Cultures in Gaming (as it stands…)

This is not a discussion of gaming culture, but cultures IN the games we play. Some real world cultures are mentioned to provide context.

Roleplaying games are generally bad at dealing with culture. Sure, Elves are arrogant, Dwarves are stoic, and so on. But these are generalizations about behavior, but never about culture. And culture is the heart of all civilization. Without it, we are rats fighting for cheese and building monuments by chance.

This ‘essay’ will attempt to dissect what culture is, is not, and how cultural schisms in gaming are nothing like real world ones. And why that’s stupid.

Without getting too political, if you watch (or read) the news, you know that a lot of places on the planet aren’t getting along. Wars have grown more violent and ancient cultural hatreds are developing again. But cultural wars aren’t only happening in Asia, but in America as well.

In fact, we’re living in a huge cultural war at the moment. Maybe as big as pre-Civil War America.

Since gaming does not exist in a vacuum, many of the events of our fantasy and science fiction worlds stem from our own life experiences. Devoid of life experiences, lazy writers turn to clichés, stereotypes, and unrealistic characterizations of people. Big ideas are reduced to small sentences.

Russians are grim people, having to survive the harsh realities of winter and not enough food.

This is so dumb, it’s almost wrong. And it’s not even an unrealistic sentence to read in a gaming book. If the lens we view the world through is narrow, our gaming worlds and expectations will be narrow as well. Dwarves are grim. Halflings are troublemakers. Orcs hate everything. If this was an article for, there would be now 1000 posts below of trolls shouting at each other about kids needing less/more spankings.

9781402783609_a142We cannot explore the lack of cultural expression in gaming material if we don’t understand the term. Most people think of culture as that thing that makes other people different. But culture is more complicated than that. Shorthand: Culture is the shared values of a society that ensure that two people born from different families might still understand one another’s needs. Without a shared cultural experience, you have people living within a nation/region/provinciality devoid of cohesiveness.

Hence, cultural wars.

But not all gaming is surrounded by cultural wars. In fact, modern roleplaying games (cf. games set in the modern world) avoid this topic altogether. Pulp games are about shooting two guns at once. Espionage games are about state secrets and shooting two guns at once. Horror games are about shooting Cthulhu with two guns at once.

Ironically, Cyberpunk is about a specific kind of culture war — class warfare. But it shares so much with modern gaming that few elements of culture make their way into the game. It’s all about blowing up buildings, stealing data, and shooting two guns at once.

Science Fiction and fantasy are unique genres, however. Their focus on culture and rights provides ample opportunity to discuss how different we are. But they never really do. They avoid the topic of culture and focus on the stereotypes of behavior… a side effect of culture. Elves are arrogant. But why? When does a roleplaying game ever show us the full width of elven culture to explain where their arrogance comes from?

A lot of this has to do with the confusion of nationalism and culture. The 20th century saw a rise in nationalism, globally, that impacts us all, on all levels. We cannot calculate its impact, because we’ve always lived in it. Like someone raised on cellphones and MP3s. Who knows what a rotary phone or album is? How can we understand a world where people do not identify themselves as “American!”

But this is a first world problem. In the West, we have the luxury of discussing ideologies, as we sip lattes, and pretend that it didn’t take 10,000 years of struggle and oppression to get us here. We rarely pay homage to the past, so the notes of culture get lost on us. While people in the East are still living under that oppression. They don’t have the time or wealth to sit and talk about ideals that don’t affect their lives. They essentially have eternal cultural values that have kept them alive for centuries. To break away from them would be to risk an end to their security.

My biggest complaint about how culture is depicted in gaming is that people who use the term culture generally don’t know what it means. Culture is so complex and it gets reduced down to food and clothing and a few rites of passage.

Culture is not behavior. Behavior encompasses many things. It is your general character. It how one conducts themselves, regardless of cultural cues or rewards. Those who are role models are said to have good behavior, for instance.

Culture is not manners. Manners is the face you wear to appear as thought you honor the code of conduct of a society. You don’t jump ahead in line. You don’t take more than your fair share. You tip for good service. Poor manners is sometimes a reflection of poor character, but not always.

Culture is the glue of a system. In some societies a culture may look down on braggadocio more than other cultures. Some cultures may hide their women from strangers because of centuries of learned behavior… see… it all comes back together. Culture is the system of all good behaviors for a society to operate. This does not mean that all people honor a culture. In fact, one could argue that culture is a tool for keeping poor people in check.

This is a little theory of mine. I probably need to think on it a little more to explain it better.

But culture is always some tool for creating divisions in roleplaying game environments, instead of a way to measure an environment on its own merits. The divisions will appear on their own. For instance, if we have a nation of elves and dwarves living next to each other, what happens? Who are the elves, who are the dwarves? Can we just say the elves are immortal and like wine? Dwarves are grumpy and smith hammers?

Can cultural divisions can be measured with so little context? In the real world, Koreans think Japanese are liars for maintaining a stoic face during negotiations, while the Japanese might look down on Koreans for being so ’emotional.’ In a fantasy setting, this correlates to dwarves seeing elves as aloof and elves seeing dwarves as grim. But why? Culture is not the surface judgements we make. It is the deep-rooted causation that leads to our surface judgements and these judgements exist because of fear of cultural erosion.

What is cultural erosion? So glad you asked. It takes on many forms, but it is the culmination of cultural fears. How will a culture fade? Be replaced? Etc.

Cultural abrasion is the resulting friction between that two contrasting cultural values. Elves and dwarves only need to worry about one another when they come in contact with one another. The fear of cultural erosion stems from their interaction. Elves have no opinion of dwarves on the other side of the world. And unless the elf is a bigot, he’s not going to have an opinion of the first dwarf he meets until he’s spent some time with him.

(Btw. I coined the term cultural abrasion while working on my anthro degree, before finding out it already existed.)

Cultural deflation happens when one culture influences another. Deflation is the idea that the less important elements of a society’s culture may go away and be replaced by a neighboring nation’s values. Elves do not worry that their weak and impractical wedding practices will be replaced by the complicated rites and rituals of the dwarves. They don’t worship the same god(s).

Elves and dwarves do not have to worry about this kind of cultural erosion, either. Unless the two nations started having immigration issues or they shared national borders, the idea that elves would start getting beard implants to look more like their neighbors will never happen. But fears do not need logic to prevail.

Cultural deposition occurs when foreign beliefs and practices cross-acculturate. This is a real fear for uneducated societies or those experiencing high rates of immigration. Japan is going through this right now with China. Elves who suddenly see their borders filled with Dwarven immigrants fear that the culture of painting pictures and discussing philosophy will be replaced with mead-drinking contests.

Cultural saltation occurs when fears of cultural erosion change social practices. Elves who speak out against the dwarves in fear-laden diatribes reflect change in the way elves communicate. No longer do they sit around drinking wine and dreaming of the boredom of immortality. Now their culture is threatened and saltation affects their daily lives with fear-mongering speeches and debates.

Another form of cultural change that is not erosion is cultural assimilation. Though the culture changes, assimilation is considered a progressive, rather than regressive or erosion act. Assimilation is when the Elves learn to speak Dwarven and start drinking their ale.

(More than you wanted to know, right?)

How much of this have you measured when making your own game worlds? How much of this is measured in Greyhawk? The Realms? And if you’re just killing orcs, does any of this matter?

I can’t tell you if you’re gaming right or wrong. All I can do is make more tools and hope you use some of them.

I’m working on a number of games for 2015 that I hope can address the concretion of these concepts in more than just a preachy essay style. My eventual hope is that we might see roleplaying games address culture as more than just, “My elf likes blue wine and hates dwarves for wearing black socks with work boots.”

7 thoughts on “Cultures in Gaming (as it stands…)

  1. While I would agree that “culture” is somewhat ham-fisted in most game worlds, there are exceptions, as there always are in life. Some game backgrounds and worlds go into detail on why certain cultural affects are occurring, and possible ways they can continue to do so, and their affects upon the players. I think using the cliches of culture are more of a crutch. I don’t want to think to much about this, so droves are grim and drink a lot. Usually this happens when culture gets in the way of showing two guns at something.

  2. Hi – I enjoyed your essay. I interpreted it (perhaps wrongly) as Structuralist in tone.

    My own impression is that current forms of Nationalism are a reaction against the messiness of post-structural problems. Who’s in charge? Who’s right? No-one knows, so old rhizomes of identity assert themselves.

    I played Protocol for the first time a couple of weeks ago & one or two of us were disoriented by the unpredictability of the turn structure. (I learned to appreciate it.)

    People like the ‘great powers’ (Dwarves, Elves, etc) set-up as a base note. I like that you’re taking aim at this aspect of gaming but it runs pretty deep.

    1. hi abstract.

      thanks for the post.

      my tone is deconstructionist, i think. because the present paradigm of world design is GEOGRAPHY + RACE = world. culture is just a spice you add to make sure that polarized schisms can exists. elves and dwarves are huge contrasts of one another. what about a game of all elves, who are only slightly different?

      what a game like the legend of the five rings? everyone is pseudo-japanese, but all the clans are vastly different. vast contrast of cultures is lazy writing. and most cultures that are WIDELY different have less problems with one another than cultures that are only different by a degree.

      islam is fractured by dozens of factions which all hate one another much more than they hate christians and jews.

      culture is so complex. so diverse. so rich. in gaming, we treat it like a punch line, rather than a long rich narrative.

      as for protocol, i’m not sure what you mean by unpredictability of the turn order. what i do know is that it’s different. and people are offer jarred by how different it is from the reliant focus play of a gm-drive roleplaying game.

  3. People in England have trouble agreeing about what deconstructionism was, or is – ie it’s neither structuralism nor post-structuralism. This may be one of its strengths.

    And yes: my point about the narrative structure of Protocol was largely one about prior expectations. Because we were using the ‘Eons’ play set, people were half-expecting a Cthulhu-style ‘let’s all get together & go mad’ denouement, whereas, as in one of your recent reports, we kept drawing Interlude scenes.

    One or two of us hypothesised a more narrativist ‘frame scenes exactly how we want’ engine. (The Joker rule kind of addresses this.) If we’d been using a different playset, I’m not sure it would even have come up.

    I actually liked that the cards pulled us in unexpected directions.

    1. Yep, That is exactly what I wanted from the game. Unexpected directions. “I really want an ensemble here. Vignette? Man. What am I going to do with that? Oh. Wait. I’ve got it.”

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