Thursday, May 22, 2014

Orientalism and Exoticism


Orientalism and Exoticism: How Good Intentions Can Go Astray

"What do we know of the D’ai-Shin, that worthless race? Their skin is yellowish, their hair dark and lank. Their eyes are little more than narrow slits. They are fawning and deferential to their betters, but this does not translate to obedience or loyalty. The D’ai-Shin are idle, devious and cunning; and their bureaucracy is all-encompassing, corrupt, status-obsessed and moribund. D’ai-Shin are often encountered as merchants: but beware the bargains that they may offer you.

"Their neighbours, the Tamayushi, are a very different proposition. Their colouring is similar, but there the resemblance ends. They live by a stringent code of honour, in a strong society in which each person knows their place, and each is unquestioningly loyal to their superior. They are master swordsmen, and they brew a fiery alcohol from rice. Some Tamayushi, the ‘shadow warriors’, work as spies and assassins – but their single-minded dedication and craft mystique are such as to add an honourable cast even to these professions."

Ugly racist portrayals, like the D’ai-Shin, are easy to spot. The days when they were distressingly frequent in role-playing games are, thankfully, mostly behind us.

But stereotypes like the Tamayushi are still common. If another race is portrayed with broadly positive – even admirable – qualities, that’s OK. Isn’t it? If you’ve got a genuine interest in Japanese cultural artefacts – the samurai code, ninja skills, or maybe Hokusai’s prints, anime, Harajuku fashion – what could be more natural than to portray that in a game? It’s a way of paying homage to a fascinating foreign people, isn’t it? Not racist at all.

Not that simple

Well… it’s not that simple, unfortunately. Good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes. Any depiction of a foreign culture that concentrates only on certain key stereotypical aspects is a misrepresentation, and does that culture a disservice. Not only that: it’s lazy, boring and uncreative. When Westerners portray Eastern cultures in such a way – as though half the world is a sort of grab-bag of exotic tropes from which one can help oneself – it’s called ‘Orientalism’, first discussed as harmful in Edward Said’s 1978 book of the same name. From the point of view of the East, being portrayed by the West as samurai and geishas is just as reductive (albeit less nastily intended), as being portrayed as idlers and crooks. Either way, you’re underselling a culture that is a rich and varied as your own; whose people have the same rounded lives and range of interests as you do. Picking out a handful of bits that you like from Japanese culture makes for the same thin and dismissive representation of it as would picking out a handful of bits that you don’t like.

The Orientalism mode of portrayal can more broadly be thought of as Exoticism. If I set a game in BDSM culture, or among folk musicians, or in a depressed housing project, or in the 19th century North Welsh gold rush, then my lack of personal familiarity with that culture means I run the risk of exoticizing it – of just portraying aspects of the culture that appeal to me, and ignoring the realities of the people to whom it ‘belongs’. And not only that: I might be picking up aspects of their culture in ways that they would find actively painful or damaging. A classic example is the portrayal of Malkavian clan members as ‘insane’ in Vampire: the Masquerade. This can not only trivialize mental illness, it may be offensive and damaging to sufferers.

Exoticism can occur in any creative artform, but it’s particularly a risk in gaming, because we’re often called upon to create material at short notice and/or with a rapid turnover. A novelist who writes one book a year has the freedom to properly research their setting and make a fair portrayal. (Although they don’t always bother to do so.) A GM, or a player in a co-created game, may be having to come up with fresh setting ideas every week. The temptation to reach for a simple exotic trope is that much greater.

How to avoid it

So if you want to avoid Exoticism in your own work, what’s the best approach? Unfortunately I don’t think there is any easy answer.

  • You have to research your setting properly, finding out everything you can about the lives of the people you’re portraying, as they relate to what’s going to be happening in your game.
  • Make characters well-rounded. If you think of your characters properly as people, not just as collections of characteristics, it’s much easier to avoid exoticizing them, and much less likely to be offensive.
  • If you have the chance, you should discuss your work with members of that culture – they are the best judges of whether you’ve created a fair portrayal or whether you might want to try harder.
  • Challenge the stereotypes by examining them within your game. If prejudiced and stereotyped attitudes towards the community you’re writing about are a problem in the real world, make that be part of what the game is about. Reclaim the problematic!
  • Otherwise, stick to what you really know. Game writing needn’t be a ceaseless quest to pillage new exotic settings. Explore something you already know well; or draw upon your own personal experience.
  • Or invent wholesale: create a setting from your imagination, that doesn’t have any parallels to real-world cultures.

A great example of a game that avoids Exoticism despite having an ‘exotic’ setting is A Thousand and One Nights: A Game of Enticing Stories, designed by Meguey Baker. She’s put in what looks like a ton of work to make sure that the game portrays its classical Arabian milieu in a rounded and non-cliché fashion. The way that players create characters in this game – via a detailed sensory exploration – actively works against the tendency to reach for the familiar. Or another excellent example is Sagas of the Icelanders, by Gregor Vuga: this game is built on really thorough and interesting research into the Viking life, and helps you create better story about your characters because of that.

And another option if you want to play a game set in another culture is to find one that was actually written within that culture. Tenra Bansho Zero: Tales of Heaven and Earth is a Japanese storytelling RPG, written by Junichi Inoue, of “hyper-asian drama”. How much more fun is it to play that, rather than a Western attempt at a Japanese-set game?

Think about it

I don’t want this to be just a preachy kind of guilt trip. Once you’re aware of how Exoticism works, and how it distorts and sells short these cultures and communities that you’re really interested in and want to tell stories about, you’ll quickly see how it’s more fun and more interesting to do it properly – to do justice to these people, to represent them fully and roundedly, to make your game and story world a deep and rich one that everyone’ll love to interact with, without causing unintended offence or hurt.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about it, and how you get on!

Good stuff to follow up with

Orientalism (the book) on Wikipedia:

Deeper in the Game, on Reclaiming Problematic Material:

Tenra Bansho Zero:

Sagas of the Icelanders:
Mo Holkar is a game designer and publisher in the United Kingdom. You can also find him on Facebook or Google+.
Many thanks to Becky Annison for thoughts and comments in preparation of this article.

Image by Linh Ngan. Used by permission.


  1. Unlike a well-read novelist, the "audience" of a game is only a few people.
    We don't need to avoid causing offence to people that aren't present. Absolutely, totally, really take into account the feelings of the people present, the people you're actually interacting with. Try not to offend them. If you're not sure, talk to them.

    If I want a rigid stereotypical Japanese society in my game, and all the players are happy with it - great! If I'm running a Ninja Turtles game, I don't need to know much about Japanese culture beyond "there are ninjas." Even if my faux-Japanese-accent is really bad, as long as everyone at the table knows I'm trying my best and not trying to be offensive, then that's fine. If they find it offensive despite my good intentions they can *tell me*. Because we are *adults* and *communicate*. If we can't communicate, why are we even roleplaying together?

    Stereotypes and tropes and even "the exotic" aren't inherently offensive. Introducing a stereotypical Japanese character isn't inherently any worse than introducing stereotypical and inaccurate descriptions of combat.

    I love cartoons and comics and 3D movies, and what I love most about them is the artistry of simplification. One artist may draw Batman as an impressive figure, with detailed solid-looking armor and realistic gadgets. Another artist may draw Batman as a looming shadow with glowing white eyes. Both are instantly recognizable, but their choice in how to depict and simplify (or stereotype) tells us about the story, and about how to interpret it.

    I don't see stereotypes as any different. They're a simplification of people or cultures. But "simplification" isn't bad, and in a game where you want to manage pacing and structure, is often necessary.

    Like all tools, it depends on how you use it. Stereotypes can offend people, and words can shape opinions. But stories are also stories, and you won't shape opinions about real humans if everyone at the table is clear that this is a fictional, stereotyped setting.

    The idea "you have to research and do it right" I find pretty unreasonable. In most things we do, we start off bad and get better with practice. Being unable to explore other cultures until we can "do it right" is kind of silly, especially considering the lack of broad audience. If I set a game in Japan, I'd start out with a stereotyped culture. Partly because I'd know the stereotype, and enjoy the "exotic" but also to help ground the players in the culture. Playing up the stereotype makes them focus on what's different about this culture to theirs. It makes them focus on what makes a game set in Japan different to a game set in Africa or England or Australia. It's more fun than handing them a history book or throwing them in and expecting them to just "know how the setting works." And then we'd play the game. And while playing the game, it would "naturally" become less stereotyped - partly because you can't always play the same character and so you'll start adding depth as you explore the setting. And partly because over time you have more time to learn about the setting and real-life culture and history, and incorporate that into the game.

    And if it keeps some stereotypes? That's fine. I'm Australian - absolutely please feel free to introduce Australian NPCs into your game that throw boomerangs. You won't be hurting a single Australian by doing that. It's a trope because it's FUN. And your games should be about fun.

    If you then take that game, and form your opinion about real life people based on these stereotypes? Then that's because you're an idiot, not because the game was offensive.

    1. Speaking as someone who's repeatedly seen the complex, amazing culture of his family reduced to fortune-telling, evil-eye casting bard pastiches and lying thieves, I can say that it isn't that simple. Whatever you want to do with one-shot games or whatever, is fine, but if we're talking about actually writing a game, then more care needs to be taken.

  2. Interesting perspectives. Thanks to both of you for sharing. I have to admit that I lean towards Tony's side of the camp even though I do like to research new campaign settings and cultures. However, I do it to mine for ideas and names that will paint the setting to my players as well as to get a better feel for the culture.

    I do want to try to understand the original premise of this blog. So, I grabbed Said's book from the library. ... Wow, that's some of the toughest reading that I have ever done. Not because of the vocabulary but because I want to slap the shit out of the author. I will persevere and see if I can finish the book and understand this issue from both sides of the coin.

  3. This is a great article, and something I've been trying to drill into people's heads in reference to "my people", Roma/Gypsies. I can't tell you how many times I've seen White Wolf's Mistake (WoD: Gypsies) repeated in homebrew games, and even published works. It's amazing how people don't see creating rules for playing an ethnicity as an odd thing, but would consider separate rules for playing African Americans (good a rhythmic music, athletic, sensual, prone to violence and crime) the height of racism. It's like Roma aren't considered people beyond the highly romanticized stereotypes they get from Universal and Hammer films.

  4. Imagine that the only versions of your culture that ever appeared in books or on TV were one-dimensional stereotypes. Now imagine that your favorite gaming book came out with a supplement that included those stereotypes.
    Mo's article is a challenge to us to influence our hobby for the better. I understand why Tony says, "We don't need to avoid causing offence to people that aren't present." However, I would encourage all of us to ask whether we are telling stories that reinforce lies or half-truths about other people.
    Whether or not those people are present at our table, it would be wise for us to consider how we think about people groups that have repeatedly been treated poorly in real life.
    This is not a command from the gaming police. This is a request from your friend, who wants to see our hobby filled with kindness to strangers and outsiders.