Culture and the Psudeo-Historic

edited January 2010 in Story Games
Moving away from sex for a moment, I'd like to have a grumble about cultures in game design.

I've been churning out a couple of small games over the last month and I've discovered a semi-conscious aversion to writing games set in the past or in foreign lands. I simply don't feel up to the challenge of writing a believable cultural or historic setting. At best, the final piece would become a dull (and poorly researched) anthropological thesis with dice thrown in. At worst, a tragic insult to the culture I wish to present.

Is this simply a personal failing on my part, or does anyone else feel this deficiency keenly?

Am I approaching this the wrong way? Should I pull a Hollywood and just steamroll any facts that don't fit with my vision?

Sigh, I'll never finish that samurai epic!


  • Personal failing is my bet, although it's one I've heard about before, so it's not exactly unique.

    Consider this: the utility of your artistic work is determined, not by the Secret Masters At The End of Time, but by the real audience you gain and the genuine communication or other utility you provide in their search for truth, beauty, goodness and rainbows. How does historical or cultural authencity play into this, exactly? There are many good reasons for being authentic, for example:
    • Your target audience consists of folks who Know Better and will therefore be jarred or flouted by your not paying proper respect to the genuinely interesting things they see in the topic at hand. For instance, if you decided to write a game about the Finnish Civil War, to pick an arbitrary example, but decided that no, actually finding out about this is too much work, I'll just write it up as countryside vs. the cities or something - that'd annoy me due to how obviously unnecessary it was for the core message of your work to get the historical identity of my nation mixed up in it.
    • Your target audience consists of folks who should Know Better, and it's your goal to make sure they do. For example, if you're going to write a game about African suffering in post-colonial modernity, and your approach is to make the player characters relief workers in the '70s, and you spout off a lot of fact-sounding backstory material - that stuff better be exact and proper for the purpose, because if it's not, you're effectively lying to people who have every reason to expect you to tell the truth in the context.
    • The actually interesting thing about your topic is the true stuff, anything you'd invent would be duller by comparison. This is an especially cogent reason to go with the truth, because imagine how stupid you'll look when you later find out that well, actually you could have made a better work by inventing less and reading more.
    • Interacting with the truth as it is or was is a part of your game's agenda. Perhaps you simply want the players to take the actual focal matter of the game seriously, and that's why you yourself handle the real background reverently. Perhaps you want the players to reflect on the events of the game in relation to the reality which has impacted their life in some manner in the real life as well. Spione comes to mind, it's sort of like this.
    However, if none of the above and the other various good, functional reasons to use a real history apply? I'd say that then we are by definition in a design space where being real has no meaning at all. Nobody is going to come and offer you an award for being the most life-like, or if they will, you'll know that it wasn't your intent to receive that award - it was just an accident on the way to your real design goals. There are plenty of reasons for being unreal, just look at products that make high art of that: much of the genres of urban fantasy and alternate history, to pick a few, absolutely thrive on being only as true to reality as is appropriate for their purposes. If you need exotic assassins in your work and the tone fits, why not make use of ninjas (or thuggees, actually, if you want to be one of the cool kids)?

    All that being said, let's look at my most common solution: what I usually do with background research like this is that I first do it and then leave it out of the game. It's a game, which means that it's first and foremost about procedures, not fluff. I can easily enough say that this fantasy culture here is "like Mongols if they had two heads and laser pistols looted from Space Westminster". After that it's up to the reader to slot in their preferred amount of cultural realism concerning Mongols, I don't need to waste my time doing a good or bad treatment. This method works wonders if your game doesn't actually hinge on the amount of genuine real-life Mongolism in the product. Reminds me of Dogs in the Vineyard, where Vincent effectively says that he doesn't care how much or little supernatural razzle-dazzle your actual play has; just pick an amount you like and the game'll work regardless.
  • ASOLUTELY steamroll any facts that don't fit with your vision!
    Just don't mangle any concepts that you don't understand, and those of us who care about that sort of thing will be better able to keep calm. It depends, though - are you trying to write a game that's *about* a period or setting of some kind, or is it about something *else*, with that period/setting as backdrop or color?

    If the former is the case, then you're stuck, unless you really want to do a "stuff we already know" level of information. If the latter is the case, then watch a couple movies and go to town on it, accuracy be more-or-less darned to heck!
  • Actually, let me pick one angle more in my effort to rip apart the veils and help you achieve Satori:

    All fantasy is based on reality. That's why we can understand and enjoy it. If you'll look at the historical development of speculative fiction (all fiction is speculative fiction, note), you'll see that it's been a course of development towards increasingly facile intertextualism and a keener and keener separation between fantasy and reality. In the 18th century when you took up a good novel and enjoyed it, the book was often couched in some way as an ostensibly real story because that's what people respected and understood. The same was true through the 19th century, it's just that people started to accept more flights of fancy in literature that built more and more on what had come before. Then came pulp literature that blew this thing wide open: when Nayland Smith wrestles with a Thuggee, do you think that there was anything else behind the choice of opposition than what the audience of the time knew about this exotic Indian death cult? It was not direct from reality to fiction like Robinson Crusoe is, it was from reality to folklore to newspapers to coffee table conversations to more newspapers to thrash novels - and it definitely didn't have anything to do with truth, only with intelligible communication. The important thing about Nayland Smith wrestling an Thuggee is not Intian economical problems that resulted in increased highway robbery, but the image of the Thuggee as a mysterious, powerful and merciless killer, sort of like ninjas are treated today.

    Fastforward to today and you'll note that we actually have entire literary genres predicated not on reality at all, but on second- and third-hand speculations about alternative realities, such as fantastic ones. People can understand these because they have media literacy, they can catch intertexts and place what they read in different contexts. In this day and age when I can write about the completely fictional nation of Mardonia and be instantly understood it seems the least of my troubles that something I write might be less life-like than life itself - the realism train left the station already, you'd have to get back over a hundred years to get back to the time when people seriously discussed whether art has a moral imperative to show the world as it really is.

    The only reason why something you wrote would be deemed offensive is if the reader construed it as a lie. By writing in an understandable way you make sure that people know how to classify what you write into the correct boxes in their heads. Thus I can write all I want about Transylvanian vampires without having real Rumanians and Hungarians get up on my case about misrepresenting their society as a feudal bloodfest; nobody is thinking that I'm claiming something about the real world when I write about those vampires. The same goes for anything you might wish to write at all: either write within an intelligible convention or be sure to explain your intent in some other way so clearly that nobody thinks you're backhandedly libeling them. For this reason I couldn't publish a fantasy novel here on the Finnish market about how the nation of Russia is really run by immortal Jewish polka dancers - it's not an established genre of urban fantasy while it very much cleaves uncomfortably close to real propaganda, which means that my novel would be misread as libel.

    In a nutshell: the issue of verisimiltude is just in your head, while the issue of audience reception is very real. Be aware of what you're saying and in what context (audience context, your own explanatory context, whatever), and you won't be surprised by how you'll be interpreted.
  • I think that going into this sort of project with the ambition to "Make a Game about a Period" is almost always doomed to fail, unless you're one of those historians who's not only a walking encyclopedia (fairly common) but can actually write and think about your minute knowledge of, say, fourteenth-century Spain in a way that other bright people would find spontaneously interesting (unbelievably rare).

    Why not swap out this ambition for the desire to write about a relatively small class of people and their relatively localized set of concerns, who just happened to live in the past. E.g. instead of writing "A Game Set in The Crusades," write about the court of some single king who was trying to finance a crusade; instead of a game about "The British Raj," write one about a single rural estate run by British expatriates during the 1947 partition. You'll still need to do some reading, but one or two carefully selected sets of diaries or biographies ought to do the trick.

    Grey Ranks is, of course, the paradigm instance of a success at writing this kind of game. And boy, does it rock.
  • Posted By: PotemkinShould I pull aHollywoodand just steamroll any facts that don't fit with my vision?
  • That said, if you feel like you're not doing a historical setting justice, don't write a historical game. Change the setting to something you're more comfortable with. There's nothing wrong with only ever writing games set in your own hometown, after all.

    As an aside, though: you can always use writing a game as an excuse to research something you want to know more about.
  • Sorry for ressurecting this old thread, but I really had to think about this for a couple of days, because it relates so closely to how I design.

    A lot of the time when I see people exclaim that they don't read about other cultures and avoid creating pseudo-historic settings, what they're actually doing is creating a pseudo-historic setting that just happens to use all the cultural assumptions of the culture they are most familiar with. It's obvious to anyone who has had to face some of those assumptions and so the claim of avoiding historical and cultural influences can come across as really pretentious. The reality is, though, that we all have to realize that there are limits to our ability to overcome this problem.

    Just take the risk and design something. If it doesn't work out, or you learn more, try again and design another game.
  • Mike, I personally think it's important to read around a setting. Get a feel for it. When I'm writing about a setting, I feel I've got some responsibility to inform myself about it, to be true to it. That doesn't always mean being 100% accurate, of course.

    So I don't think you should steamroll facts that don't fit your vision. It's cool to change the facts a little, if you've read about the setting and there's a good reason.

    This post sounds really pompous. Sorry about that.

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