This past weekend was Kapcon, one of NZ's biggest gaming events. As it has been for over a decade, the flagship event was a large Saturday-evening live-action game. This year it was "Fragrant Harbour", set in Hong Kong in 1899, enjoyed by 75-ish players.
The team - Catherine Pegg, Stephanie Pegg (also of Gametime), and Ellen Boucher - did an incredible job with this game. I had a great time & there's been lots of great chat and war stories. Here, I want to call out two aspects of the game that might be of interest to folk who weren't part of the game.
** Culture & Safety **
When "Fragrant Harbour" was suggested as a possibility, I freaked out a bit. I'd been thinking a lot about culture in gaming, and starting to address some of the emergent issues, as well as reading a lot about privilege and representation. With visions of players invoking Yellow Peril imagery and general disapproval from my Asian friends, I went on something of a bender saying it wasn't a good idea. Eventually I calmed down enough to see how I was overreaching, and to their great credit, the "Fragrant Harbour" team forgave my outburst and even welcomed my help later on.
In conversation with me, Stephanie identified what was driving my anxiety - it was about safety. The idea as I interpreted it did not make me confident about being safe. I think of it now as a "Facebook Tag test" - if I was tagged in a photo from this, would I feel like I had to untag it so some of my friends wouldn't see it?
(And to be clear why this is a salient test for me - I have lots of friends who work very closely with issues of cultural engagement and sensitivity.)
Now, Stephanie and Catherine and Ellen were already thinking about these issues before I spoke up. In their hard work on this game, they continued to think hard about them and address them carefully, in such ways as:
- strong guidance embedded in a lengthy costuming brochure, mostly by promoting accurate, researched period costume rather than pop stereotypes, but also telling players to avoid using makeup to indicate ethnicity
- plenty of contextual information around the era and cultural forces at work in the society, so players had a framework to rest on (even if some players didn't remember or even read it, they knew there was an historical context and structure to the game which would influence their play decisions)
- offering a big bunch of diverse and individual characters, which clearly pushed players into exploring the individuality of their identities (and thus also to avoid resting on stereotypical depictions)
Most powerfully to me personally, they recruited me to go and talk to some people in the local Chinese-NZ community with some awareness of issues surrounding cross-cultural depiction. I spoke to several well-connected people, and went into detail with three of them. All three were supportive of the idea and the approach the team were taking, and some made suggestions about potential interesting content to include. Apart from being a gentle rebuke to my earlier freakout, it was great to note this engagement, and it gives the game design process an ironclad narrative of honest consideration of cultural risks. (Not an excuse - it ain't about excuses - but a record of definite, sensible, extensive, good faith steps taken to make sure they aren't messing up in unforeseen ways.)
So in conclusion on this point - there are some risks in this kind of project. (Although fewer in this case than I initially thought.) Catherine, Stephanie and Ellen demonstrated a bunch of excellent ways to manage them and even harness them to make a stronger final product. In future I'll point at this as an exemplar of how to address cultural safety concerns in an entertainment project.
Oh yeah, as a final note on how well they handled this: the post-game email asking for feedback included questions specifically concerning cultural issues. Nice.
** Culture & Learning **
All of this got me thinking about the other side of the my recent interest in culture - using this game as a learning experience. (This, I should clarify, is just some idle thinking about what might be possible, rather than any specific call to action.)
Cultural educators I know can spend a lot of time and effort sending groups into "cross-cultural simulation games" - some of which have larpish elements - in order to develop their cultural competency. Here we have loads of people voluntarily researching and costuming and stepping into a different cultural context for fun. Now the constraints of the first that allow learning aren't really compatible with the fun of the second, but there must be some potential for crossover here.
One idea: imagine a run of this game that included a bunch of "cultural experts" as players/NPCs. Chinese people who have knowledge of the history of the period and first hand experience of how Eastern cultures differ from Western. Nothing else changes - the game just runs, everyone plays, everyone has fun. The only difference is in the debrief, where those cultural experts get a platform to talk about what they saw, and what people did. Not judging people of course, but maybe talking about how they would expect a Chinese person to respond to a given in-game situation; or explicitly drawing on their own cross-cultural knowledge to say they did "X" in the game because they were treating it as Chinese-culture-appropriate, even though in their everyday life they'd be more likely to do "y" in response to that type of problem because they live in a Western cultural environment. Other cultural learning points could be hung off this. I think this would be a productive learning experience because after a larp, the urge to trade war stories is high, everyone wants to make more sense out of the experience they just had, and emotional engagement with the game makes expert comment on cultural stuff relevant contextually. It's too elaborate and uncontrolled to be a go-to cultural training tool, but if you want to offer a fun event with some added cultural training value, this has an immediate and obvious appeal...
Second idea: there are some very active Chinese youth leadership networks in NZ. I wonder if there'd be any interest there in such a group hosting another run of Fragrant Harbour, sending their people along to it, and inviting other youth organisations to fill out the numbers and provide a cross-cultural player base? Even with no other cultural learning stuff laid on, this could deliver some cool benefits. Hmm, intriguing.
I had a third idea but it's flittered out of reach right now. Two's enough, anyhow, so I'm gonna post this.
(Keep an eye out for a published version of Fragrant Harbour, too...)