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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Davidson

Cultural Appropriation & Gamer Psychology

A few months ago, on a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon, I randomly snatched a book from the shelf and crawled under my comforter. My goal wasn’t to sit and read all afternoon; however, I wanted to be warm and kill a little bit of time. The book in my hand was a slim paperback with a yellow cover and black lettering. The book was Your Move: What Board Games Teach Us About Life by Joan Moriarity and Jonathan Kay. I had read and enjoyed it many years prior—even marked some of my favorite passages. However, too much time had elapsed, and I could not immediately recall every topic explored within its pages. I opened the book to a random page—somewhere around the middle—and found myself on the landing page of a new chapter. Written by Jonathan Kay, the chapter title read: All Your Culture Are Belong To Us. I leafed through the pages to count the chapter length—7 pages, not bad. I began reading…

Edward Said, author of the 1979 book Orientalism, postulates that any and all western depictions of eastern culture are fundamentally rooted in “crude, sentimental, and demeaning stereotypes.” Decades later, Said’s concept has slowly shifted away from the world of academics and into mainstream culture. Social media has only exacerbated these cultural sensitivities. Kay illustrates quite a few examples within the text.

How a single Twitter post can destroy a long-time Canadian game store.

How decent, hard-working individuals that posted pictures of themselves in sombreros or kimonos were digitally mobbed to death.

In 2018, eighteen-year-old Keziah Daum posted herself wearing a traditional Chinese qipao dress to her senior prom. Twitter users called her out, saying, “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.” Keziah refused to be denigrated into submission. Her Twitter response read: “To everyone causing so much negativity; I mean no disrespect to the Chinese culture. I’m simply showing my appreciation to their culture. I’m not deleting my post because I’ve done nothing. It’s a [friggin’] dress. And it’s beautiful.” It took a bit of time, but tons and tons of Twitter users eventually supported Keziah’s defense.

Cultural appropriation is often used in modern discourse. But what is cultural appropriation? Is cultural appropriation always a negative perennial problem? How can I distinguish and divide the mere act of celebrating culture from mere political correctness? I happened upon a passage by Kay that provides an explanation far more eloquently than I can. As the old adage goes, “if you can’t beat ‘em, copy and paste.” Jonathan Kay writes:

The idea of cultural appropriation often gets lumped in with the larger notion of “political correctness,” but the two concepts are distinct. While allegations of cultural appropriation can relate to alleged acts of coopting cultures in an appreciative manner, allegations of political correctness typically target the opposite type of behavior in which a speaker, writer, or artist treats another people or culture in crude, objectifying, or insulting terms.

Kay’s conceptual distinction is straightforward. I couldn’t agree with him more—hence why I stole his words rather than composing my own. What creates such a dichotomy can be boiled down to two words: attitude and presentation. In today's world, game designers are more hypervigilant than ever before, making sure their game exhibits a positive attitude and presentation. Unfortunately, when representing eastern culture, the implied due diligence is ignored. Sometimes, despite their efforts, things can go wrong. Games like Rising Sun, Puerto Rico, Teotihuacan: City of Gods, and Legend of the Five Rings (to name a few) have been accused of cultural appropriation. Accusations where the board game community—or parts of the community—criticized the games for either “getting it wrong,” “misrepresenting cultural terms or traditions,” or flat-out being “insensitive.” This is a tough spot for a game company to find themselves, as it creates a Kafka trap situation from which not every company will always recover (cultural appropriation and board games from an industry and design perspective is a sizeable topic for another day).

As I continued to read through Kay's chapter, I learned more about the increasingly complicated relationship gamers have with board games; how cultural sensitivity can drag gamers to in-fighting; and how commonplace it is for gamers to judge a game's quality based on big, fancy words such as New Historicism and Post-Colonialism...

At one point, Kay discusses gamer psychology...That's right, let's focus on the little guys; let's focus on you...

It would appear that modern-day societies have abandoned all laisse-faire sentiments as there exists an ostensible inherent relationship between non-interaction and implied approval. If we discard all political, cultural, and sociological pretexts, what other aspect could influence such human behavior? According to Kay, the problem—if there is one—rests upon the individual. Kay bluntly states, “a psychologically healthy person does not intermingle the politics of games with the politics of real life.” From what I've seen on Twitter or other social media platforms, are we to accept the presupposition that literally millions of gamers in the hobby are not psychologically healthy? Kay explores his topic further, noting how “the issue is largely a problem of how each gamer manifests passion.” Passion? Interesting. I find Kay's use of the word passion to be a misnomer. Perhaps "temperament" would have been a better word choice. Gamers are passionate about their hobby. However, are we to cite passion—a ubiquitous emotion within any hobby—when thousands upon thousands of gamers flock to message boards, comment sections, and social media to write paragraph after paragraph showing their strong disapproval and disdain? Is this behavior indicative of whether a gamer is passionate or not? My perspective is more simplistic. As Kay dives into the psychology of a gamer, I relegate my perception of cultural appropriation with a sizeable amount of laisse-fair. Don’t get me wrong. Passion is beautiful; however, it can easily lead to the development of negative emotional qualities such as anger and entitlement. Riddle me this, Batman. Where do we draw the line between enthusiastic passion and toxic, self-destructive behavior? How can passion account for such polarizing attitudes?

Cultural appropriation within board games can be problematic—I am not creating an argument against it. However, should gamers be both consumers AND gatekeepers? Should sensitivity never bleed into the world of board games? Does cultural appropriation trigger our unhealthy minds? Do we drop our opinions online and then fight with anyone who disagrees only because of our deep passion for board games?


Author's Afterword:

In this writing, I present a lot of rhetorical questions. Also, I have refrained from providing any semblance of answers to these questions (as answers are often tricky and complicated little vixens). My meager attempt at the Socratic method was deliberate. I wanted to be self-aware and objective, not cramming in my subjective, nihilistic, and often cynical perspective. So, I pitch these questions to you, dear readers. What are your thoughts? No matter your background. No matter your perspective. I want to give you the proverbial podium to express your ideas and opinions. All I can guarantee is that I’m here, listening…

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