Note: This post is very U.S. centric in nature.
Note the Second: I make broad statements in this piece; any discussion of culture is extremely complex and open to nuance and one blog post cannot do that justice
The folklore game jam has helped me realize what bothers me with a lot of the conversation around making anti-colonial games.* (*Many people use the term "decolonizing games"; I've moved away from that term, since decolonization should not be separated from its real-word actions; in other words, decolonization is not a metaphor.)
I didn’t plan on making a folklore game; then I ended up making two. One is based on a Cherokee story; the other was inspired by a Scottish story. As I worked on the games I found myself revisiting the stories I grew up on. Looking at Cherokee and Scottish stories at the same time made one thing very clear: folklore reveals a lot about culture. It captures the values we want to pass on from one generation to the next.
This statement may seem a little “no duh” for anyone who has considered folklore before. But it feels revolutionary in this moment to me because folklore takes the unspoken values and make them blatant. It takes the cultural assumptions and teaches them outright. I’ve returned to a number of stories I grew up on with a new eye, and feel like I’m crystallizing in my mind the unspoken, transmitted values that surrounded me throughout my life.
How does this relate to cultural assumptions, and colonialism, embedded in games?
I’ve seen a lot of discourse in the U.S. among white designers focus on trying to "decolonize games" by not including certain elements: violence, conquering, Other races, collecting material goods.
It’s like there’s a list of “this = colonizing” so “decolonizing = not these things.”
This approach has felt off as I watch different designers try and discuss anti-colonial games. Are these mechanics of the colonial process? Sure.
But it seems to miss something deeper: the insidious nature of oppression.
Someone once described privilege to me as the freedom to be unaware of an element of your own identity. If you sit in a room and actively notice “I am a woman / old / LGBT / etc.”, it generally means you are outside the norm in that way. I once went to a professional meeting where I was the only person under the age of 50. In my college classes at the time I never thought about my age, but in that meeting I was acutely aware of it.
On the flip-side, while attending graduate school, my classmates in their 50s felt very aware of the age gap between them and the rest of our class, almost all people in their 20s.
The norm and our awareness of it was context dependent.
This is a natural dynamic, right? If we stand out, we are aware of it.
How does this tie back to oppression and colonization?
Part of the colonial process was establishing the “norm” in colonized spaces. Audra Lorde has pointed at this with the idea of the “Mythical Norm.” The Mythical Norm is no longer about context, but about a universal expectation of “normal”, which is a form of privilege.
Let me give an example. I spoke with a man who believed that the Western empirical/scientific method is Truth. Time is linear. Only what can be observed is true, anything else is “subjective.” He saw this as laws of reality and fundamental. When challenged with viewpoints by other cultures, he dismissed them as “odd” or “subjective” or “doesn’t apply here.”
This is a form of oppression: when a set of values and cultural norms is elevated to Truth, while other groups are marginalized as Other. One is elevated to define reality, while the other is erased or pushed out or devalued.
But something happens when we do this. The oppressing culture’s distinct values and identity gets transformed into How Things Are.
And that leads to a disconnect. The oppressing culture is no longer a culture; they have alienated themselves from their own identity.
This plays out in a lot of conversations I have with people in the U.S. from a Western European heritage. They claim they have no culture; or they are “American”; and many express some sadness at this. To be honest, I think this is part of why they feel drawn to the symbols and stories of other cultures. Is some the “exotic appeal” (gag)? Sure. But they can also see a distinct, different culture and identity where they feel they have none.
Even as people acknowledge terrible things done to the Cherokee, many express regret they cannot feel as connected to their own cultural identity and history.
This brings me back to folklore. As I revisited stories from the Scottish side of the family, it seemed like the themes of the stories were starkly different from the Cherokee. And they pointed at different histories and values. It reminded me so much of my mother’s family, and as I read it I thought back to her family’s history and stories I’ve heard about them over my life and across the generations.
And the culture just smacked me in the face.
Ever since I’ve been thinking a lot about different folklore found in Western Europe and the history of Europe. And the history of hierarchy and wars across centuries.
And it seems to me that interrogating cultural oppression in our work is not about deleting the “bad” parts such as violence or conquering; it is about asking why? And how? And what echoes of values and culture exist within those urges?
There are numerous Cherokee stories about the consequences of violence. In a lot of the European folklore I read? There is a lot about being the best at violence. These are two extremely different values. (This is a simplification of both groups, but also points at a broad difference.)
I find myself longing for U.S. game designers to think about more overt and aware reconnection with their own culture and values. Question what those values are, but then also question why they are. I think about the geographic closeness in Europe and history of warring and conquering across the ages and think, “Well, yeah being perceived as ‘strong’ is a form of protection.”
Or let’s look at another common theme: hierarchy. That has stretched back centuries. It has taken different forms through wealth, aristocracy, land, legacy, conquering, different markers of who is “at the top”, but the theme of hierarchy and status has existed for a long time.
That theme does not show in most Cherokee stories.
That theme is not “normal”; it is embedded in culture and history.
For me, being anti-colonial does not mean “Immediately say violence and hierarchy are bad,” to me it is, “Stop treating these themes as facets of reality (whether to be praised or fought) and start seeing them as facets of culture.”
I’ve had friends say they feel lost in thinking about their culture in the U.S. Maybe their family was British hundreds of years ago, but modern Britain doesn’t represent who they are now.
But themes and values, culture, can be transmitted across generations. It has never been static, but elements can be surprisingly consistent.
And where do we see these elements so starkly?
In our folklore. In our fairy tales. In the family history and stories we do pass on.
So I guess what I’m saying is, if you are someone in the U.S. especially from a Western European heritage who is interested in making anti-colonial games, maybe start by reading fairy tales from your heritage. Maybe start by detaching your own culture from the Norm so you can see what values are embedded in your culture. And instead of trying to cut out anything that is “from a colonizing process”, ask yourself why this pattern exists. Why this value exists. What is the positive and negative.
How could a game be about these themes intentionally? Not about exploring new people or places or conquering (which centers the game on the Other), but about these things in their own right?
Because here’s another thing about interrogating culture and oppression: there is no neutral perspective. There is no making a game without centering it on a specific culture, viewpoint, values. Because there is no Norm. There is only us—a huge range of cultures with overlapping and different values, histories, and viewpoints—and I am interested in seeing yours. Whatever your culture.
I am not interested in another theme park adventure in the Mythical Norm land. That fantasy is played out.
Tangential end note: Philosophy is another form of folklore. When the Enlightenment happened, the academy tried to replace superstition and religion as the cultural authority. Which is why knowing and reading philosophy can be a super helpful way to understand that culture. Also, illustrated versions of philosophers’ work exist, so you don’t need to dig deep into the belabored treatises of the original writing if you don’t want to.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.