Cultural Responsibility in Board Game Design
Updated: Jan 8, 2020
Every designer has a different process on how they start a new project. I have more proclivity towards a mechanics-driven approach and so my games tend to be more abstract/puzzle-like in nature. But themes are such a critical part of the game design that would be foolish to ignore completely. When it is done right, not only can a theme help deliver the data that needs to be consumed by the player, it can make rules extremely intuitive to remember.
In recent years, I've seen an explosion of themes. No longer are generic fantasy, sci-fi and explorations themes the only ones on the proverbial menu. Indeed, now players may choose their games from a full spectrum of options ranging from composing music to composting poop. This unbridled degree of freedom seems to empower designers to truly express creativity at its fullest potential... Or does it?
At the time of this writing, I am developing a one-versus-many deduction game that has some influences from other well-known hits like Scotland Yard or Fury of Dracula. But in an effort to differentiate the game, I decided to fit my game with another mythology that has slowly gained popularity: Wendigo.
On the surface, it appears to be a straightforward idea. After all, Wendigo - an insatiable cannibalistic creature - has already been adopted by other mediums like video games (e.g. Until Dawn) and movies (e.g. Ravenous). However, unlike other purely fictional monsters like Dracula and Cthulhu, Wendigo has actual significance in Native American culture. And as such, I've gotten mixed feedback from people who, for the right reasons, want me to eschew from the subject as they fear that I could accidentally commit cultural insensitivities due to my unfamiliarity of the matter.
I admit that I have mixed feelings myself. On one hand, I feel strongly that there shouldn't be artificial censorship on a theme just because it has gravitas in real life. In fact, by exposing an under-represented culture, Algonquian mythology, it can be an opportunity to usher more awareness to the people and their history. On the other hand, it is completely counter-productive if players simply cannot experience the game because they just cannot get past the theme.
What became obvious to me is that, as board game becomes more mainstream, board game designers are now just as liable to the content they produce as movie producers and video game developers in the respective mediums. Because players entrust me to bring them into a world I crafted, I have the responsibility to get the details right. This is especially true if the world I craft shares roots with one in reality.
In the end, I decided to stay with the Wendigo theme. However, I am not doing this alone. After my own extensive research on the subject, I've also reached out to the Indigenous Nation Studies department at the local University to ensure that illustrations and the in-game setup are as historically accurate as possible. My goal is to represent the people and the period correctly while providing an enthralling board game experience.
It's a daunting task, but I think it's a worthwhile one.