Mixing Cultures in Games: Part 1

Why write this?

In this article, the first in my ConTessa series about adding cultural elements to your game, I want to explain to you why I find this topic important.

I am a cultural ‘hutseltje’ as we say in Dutch - with means a little mix of things. My mom is Italian-American and my father is Thai. My Thai family emigrated to Thailand from China after the rise of Communism and never looked back. My mom is a third generation Italian-American and I believe that my grandmother was actually half Irish.

I grew up very lucky; my mom was a teacher which meant that I was able to go to international schools for free in places like the UK, Bangkok, etc. When I think about where my home is, who I am, I don’t have a singular identity. Who I feel I am is based around my friends, my family, and the experiences I have had in the places I have visited.

Often I feel a foreign nostalgia for places that, normally, people would never consider to be a home. They are places I’ve felt strong emotion and they are places that are connected to the people I love. I have a strong scent memory and each time I step off a plane in Bangkok airport I am reminded of my father. In my aunt Gwen’s house it smells like new paint, food, and comfort. I feel like my current home, in the Netherlands, doesn’t have a familiar scent - but it’s not till you’ve moved away from something that it becomes ingrained in your memory, in your heart.

Along with scent memory, I’ve picked up a lot of influences in my life through osmosis, and I’ve never really thought about them. I’ve always known my experience wasn’t the norm, that people haven’t traveled to as many places or met as many different people as I have, but I never found it odd and most importantly, I never thought about how it moulded me. Most of this energy was instead placed in wishing that I had ‘real’ roots, that I had friends who wouldn’t move away after two years, that I could proudly sing a national anthem saying this is me - this is mine.

However, as I get older, as I approach the possibility of thinking that there’s maybe a chance I am now officially an adult,  I’ve given it more thought. What has living so many places meant to me? And I don’t mean in an University essay way - tell me how it has made you a better person and why it makes you awesome - but who has it made me?

My foremost conclusion is that it has made me culturally blind to a lot of things that people find issues. I sometimes call these stupid Liz moments. When going into a new situation I tend to focus on the novelty and beauty of something. I forget that some people don’t mean well and because moving has trained me to be easy with meeting new people, I automatically assume the best in most people. It takes people much more intelligent than me to explain that isn’t always the case, everyone doesn’t just love and respect each other like I assume they do. It also means I crash a little bit harder when people don’t meet up to my candy-colour view of an egalitarian, peace-loving, unicorn-filled world.

However, one benefit from this cultural shortsightedness has been in my game design. I use elements from a lot of different cultures in my games without thinking about it. Actually, I didn’t think about it this year until my friend was proofreading my game WITCH and asked me, “Liz, I am confused, what culture did you base your game on?” Having practiced my elevator pitch thousands of times, I thought I had an answer for everything, but this question froze me in my tracks - because my only answer was, “Um… the world?”

I made a game that reflected me - a dash of this, a smudge of that, a tiny pinch of this because it is just too awesome, and realizing the cultural hodgepodge I created terrified me. My friend asking me this brought back many fears I had as a child, is this game trying too hard, where does my game belong, who/what is my game? For a while, I wanted to change the entire history of WITCH and it made me sad. Anything I tried to write based on only one place felt like the game had lost its soul, and that was because I was trying to make my game something that it wasn’t.

Finally, I came to terms with that fact that you can make something, and be something, from many different places and it isn’t a flaw, in fact it is a strength.

In this series I don’t want to tell you that you should add more cultural backgrounds to your games because ‘it is the right thing to do’. Writers can make perfect moments and stories out of one small island as well as they can out of the entire galaxy. Both are beautiful, unique, and the world needs more stories.

However, if you do want to add different cultural elements to your games, I want to help you do that! In my next piece I will explain how to combine multiple cultural elements into your game. In my third piece I’ll give you some Do’s and Don’ts to help you along in the creative process. Finally, in my fourth piece I will give you a real example of how to apply the advice I have given you.