I have a theory : namely that cultural reference (refering to cultural genres and works of fiction, including games) is an important part of the game conversation. It saves a lot of time, bringing in whole chunks of imaginary worlds, and creating positive affects when you successfully identify a reference.
But on the other hand, it reinforces… how to put it in english ? social grouping ? exclusion of the non-same ? That would explain, not only perceived nerdiness, or exclusive / discriminatory culture in certain RPG communities, but also endeavors to avoid those in more open communities.
Of course, these dynamics are true in all human groups, but my point is that cultural reference plays this important part in our hobby, and that it comes with specific advantages and drawbacks we can study, turn to our advantage, or mitigate.
For sure, I agree with your points. The cultural referencing creates a common ground that allows conversations to happen faster and/or more accurately — with everyone “on the same page.” But, just like you said, presuming the common ground, before it has been established/clarified, can lead to exclusionary practices.
I think it helps to be reflective of what you already know so that you can propose that reference instead of assert it, giving everyone time to accept or clarify it. Concretely, especially in games spaces, having short YouTube videos (trailers, etc.) for references or concise summaries of genre conventions/plots/etc. can help establish common ground.
As a good exercise, how would someone explain high fantasy to another person who hasn’t read or watched anything that would fit that genre? D&D and LotR aren’t useful examples…is there a meaningful way to connect the genre to other media?
I like the idea of “genre trailers” as it’s not really feasible to give people homework in order to establish a common ground. One of my friends does video editing as a hobby and makes mockups for his games/characters, but in the absence of that skill set I’m sure we could point to specific trailers that are archetypal
for example/as a test, what genre feel do you get out of the following trailers with no other context clues (no cheating!)
This post brought up a dozen vague, half-formed thoughts for me, @DeReel. Thank you! I’d like to add privilege as a lens for the discussion. Having a bank of cultural reference outside of, say, ambient cultural narratives like religion or local folklore presupposes a lot of factors. To name a few that quickly come to mind for me:
Free time (I work with college students, many of whom are working while pursuing their degree, and don’t have the time to soak up media & stories). This is a governing factor over the items below.
Literacy/education (in the larger sense that TV, movies, & comic books are ‘readable’ texts: Did you have a knowledgeable friend who showed you how to ‘read’ a musical genre, for instance?)
Access to narratives through libraries, Amazon memberships, Netflix subscriptions, Spotify, etc.
Relationships with other people of similar interests (which, again, can potentially bring up questions of economic privilege, etc.)
The emotional and interpersonal literacies required to negotiate gameplay at the table.
I do wonder how building games on banks of shared reference fails to engage with these factors, & what a design consciously committed to class and cultural inclusivity looks like (examples welcome!)
There’s a lot of panels and discussions I’ve seen that relate to this. The most succinct way to sum it up IMHO is that systems inherit the bias of their creator. Being aware of your privilege/bias means you can account for this even if you can’t completely eliminate it. It’s why DnD creates imperialist narratives. It’s why Youtube algorithms radicalize you without you even noticing it.
what a design consciously committed to class and cultural inclusivity looks like
I’m also very interested in this and what it looks like. I can think of some abhorrent games I’ve seen that perform it in the opposite direction, but the principle would be the same; enforce (or subvert) bias through mechanics. We could theorize an alternative version of DnD where XP is awarded by forming solidarity and creating things instead o killing stuff and graverobbing.
@noah_t, I think your point is particularly relevant to my situation. My wife generally dislikes roleplaying with me and my friends. I think the reasons you bring up here are why. She was born in a different country with a different language and much more French and Russian influences. No D&D or Tolkien or CS Lewis or Goonies or Conan or Star Wars or even John Hughes movies in her childhood.
I think I may 100% unintentionally be leaving her behind in the narrative or singling her out for clarifications, neither of which she likely appreciates. I wonder if any of you have tips for this beyond reading War and Peace and the like
That way of expressing ‘inheritance’ is very cool! And I am very into the idea of exploring the political implications of how a game’s mechanics model its world.
I do want to push past any particular mechanics & narratives, though, and maybe think about how a game could reconsider the kinds of privilege it takes to play a game / familiarize oneself with a genre at all. For instance, I think Spire: The City Must Fall is a game that’s genuinely interested in decolonizing a problematic segment of the D&D canon. But reading the book & building a campaign still require a TON of free time, TV & games literacy, the economic security to spend $20 on a pdf, the know-how & economic security to buy specialty dice, etc.
I think For the Queen might be a useful game to think through here? It’s a design that’s managed to trim away the overhead of free time, narrative, literacy/narrative access, and games-knowledge. Having multiple Queens cards allows different tables to bring their own narratives to the table. I imagine one table naturally moving into fairy tale structures, another moving into the structures of religious narratives, etc. It’s also (in the world of board-and-card games) quite economical.
Does this seem like an interesting lens for considering how games create a 'social grouping ? exclusion of the non-same ?" as @DeReel kicked off by asking?
I’d love to hear people’s strategies for negotiating this kind of disconnect! My gaming circles are small, & I generally share a bank of references with my fellow players. I’ve felt this dynamic particularly in duets. Half of the battle has been negotiating the aesthetic & flavor of fun we want to build together.
Thank you for all the ideas.
I find designing or facilitating with children in mind, and for low tech, increases inclusivity both as a theme and as a practice.
“instant setting - just add water” are ambivalent in that they throw you the monkey. Sharing trailers or pictures is much more inclusive.
Foundation layers, like media langage (shot scale, editing, etc. : what they mean), would be be much harder to tune. A bank of examples or tools would be handy, there too ; like in some game you can do a vignette, a monologue, or set a scene with a landscape and a mood, and only then introduce characters one by one. So much for in medias res…
I like where this is going. Perhaps encouraging or requiring player input on the setting of games can help? If we’re keeping with this idea of inherited bias, then by forcing players to contribute to the lore/flavor they will be subconsciously sharing their own frames of reference. If we use a system similar to For the Queen we can front load the collaboration by providing prompts that are exclusively outside their normal frame of reference.
Imagine a version of For the Queen where every Queen card was non-white. While it will create alienation for some groups, if the rules are written without ever mentioning it, it creates the presumption that this is the “default” standard which can challenge subconcious bias.
Yeah, I really like that way of thinking about it! It sounds like a way of raising a (useful) barrier to play that denies players shared reference. I wonder if Descent into Midnight, with its focus on non-human protagonists, might be a useful text for this?
I also think it would be worth considering how games provide procedures that tilt players toward questioning their initial ‘frames of reference.’
It’s quite likely that in For the Queen, most players are beginning play with a bias. Depending on the Queen you choose, a first reaction very well could be ‘gold digger,’ or ‘witch obsessively holding onto youth, no matter the cost.’ I don’t think my initial impressions have been quite this blatantly stereotyped, but my initial ideas of the Queens have been painted in broad strokes, and unavoidably gendered.
However, as you make your way through the deck, you quickly question, revise, and nuance those preconceptions. The fact your character is forced to be in relation with the Queen, instead of considering her from a distance, adds another layer that upsets your first understanding.
Monsterheart’s “Turn Someone On” move works in kinda the same way, especially over multiple sessions. Your Monsterhearts character starts as a cliche, then acquires layers of desire and doubt. I’d be interested in hearing about other procedures that explicitly ask players to begin with a simplistic understanding, and revise it during play.
That idea of a “foundation layer” is so so great. I wonder…what would a model for play look like that has a “foundation layer” on the lowest rung, and “actual interactions at the table” at the top? What layers would you place between those two? How would they be arranged?
Have you checked online for groups from her own country? I’d be curious what touchstones they would use instead of the common U.S. ones.
Yes. There is no such thing there. No translations, no native games. The concept was completely foreign to her before we met. There was an article translated about 3 years ago stating that the first native boardgame was created there about 5 years ago.
This classic style war game was considered very novel because it dealt with local history.
Thanks for the question though