The virtual worlds of video games offer a unique landscape wherein cultural heritage comes into contact (and tension) with new and emerging technologies as well as a plethora of other cultures: fandom culture, internet culture, consumer culture, and so on. It’s a landscape that is relatively new and that offers a veritable cultural quagmire to navigate, and as evidence continuously suggests with alarming frequency, we’re just not adequately equipped to do that.
There’s a lot to parse; for the sake of focus, here is what I hope to explore in this probe:
- The unique form cultural appropriation takes on in the medium of the digital game (or, an attempt to illustrate why cultural appropriation in video games is a uniquely sensitive issue)
- The travails involved in navigating discussions of cultural heritage, complicated by the platform on which these discussion are staged (or, why the internet is both wondrous and terrifying)
I will be drawing on, mainly, George Nicholas’ chapter “Indiginous Cultural Heritage in the Age of Technological Reproducibility: Towards a Postcolonial Ethic of the Public Domain”; in addition, I have spent time researching various online communities and publications and poring over forum threads (GameFAQs, N4G, Gamer Professionals, Heatstreet, Tumblr, Reddit, etc.).
Cultural Appropriation in Games
In short: it happens. In her essay “The Appropriation of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage: Examining the Uses and Pitfalls of the Canadian Intellectual Property Regime”, Vanessa Udy reiterates the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s definition for cultural heritage: “the totality of tradition-based creations of a cultural community, expressed by a group or individuals and recognized as reflecting the expectations of a community in so far as they reflect its cultural and social identity […]” (Udy). She then goes on to define cultural appropriation as such: “the unauthorized ‘borrowing’ of expressions, artistic styles, symbolism, myths or know-how from a dominated culture by a member of the dominant culture” (Udy). Video games, being a huge global industry and a chief site of contemporary popular culture, “offer insight into dominant ideologies, as well as the deployment of race, gender, and nationalism” (Leonard 1). Scholar David Leonard, in his paper “”Live in your World, Play in Ours: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other”, offers the following reminder: “According to Omi and Winant (1994), racial formation takes place through a “process of historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized” (p. 55) Video games are one such project.” (Leonard 3)
What interests me is the ways in which appropriation is integrated into gameplay; there are, I observe, two different levels of cultural appropriation occurring in many instances: (1) the representational level – the inclusion of an object, symbol, or material from a particular cultural heritage that is mirepresented within the game, as per decisions made by the game designer, and (2) the interactive level – the appropriation that takes place when a player chooses to interact with the culturally appropriative material. Given the wide variety in style, dissemination, and playability of games, it is perhaps easiest to regard such instances on a case-by-case basis. I’ve compiled a selection of cases with which I’m familiar in the hopes of illustrating my point:
- Overwatch (2016, Blizzard Entertainment) – On at least two separate instances, the multiplayer online FPS was called out for appropriating cultures: The character Symmetra received a skin – an optional alternate appearance for the character – known as ‘Devi’ (the Sanskrit term for ‘goddess’), which reimagined her character as a Hindu goddess. President of the Universal Society of Hinduism, Rajan Zed, urged the game developers to remove the skin:
“Rajan Zed indicated that reimagining Hindu scriptures, symbols, concepts and deities for commercial or other agenda was not okay as it created confusion. Controlling and manipulating Devi with a joystick/ button/keyboard/mouse was denigration. Devi was meant to be worshipped in temples and home shrines and not to be reduced to just a “character” in a video game to be used in combat in the virtual battleground.”
Secondly, the character Pharah, of Egyptian heritage, was given two skins with the names ‘Thunderbird’ and ‘Rain Dancer’, the likes of which reimagine her design with Native American aesthetics, including face paint and native regalia. Naturally the inclusion of such an aesthetic risks stereotyping and diminishing Native culture, but additionally the grafting of one marginalized culture’s heritage onto a character from another marginalized culture is doubly concerning. As Blizzard has previously removed content that was deemed inappropriate, there exists a precedent for this game to change its content based on player feedback, which is not the case for many other games for a number of reasons.
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011, Bethesda) – PhD candidate Victoria Cooper (University of Leeds) asserted in her paper, “Playing Politics: Exploring Nationalism and Conservatism in Fantasy Video Games”, that Skyrim misappropriated the middle ages.
- Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2012, Nintendo ) – A ‘war bonnet’ accessory exists which can be bought with virtual currency and used to customize the player’s avatar.
- Final Fantasy XIV (2010, Square-Enix) – A similar accessory can be used to customize the player’s avatar, which was deemed inappropriate by some players.
- Various Fantasy Roleplaying Games – Games like Skies of Arcadia, Final Fantasy, Golden Sun, Pokémon, and more take place in fantasy worlds meant to be analogous to our own – this often means depicting a number of cultures rather shoddily. Skies of Arcadia (2000, Sega) for example, includes the Ixa’takans (pictured below), a ‘Culture Chop Suey’ of North, Central, and South Native American cultures.
The cases described above are examples of what I referred to as representational appropriation: the creators willingly chose to integrate materials from particular cultural heritages that were not their own and over which they had no authority. Games, however, being a largely experiential and interactive medium, requires one to look beyond surface representation. In the cases of Overwatch, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy XIV’s (mis)use of cultural materials, the objects in question (Symmetra’s or Pharah’s skins, the war bonnet accessories) function in a similar way to real-world popular costumes worn to music festivals or sold during Halloween: their existence is, in itself, unfortunate, but the choice to purchase and adorn them rests with the player. The game, as an interactive medium, gives the consumer some agency and ability to sidestep the cultural appropriation taking place, leaving it out of their own personal experience or narrative. While not a remedy, it is an element worth noting in order to understand how cultural appropriation exists among different media. This participatory element is echoed in Zed’s condemnation of Symmetra’s alternate skin, in which he emphasized the controlling and manipulating of the avatar as denigration, not simply the character’s graphical representation.
The general reaction to claims of cultural appropriation is often frustratingly limited. The very suggestion is seen as an attack, a result of a society overly concerned with appearing “PC”, and an attempt to quash creative freedom. Comment threads were rife with snark and sarcasm, with quotation marks haphazardly thrown around words like appropriation, racist, problematic, trigger, etc. in an obvious attempt to discredit and dismiss. As one contributor on Medium.com laments, “Are people so selfish that they can’t allow some-one else to find joy in their culture? Should someone be yelling at me because I’m a white guy who likes Chinese and the odd curry? By eating that food am I somehow some evil monster stealing from a culture?”.
This anguished catechizing is representative of an idealism Nicholas remarks on: “The idea that we are the product of everything and everyone that has come before us fuels the notion that society does (and, indeed, should) benefit from mutually shared ideas and information” (Nicholas 213). It is a notion that is quite far from reality. If the aforementioned contributor was interested in an answer, Nicholas readily provides a possible one, at least in the context of Indigenous peoples: Western society considers cultural heritage in terms of dichotomies, whereas many Indigenous societies do not: “There may be more than two genders; time may be viewed as cyclical; and there may be no perceived distinction between the tangible and intangible elements of cultural heritage. Thus, many Indigenous peoples perceive their world as one in which material objects are more than just things, and in which ancestral spirits are part of this existence, rather than some other realm” (Nicholas 216, original emphasis). Nicholas offers the example of pictographs painted on rock surfaces: in the western world these may be considered nothing more than historical documents or artistic creations, yet under a First Nations perspective they depict a “possibly still active world view and spiritual interactions” (Nicholas 216). Thus, it is clear that at the core of this tension are “fundamental cultural differences between Western and Indigenous societies” (Nicholas 216). In addition to the damage caused by spreading stereotypes and assuming a role of authority to which one does not belong, there is a fundamental rift between how cultural materials are even perceived between two different societies, and this makes the use of such materials troubling – particularly if the two cultures exist in the dichotomy of dominant and dominated, in which the dominant culture has undue power that risks reconfiguring or effacing the cultural significance of said material. As Nicholas points out, that many skeptics of cultural appropriation fail to grasp, “A key point is always that each group has the right to venerate, care for, or use its heritage as they see fit, whether or not this agrees with Western expectations” (219).
Stray thoughts/Things to consider, going forward:
- The RPGMaker scene – independent games that are steeped in a community that rips and redistributes resources from commercial games (sprites, tilesets, sound bites, etc.) for the use of independent game-makers to create their own RPGs, often as pastiches of the games whose resources they’re using. These resources, often the work of Japanese artists, being reappropriated non-consensually for western game-makers – how might this unique (and, admittedly, fading) trend fit into discussions of cultural appropriation?
- Games like Child of Light, Earthlock, etc. – western-made “JRPGs”, in which JRPG becomes a genre based less on geography and more on a set of themes, mechanics, and tropes popularized by Japanese role-playing games. These games are often described as “love letters” to the JRPG genre, from those who grew up playing games from Japan and consequently want to emulate a similar game design philosophy that, by their own admission, is uniquely Japanese.
 – It is worth noting that some of the games mentioned, like Animal Crossing, Final Fantasy XIV, Skies of Arcadia, etc., were developed in Japan and are thus subject to different cultural outlooks. While this argument doesn’t hold as much water as it once did, with video games quickly becoming a global industry and many of these games being developed with global audiences in mind, it is still worth bearing in mind, particularly as it complicates the dichotomy of dominant/dominated societies.