My gamer friends and I have been discussing the release of the massive new board game Rising Sun. Developed by a group of successful game designers, it’s described by the publisher thusly:
“Rising Sun is a game about honor, negotiation, and warfare in a feudal Japan where the ancient gods (kami) have returned to rebuild the empire… Rising Sun claims Diplomacy as its distant ancestor. Tackle negotiations, alliances, and war. Capture hostages and commit seppuku. The game features an honor track, in which you can rise and fall based on your behavior.”
Where this gets complicated is that one of the mythological Japanese monsters included in the game isn’t actually part of the early Japanese pantheon, just an error from a too-quickly referenced Web page. The game includes a beast called a “Kotahi”, but it turns out that Kotahi is a Maori word meaning “one” and is actually the name of a gamer from New Zealand who was pranking Wikipedia, of all things.
Really. Here’s how a New Zealand newspaper described the mix-up:
Kotahi-Manawe Bradford and his friend were messing around with a Wikipedia page about legendary Japanese Monsters and added a fake entry, named after Kotahi, that read “A spirit monkey that is very hairy and gets engulfed in rage.
The story’s amusing but there’s a more serious side to this: Because no-one from the gaming company CMON did proper homework, a teen prank has become something more, something that purports to be a game honoring Japanese legends and history.
Which gets us, in perhaps a somewhat roundabout way, to the topic of cultural appropriation. Was CMON right in creating a game based in medieval Japanese culture when it’s not a Japanese company and none of the developers have Japanese heritage?
Here’s what I said to the group:
Honoring a culture’s rich traditions and leveraging that to create a fun and immersive gaming world [or movie, or book series, or comic book] doesn’t seem like anything bad to me at all. The very idea of “cultural appropriation” flies in the face of how just about every culture in the world works: we absorb things. We make foods, words, styles, construction techniques, technology our own. We find inspiration in others and how they view / process the world. What’s bad about that? The alternative is stagnation as a culture and peoples and I’m definitely not down for that, personally.
Meanwhile, do a Google search for “cultural appropriation” and you’ll find that some people believe it applies to a child wearing a Halloween costume pretending to be from another culture [pirates? ok. Gypsy? Maybe okay. Maori because of the popular children’s film Moana? Not okay. Pocahontas because of the film of the same name? Again, not okay]. Others claim that non-Indians practicing yoga is cultural appropriation. Or that white women with dreadlocks is. Or jazz music performed by non-African Americans.
Sociologists look at the term narrowly as referring to a dominant culture adopting elements of an oppressed culture, but cultures rarely if ever meet on equal terms. Belgium colonizing the Congo, Japan and Indonesia, China and Nepal, England colonizing India, heck, England colonizing what would eventually become the United States. Etc etc.
Oppression stinks and that’s not what I’m talking about at all. I’m talking about the fact that I might visit Taipei and find a food I fall in love with, or Johannesburg, just to buy myself a particularly striking handmade vest, or Mumbai and decide that traditional Indian chai is fantastic. Or befriend a Scotsman or Peruvian, just to adopt some of their wry, funny sayings and even vocal intonation.
That’s not stealing. That’s not diluting their culture. That’s honoring their culture by letting it echo within another culture. It’s the very foundation of the Western World, something we in America have historically referred to as the great melting pot. In fact, the melange of cultures implied by the melting pot concept is the diametric opposite of cultural appropriation, and it’s the latter that creates boundaries. It’s what fuels ethnic groups remaining outside and different from the cultural mainstream.
Which brings us back to Rising Sun. Given that they clearly were a bit sloppy in their research and didn’t have anyone of Japanese ethnicity in the game development process, is it cultural appropriation if I play the game and enjoy it? What do you think?