[LINK] Cultural appropriation in LARP


The subject of cultural appropriation in LARP has come up in the past, and is a pretty fraught subject. Nobody wants to be insensitive to other cultures, but a strict thou-shalt-not-take inspiration-from-any-culture-but-your-own rule seems unduly restrictive.

I found the following essay quite insightful as it is written from a LARPing perspective:

In particular some of the potential pitfalls of having LARP cultures based on real-world cultures are discussed


It was interesting - I’d love to read a case study if she ever felt like writing one. (Or maybe she has. Will look.)

Er, the pentatonic scale example was a bit strange. (It’s something that crops up naturally in a lot of different places, Scottish folk songs, for example.) I wasn’t sure what point she was trying to make with it.

EDIT: I mean, is she trying to make a point about outsiders flubbing details or emphasising them in strange ways? Or does she not-know how ubiquitous a five-note scale is, and if so, why use an example from a field with which she is not familiar?

Yes, yes I am obsessing over a minor detail in a thoughtful and humane article.


[quote]Artistic Inheritance

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that people who write LARPs are really interested in Chinese culture and history, and want to incorporate it into their games. It can be a form of soft power for the visibility of that minority in the UK. It is my pragmatic view that ownership of culture is difficult to establish and control, and that there is among artists always an ebb and flow of ideas. It is when a dominant culture seeks to constrain the minority culture via their majority that the influence can seem oppressive. And I suggest that writing reductive caricatures of pan-Asian elves is one way in which that influence shows itself.[/quote]


IIRC you had to do a lot of thinking about this for “Fragrant Harbour”?


Yes, I did. (Though Loretta Lok seems to be focusing on use of quasi-Asian aesthetics inside a game, instead of something that’s specifically an Asian setting.)

Which has me thinking about tropiness and what Steph calls information debt. When we’re creating the setting of a larp, there’s a pull between keeping the setting detailed and vivid, vs. more information than the players can handle. Too much back story, and players will just start ignoring it - too much, too loud. So game designers often pull in familiar aesthetics: Space Vikings, Space Pirates, Space Camelot, Space Samurai, Space Ancient China… The aesthetics aren’t generally… stunningly accurate, and sometimes they get subverted, but they give players a pattern to group their information around while they memorise other stuff, like their Nemesis/Former Lover/Employer of the evening. (But Vikings, Arthurian Knights, and Pirates are unlikely to show up and say, “Excuse me, there’s more to my people than cool armour and great hair.”)

I thought this:

was interesting in that light. “What is your reason for including this element?” is always a useful question.

That said, I was kind of going in the other direction for Fragrant Harbour. It has a lot of tropiness to it, because the bulk of my player base were ‘going to KapCon and this happens to be the flagship’ players, not ‘really interested in that period’ players or ‘enthusiastic about Chinese Literature’ players, and I needed hooks and tropes and shortcuts to get all the information in.

Given that we did include a lot of flamboyance and whimsy, I wasn’t trying, as Loretta suggests, to ‘other’ the characters here. (I can’t speak for the designers of the games she’s talking about.) Straight Alder isn’t The Chinese Policeman. He’s that guy whose family has been here for donkey’s years and he’s working for the latest administration while worrying that some of his family are career criminals and is it his fault that he and his wife are childless, is it? and meanwhile there are shenanigans to thwart. Apricot Fairy isn’t Pretty Asian Fairy In A Sparkly Dress (though wasn’t Hannah’s outfit grand?). She’s a nature spirit who converted to Buddhism and that makes for awkward conversations with her older brothers (who didn’t) and meanwhile she has to work with an official from yet another heavenly administration and, and it’s all a bit tense. Why does someone feel tempted by the Boxers? How does a mainland-Chinese Crypto-Catholic feel about the new Protestant Mission? How’s that intergenerational family drama working out?

I wasn’t looking for otherness. I was looking for humanity.

(How well I succeeded in that is a different question. I’m a bit afraid to reread the game.)

/thinky thoughts


Yeah, we had a lot of setting debt in Fragrant Harbour, and a lot of that was because we deliberately weren’t relaying on surface “what everybody knows about China” tropes, we wanted people to appreciate the historical and literary setting as much as we did. Sometimes we were able to ‘iceberg’ this - for instance, we used the classic novel The Dream of the Red Chamber and the wuxia literary genre (among others) to inspire plots and flavour text - you didn’t need to be familiar with these sources to play these characters, but if you did there was an extra layer of context to enjoy. But we also had a much greater than usual amount of info in the Background and Costume Guide documents, which I think was a challenge to the players.

"Straight Alder isn’t The Chinese Policeman."
Hah! We actually had a character who was “The Sikh Policeman”, but he existed in the game because I’d read somewhere that historically a lot of Sikhs went over to colonial Hong Kong to join the constabulary and I wanted to honour that.

"EDIT: I mean, is she trying to make a point about outsiders flubbing details or emphasising them in strange ways? Or does she not-know how ubiquitous a five-note scale is, and if so, why use an example from a field with which she is not familiar?"
Yeah, I thought it was an unusual example. I think she was using it in the context of “Chinese Music as Taonga”, but there is a lot of nuance in that choice and the way it interacts with individual knowledges - to me as a Westerner who knows a little bit about music theory, the pentatonic scale is pretty universal (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjvR9UMQCrg) and the story about the rise of well and equal temperament in European music is fascinating. That said, her key points of Do Your Research and Acknowledge Your Sources are way more important than my quibbles over detail.