Media, Appropriation, and Respect

So, just now* Matthew Sullivan-Barrett asked me,

Hey, Shreyas, I was just thinking it might present a fruitful perspective if you could talk some about designing MRG.

What do you think?

I am working from an understanding here that it is a respectful game about a culture other than your own, through the filter of fantastic fiction(movies and books), which could be vulnerable to exotification.

So, if you had comments on how you identified and resolved pitfalls, or even failed to do so, it might add a lot to the conversation?

First of all, thanks! I really hope to make all my games respectful of the people that they talk about, and it’s really pleasing to hear that it seems to have succeeded. You pose a pretty tough question, with a multifaceted answer, and I didn’t feel like it would fit in the forum thread it came from, so here we go…

I am a big fan of Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema, but I’m definitely not a part of the culture that exports it, and that knowledge was a major influence in how I developed my game. I started with this inspiration: “I want to create a game where you can play out the tense, elliptical interactions in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and from there, my first step was to acquire knowledge about the genre, to avoid the pitfall of talking about something I don’t know anything about.

I watched a lot of movies. (There was a Gong Li marathon involved, and I highly recommend doing that if you enjoy films about inner conflict and emotional instability.) I consulted with (at least) two people working on doctorates in Chinese culture and language, as well as one person working on a doctorate in cinema, and we talked about the source material at length. Eventually I arrived at a sort of dramatic argument that encapsulates the spirit of MRG: “Communication is inherently violent and dangerous.” This isn’t a total analysis of the source material, obviously; it’s a way to induce the kind of fiction that I wanted to see.

Ultimately, this thematic statement is the underpinning that the game is built on; there is also a mechanical assumption about the inherently staged unreality of the fiction we’re making, because on the surface the game is about cinema. The interaction systems of the game are built to express these two things, with the first taking priority. Notice that neither of these is unique and inherent to the HK martial-arts film genre. At this point, I was using the genre material as color; the game took on a subtly broader scope.

I also wanted to avoid racializing the game. That’s a part of the reason that there are no depictions of people in the book: the fact is, in the source material, most of the characters are certainly East Asian, but there’s a substantial amount of diversity in there as well, particularly in pieces set in the modern era. I didn’t have a large art budget at the time, and so I chose to illustrate the book with an assortment of decorative fabric patterns and drawings in a pastiche of their style, deliberately depicting no humans while doing so. That gives you the space to imagine the cast of the game in any way you’d like.

A lot of my effort was also put into making it clear: This is the way I see it. In no way is this fact—it is opinion. In the long run, no one cares when you say this, but it’s very important to me. When I say, “Eat something before you play the game,” and when I ramble on about the importance of beverages, it’s not because of some made-up exotifying custom; it’s because I think people enjoy games more if they’re well-fed and have drinks at their elbow.

In the future I’d like to include a few sample scenarios in the text, which would show you different ways to skin the interactions as they’ve been framed. Elizabeth and I have talked about using MRG for Supernatural (A TV drama series about two white boys who fight monsters) for instance, and we have often used it for racially diverse colonial settings.

Ultimately, I think that the most important thing I did, with a mind to respecting other peoples’ cultures, is to carefully balance between the two dangers of talking about others: exotification and erasure. It was important that I acknowledged the source of my inspiration, but I also wanted to make it clear that my work was not a statement about the people that created that inspiration.

*: Actually, more like, “some weeks ago”

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