Placing Cultural Elements in Gameplay
(Originally published as a poster at the WJogos 2003 Conference.)
Discussing the need and exemplifying ways to insert cultural aspects into gameplay itself, alongside the storyline or graphics.
The starting point of this poster is an article published last year on the joystick101.org website called Cultural Aspects of Game Development Outside the Mainstream(1), about the production of games outside the main axis of game production (US - Western Europe - Japan), specially in the so-called emergent countries.
The main concern of that article was that games made in those countries were not reflecting the cultures of the places where they were made. The reason of the concern was not aesthetical purism, but the need for diversity in the game scene and valorization of the game production where the game industry is starting to grow. Usually in those places, the gameplay, look and feel of the games are still borrowed from foreign games (from the main axis) or local franchises (like television programs). There is nothing wrong about franchises or foreign games (some are great and cultural exchange is always welcome), but, as pointed out so many times, a game is also a form of art, and as such it should be honest to its authorīs view. The culture where a person is immersed may not be the only component of his/hers personality, but is an important one for sure.
Besides the artistic issue, inherent to all games made in any place, there is a particular market issue that reinforce the necessity, in some emergent countries, for a "more authentic" content: It could help to increase the number of internal consumers and develop a local game industry to be known not only by low costs of production and cheap workforce. A great description of this situation is in the article Latin America's New Cultural Industries still Play Old Games(2) , by Jairo Lugo, Tony Sampson and Merlyn Lossada.
2 What is a "cultural element"?
The expression "local culture" may suggest some ancient, immutable, symbolic set of national or regional traditions, folklore, historical characters etc. That is not what it is supposed to mean. Of course some traditional elements can eventually be used, but we are not talking about making a game that looks like a museum or tourism guide. Actually, there is no reason to place explicit references to your country, region or any other kind of community. Thatīs why we are talking about gameplay elements - they are not as palpable as the graphics or the storyline, therefore they are less explicit and more subtle.
What is even more important: gameplay elements are never cosmetic. You canīt make a set of rules "looks" like something, but you can make it function like something.
It is through gameplay, rather than graphics or cut-scenes, that the cultural elements in a game are really perceived.
3 Placing the Elements
The discussion about how to place cultural elements in the gameplay could be more clear if we ilustrate it with an experience made during the making of a game demo, by a group of 9 developers and designers, for an extension course of 3D Game Design and Development at the Catholic University (PUC-Rio).
One of the design documents chosen to be implemented was from a game called "Areia Abaixo", a possible translation would be "Sand Downhill". The game would play more or less like this: You control a sloth (you could choose between eight characters) whose job is to drive tourists around sand dunes parks and beaches in buggys. You would be paid not only for completing the rides on time, but also get tips when executing some kind of radical maneuver.
The basic premise is already full of "brazilianess". Not only because sloths are typical animals from our forests - that would not be a gameplay element - but because this kind of activity is fairly common in the beaches of the northeast region of the country.
At first, the fact that the designer was borned and lived all his life in the southeast region of the country, far away from the northeast beaches (letīs not forget that Brazil have continental proportions), seemed to discredit him. Did the designer had any authority to say what is like to live like a bugueiro (buggy driver) having only visited the northeast once?
The expression "itīs only a game" should not be used as an apology for bad content, but, in this case, the group were making a game, not a documentary. In fact, the game was not even set in the northeast, just inspired by it. Also, later other elements would be placed, bringing the rules closer to more general Brazilian issues. Including some the designers have to deal with themselves.
We decided to put the player into a broader context than simply driving, level by level, around the dunes. The player would have to keep himself/herself financially balanced with the money earned from the rides. There would be incomes and expenses. The player might end paying to work. The options would be a) rent a car each ride at the travel agency and drive theirs clients or b) rent a car at the automobile store for the whole day and pick up tourists at the park. We balanced that options in a way that the player would end earning the same amount, but spending and collecting different amounts. A novice player would prefer to use the agency while a more experienced player would probably prefer rent the car at the store. But it could vary.
Eventually the player would have money enough to buy a car - and start worrying about the fuel level, engine maintenance etc.
Another goal would be to keep the tourist happy according to his level of resistance to strong emotions. Resistant tourists would like wild maneuvers, while not-so-resistant tourists would prefer slightly more bland moves.
Other elements could be inserted, like a moneylender, for instance, and still be a coherent part of the game.
As the demo version of the game is not completely finished, it is hard to tell if the objectives were acomplished. While not being the most innovative game concept ever, mixing checkpoint-based race and radical sport could result in an reasonably original game. The micro-economic background would improve the gameplay, bringing depth to it. Both aspects of the game were inspired by the culture where the designers are immersed in. Cultural elements were placed in the gameplay without being extra-didatic or taking away the simplicity of an arcade game suitable for anyone.
The inclusion of such elements may not be crucial for the fun factor or even originality, but it certainly creates a great amount of resonance(3) - increasing the credibility of the game universe.
But the main contribution of the cultural elements may be the way it pushes the game closer to our quotidian experiences and vice-versa. Games are often pointed out as a way to escape reality but, when used to play with our own reality, it may give us fresh ideas, new solutions, different points of view and other things that may help us dealing with the environment where we are immersed and maybe - if we design and play games well enough - make it a better reality.
1. Queiroz, Chico. Cultural Aspects of Game Development Outside the Mainstream http://www.joystick101.org/story/2002/3/27/11912/4182 (9/8/03).
2. Lugo, Jairo; Sampson, Tony and Lossada, Merlyn. Latin America's New Cultural Industries still Play Old Games http://www.gamestudies.org/0202/lugo (9/8/03)
3. Rolling, Andrew and Morris, Dave. Game Architecture and Design, The Corilolis Group, 2000.