[LINK] Cultural appropriation in LARP


#1

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


#2

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.


#3

[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]


#4

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


#5

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


#6

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.


#7

Hi! Hope it’s not too rude to resurrect a fairly old thread, but I just found out about this mention of my article for Encounter 21 and I am super flattered!

I agree with you all on the music reference. I should have probably used a better analogy.

As for case studies –
One of my formative LARPs was a fest LARP called Maelstrom run by a for-profit LARP company called Profound Decisions here in the UK. There is a lot wrong with it, including a culture called Bantustan which were a race of hyena-bipedal-humanoids, whose costume brief was vaguely central-asian, and whose defining cultural trait was cannibalism. grimace I’m glad we are moving on from those bad old days, because they were pretty grim.

Anyway I salute your efforts to discuss cultural appropriation in LARP!

Best,
Loretta


#8

Hi Loretta,

Hello! I really enjoyed and appreciated your article. Because we were talking about it earlier in the thread, my sister Cat, me, and another woman ran a big 80 person larp set in colonial Hong Kong a few years ago, and there was a lot of talk at the time about how to do something like this appropriately. I guess my big takeaway was that the line between appropriation and appreciation is in the eye of the beholder rather than the writer. And that if you write your costume guide with too much detail you’re going to feel bad when someone just uses it as a guideline. :wink:

There is a lot wrong with it, including a culture called Bantustan which were a race of hyena-bipedal-humanoids, whose costume brief was vaguely central-asian, and whose defining cultural trait was cannibalism. grimace I’m glad we are moving on from those bad old days, because they were pretty grim.

Ouch. I can see why that would be a very formative experience in a bad way.

If you don’t mind me asking, do you have any thoughts on good ways to communicate the important facets of a source culture to players? I’ve been finding that there’s a tricky balance between giving people so much information that they overload and can’t sort it out in their heads, vs not giving them enough to make meaningful decisions or break away from their default world view. (I mostly write theatre-styles, so I guess that campaigns would be able to have a longer timeframe to teach people up in.) Something I tried in a recent game which was based on Greek epics IN SPACE!!! was writing up a culture sheet with four big ideas and telling people to pick the one that was most important to them - no one’s specifically commented about after the game, but I could hear several people making in character remarks that seemed influenced by it, so I’ll try it again I think. What’s the stuff that works in your end of the world?

Thanks for talking to us,

Stephanie


#9

I found having the space Greek culture distilled into those four values super helpful in terms of getting my head around the culture (as someone who read The Odyssey in high school and haven’t had any encounter with that culture since). Also having to pick a value gave me a really good handle on my character.


#10

:smiley: Funnily enough this is probably the exact best time for me to be answering these questions! Having just finished playing a one-of Wuxia LARP as well as literally just come back from running my own Space Greek LARP! ROFL talk about symmetry! I guess what LARP writers think is fun is uniform across the world?!?!

In terms of the Too Long Didn’t Read problem, I think the best “innovation” in making it easier for players has been the “5 Things List” method. It sounds like you’ve pretty much got the exact same thing with giving players 4 values from which to choose. But for the sake of clarity I’ll explain it anyway, and you can chastise me for patronising you :stuck_out_tongue:

The 5 Things List usually goes something like this:

Amazon Culture – 5 Things

  1. As an Amazon from Themyscaira you value communal decision making. Listening to all voices and agreement is incredibly important to you. Meetings with fellow Amazons on big decisions are often polite affairs with all allowing all to speak.

  2. You celebrate Diana Day every year by dressing up as the Three Graces, or fearsome Borderlands Monsters. Children pretend to be fearsome beasts and go around the neighbourhood collecting placating gifts of candy from door to door. Diana Day is the most important festival of the year for you, and the saying goes is that the star in the hearts of all Amazons is revived on that day by storytelling, singing and dancing.

  3. You value the preservation of life above all.

  4. You are a people who are at the cusp of technological revolution at this moment in time, and …
    etc etc etc

As you can see I’ve written everything in 2nd person tense – I find that this has been the best way to convey a sense that everyone playing the LARP is already on the same page about the culture. (It is most awkward when you come across another player who has interpreted an aspect of the brief totally differently than you, and then there is a roleplay vacuum, because you’re not on the same page)

Giving players specific roleplay prompts rather than generalised values or morals is the way to do it. For example, instead of just saying “You as a culture value agreement in all things” I’ll put “Your meetings are long, polite affairs where everyone is given a chance to speak their mind.” Grounding a value in an action is just a lot easier to understand? I think culture briefs are about giving the players roleplay prompts and hooks to sink their uptime actions into – I think it’s about showing them possibilities rather than dictating.

Hope this helps!
Loretta


#11

Oh yeah, I’ve discovered that no matter what you do players will hardly every follow the costume guide to a T. Ultimately buying kit is expensive, so people are keen to reuse things or mod things rather than buy a whole new outfit for every LARP. As long as people aren’t taking the piss by wearing something that is completely inappropriate for the setting I just turn a blind eye!


#12

About this point, I’d just like to add, that the eye of the beholder who is of that culture or minority should probably be privileged over and above the eye of the beholder who isn’t. If you are not of a culture, telling somebody of that culture that something is appreciation to you does not wash. Believe you me there are offensive ways to appreciate someone else’s culture. Which is really what the whole debate on cultural appropriation is all about. :slight_smile:


#13

About this point, I’d just like to add, that the eye of the beholder who is of that culture or minority should probably be privileged over and above the eye of the beholder who isn’t. If you are not of a culture, telling somebody of that culture that something is appreciation to you does not wash.

Yeah, I think that’s the really pertinent point. Different people are going to have different feelings, but writers should be prioritising the feelings of the people with the strongest connections to the culture. In our particular instance, which I thought was a bit curious, we had a couple of white people who were very very anxious about what their Asian friends would think about them for participating, and it worked out that the people with ties to China we talked to (and we were really trying to do good faith consultation) were pretty friendly and casual about it. But I don’t know how that would change if we had tried doing the same thing in a different larp community.

I really liked the examples you gave of how you’d ground your culture brief in actions, it’s something I’ll remember.

(And thanks for the feedback, LesbianCobra.)

Greeks in SPACE!!! is clearly a case of great minds think alike. :wink: The Wuxia one sounds fun, too.


#14

I very definitely agree. Actually, on a similar vein, while I’m not ethnically Māori at all (as in, none of my ancestors were Māori) I am very definitely a Kiwi, so I get more than a little offended by the various appropriations of Māori culture and symbolism that people overseas seem to be engaging in all too frequently these days. For example, your post reminded me of a news article I read the other day which described a Dutch man with no connection to Māoridom or New Zealand ‘teaching haka’ (I suspect that just means ‘The (Ka Mate) Haka’). Personally, I am very much not impressed, no matter how he tries to justify it.


#15

Yeah that sounds pretty tasteless at best :frowning: