Dev Notes 17 - Writing For, Not Writing About

In my last Developer Note, I outlined some of the key issues and assumptions that people have with game settings that claim to be “Asian-themed.” In that note, I asserted several times that we are doing things differently with Steamscapes: Asia. I hope that my explanations of how we are doing so support that assertion, but it does bring up another question that one might ask - What gives me the authority to write this setting? Is this even a question worth considering?


Fair enough. All questions are valid.


Before I answer that, I need to set the context by talking a little bit about appropriation. Appropriation occurs when someone from one culture co-opts language, social practices, or identity markers from another culture, usually in a “top-down” sense - meaning that those doing the co-opting are members of the dominant or prevalent culture. It is absolutely a concern for me in my design, and I will be talking about it more in the next Developer Note where I will discuss playing a character with an identity other than your own. However, I want to just say that as a writer, I have one key suggestion for avoiding appropriation:

Write for, not about.

What I mean by this is that you should always imagine that someone in your audience self-identifies as the group that you are exploring in your writing, and then you should consciously write for that person. Make your story or game something that specific person will want to read and play. The reason for this is that if you think your audience shares your own identity, you are going to end up explaining things with language that makes the other sound exotic. If you write for the other, you will tend to avoid that exoticization because you assume that they are already engaged. Interestingly, by assuming that person is already engaged, you end up writing with the assumption that all readers are automatically engaged, which is better anyway.

With that in mind, we can now approach some of the problems that are raised when we ask the original question about why I feel I qualified to write this setting.


The Problem of Representation

The first issue we have to deal with is the mistaken belief that there might be a regional, racial, or ethnic identity that would somehow be more valid for the purposes of writing about Asian history. The difficulty with this is that it presumes that proximity equals not only knowledge but identity. Essentially, it presumes that someone can be “close enough” to the desired group to accurately represent them. But that’s the same error in thinking that already leads people to lump Asians (or Africans or Latinos or Native Americans or even Europeans) together in broad categories rather than acknowledging their diversity. To think that someone from China has knowledge and authority to speak about Cambodia simply because they are both “in Asia” is a ridiculous and racist assumption. It would be the equivalent of assuming that someone who lives in Iowa was inherently qualified to talk about Haiti.



It is roughly the same distance from Beijing to Phnomh Penh as it is from Des Moines to Porta-au-Prince. And there’s your trivia fact for today.


Even if we considered it important to have writers that in some way “represent” the region about which they are writing, it’s just not practical. We are going to be talking about the histories of over a dozen countries. Even if we could find writers from each of those countries and convince them to write for our little game book, coordinating them to create a cohesive alternate history would be a monumental task.

But the point is, representation is not a useful goal. Active interest and the ability to do accurate research are much more important than racial or cultural identity. And when we all go in knowing that we can in no way consider ourselves to “represent” the nations whose histories we are writing, we remember to be careful to write for, not about.


The Problem of History

The other reason that representation becomes meaningless in a setting like Steamscapes is that it is a historical setting. When you come right down to it, the past really is another country, and none of us are from there. This is both liberating and cautionary. It is liberating in that history is equally accessible regardless of your current identity - anyone can do the appropriate research. However, it is also cautionary in that we are all foreigners when it comes to examining history, even our own. This means that we all view history from a distance, and we often view it through assumptions and stereotypes that have built up over decades or centuries.

One of the biggest assumptions we often make in looking back at history is that it is somehow deterministic - that the particular event we are examining is an inevitable harbinger of later events. Writing alternate history is a good way to break this habit of perspective. But it lingers in subtle ways, like the way that modern historians focus on the flaws and mistakes of the late Qing Dynasty as if the last 200 years of Imperial China were nothing but a prelude to the revolution. It is true that an examination of the bureaucratic missteps and popular uprisings of the 19th century helps to set the context for the 20th, but there was more to that period than the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. In many ways, the decline of the Qing that led to the Chinese Civil War was very similar to the decline of the Tang that had led to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms era a thousand years prior. Our modern perspective sees them differently because we know what came afterwards, but there are strong parallels.


The rebellion against the Tang was led by salt smuggler Huang Chao. Salt is kind of like opium, right?


Interestingly, the modern lens through which we view history can affect even those who are from the culture we are exploring. This was something I talked about a fair bit with regard to North America, but it is a relatively universal truth. For instance, it can be very difficult even for modern Indians to imagine a history without England. Colonialism is gone, but the imperial influence is so pervasive that it even colors the reaction against it. After all, with no Raj, there is no independence movement, no arbitrary partition or mass migration. A modern India without England is as strange to imagine as a South America without Spain or Portugal. This does not mean it is impossible, but it does mean we are forced to significantly rebuild our assumptions based on extrapolations from much earlier events.

Building these histories, though, is an excellent example of how we can write for rather than about. As much as we can point to the modern economic strength of India and China and say that those countries are doing reasonably well, they both struggled for many years under the weight of foreign oppression. The Opium Wars in China and the Carnatic Wars in India were extremely costly in lives, material, and lost opportunity, and in both cases led to a long and dark period of European exploitation. When we lift the burden of those events, we raise the possibility of greater development and self-determination than real history offered the two regions. It is my hope that these possibilities will be exciting to everyone who is interested in China or India, and we want to do similar things with the other regions and nations we are covering.


The Problem of Opportunity

And now I come to the question that I do actually consider an issue - why not hire more diverse writers for the sake of inclusion if not representation? It is true that diversity is still somewhat lacking in the game design industry. It is improving slowly, but one might argue that our mission with Steamscapes should place us at the front of that progressive edge. Honestly, we would like to do more, but we are a small company with limited resources.

To tell the truth, I did inquire in a number of places, including specifically asking several individual writers. Unfortunately, there are perfectly good reasons that the people I asked either said no or did not respond - including but not limited to the size of our (current) audience, the desire to work on their own projects, and a lower interest in game products rather than pure fiction publications. I can’t blame anyone for any of those reasons, and I hope that they are able to make more stories, books, and even games, because we need broader participation in all of those areas

That being said, we do have an important advantage that comes from Kickstarting very early in the process: the door is not yet closed. If you are or know of a game designer, artist, or fiction writer with a particular connection to or interest in any of the regions we are including in Steamscapes: Asia, we would love to hear from you. Check my about page for my email address and contact me, and maybe you can join us on this and future projects! (I would be particularly interested in writers who are female or non-binary.)


Just remember - write for, not about.

-Fairman Rogers