Happy Tuesday! Sorry for not writing in a little while – between house hunting, celebrating my two year anniversary, and my laptop being sent to the hospital, it’s been a long couple of weeks.
Last Thursday, my game mechanics class covered some really cool topics, specifically cellular automata. By creating a few simple rules, a complex series of patterns can be formed on a simple as a 2-D grid. Play around a bit on this website, and you’ll be endlessly fascinated. Read more in my side quests section here.
Alright, enough nerding out – on to this post’s topic! The idea of examining how culture is preserved through games came to me when I checked on a Kickstarter for Mulaka - Origin Tribes. This beautiful game caught my attention about a year ago because it focused on the culture and beliefs of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. I am related to this tribe through my Father’s side of the family, and they are famous for their long-distance running abilities.
What I found so enticing about this game was that it is still a traditional game in terms of mechanics, but instead of telling stories based in fiction, it brought to life an entire culture through its gameplay. Most importantly, it was made by people FROM Mexico, allowing for direct sources of cultural information. Every extension of the game is based on elements of Tarahumara people – from clothing, weapons, music, in-game mythology, and even enemies. This game, by being an extension of Tarahumara culture, gives outsiders an emic (an anthropology term that means an insider’s perspective) view of their worldview. This unique approach to preserving a culture allows players to experience a culture, rather than just learning about it from a textbook. By creating an entire virtual world for this cultural embodiment to exist in, it also provides something desperately missing from books- context.
We can all agree that this is not the same as reading an ethnographic study or watching a documentary. The level of detail is limited and artistic expression within the game filters cultural information through the lens of the artists and designers. But a game holds the unique aspect of participation and immersion that other forms of study don’t have. Think about asking a 10-year-old to tell you, in detail, what they learned in class? My guess is that most kids will respond with a few sentences. But what happens when you ask them about what game they’re playing? You’re going to give you a very excited retelling of the story, their experience playing it, and the various minutia that they found interesting. That’s because they participated, rather than observed.
In my mind, this leads to a few major questions:
- How can games be used to teach about culture?
- How can we ensure that games aren’t just another mode of cultural appropriation?
- How can new technologies like virtual reality be harnessed to create immersive experiences in the fields of anthropology and sociology?
Some of these questions have simple answers, while others are up for debate. Let’s start with the first two questions. Taking a cue from Mulaka, relying on primary sources of information (wherever possible) is key. So much cultural data that exists has been edited and adjusted by those who recorded the data. While not necessarily malicious, this happens when those recording data decide what should and should not be recorded. For example, let’s look at the concept of modesty. Going into the jungles of Papua New Guinea, outsiders might be shocked to see the native inhabitants naked or barely covered. Given the jarring contrast to our own culture, this may be something that observers make great note about. But is that important to the native people? Is modesty even a named concept in their culture? Inherent bias of an etic (outsider’s) perspective deeply impacts what information we have. By going directly to cultural experts from within the community and asking them what is important, you can help maintain an authentic representation.
But what do you do when you are working with “dead” cultures/subcultures. For example, the Eastern European background I come from – the Yiddish shtetl that my great grandparents left behind – no longer exists. How do we portray these stories when nobody living remembers them? The answer lies in productions like Fiddler on the Roof, which is based on the writings of a period writer, Sholem Aleichem. By working with primary source material, this musical was able to capture a portion of what life was like in a shtetl. Of course, the further back we go, the less source material we usually find. We take the same approach modern historians (try) and take – objective, thorough, and with as little inference as possible.
Moving on, let's touch on how technologies like VR can be used for ethnographic research. The answer is straightforward but has yet (to my knowledge) been put into practice in any kind of significant way. Imagine watching an anthropologist’s field study in VR. The ability to see a people and an environment from the first person granted to you by a 360° camera. The wealth of knowledge that could be gleaned is tremendous. Not only would observers be able to form their own personal connection to a studied culture through immersive experiences, but it would greatly reduce the need to disturb these peoples’ way of life with future studies. Especially with isolated cultures, this exposure has been shown to have disastrous effects on traditional ways of life (such as the Westernization of Papua New Guinea, a favorite ethnographic destination for anthropologists for decades). With what could be a potentially groundbreaking project, imagine fusing ethnographic footage into a game! It won’t be long before this becomes common practice, and we’ve already seen major news organizations adopt VR.
Overall, I’m excited to see what games are going to become in the next 20 years. There are more gamers today than ever before thanks to mobile gaming, and the more that games and peripheral technology become commonplace, the more room there will be fore games like Mulaka. Indie developers are getting more power to produce games that are meaningful to them, and gaming is producing technology that has incredibly diverse applications. Scientists are just scratching the surface of studying the benefits of gaming, and I’m looking forward to a time when games can be effectively integrated into classroom settings in a more substantial way.
What cultures would you like to see embodied in a game? What benefits/challenges do you see in producing a game like Mulaka? What area of study would you like to see use 360° cameras?
Thanks for reading!