"I really want to make a game out of it."
This morning, I followed my usual routine of consuming a significant amount of information before officially beginning the day; it's the email-Twitter-news cycle that I've so gotten used to (and which I am trying to curtail).
I ran across this tweet by Robert Yang that gave me pause:
The tweet in question itself quotes a tweet referring to a news article by The Atlantic on a Japanese company that provides professional actors to fill any role in the personal lives of clients.
Last weekend, I participated in a workshop on one of the many traditional styles of music and dance in Puerto Rico: Bomba. One of the lead organizers of the workshop, Héctor Lugo was an incredibly thoughtful and nuanced instructor, teaching us both the technical details of playing the different instruments, as well as the historical context for Bomba, covering its roots in the rich tapestry of African culture, the reasons behind its genesis, and the intent of its participants. For me, one of the most striking things about the workshop was learning how Bomba originally served as a cathartic ritual for enslaved peoples. Africans who were brought over to work the sugar cane fields themselves brought elements of the culture that they remembered, including songs and dances. Over time, as generations of slaves grew up and grew enmeshed in the social fabric of the island (giving rise to what we historically refer to as mulattos, the songs and dances grew increasingly distinct and idiosyncratic from their African roots; local politics and concerns became the topic of the songs, Spanish became their language, and improvised instruments were fashioned from the leftovers of Spanish trade. In fact, the traditional Bomba instrument, the Barril de Bomba was fashioned by stretching goatskin atop leftover barrels originally used to transport rum and other goods.
Héctor was invited to Utah because of a nascent local group that is interested in bringing people together from around the state to share and celebrate Puerto Rican culture. The group's focus was on elements of Puerto Rican folklore, Bomba (in their eyes) being one of them. The workshop, in addition to serving as a vehicle to learn more about Bomba, served as a way to contact people who may be interested in joining the group as well as performing this music and dance for the benefit of others. However, Héctor rightfully cautioned that we ought not forget why this style of song and dance exists. Bomba was originally practiced in secret; you had to be vetted in order to participate. The topics and energy expressed in a batey (a Bomba gathering) were indicative of rebellion, a desire to be free, and a way for enslaved peoples to commiserate and feel part of a community that was empathetic and which provided solace. In my view, it seems dishonest to learn Bomba for the purpose of providing a show to others.
That is why, for me, saying I want to make a game about X, where X is some social phenomenon gives me pause. This is because it runs the risk of trivializing whatever that X is. Making a game around a concept has the potential of erasing the context in which that social phenomenon took place. To be clear, I do not think that making a game out of X inherently trivializes it. I recognize that procedural rhetoric is a potentially powerful form of rhetoric that invites participation in a manner intended to crystalize concepts through "learning-by-doing." Further, I do wish to accuse Robert (or anyone) of intending to make a game without being nuanced (in fact, I think Robert's work is really thought-provoking and interesting). Rather, I want to call attention to the uttered phrase:
I really want to make a game out of it.
Robert is not the only person I've heard uttering it, and I wanted to internalize and write about the dangers of that phrase. As game designers, we have the ability and the responsibility to treat the subjects of our games with the respect they deserve. If I wanted to make a game about Bomba to teach others about it, and I made it in the style of Rock Band - with its highly vibrant colors and encouraging crowds - I would be acting in an irresponsible manner because I would be erasing why Bomba exists, why it matters, and why it is so important. Sure, you could argue that I am doing something good by capturing the musical style in a manner that serves as archival, but what is the snapshot of that hypothetical game really framing?