Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ganakagok and Cultural Appropriation

Reiterating a point that Jonathan made recently, Chris Chinn posted this severely critical comment about Ganakagok on his blog, Deeper in the Game:
Ganakagok is, “a quasi-Inuit Silmarillion as seen from the inside looking out”. A bunch of folks had recommended it as a great game. It uses a sort of tarot-system to set up the situation, the characters, and play out the game. I picked up a copy yesterday, as I’ve been meaning to check it out for sometime.

Skimming through, my first big twitch was the images of the example cards, using Pacific Northwest NDN artwork… UM. And then stuff like character names: “The name should be primitive and icy, vaguely Inuit in sound and form.” WTF is “icy”? Then there’s “Shaman”, “Good Medicine” and “Bad Medicine” …

For a game that claims to be a look from the inside-out, it’s chock full of exotification.

This brings us back to the larger media issue- we’re forced to either only indulge in things where we’re invisible (“Look, we don’t show up, so no problematic imagery… uh, yay, I guess?”) or things where we show up distorted and stereotypes (“At least I get to have media with people who look vaguely like me… I’ll just imagine there’s scenes and spaces where we get to see them as normal”). Which pretty much sums up my love/hate relationship of L5R.

And beyond that, the bigger social issue of why us telling stories, about ourselves, is absolutely required in the face of cultural genocide.

I suppose that’s also why roleplaying as a hobby, is where it is.

Who gets to tell your story? Right?

So I sent Chris this message:
Thanks for the chance to talk about the issue of cultural appropriation and representation in gaming. As Ganakagok’s designer, I’m chagrined to meet with disapproval, even mortified. But I’m prepared to take my lumps so long as they’re fair.

I’m saddened to have to admit that using Northwest Indian art as imagery on some of the cards was ultimately a bad idea from the standpoint of communicating the game, even if they are some of the most powerful images in the deck. My reasoning in approving those images was that they were broadly evocative of Native American culture, and thus appropriate for a fantasy game whose entire point was to dispense with the usual tropes of quasi-medieval European Tolkienesque fantasy. As it turns out, those images lose their free-floating symbolic power to the extent that the interpreter already has referents for them (already knows them), and thus familiarity (with the images) in this case breeds contempt (for the game): exactly the opposite effect than I’d intended. So that’s clearly a failure, and if I’d listened to Jason Morningstar I would have avoided it.

Umbrage at the language “primitive and icy” is probably justified, but a more generous reading of the rules text at that place I hope confirms my contention that what I’m trying to do there is tell the GM to take the naming of names seriously in the game: no “Nanook of the North,” no “Bob the Eskimo,” nor any of those other tricks of ironic distance in which players will sometimes engage. A better way of saying what I was trying to say there is “Enforce the setting in play. Make it sound right.” The least successful Ganakagok games I’ve played are the ones in which a player wants to be an outsider of one sort or another–usually a Viking, occasionally a colonist.

There are terms with which you take issue where perhaps there are connotations of which I’m unaware. For example, I’m not sure that I get why “shaman” as a potential part of a character’s identity is problematic. I can sort of see that using the term “Medicine” might call to mind bad Saturday afternoon cowboy movies, but as a way of signaling to players that the game revolves around a currency of karma, mojo, cosmic afflatus, or what-have-you, it’s perfect.

As I think about it, I suppose that the use of the terms contributes to the “exotification” you see in the text, which I take as referring to a Said-like Orientalism–a “Borealism,” if you’ll permit me–that is a kind of fetishization of the Other, which results in (as you say later) “us showing up as distorted and stereotypes” as the only alternative to invisibility in games.

But that’s a false dichotomy, isn’t it? When you say of games like mine, “I’ll just imagine there are scenes and spaces where we get to see them as normal,” you’re begging the question. Maybe several questions, actually, but the important one for my purposes is the extent to which Ganakagok play produces a human experience–whether or not it produces “scenes and spaces where we get to see [characters] as normal.” I want to assert that it does, often powerfully so. In a recent game, the drama revolved around a curmudgeonly traditionalist learning to love and care for his child, and an arrogant young man coming to grips with the necessary compromises of maturity. In other games, I’ve seen players grapple with issues of loyalty and betrayal, love and loss, fear and hope. The game is more conducive to a dramatic exploration of human experience than it is the fetishistic exoticization of alien otherness. In fact, my friend Don Corcoran told me that when he tried to run it that way, an over-the-top wire-fu Crouching Polar Bear, Hidden Orca-style game, the images and motifs on the cards (!) brought the game back down to earth.

Having said that, I want to clarify that I’m not arguing that Ganakagok is an authentic representation of Inuit culture. It’s not, and it’s not supposed to be. Rather, it produces stories that feel like the genuine fables of an imaginary people; the term “quasi-Inuit” is there advisedly.

Now, it may be that I can’t have it both ways: I do rely on the associations that people — players! — have in their heads for “Eskimo” to drive a fantasy of life on an island of ice in a star-lit night-time world. To call it a cognitive short-cut is merely to avoid using the word “stereotype.” I get that. But game-play often produces moments that are so satisfying and beautiful that I am moved anew when I recall them.

I also am not trying to argue that the phenomenon you’re talking about isn’t real. I was browsing the RPG Site a few minutes ago, trying to make myself feel better by looking at some real hate (it’s hard to explain), when I came upon this quote in somebody’s signature:

“I had no concept of historical anything. I think I even put in magic in there, like one of the indians summoned a ghost buffalo that was marauding the town, because he was helping some desperadoes steal the gold out of the mine…and we had to gun him down. It was a plot I lifted from Scooby Doo.”
In a word: Oy.

To sum up, I’d say I’m guilty of cultural appropriation but not of cultural misrepresentation. In the rules, I tell prospective GMs that the game “plays like a quasi-Inuit Silmarillion as seen from the inside looking out.” Thatplays like is important; it’s meant to describe the experience of playing the game, not of reading the rules, which I concede is dreadful. But game play is more often than not dramatic, illuminating, and powerful.

Thanks again for this opportunity to talk about the game. I hope we can continue the conversation and see where it gets us.

Chris was generous enough to reply:
Hi Bill,

I'm sure Ganakagok produces great stories and lots of fun for some group of people. It's also hurtful for a large number of people as a part of a larger historical action of cultural appropriation by outsiders for fun and profit... whether it was intended to be hurtful or not.

If you are interested in knowing more about how your game fits in with that, perhaps for improving future editions or avoiding such things in later games, you might consider reading some of the links on the sidebar of my blog under the "NDN" category, or perhaps googling some of the many blogs and websites by various indigenous people on the damage and effects of "well meaning" media.

Chris Chinn

Which led me here. The essay argues that existing copyright law inadequately protects indigenous folklore from cultural appropriation, and offers some alternative legal concepts that would ameliorate the problem while at the same time permitting appropriate artistic uses. After reading it, I told Chris:
My short-term obligations seem clear: (1) make a donation, and encourage others to donate, to an organization like the Nunavut Arts & Crafts Association as a kind of recognition of domain publique payant, and (2) provide an account on the game's Web site of the provenance of the indigenous art used in the deck in acknowledgement of the moral rights of its creators.

So if you have enjoyed playing Ganakagok, please consider making a donation to:

Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association
P.O. Box 1539
Iqaluit NU X0A 0H0


About Me

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A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.