Friday, 18 July 2008

Asian Gaming

RPG Pundit, the writer of The Most Famous Uruguayan Gaming Blog on the Planet, recently re-issued an old post of his on 'Caucasian Adventures' and games set in East Asia. It's basically a broadside leveled at the creators of the satirical concept-game of that title. 'Caucasian Adventures', for those who don't know it, is supposed to to illustrate the inherent 'racism' in RPG depictions of East Asia, by being a laughable and stereotypical 'European'-style adventure as seen through the eyes of a non-Caucasian. It was created by a few of the smart-alecky types over at Story Games.

Let's say straight away that I have a vested interest in this topic. I live in Japan, work as an English-Japanese translator, and am married to a Japanese woman, so I feel that on this (rare) occasion I am reasonably well qualified to comment on the subject. (Let's also say straight away that I detest most anime, am turned off by manga, and view 'traditional' Japanese culture with great skepticism. Just to be clear.)

Anyway, on with the post: I hate the idea of 'Caucasian Adventures'. To a certain degree I can appreciate the sentiment, because I routinely notice racism towards East Asian people in the Western media - the kind of ignorant (not hateful) aren't-those-small-people-with-funny-eyes weird? sort of thing that would be viewed as patently unacceptable if directed towards Black or South Asian people. And I also appreciate how awful games like Legend of the Five Rings are: naff imitations of Japanese society with a thin veneer of cultural accuracy which is actually utterly wrong.

But RPG Pundit is right on the money with both of his main points. First, to quote him directly:

So hey, fuckers, you want to make a REAL statement about how bad all the "oriental adventure" sourcebooks for RPGs have been? MAKE ONE THAT DOESN'T SUCK. Because I have news for you bucky: making what amounts to a bunch of cheap shots while feeling all self-righteous about how non-racist you are is all just a load of bullshit, and doesn't actually do anything of worth.

There's nothing I can add to that except to say 'amen'. Caucasian Adventures comes from that same awful, sophomoric impulse that drives the postmodern/poststructuralist movement generally - endless, masturbatory, self-congratulatory criticism that creates precisely nothing interesting or of lasting value. I mean, I detest Legend of the Five Rings, but its writers can be safe in the knowledge that they've created a fun game that thousands of people have enjoyed playing, whereas all the creators of Caucasian Adventures can feel happy about is the fact that they're morally superior and politically 'right on' - and have a vaguely funny title page.

RPG Pundit's second point is more interesting:

[The creators of CA are] wrong because the "western" version of the Kara-tur type asian-stereotype setting isn't "Caucasian Adventures" with two WASPS lounging around on their yacht; the "caucasian" version of "oriental adventures" is Greyhawk. Its the Forgotten Realms. Its Space:1889, Fulminata or Roma Imperious, its Deadlands and Call of Cthulhu, and any other shitload of RPGs that are "inspired by" medieval or other western historical periods.

Because RPG writers haven't made "Oriental adventures" full of mistakes and occasional stereotypes because they're evil and racist; they've done it just because they didn't give a fuck about historical or anthropological accuracy. Because RPGs aren't about that. RPGs are all about the cheap stereotypes.

I think he's 90% right. Any criticism of sourcebooks like Oriental Adventures (or, say, Al Qadim) falls flat on its face when you consider the fact that RPG settings have played even harder and faster with European culture down the years than they have with any other. Legend of the Five Rings is full to bursting with egregious stereotypes, jarring anachronisms, nonsensical garbage and ham-fisted attempts at the Japanese language. But Greyhawk is even worse! As RPG Pundit says, there is no need for satirical works like 'Caucasian Adventures' because they already exist - they are 90% of the fantasy RPG sourcebooks that have ever been written.

Where I object is when Pundit declares that "RPGs are all about cheap stereotypes". I don't accept that; while cheap stereotypes are fun and easy, I have to say that I partly think role playing is all about acknowledging cliches while at the same time transcending them. Games are generally chock-full of stereotypes - the heroic knight, the silent moody ranger, the rebel without a cause, the hot bisexual vampire-slaying high school girl, the man or woman 'with a past', the bumbling wizard/scientist/clergyman... But at the same time those stereotypes develop into unique personalities very quickly. We start off with a rough sketch because it's quicker and easier that way and we want to get on with the game. But during the course of events the character gets knocked around and battered into something approaching a fully-realised, three-dimensional person, with a history and a personality forged "in fire and blood" (as the saying goes). And that's all to the good.


  1. There is no "Caucasian Adventures" RPG, though.

    It's just another forgettable, jokey message board thread among a thousand other forgettable, jokey message board threads. The RPGPundit has blown it out of proportion because doing so gives him a better springboard. It's his ranty style. Sure, his points are fine, for what they're worth, but let's face it: he's probably not the best source of news and information when it comes to sites he hates. ;-)

  2. Rich: Yeah, I know, I'm familiar with the thread. The points stand; I like the creativity of a lot of the people on Story-games, but I hate that kind of jeering-from-the-sidelines thing that the group tends to fall into. It's like RPG Pundit says - if you care enough about something, get out there and actually DO something about it, rather than poke fun at those who've tried.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. [Edited to try to get the tone right]

    Sure. And I hardly want to be in the position of "official defender of that thread." From the moment I saw first saw it, I disliked it. I didn't find it particularly amusing, and I thought it was more harmful than helpful.

    So, annoying thread? Yes. Waste of time? Sure.

    Our positions may not be all that far apart. Maybe the difference is this. I think at least some of the people contributing to that thread (for example, Jonathan Walton, John Kim, Ben Lehman, and Daniel Solis) have also made constructive attempts to engage with race and exoticism in RPGs as well, either through game design or through discussion, just in other places and at other times. So I think the "go do something constructive" comment falls a little flat, in the wider context. Pulling that thread out and treating it as representative seems like cherry picking, to me.

    You may think it is representative though, in which case we'll probably have to agree to disagree?

  5. Rich: Yeah, I'd say we're mostly in agreement! ;)

    If that thread is representative of anything, I suppose it's representative of a certain kind of needless and sneering negativity that I sometimes encounter on and But overall people on both those sites are very positive and creative, so I wouldn't say the thread is representative per se.

  6. I live in Japan, work as an English-Japanese translator, and am married to a Japanese woman.

    May your god-damned lucky hide be cast into the blackest pit of hell Noisms! :)

    How the hell did you manage to pull that off? Inquiring minds what to know.

    Let's also say straight away that I detest most anime, am turned off by manga, and view 'traditional' Japanese culture with great skepticism. Just to be clear."

    Wtf? So what made take the effort to learn the language then? I assume you are very familiar with it if you work as a translator. People who take the effort to learn a farway exotic new language are usually all giddy as heck for the culture that speaks it.

    Can you translate this into English btw? ;-)

    Ahh, kamisama! Watashi no atama ni ono ga arimasu.

  7. Edsan: Well, I live in Japan, so it would be rude in the extreme not to learn the language. That's why I started - gradually I found that I liked studying it. It's a language that communicates meaning very efficiently, and the grammar is much more logical than that of English or other Indo-European languages. Also, I have to communicate with people, including the missus and friends, workmates and family!

    I pulled off meeting my wife because I am witty, urbane, charming and irresistibly handsome, of course. ;)

    Ahh, kamisama! Watashi no atama ni ono ga arimasu.

    "Oh God! There is an axe in my head." Although it doesn't sound like a native Japanese speaker wrote the sentence.

  8. Well, I meant how did you find yourself in the country in the first place? You didn't know Japanese when you moved there?

    Yeah, Japanese does not sound THAT difficult to learn; if all the anime I watch is anything to go by...the sounds are easy to pronounce. At least for me. I guess that has to do with how we pronounce vowels in my native language.

    And yes, I’ve been told by two other people that the grammar isn’t that difficult either.

    Good job on the translation! And I don’t think it was written by a Japanese native either. It’s taken from a web site where the same sentence is written in hundreds on different (including dead) languages.

    As usual, they fucked up the Portuguese line. It’s actually in Brazilian Portuguese and not the original one…oh well. The world will eventually forget about us. We just have to learn to accept it.

    Well, I'm off to run Mutant Future!

  9. This is just over-thinking. Oriental Adventures is a very popular book, I used to have a copy but I lost it, now I wish that I had it back.

    One can say that History influences Dungeons & Dragons, but that is bullshit, it is PULP FICTION that has the honor of supplying the fuel to the fire. The Yellow Scare gave us some awesome characters of pulp fiction, evil masters such as Fu Manchu (who is a main character in my current campaign). The giant temples and way of life printed in the cartoon "Ripley's Believe it or Not", Ripley didn't hate these people, he spent much of his life in Asia. Their way of life in the early 20th century had remained relatively unchanged by the industrial revolution at that point.

    Kung Fu movies are also leave a big impression on Americans. Bruce Lee's Enter The Dragon is a masterpiece! Can't we just forget the fact that Lee also played Kato on The Green Hornet? Though Kato was another character who was especially rare at the time. A GOOD Asian was absolutely unheard of, not to mention extremely unpatriotic considering that Japan was enemy #1 at the time that the Hornet was first introduced.

    I always hate whenever anybody pulls the racist card, especially over something that isn't intended to be racist. Folks use books like Asian Adventures to get a specific feel for the game, out of LOVE and RESPECT for the genre, not to push "the man" down. This logic would tell us that Britain still has singing chimney sweepers, American cowboys still roam the plains with stolen bank money. Westerns are still popular, and romantic as hell, but the cowboy of myth is just that. Who cares? It is still great stories!

  10. One can say that History influences Dungeons & Dragons, but that is bullshit, it is PULP FICTION that has the honor of supplying the fuel to the fire.

    I think that pretty much sums it up.

  11. Edsan: And I don’t think it was written by a Japanese native either.

    Yeah, it literally translates as "there is an axe in my head" - it's unclear whether that means there is an axe buried in the person's head, or whether there is an axe actually inside their head. Also, Japanese people don't say "Ahh, kamisama." They're mostly Buddhists or irreligious, so that sort of construction doesn't exist in their language. I think it's mostly limited to Christians, Jews and Muslims.