Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Brathwaite has posted an interesting idea and a fun thought exercise:

A game about restoring the culture of a group of players. Well, restoring might be the wrong term, since it's questionable that they ever stored it in the first place. Let's call it "teaching".

I think that... I think that a game might be ideal for teaching people culture.

Because culture is a process. Culture isn't a set of rules, or a list of historical events. Culture isn't a language or a dress code. Culture is fundamentally alive.

I know a lot about a lot of cultures. I probably know as much about Irish culture as many Irish-Americans. But to me, it's just information. It's just a cool idea.

This is the problem most people would fall into, I think. Sort of like someone who watches a dozen kung-fu movies back to back and walks out of the theater thinking he can do kung-fu. I can point and say, "oh, that's aikido, that's wing chun". Doesn't mean I can do these things.

Now, it's hard to teach martial arts with a video game. There's really no way for the game to track your physical movements. But a culture... if you were careful and clever, you could build a game that could tell how you were acting culturally.

It wouldn't be perfect, obviously. You are not your avatar, and your avatar would (by necessity) have less subtle, deep interactions than you could have in person. But the idea is that the dynamics of the game would lead the player to feel the culture. Feel it push on him, feel it arise from and react to circumstance.

A game trying to teach Irish culture shouldn't simply be an action game set in Ireland, idealized with dancing redheads and oppressive Brits. It shouldn't be an RPG with druids in it. These things are window dressing. They imply that the culture is window dressing. The culture has to be powered by the game, integrated into it.

I don't want to use Irish as an example culture, because it's not the clearest example of what I'm getting at. Let's talk Gypsies.

Roma culture distills down to a few very specific elements, and these are very easy to put into a game as a dynamic rather than window dressing.

I'm going to build a Gypsy-like culture from a single core tenet, simply extrapolated across times and places.

I'm going to imagine a game where your people have powers that grow stronger the more of you are together. But only so long as they remain "pure". There are a wide variety of "impure" things that your people avoid, including (most importantly) mixing with people who aren't your own.

In game terms, interacting with outsiders is only okay if you carefully remain apart from them, distinct. Otherwise, your powers degrade and they take a long time to come back. If you degrade far enough, you might actually fall sick and die. Too many of you in one place, though, and your powers grow uncontrollable: monsters-from-the-id style.

(This could just as easily be a multiplayer or even massively multiplayer game, as you see.)

My imaginary Gypsy culture follows entirely from this one rule of gameplay. Every aspect of Gypsy culture can be, if you stretch a bit, explained by an attempt to stay pure and separate. Think about it.

The player would. The player would get to see these traditions from the inside. He would understand what it is like to be that kind of outsider, what it is like to constantly travel, and how it all arises from and reacts to the world he is in.

Looking back over those paragraphs, it seems like I'm taking an almost insulting approach to my imaginary variant of this culture. Maybe. I'm trying to keep it simple, and simple is usually insulting. But the game doesn't have to be a depressing xenophobia-fest.

Your own people are very important to you, remember. It's not like you go live alone in the woods somewhere: your people usually travel in groups and there's a lot of joy and complexity to be had in the way a long-standing group interacts.

In fact, most games are careful to set the player (and his party, if he has one) apart from the rest of the world. The rest of the world is basically a petty, pointless place only useful for the supplies you can strip from it. You move from town to town, never mixing, rarely making friends, and often opposed by the local muscle.



bbrathwaite said...

Your post brings up a lot of other issues that have me thinking, too. Well done. Thank you.

James said...

Would King of Dragon Pass fit the bill?

On order to succeed, you need to "think like an Orlanthi" -- decisions in accordance with the culture presented in the game tend to work out rather better.

Craig Perko said...

Brathwaite: Oh, I got kudos. Those are pretty rare around these parts. :D

James: I've never played King of Dragon Pass, and this is definitely something that you could only judge by playing. So, I can't say one way or the other.

I'd be interested in playing it, though. I'll go find it.

Ian Schreiber said...

Great post. But I just couldn't let this pass:

"Now, it's hard to teach martial arts with a video game. There's really no way for the game to track your physical movements."

As of this very moment I'm imagining a future game called Wii-Jutsu.

Craig Perko said...

Good luck!