E is for Exoticism

Want to design a game, run a session or play a character rooted in aspects of a culture not your own? There’s something you should avoid: exoticism. If you trot your fingers over to a Webster’s, it doesn’t sound so bad. Exotic stuff is unfamiliar! It’s really interesting! And alluring! It’s good to explore and enjoy cultures outside our own. It gives us a better understanding of the world and the people in it. It introduces us to incredible art, history, and achievements made by humanity.

But it’s also really easy to fetishize other cultures. You take someone’s culture and history and turn it into a fantasy, which is a very real and painful disservice to the cultures of others. It’s often done in a sexual context (Hot Jewish Girls, Geisha Girls, etc) which is racist as well as demeaning. Sexualizing someone on the basis of race and country of origin is calling sexual attention to features those people—particularly women—are otherwise marginalized for. Hand in hand with the creepy sexualization of people based on their culture, is taking those cultures, removing the people that those cultural components belong to, and dumping a bunch of white people into it. (I’m looking at you, Firefly and your related products.) White-washing cultural histories is something we already see in reality. We don’t need to do it in our games.

How do you treat alternate histories, race and cultures foreign to your own with sensitivity?

Think about the different components of your identity. Your race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, hobbies, career, anything that is an essential part of your life.

The way you react when you see something important to your sense of self portrayed badly in media. How much that can hurt. We know fiction can hurt us, often deeply.

So our fiction, our games, characters and modules, can hurt others.

When we introduce people to the things we love, how do we do that when we want them to appreciate it? We explain significance, history, emotional resonance, and acceptable/unacceptable behavior around these things. Often, the best people to help us do right by other cultures are from those cultures.

If you don’t have friends or family you can ask directly about their culture when porting aspects of it into tabletop or LARP, are still resources you can access. You can turn to college departments of history and languages, public libraries, some news media, cultural clubs, and very careful internet research. You don’t have to major in Chinese History to have it be an influence on your game, but doing a little research goes miles in breaking away from an “exotic” portrayal to a more honest one. As gaming is discovered and transmitted across the world 24/7 by the internet, people from all over are picking up, creating and playing games. If we want our tables to welcome them, we can’t let inaccurate or racist portrayals stand in our games.

Writing what we don’t know can be incredibly intimidating. It can be scary to reach out to others and ask them to field test our ideas with us. Especially when we’re proposing ideas from outside our experience that touch on their cultural roots. But it’s how we’re going to create even better stories than we have before. Messing it up and getting it wrong isn’t the issue. Mistakes can be admitted to, learned from, and moved past. When someone tells you that content in your product or a character you played was hurtful, they aren’t calling you a bad person. They’re saying you did something that can or did hurt others. They’re giving you the feedback to make your games more inclusive. Inclusive isn’t just a buzzword—it means that a group of people from wildly different backgrounds can sit down together to play in an environment they hope to see every day away from the table. One that is safe, and full of people who listen—and desire to avoid exoticism by opting for sincerity.

Know of games that you feel ‘get it right’ when it comes to exploring a culture or basing game content off real world history? Western and non-Western examples are welcome; people can get Irish narratives wrong, Native American myths, Mayan culture, Arabic stories, etc. Any culture can get a bad shake in games. I’d love to hear about the ones you saw get it right.

About l

L is a freelancer currently working as a writer, editor, journalist and game designer. She hauls a suitcase decorated in stickers as she blogs, travels, and tours. She makes her home in Washington, California, and wherever the tour stopped last night. You can follow L on twitter (@lilyorit )

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