Sunday, March 15, 2015

What I Have Learned from the Thunder Plains Controversy... So Far

Though this is not entirely a new controversy, there has been considerable attention this weekend to the depiction of the Thunder Plains controversy in The Strange.  I have literally lost sleep trying to figure out how to respond to this controversy; so, I thought I would use the blog as a way to work out how I feel about this controversy and my reactions to it.

I should start with a little biography since identity is so central to this controversy.  I am a middle-aged white hetero cis male -- first generation college graduate from a fly over state.  From this perspective, I have some experiences of discrimination but not of the sort that are the subject of this controversy.  I have long held some version of standpoint epistemology wherein people have privileged access to some information supported by their own experiences and identities.  I do not hold so strong a version of this perspective that I think no two people could ever effectively communicate about suffering or discrimination or that only members of a specific identity group can ever write about members of that identity group -- but I do think that identity matters and that this means that there are limits to what I do (and possibly can) know about the experiences of discrimination felt by people from other genders, races, ethnicities, religions, etc.  From this perspective, I consider "social justice warrior" to be quite a compliment.  Social justice is surely something worth fighting for.

This perspective has motivated me to spend quite a bit of time over the last decade teaching about standpoint epistemology, critical race theory, and the role of social constructions of groups in public policy making.  The fact that I do this now at the University of Oklahoma (interesting timing, right?) also means that I am surrounded by reminders of the history of discrimination and genocide directed at Native America populations in the US.  The vulnerability of Native American populations is very real to me -- not something that happens in some other area of the country.

All of this has made the controversy over the depiction of the Thunder Plains difficult for me to deal with.  I have carefully chosen the term "controversy" because what I have seen is not a debate.  I have coached debate for decades and what I have seen fall far short of that sort of dialogue.  The controversy has lead me to several lessons, though -- and one lesson yet to come, I hope.

1]  The internet is a terrible place to have a debate.  I know.  This is not saying anything people already don't know.  However, people seem to be acting as if there is some value to having a debate online.  There is certainly a lot of energy on social media to either support Monte Cook Games or criticize them.  However, most of this energy is completely content-free.  Most is empty statements of support ("I don't think the material is offensive") or criticism ("For shame, Monte Cook Games").  While I guess people feel better aligning on one side or another of this controversy, these are hardly contributions to a debate at all.

There has been a notable exception to this.  The blog post on Last Real Indians has what I would call an argument and contributes to a debate.  The medium is important.  The blog post makes a contribution because it devotes more than 144 characters or a Facebook comment to the issue.  While I don't agree with the entire blog entry (more on the specific later), this is the only well-thought out contribution to the dialogue I have run across (If I have missed other important treatments, please link them in the comments.  I would like to read them as well.).   It has been appropriately shared widely.  If responses and statements of agreement were as well thought-out, we might be able to say we have had a debate.  Instead, it is the one argument in an ocean of "me too" messages on two sides of the debate.

2] Good will and a generally progressive attitude is not enough.   I have been a supporter of Monte Cook Games since its launch.  I have been impressed by their dedication to depictions of diversity in their setting art and overall inclusive approach to gaming.  I was just talking to my wife this weekend about our reactions to the diverse depictions of characters in their most recent release for The Strange (In Translation -- a character guide).  Monte Cook Games has been particularly progressive in its treatment of gender and sexuality.

And, none of that matters to this controversy.  Being progressive in regards to gender does not inoculate one from bias in regards to other identities.  As hard as it sounds, we need to strive to get it all right.  While it is right to praise an organization for its positive steps -- one should still call them out for problems in other directions.

3] Perceptions matter regardless of gaming context.  A common reaction to the criticisms is to either say "it is only a game" or "in the game it makes sense."  None of this matters to the broader social processes of discrimination.  The game may be about imperfect projection of historical, mythological, and literary narratives.  However, these imperfect projections have effects both inside (through the games we play) and outside (through the stereotypes we reinforce) the game itself.  Telling someone that the homogeneous and ahistorical depiction of Native American culture is simply part of the game does not escape the problem.  We must take great care in the depiction of historical cultures whether it is in gaming or not -- even in the transplantation of cultures to clearly fictional setting, like Maztica for D&D -- to avoid reinforcing processes that have been employed for generations to exclude vulnerable people.

4] Some of the facts of this debate are unlikely to ever be clear.  Here, I mean the specific interactions of the parties involved.  Within MCG supporter circles, I read that critics of the Thunder Plains were invited to participate as editors in the future and participate in a dialogue to improve the cultural sensitivity of the treatment of the material -- but that these offers had been rebuffed.  Within the critical circles, I read that the critics had been immediately banned from communicating with MCG and its fans and started a petition as a reaction to a breakdown in communication.  It is unlikely that these two accounts are both accurate.  Which one -- or which combination of the two -- is accurate?  I don't know.  I won't likely ever know.  Each side will likely go on repeating their version to lionize or vilify -- but this does not really bear at all on the core questions of the depiction of Native Americans in this and other games.  If anything, it is a debate over the character of MCG writers and their critics.  Frankly, I am not interested in trying to sort out questions of peoples' characters through internet controversies.  

5] This is a really hard issue.  It defies simple solutions and responses.  When I read through the blog cited above, I see that there real problems with the depiction of Native American cultures in the Thunder Plains.  The claim that the treatment homogenizes several distinct traditions ("several" may be an understatement but the right word escapes me).  On the other hand, some of the criticisms seem minor.  The perpetuation of an image of dancing around a fire does not seem damaging to me -- but this may be because I do not know the full history of the use of that image as a basis for discrimination.  Debates over the spelling of a word that is clearly transliterated to begin with strikes me as a reach -- the spelling is a phonetic approximation to begin with.

The major problem -- and the one that troubles me most -- is the appropriation of religious and cultural symbols in a way that fails to respect their value.  This is not a question of free speech.  I am not questioning the right of MCG to publish material that misappropriates cultural icons (if, indeed, they are doing so).  I am however worried about the ethical implications of such appropriations.  I do think great care is necessary in using such symbols -- and I am not qualified to tell which uses are appropriate and which are not.  I do hope that MCG will work with people (whether these specific critics or not) to ensure that the depictions are respectful.  Repeated problems like this would convince me that MCG can exercise their free speech -- but I will not pay to support it.

That being said, I am worried that this criticism may just scare people off from creating opportunities for learning about Native American culture through gaming.  I have found gaming to be a great inspiration to learn about various subjects.  If Native American culture is considered too dangerous (in the sense of drawing criticism -- dangerous to the publisher) to include in gaming, we may lose important opportunities to teach about these cultures.

How does one balance the need to respect a culture with the desire to include it?  I have no idea.  I think an inclusive and careful development approach is essential.  It will not likely be enough to avoid all criticism but the most damning criticism of from the blog linked above is:

The irony of it all is the fact that they want to incorporate Native culture into their game but not have any interaction or input with actual Indigenous Peoples.

I really don't know how much work MCG did in consulting with Native Americans  in developing the material, but I hope they do so in the future.

6] I really should know more about Native American history -- but this controversy is not going to help.  The blog post starts with the argument that the Thunder Plains ellides important differences between Native American cultures across various parts of the Americas (and beyond -- though I have treated this as a North American group, one could apply the same criticism to depictions of indigenous peoples in various parts of the world).  I would like to know more about the differences and the diversity of cultures that is ignored here.  I am sympathetic to simplistic depictions as a starting point if .. IF... those simple depictions are a gateway to more nuanced depictions.  I had hoped that this controversy would point me toward resources with which I could learn more about the diversity of Native American cultures.  If you have any recommendations, please Please PLEASE post them in the notes or somehow send them to me.  I would really like to learn more.  Unfortunately, the controversy (maybe because of the limits of social media I discussed above) has not been the opportunity to learn that I had hoped it would be.

There is still time.  Maybe this will change.

So, how do I react to this controversy?  I will not use Thunder Plains in my games until I learn a lot more about Native American history.  If I am asked (and there is no reason to think I will be), I would strongly encourage any company attempting to write about Native American culture to include several self-identified Native Americans (preferably representing diverse groups) in the development and editorial processes.  I will take advantage of my location in Oklahoma to visit some of the (several) museums hosted by Native American tribes in my area to learn more.  I will specifically seek out information about Native American culture from a critical perspective (that is, critical of mainstream depictions).  Again, if you have recommendations -- please share them in the comments.

That being said, I am not going to throw away my copy of The Strange or stop playing it.  I am not going to stop buying MCG products.  While I am convinced they have mishandled this part of their setting, I am not convinced they are irretrievable  racists.  I suspect this is bothering them as much as it bothers me -- but I will never know.  I hold out hope that they will come out of this with a greater appreciation of the demands of dealing with historical cultures.  May this be a moment for us to discuss the best practices for cultural sensitivity of gaming material?

Finally, I am reconsidering some of my own campaign development work.  I had been working on a group that had close similarities to depictions of the Roma from early Universal horror films -- specifically the Wolf Man movies.  I probably won't continue in that direction because I don't trust my knowledge of Roma culture and history to separate fact from stereotype.  I say this despite knowing two different people whose career focus on social justice issues for the Roma.  I have access to experts and people who can assist with ensuring a sensitive account -- but I don't want to take the risk right now.  This episode makes me hesitate to include any elements of historical cultures within my games.

Sorry (not sorry) for the long post.  Writing this post helped me work out a lot of my reactions to this controversy.  I am hoping I will sleep better having spent the time to reason through this issue.  More than anything, I implore people to seek a dialogue -- not just a venue for expression.

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