot more load on the AI for non-combat interactions with NPCs but I don’t think it’s intractable; over in console RPG land people have been doing amazing things with canned dialogue trees for some time.

elsmi had another idea: perhaps the abandoned castles were built by a previous wave of colonists, and there may come a point when [the PCs] gain an urgent interest in why the last guys felt they needed big castles, and why exactly they aren’t there anymore… I like this notion, but I hesitate to have the previous wave of colonists come from the same country as the PCs, because then you’d expect all the locals to hate the PCs on sight. It’s tempting to borrow a notion from Doc Sidhe and have there have been an indigenous oppressor class, those High Elves that Pratchett and Moorcock are at pains to remind us were as cruel as they were beautiful. elsmi also suggests a vaguely modern setting for the nonmagical land, which is attractive just because it hasn’t been done much.

If you’re still reading: Is this still potentially a fun game? What do you think of the revised setting? What overused and/or privileged tropes am I still not avoiding/subverting?