Larp and other cultures

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Re: Kapcon 22 Larp

Postby morgue » Sat Feb 04, 2012 12:09 am

Joker wrote:Its all about context and content. The potential offensiveness of any scenario depends on how it's handled by everyone. Which I think is Morgues original point. So long as it's handled respectfully then all good.

Thanks Norman - I'm still gathering my thoughts (and juggling time to do so!) but will get around to a proper response sometime soon. I hope I haven't killed the LARP discussion!
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Re: Kapcon 22 Larp

Postby Stephanie » Sun Feb 05, 2012 9:29 pm

[Would a mod mind shifting the discussion begun by Morgue into a different thread? I think this has derailed the rest of the thread somewhat, and I'm still interested in what people would be keen on at future Kapcons.]

morgue wrote:I hope I haven't killed the LARP discussion!
Hi Morgue,

With respect and all, I think that's exactly what you did. More than that, I think you dropped a conversational bomb, and then didn't have the grace to stick around and talk it out. Yeah, I get that you're a busy guy, but you put us in a position where we can't respond to your concerns because you haven't been here trying to be in the conversation.

Anyway, I have some thoughts on this issue.
First off, some general stuff:

Roleplaying is a form of bricolage. That's just what we do - we raid literary texts, historical time periods, novels, movies, cartoons, stories from people we know, all of that and turn it into something new. And partly that's because all art does that, really, but also because it's a lot easier to move people into the same shared imagined space when everybody has a similar set of cultural referents to work off (probably overlapping sets, I think, for instance a game that looks at a particular time period where some people have a vague knowledge and others have a detailed one, and the space of the game becomes over time a construct built up by those different knowledges.) The level of bricolage can vary, but I think that games that try to be entirely novel in both system and content have to work a heck of a lot harder to bring their players into the right space. For Kapcon headline larps, in particular, source material that is well known is a boon, because there are so many players involved and the game space is so diffuse that it's harder to teach people in a short space of time, and there aren't enough cycles (as you might get in a tabletop campaign) for people to build up their own construct through actual play.

Cultural appropriation is an issue. In any particular time period there are cultural/ethnic groups who are doing better than others, and there's been a whole slew of practices around a dominant group removing cultural treasures from a minority group. A current events example would be those mummified heads with full facial moko that were in overseas museums, that are only just now being returned. Another example is the Elgin marbles (the friezes from the Parthenon), which were removed from their original building and ended up in the British Museum. (Actually, there are tonnes and tonnes of Greek statuary that were abstracted from Greece, because there was a phase of rich Europeans being fascinated by Classical culture and buying all the pretty statues off the locals who were at the time dirt poor and couldn't afford to say no. As the disparity between Greece's temporal power and those of heavyweights like Britain, France and Germany lessened, this practice slowed down, because their government was in a better position to tell people where to go.)

Orientalismis an issue. I'll pull a quote for people who haven't encountered this idea before:
A central idea of Orientalism is that Western knowledge about the East is not generated from facts or reality, but from preconceived archetypes that envision all "Eastern" societies as fundamentally similar to one another, and fundamentally dissimilar to "Western" societies. This discourse establishes "the East" as antithetical to "the West". Such Eastern knowledge is constructed with literary texts and historical records that often are of limited understanding of the facts of life in the Middle East.
This kind of 'othering', of selecting an exotic 'out group' and projecting your own fears and desires onto them isn't restricted to the Middle East, or even Asia in general. An example inside a Western text would be Jane Eyre where the Jamaican creole Bertha Mason (the mad wife), is described as physically powerful, dark in complexion, with animalistic features, and strong passions which accelerated her decline into madness. The complete opposite, in fact, of small quiet English Jane. But also a feminine shadow of Jane's love interest Mr Rochester - Bertha is someone that Jane both fears and finds compelling.

There are some categories of source material that I hesitate to use, or wouldn't make a game about without strong ties to members of the group that I perceive 'own' the material. I have difficulty, for instance, in writing either games or fiction that involve Maori characters or Maori mythology, because the history of Pakeha/Maori relations in NZ are so fraught, so manifestly unjust, and so obviously with a long way to go before the people in this country feel right with each other. The disparity in social position, economics and access to education between Pakeha and Maori (as groups rather than individuals) is still too great. I'm afraid that if I write Maori characters with flaws that I'll be adhering to negative stereotypes, which is a bad thing, but it's our flaws that make us human, which means I have a hard time making the characters feel real in my head. And I think it's a worse thing to take the easy option of just excluding that culture, so I keep on trying to include Maori characters even if it's in a small way, but it turns something I do for fun into work. (Is this something like how you feel about Chinese culture? I remember in this series of articlesthat you expressed concern about China being portrayed in one game as a brutal invader.)

No cultural group is a monolith. I think there are always going to be individuals who will never be happy about an 'outsider' using material based around their culture, and conversely, I think there are usually going to be individuals who are more relaxed about it. Just watching the news about things like a car company using the haka in advertising brought out a range of pro and anti views from various Maori commentators. A little more close to home, at Chimera the year after you wrote that Gametime series, I was discussing my anxiety about writing Maori characters with a player with Maori ancestry whose main comment, with respect to your article about the Maori themed Requiem game, was: "You Wellington people are pretty uptight." (I think he was in that game?) I don't expect every Maori person to have those views, but I know that at least some do.

Right, moving onto some more specific comments about Fragrant Harbour:

I recognise that there are some problematic aspects to the game setting. I could say the same thing about Al Shir Ma, Reunion, the Mafia game, The Gordian Knot, A Town Called Refuge, Flight of the Hindenburg, The Great Exhibition... I think that's the nature of producing art. Accepting the problematic material and working out how you're going to deal with it is just another part of the process. I truly don't think that acknowledging that a work will have flaws is a sufficient reason to not produce it - I've never made something without flaw in my life. It's a more valuable question to ask if the flaws will outweigh the benefits.

In this case, I think that producing a game that celebrates Chinese culture, particularly texts that were generated for their domestic market like Journey to the West, and Wuxia novels, and Hong Kong fighting movies and then enthusiastically exported to the Western world is going to have a bigger effect of building bridges and giving people insight into different story and cultural modes. If nothing else, imagine how dire roleplaying would be if no one felt that they could use material that didn't come from a Westernised source: no Mountain Witch, no Legend of the Five Rings, no Ultimate Challenge Tea Garden. I recognise that Asian players are in the minority at events like Kapcon, but which do you think is more exclusionary? Presenting Eastern material that has flaws, or completely banning it, so that someone with an Asian heritage instantly perceives that there's nothing there 'for them'?

In terms of 'othering', that's not really my intent, and I think not Cat's and Ellen's. To me, Chinese people are the people I went to University with, and work with now. They're people that I do see at Kapcon or in sports teams that I've played in. They're people like the friendly dairy owner that you chat with about your day, or the ESOL students that Cat tutors and calls 'a bunch of sweeties'. To broaden that to Asian people in general, they're also Cat's and my Auntie Kiyora, our half-Chinese cousins, Cat's ex-boyfriend with epicanthic fold eyes and six generations of NZ ancestors, our great-grandad who spoke Chinese at the dinner table, and our ex-de facto step dad's wife Cherry. I don't think Kiyora and Cherry would really understand how a larp works, but I don't think they'd mind us doing something like that, either. I don't think of Asian people as strangers, nor as a disadvantaged group. I know that there's a nasty streak of racism that's still in NZ culture, but I also see people with Asian heritage as filling the exact same economic and educational niche that I do.

If anything, any 'othering' that's going to go on in the game will apply to the European characters, who to a Hong Kong resident would be strange with odd behaviours and a weird way of looking at the world. I think that one of the strengths of roleplaying is that it gives you an opportunity to see the world in a different way, to go out of yourself for a time - an event that encourages people from a dominant culture to perceive their own group as a misunderstood minority is no bad thing to me.

morgue wrote:* lack of representation behind-the-scenes - it would be very good to have at least one Asian New Zealander involved throughout development
In honesty, this comment really annoyed me. And I had to stop and think about it, because it's a reasonable suggestion on paper, and coming from Cat and Ellen I wouldn't have thought twice about it. But. To me a writing partnership is a really personal thing, and has a lot more to do with getting on with someone and having similar creative goals than any particular qualifications they might have. And - you're not involved with the project, and you're not one of the Kapcon organisers who would be hosting the event if it goes ahead. Based on your past history, I think you probably wouldn't come no matter how much the game aligned with your sensibilities, because you're a very busy person, and larp isn't your top priority. And you're trying to make demands about the composition of the writing team? I think that crosses the line from expressing concern/making suggestions to outright interference. I think I'm not wrong to mind. I think that we're all reasonable, intelligent writers who will respect the source material and not try to take the piss. I don't think anyone has the right to expect more (or less) from us, or any other writing team.

Anyway, this discussion so far has been a bunch of white people busily talking about how to be culturally sensitive with respect to a different generalised group of people, which feels like its own kind of paternalistic othering. I would very much like to hear the opinions of people who don't identify as Pakeha with respect to this game setting.

Take care all, and happy Waitangi Day.
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Re: Larp and other cultures

Postby morgue » Mon Feb 06, 2012 1:34 am

Fair call, I've left this too long. Here we go.

First up, let me position myself. I've been working for the past few years at a cross-cultural research centre which has done a lot of work with Asian New Zealanders, particularly youth. I've had a lot to do with Asian community leaders and the Race Relations Commissioner. Obviously this affects my thinking, my perception of risks, how I interpret things, etc.

Outside of work, I've been listening up when people have talked about racism and cultural appropriation. This is fresh in my mind:

Now of course that campaign was targetting U.S. college kids who want to dress up while getting drunk. A LARP is a very different proposition, with written characters that work to avoid racist stereotypes. But my concern, in a nutshell, is that this game might look pretty much like that drunken Halloween party; and it might be just as infuriating or upsetting.

I don't *know* this. It might all be cool. But when I think of the people I know (or have met) in leadership roles in the Asian communities here (mostly Chinese), I would hesitate before leading them into the room when this LARP was happening.

And that's important. Kapcon is the most visible face of the RP hobby/ies in NZ, and how it presents itself will reflect on everyone in the community. The flagship LARP is the iconic centrepiece of Kapcon (and rightly so). It gives Kapcon its visuals. It is inextricably tied into the Kapcon brand. This means that the flagship LARP cannot be just another game - it is burdened with extra responsibility, whether it deserves to be or not.

To be clear (now that I've thought it through enough that I can be clear) - I have absolute confidence in your ability to make a rocking, fun game that does all the things you talk about - avoids othering & celebrates Chinese culture (building bridges along the way), for a start. I'm not talking about the content of the game, I'm talking about the surface. I mean this in two ways.

(1) how the execution of the game looks (including its role as part of Kapcon promotion and branding)

(2) how the very idea of the game is perceived

This was the driver for the two suggestions I made earlier. First, expectations management - which is about clearly communicating with participants (and others) who will be, on the night, co-creators of this event. Based on your responses it looks like you have this well in hand.

Second, what I called representation behind the scenes, the involvement of an Asian voice in development. You were annoyed by this suggestion, but I think you have misinterpreted what I meant. I didn't mean forcing the addition of someone to the writing team; I honestly didn't think my comment could be taken that way, because you're right that it would be an interfering demand (as well as an unrealistic one). Nevertheless I see how it could be taken as such, so I apologise for poor communication on my part.

What I had in mind was sitting down with an Asian Kiwi or two (or many) and saying "here's this thing we want to do - do you see any issues with this, should we be cautious?" and "Can we come back to you sometime and talk about what we've done with these ideas?" Now of course one person saying it's cool doesn't mean an entire ethnic group has just signed off on something, just like one person saying it's awful means an entire ethnic group has just shot it down, but it would be valuable listening to whatever replies you'd get.

That's the heart of my concern, I guess. You guys are smart and skilled, but all I see is white people saying it's cool (and another white person saying it might not be). There's a voice missing there.

If we want to play at culture, it is incumbent upon us to do it responsibly, sensitively, and in a spirit of partnership. Maybe that seems uptight, and maybe it comes out paternalistic, but I feel strongly that it is the right approach.

(You raise a bunch of other interesting and important issues but this reply is enough to be getting on with.)

Thanks Steph & Cat & Ellen. Sorry I took so long to get this done, you deserved a swifter response.
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Re: Larp and other cultures

Postby Catnip » Mon Feb 06, 2012 8:54 am

What I had in mind was sitting down with an Asian Kiwi or two (or many) and saying "here's this thing we want to do - do you see any issues with this, should we be cautious?" and "Can we come back to you sometime and talk about what we've done with these ideas?" Now of course one person saying it's cool doesn't mean an entire ethnic group has just signed off on something, just like one person saying it's awful means an entire ethnic group has just shot it down, but it would be valuable listening to whatever replies you'd get.

I think we need to remember that the Kapcon LARP is an amateur production, and it's going a bit far to expect the writing team to do the level of community consultation that might be expected if (for example) they were making a major TV documentary or feature film.
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Re: Larp and other cultures

Postby Anarchangel » Tue Feb 07, 2012 1:13 am

I actually have higher expectations of inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity from the educated geek community than I do from TV production companies.
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Re: Larp and other cultures

Postby morgue » Wed Feb 08, 2012 9:08 am

All right, it's been 48 hours, so I'll respond to Cat's post.

If you're playing culture you should put in exactly the same amount of "community consultation" that a major motion picture should put in: enough to ensure you don't screw up.

If you're preparing something that will sell tickets to paying customers and be marketed on your behalf by a whole community, you have a responsibility to minimise risks, including social risks.

Steph's own post recognises there are risks here, with her note about issuing careful advice about costuming and indicating ethnicity with badges, and being uncomfortable with writing about another ethnic group (Maori). And yet all I see in response to these risks is the LARP team saying "trust us, we have used our best judgment, so we are confident that this won't upset anyone".

Not good enough.

I've suggested you plan to do enough that you are able to say "trust us, we have used our best judgment and discussed this with someone of the ethnicity concerned, so we are confident this won't upset anyone." I don't think this is unreasonable or unhelpful.

If you're planning on spending a huge amount of time working on a single project, it is in no way excessive to ask you to talk to one person, one time, on your own schedule, about whether that project is a good idea.

Now, I want to reiterate - again - that I don't know that there is a problem. I see a risk of a problem, and think that asking someone would usefully test that risk. Maybe no-one else shares my perception here. I'm not claiming that I can see better than anyone else. I can and do claim greater sensitivity to this stuff than most, simply because it's been my work for a few years, but that still wouldn't mean I can see better than others - I might be overeager and getting agitated about a false positive. I can certainly be wrong about this. Or my view of how you're responding to these risks might be off. There might be something else I'm not seeing.

But based on what I've seen here, I stand by my concerns.
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Re: Larp and other cultures

Postby Stephanie » Wed Feb 08, 2012 5:57 pm

Donna's post, actually. Cat's handle is Thimble.

Thank you for your clarifications. Yes, I still think that you're interfering. You're trying to place demands on the conduct of someone else's project, that hasn't been expected of any similar project, including the one that ran a year ago with identical ethical concerns which passed by with no comment from you, and the only reason you've given is that, well, you don't work with anyone from the Middle East so why should you have been bothered? Forgive me if I'm sounding frustrated here. I think that as a non participant, it isn't your place to make those kinds of demands. Suggestions, sure, but that's not what I'm getting from your tone.

That picture you posted? You get that that's a caricature of larpers, too, right? Yes, I understand that seeing someone wearing a parody of your national costume for shits and giggles is upsetting. Rugby Sevens passed by my work window just last weekend, yes, I know what drunken uncouth louts look like. I'm trying to work out where the fuck you got the impression I wouldn't know that, or anyone else in this community wouldn't know that. I think that the image you posted was intended to be inflammatory by its designers and that, if your intent was to keep this conversation on a calm and unemotional level, it was a poor choice. I think that if you were trying to play tit for tat with hurt feelings, that strategy has an endgame that no one much likes.

I can and do claim greater sensitivity to this stuff than most, simply because it's been my work for a few years
Great. I think you have identified your job. If you feel that there should be more community consultation, then go forth and organise it and I'll turn up, and that's the exact same answer I'd be giving someone complaining about production values or asking for different kinds of characters. Because this is a hobby community that depends on volunteerism, and right now I think that you're trying to set yourself up as The Guy who everybody has to ask permission from, but never has to do anything himself.

You wrote I don't know how many thousands of words criticising those Chimera games you went to, and in two and a half years you haven't tried to write something better. More than that, I reread them when preparing my previous post and I don't think you were actually playing in those games, or ever intended to be anything but an observer - there's too many references to you deliberately distancing yourself from the action of the game, right from the beginning. You think that Asian people are underrepresented at Kapcon? Fine, bring some of your friends along next time. Run a game for your Asian friends who don't roleplay, and see how it goes. What makes it fun for them? Tell us about it. Run the same game for us and see if it goes any differently. But if you want me to respect your opinion in cultural matters, then do something. Get out there and fucking do something. Stop throwing rocks at people from the sidelines.

Look, this is the kind of discussion that's easy to misconstrue over text because there aren't face or vocal cues. I'm happy to talk to you over the phone or in person about it, my number's been PMed separately.

On a final note:
Not good enough.

This is also a poor choice if you want to have a calm and unemotional discussion.
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Re: Larp and other cultures

Postby morgue » Wed Feb 08, 2012 8:22 pm

Misidentifying Catnip as Cat is very very embarrassing. Apologies. It's a mistake that definitely affected my last message, negatively.

I will give you a call, I think you're right that we're losing something via medium because I don't feel like I'm making demands or throwing rocks - I agree that I have no right to do either.

Thanks Steph, for being patient with me here. My respect for you is undimmed.
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Re: Larp and other cultures

Postby morgue » Wed Feb 08, 2012 8:39 pm

morgue wrote:My respect for you is undimmed.

And reading back over, this bit sounds really stupid.
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Re: Larp and other cultures

Postby Steve Hickey » Wed Feb 08, 2012 10:04 pm

I just wanted to say thanks to all of you for having this conversation.
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