Cultural authenticity in gaming can be a rare concept. In the past, many gamemakers have been criticized for casting a stereotypical light over aspects of different cultures in their games, and it can create quite a damper over the game if the facts behind it are inauthentic. For the sake of all cultures and all people who play games from different backgrounds, confirming cultural authenticity in gaming can go a long way to ensuring everyone feels included in the gaming community.
Cultural authenticity can be a difficult thing to get completely right in gaming and in every art medium. There are a lot of opinions out there about what makes something culturally authentic, and there are a lot of people with rigid senses of what is appropriate in representing cultures. This can make it difficult to explore different cultures. All creators really want to do is make a game true to the culture that it represents, but often, it can seem like a daunting task.
No matter how much effort goes into striving to be authentic, there is always a risk that someone will be uncomfortable with a certain portrayal. The most important part of working to be culturally authentic in games (and all art forms) is that even when the creators don’t quite get it right, they learn from their experiences and mistakes and continually work to be culturally authentic and inclusive. As long as the work is being done, that in itself is an accomplishment and brings hope that cultural authenticity and respect is attainable.
To delve deeper into this work around cultural authenticity in gaming, there are three games we are going to take a look at today, all of which occupy different places on the scale of cultural authenticity. The first game, Tell Me Why from Microsoft, has been praised by the people of the culture that it represents for truly incorporating the culture of the Native Alaskans that the game represents. The second game, Ghost of Tsushima from Sucker Punch Productions and Sony, is a game that definitely tried very hard to be culturally authentic but has received criticism for its portrayal of Japanese culture. The third game, Civilization VI from game-making company 2K Games (among other creators and companies) is a game which certainly used aspects of Cree culture but has been criticized from the people of the Cree tribe about a lack of consulting and an abundance of inaccurate features. There are many other games that fall along the scale of cultural authenticity in gaming, but these three show the ways that cultures can be represented in gaming in good, bad, and in-between ways.
Tell Me Why, from Dontnod Entertainment and Xbox Game Studios, is an episodic narrative game representative of Southeast Alaskan Native culture and artwork. The creators of the game worked closely with the people of Hoonah, “a predominantly Alaska Native village of about 800 people located roughly 30 miles southwest of Juneau, to gain insight into life in a small Southeast village and add authenticity to Tell Me Why” (juneauempire.com). In interviews with the Juneau Empire newspaper, Jeff Skaflestad, ‘a Hoonah-based Norwegian-Tlingit artist” as well as “his partner, Lisa Andersson, Hoonah-based artist Gordon Greenwald, and Huna Heritage Foundation Executive Director Amelia Wilson” all spoke positively of how they felt about how the game creators worked with their culture and people. In particular, “Wilson, Greenwald and Skaflestad praised the earnest effort to respectfully incorporate elements of Indigenous culture. They expressed hope it is part of a sea change in the way stories about Native people are told in popular culture. They said Dontnod and Xbox didn’t have to listen to input about art, funerary rights, gift-giving or other aspects of Southeast Alaska Native culture, but they did, and it was appreciated.” These comments show that the creators of Tell Me Why really did their best to represent the culture of Southeast Alaskan Natives in a respectful way.
Ghost of Tsushima from Sucker Punch Productions and Sony, is an action-adventure game that follows a samurai named Jin Sakai during the first Mongol invasion of Japan. In an interview with eurogamer.net, Brian Fleming (Sucker Punch’s co-founder and producer) and Jason Connell (the art director and creative director for Ghost of Tsushima) shared how they worked to keep Ghost of Tsushima respectfully authentic and also exciting as an action game. In speaking about the research behind the culture in the game, Fleming stated that “Very early on, we reached out to our Japanese partners, the Japanese localisation team that’s worked on our previous games reviewed the game and reviewed the pitch. And they gave us some guidance early and extended the offer to help us come out to Japan and do a research trip – directors and some of the leads got to go out there on two separate trips. That was an incredible amount of research, photos and museums and getting to stand on Komodo Hama beach, the actual beach where the invasion happened. That’s very, very real.”
“Subsequently over the years you hire consultants for script review and mannerism coaches when you’re on vocab stage to try to understand the cultural differences – it’s an important part of it. And then some of these turn into great collaborations. The Japan audio team recorded birds and deer for us, so that we could actually put it to the game.”
In the same vein of thought, Connell said that “There’s the balance between the game entertainment side, keeping people entertained, getting people excited about what they’re playing, and the faithful representation that we got lots and lots of guidance on. But in the end, that’s what our goal is: that faithful representation that is an enjoyable, fun experience for people.” This conversation shows that the creators of the game did put a lot of effort into being culturally authentic in the game, but Ghost of Tsushima has received a rather intense amount of backlash for its portrayal of Japanese culture as well as its portrayal of the time period and history it is working with. There have been several Twitter wars and fights online about the perspective of the game compared to how the world views the time period being portrayed in the game. The back-and-forth nature of how the game was created and how it has been perceived, show that it is a very difficult task to make a game culturally authentic because of how many opinions are out there and how many ways things can be interpreted.
Civilization VI, from game making company 2K Games (along with other creators and companies) borrows from the culture of the Cree, one of the groups of people known as the First Nations, and the game’s portrayal of the Cree has received some backlash and concern from both the Cree and from people outside of the Cree culture. In an interview with CBC News, Milton Tootoosis, an elected headman-councillor of the Poundmaker Cree Nation spoke about “The inclusion of the Saskatchewan First Nation. He acknowledged excitement about the news and noted that [the] historical chief, Poundmaker, is to be portrayed as working to build “a bridge between settlers and First Nations.” But he also voiced a fundamental concern about the portrayal: “It perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land.” It’s a concern that cuts to the heart of what Civilization has always been and – I hope – to what it could become.” This concern from Tootoosis echoes concerns raised by the wider viewership of the game, which center around the concern that the game portrays First Nation people as savage, which is an inaccurate, stereotypical, and racist portrayal. Civilization VI is an example of a game that did work with the Cree nation, but has a very long way to go to be culturally authentic and respectful.
Overall, these games represent the span of cultural authenticity in gaming and they show that the work of game creators to be culturally authentic and respectful is entirely ongoing. On a surface level, accurately portraying other cultures seems like an easy-enough task, but with the multitude of opinions and nuanced levels of cultures, the job of the game creator or anyone working to portray another culture is never really done. It would be foolish to say that any game that has enough work put into it could be entirely culturally authentic and respectful because everyone falls in a different place on the scale of cultural understanding. Still, the most important part of understanding cultural authenticity (in gaming and in every aspect of life) is the understanding that as long as you are acknowledging your own situation in regards to the larger topic and working to be more respectful and authentic, you are on the right path.