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Using Other Cultural Traditions In A Fantasy Game?

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I could use some advice and other perspectives on using foreign traditions in a game.

 

Specifically, I find Indian cultural traditions to be a really interesting one for a fantasy rpg setting. Chakra is a great base to build a magic system out of. There's a rich tradition of ghosts/demons/"monsters" to draw enemies from. There's elaborate martial traditions. I was thinking an interesting setting could be a collision of the buddhist realms: some cosmic catastrophe has broken the wheel of rebirth and the demons and demigods and hungry ghosts and such are all thrown into the same plane.

 

That said, I'm a white American. I can research the topics but can't claim to understand them in the same way an Indian individual would.

 

Additionally, gamification inherently involves some degree of caricature. A character firing a Prana Bolt at a great serpent for 30 damage involves taking liberties with these elements.

 

On the one hand, I think cross cultural fusion is a positive thing. Limitations like "you came from tradition X so you can only draw from that" tend to hamper artistic expression. I think being one more voice repeating Western European folk stories does less for promoting cultural awareness than using another culture's stories.

 

On the other hand, I was researching relevant systems and came across "Oriental Adventures" from dnd 3.5, complete with that stylized faux-Chinese lettering. The superficial, trope heavy handling of the topic was a reminder how easily these things can start to feel like cheap exoticism.

 

My current thinking is that approaching the material respectfully and creating a deep, unique setting is a sufficient approach. That said, do other people have other opinions, or advice on achieving that?

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Honestly, drop the american white guilt.

 

Study the cultures, learn what you can and make the system based on what you learned. You are not making a fantasy RPG based on the history of a country and RPG fans will look for great writing and great game mechanics, not a 100% precise cultural demonstration. I have seen some elements from my culture in a few games and never gave a fuck if they were precise or not.

 

If my word is not enough, learn from the most successful RPG series of the world, Final Fantasy. It was made by a Japanese team and their settings, spell and weapons take a little from several places in the world, not only Japan. People don't love their games because Shiva is a great representation of the Indian culture.

Edited by KnolanCross

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Good advice, thanks =)

 

That did come out more white guilt-y then I felt.

 

I think my concern is specifically with borrowing heavily from one tradition. Final Fantasy samples far and wide for cultural iconography: Shiva and Excalibur and everything else, but they're a simple, superficial depiction that is used and then the game moves on. As simple iconography, I think that's cool. At the other extreme you have games that come out of a particular culture, retelling that culture's stories.

 

My concern is that in the middle ground I end up creating a game where priests run around swinging incense censers to fight yeti and eating the host to power up. That is, I capture the elements of a culture and then mishmash them in a slightly nonsense and profane way. I mean, that game sounds kind of awesome as an intentional thing, but weird as a cultural misunderstanding thing. I like the idea of the realms of rebirth colliding, it puts all these interesting characters in direct contact, but for all I know that could strike someone in that culture as silly or slightly offensive. I don't think it would, but a game involves a million little decisions and while I can research the cultural "facts" there's no easy way to judge the reactions to deviations from script.

 

That said, I think you're right about it being a question of writing quality and mechanics above the rest. That the host as a powerup might bother some folk, but largely if the universe is well created and well written it'll work.

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My concern is that in the middle ground I end up creating a game where priests run around swinging incense censers to fight yeti and eating the host to power up. That is, I capture the elements of a culture and then mishmash them in a slightly nonsense and profane way. I mean, that game sounds kind of awesome as an intentional thing, but weird as a cultural misunderstanding thing. I like the idea of the realms of rebirth colliding, it puts all these interesting characters in direct contact, but for all I know that could strike someone in that culture as silly or slightly offensive.

 

Many many games have misunderstood, misinterpreted, or even openly bashed the Christian religion (usually leaning towards more Eastern Orthodox or Catholic depictions, because the ritualism is cool to depict). I don't mind it so much. The same bashing over and over again gets tired for lack of originality or, heck, a lack of even knowledgeable criticism, but I absolutely don't mind portrayals - even accidentally butchered ones. The Japanese anime, manga, and videogame industry, often add Christian symbols and characteristics to otherwise completely not-Christian characters - that's so mild I wouldn't even consider it a portrayal, more of a friendly pilfering of symbols. Christian priests and clerics are stand-by tropes in almost every online RPG (Asian-esqe monks are pretty common too, with Ninjas and Samurai being less-common but very much present).

 

Some games even seem to intentionally try to profane Christian topics (rather than intelligent debate or knowledgeable criticism) - which just comes across as a jerky thing to do. I don't get why it's open hunting on intentionally distorting Christianity, but 'cultural insensitivity' for using other cultures in works of fiction? Like JK Rowling getting bashed for "culturally appropriating" native american lore in an entirely unmalicious way.

 

Apparently we're supposed to have cultural diversity portrayed in our works, while also only ever depicting the culture we're personally from.  :rolleyes:

 

Ofcourse there's also the benefit of sticking with what you know, and what you are familiar with. I suggest you just approach it with respect, and learn about and research what you are going to depict (if for nothing else than inspiration), but otherwise do your thing. It's practically guaranteed that you'll be bashed by some parts of the public no matter what you do. Probably people who haven't even played your game, and aren't even from the culture you are portraying.  :rolleyes:

People seem to enjoy finding things to be offended about nowadays, so I'd just be prepared with pre-planned responses, and otherwise dismiss them. If they make a good point, then say, "Hmm, that makes sense. Thanks for bringing that to my attention! I'll remember that in the future."

 

Pursing humor in different cultures is a much more tricky tightrope to walk:

 

"A foreigner is a man who laughs at everything except jokes. He is perfectly entitled to laugh at anything, so long as he realises, in a reverent and religious spirit, that he himself is laughable. I was a foreigner in America; and I can truly claim that the sense of my own laughable position never left me. But when the native and the foreigner have finished with seeing the fun of each other in things that are meant to be serious, they both approach the far more delicate and dangerous ground of things that are meant to be funny. The sense of humour is generally very national; perhaps that is why the internationalists are so careful to purge themselves of it. I had occasion during the war to consider the rights and wrongs of certain differences alleged to have arisen between the English and American soldiers at the front. And, rightly or wrongly, I came to the conclusion that they arose from the failure to understand when a foreigner is serious and when he is humorous. And it is in the very nature of the best sort of joke to be the worst sort of insult if it is not taken as a joke." - GK Chesterton

 

I haven't watched the Simpsons in, well, probably close to a decade now. But I used to watch it very frequently. I greatly enjoyed the humor surrounding the greedy lacking-in-faith Reverend Lovejoy as well as hyper-conservative Ned Flander. But there was two kinds of humor often depicted: One was laughing at the absurdities of Christianity from an outsider's perspective - observational humor (and sometimes situational). This was very enjoyable, because it was true observational absurdity. It is humor that Christians and non-Christians can both enjoy together. The other type is bashing or jabbing at the Christian religion to appeal to non-Christians. This is an intentional attack on part of your audience to appeal to the other part of your audience. That kind of humor I don't enjoy, and by it's very nature is divisive and disrespectful.

 

People can get offended at anything, so my suggestion is not to be offensive - not to make attacks (even as "jokes"), but don't worry too much about non-attacking portrayals and usage - people will get offended, so be prepared to give a friendly non-aggressive response.

Edited by Servant of the Lord

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Do you have any Indian friends or contacts you could use to oversee things and make sure you aren't over the line anywhere?  A quick glance at a draft of your concepts is probably enough.  Another option is to use the concepts but not the names, which also gives you a bit more freedom to change something to fit your games universe or systems.

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Honestly, drop the american white guilt.

 

Study the cultures, learn what you can and make the system based on what you learned. You are not making a fantasy RPG based on the history of a country and RPG fans will look for great writing and great game mechanics, not a 100% precise cultural demonstration. I have seen some elements from my culture in a few games and never gave a fuck if they were precise or not.

 

I don't think white-guilt is anywhere humanity wants to live, agreed. Still, its important not to reject all cultural sensitivity on the premise that such assigned or felt guilt is mislead. Retreating entirely most often leads us back to the status quo, which is very much white-dominated in Europe and especially in America. Obviously, the status quo in places like China or India or South Africa is dominated there by Chinese or Indians or Africans there, but that's not really relevant if you're not producing something primarily meant to be consumed in those places. OP seems to be conscientious enough to want not to fall back into that pit, but that is easier desired than achieved when bias can be so subtle and ingrained.

 

You should be especially sensitive to spiritual traditions because those things hold deep meanings for people, especially if those traditions are alive and well today -- God of War adopting the Greek Pantheon as its backdrop is a very different thing than adopting the spiritual culture of India and its polytheism, precisely because the former is (AFAIK) not currently in practice, while the latter very much is, with over a billion adherents worldwide. Most of the world's religions don't take their teachings to be mere parable, or their practices and traditions to be merely for show or for habit.

 

Its OK to look to other cultures for inspiration; its OK, I think, even to respectfully borrow elements. But part of being respectful, I think, is knowing when not to exceed your grasp of things. For example, your cultural differences mean that you'll never be in a position to "teach" about the cultural premises you're borrowing from, no matter how well intentioned you are -- even the most well-studied academics regularly lose something in the translation, or to their own biases. Its delusional for a white, american, non-hindu to believe they understand the depth of those spiritual beliefs, much less to communicate them to others, and its folly to attempt taking the mantle of cultural education under such circumstances. For similar reasons, its a poor idea, IMO, for outsiders to take spiritual stories directly out of spiritual traditions -- they're sacred things you don't understand -- and what's more there are abundant parables in the culture outside of the spiritual that don't carry the risk of offending people's spirituality (of course, religious texts and traditions might also contain pure parables or spiritually-adjacent parables whose essence can be extracted without loss or offense).

 

I'm not a fan, and he's not without problems himself, but musician Mackelmore once had this to say about being white and doing hip-hop music:

This, to me, is what it comes down to: You need to know your place in the culture. Are you taking or are you contributing? … You need to listen, you need to be humble. This is a whole debate, but this is not my culture to begin with. This is not a culture that white people started. I do believe that as much as I have honed my craft and put in years of dedication into the music that I love, I need to know my place.

 

Finally, consider whether you are looking towards other cultures just to "reskin" old tropes, and ask yourself that is a genuine or exploitative thing to do. Would a made-up culture serve just as well? Are you adopting another, lesser-seen culture to appear original while -- you know -- avoiding the actual work of being original? Are you adopting a lesser-seen culture to exploit them financially? Are you borrowing from other cultures to cast them, however subtly, as barbaric or backwards? Are you just taking? Can you honestly contribute? If neither, how are you threading that needle?

Edited by Ravyne

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...For similar reasons, its a poor idea, IMO, for outsiders to take spiritual stories directly out of spiritual traditions -- they're sacred things you don't understand -- and what's more there are abundant parables in the culture outside of the spiritual that don't carry the risk of offending people's spirituality (of course, religious texts and traditions might also contain pure parables or spiritually-adjacent parables whose essence can be extracted without loss or offense)...

That is a particular crux of this challenge. As with many cultures, the line between folk and spiritual isn't clear cut. Is a naga, a snake spirit, a folk tale or a religious being? Is meditation a religious act or a traditional practice? Is chakra a religious belief or a factual belief?

Since I am primarily interested in the magic, in the setting, in the creatures my intent was to leave out the overtly religious (I hadn't intended to depict the major gods or Buddha), but I don't think it's possible to excise the spiritual. I'm not even sure it's desirable, as that feels like a failing to depict a culture as well.

Finally, consider whether you are looking towards other cultures just to "reskin" old tropes, and ask yourself that is a genuine or exploitative thing to do. Would a made-up culture serve just as well? Are you adopting another, lesser-seen culture to appear original while -- you know -- avoiding the actual work of being original? Are you adopting a lesser-seen culture to exploit them financially? Are you borrowing from other cultures to cast them, however subtly, as barbaric or backwards? Are you just taking? Can you honestly contribute? If neither, how are you threading that needle?

An excellent question. I find "if this folk belief were true in its most literal sense, what follows?" to be a really rich vein to mine narrative from. I think Harry Potter, American Gods, the VVitch all succeed because of their attempts to hew to traditions. Art thrives under constraints, and I think following the contours of beliefs and folk narratives with a modern sensibility is a really exciting path. For that reason I'm less interested in inventing something whole cloth.

Why India? The mythology fits an rpg so well. A base of prana inside our body that manifests through 7 chakras is a great source of magical power. The realms of Sansara, filled with petty Titans and hungry ghosts and demons provide ample problems for the heroes. The mythology has plenty of creatures to fill a bestiary. I think ultimately it's just a more natural setting for a fantasy world then Western traditions.

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Sure -- and to be clear I don't mean my line of questioning as an attack on your motives, but more as a prompt for examining and challenging your own motivations (and for anyone who might come along asking this same vein of question). Likewise, I'm not in a position to promote or defend your intended use because I'm not a follower of Hindu faith or culturally Indian -- in fact, a white American like you.

 

I think its entirely possible to present a work of fantasy that borrows from history and traditions that are not your own without misappropriating them. And honestly a lot of contemporary humanity is not all that much more disconnected from others' traditions as they are 'their own' -- its not like being a white Catholic from the states makes you an expert in Catholicism or the early Vatican politics. I think the way to think about it is that the more directly you attempt to crib from any source, the greater risk you carry to get it wrong, and potentially the greater harm you do by getting it wrong. I think its also more difficult for you to gauge that risk or potential for harm the further you're removed from those things you're borrowing. For those reasons, extra caution and care when dealing with such things are your due diligence, IMO.

 

I think as designers and storytellers we also need to keep sight of the fact that once we put something out into the world, we lose control of it. We created it, but its not ours anymore. What we meant to put out into the world doesn't matter then, only how it was received. If some people were offended by it, then it was offensive -- maybe only to one single person, but no amount of our own good intentions erases or excuses how they experienced it. And still some people might think its a beautiful thing -- maybe lots of people, maybe people very much like the one person it offended -- all that can happen simultaneously and it doesn't make one perception any better or more correct than any other. This is true of any axis of criticism -- we do our best to put our visions out there, and in the end you're the one who's ultimately responsible for how well you can continue to sleep at night.

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I'm really into mythology, and whenever I meet someone native to the mythologies geography, I like to ask them for cultural clarity. What I found is, the average person isn't more familiar with their own cultures mythology than people who are actually fascinated by it.

Hindu is still an active religion, so you'll likely get some scrutiny. Looking at SMITEs retcon of Kali for being accurately revealing, you'll find that it doesn't matter whether your being authentic, but whether your being sensitive to involved parties.

Just do your research and give it a shot, than adjust with feedback where necessary. It's really random whether you'll receive scrutiny, due or unjust, but adaptation is a part of production.

I mean, HEMA communities decry absurd over swing and ridiculously disfunctional armor, doesn't stop Dark Souls from selling, nor does Dantes Inferno answer for being a complete work of heresy. It's really about creativity vs SJW triggers.

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