The Myth of the Cultural Vacuum

The “Cultural Vacuum” is something that is often brought up whenever a discussion arises whether something is inappropriate or not. Spoiler: It doesn’t exist.

There is this idea that a game, a movie or a book has to be judged objectively, and independently of anything else. It permeates the Internet, especially the part of it that also obsesses with objectivity in all things. Often without understanding what the word actually means.

In reality everything that is created will be viewed in the context of everything around it. Even those who think they aren’t doing it will have certain biases that are entirely subconscious. That’s how culture works. A piece’s very creation was influenced by the culture it arose in. Declaring that something has to be judged apart from culture at large is at best deluded, and at worst insane or malicious.

Same with people, really. Those who claim to be unaffected by and wholly apart from society and culture are typically ignorant, deluded or lying.

Let’s talk a little about context.

We are all of us shaped by the environment we grew up in, and keep on living in. People react differently to it, of course. There are those who are largely unaware or uncaring of it, and get their influences mostly subconsciously. There are those who actively deny and fight against it, or at least parts of it. And there are those who actively defend and enforce the current status, or just certain parts of it. I’m certain I could break it down even further, as there exists just about as many different motivations as there are human beings.

And everything humans create is likewise influenced by that same culture. That’s often part of the charm; works of art and entertainment serve as a reflection and extension of their culture. And they will be judged on that basis; how they fit into the current cultural landscape. Stuff that was considered unproblematic at its inception, might well be judged harshly at a future date as ideas change. And we are kinda seeing this evolve in high speed as a global culture is trying to establish itself, and ideas from different parts of the world clash to see which will prove to be on top in a global sense. It’s not just important what you say and do, but also how it’s said and done.

There’s a lot of lack of understanding yet. We didn’t grow up in any other culture but our own, so we don’t really have the right mindset or tools to really understand why and how something works in a different part of the world. Often assumptions can be made based on how things work in your country, and those could turn into bigger conflicts. So attempts are being made by several people to just try to leave things alone and be understanding of other cultures. An admirable idea, that can sometimes get a bit too zealously pursued.

Considering the timing of this post, it’s probably not a surprise that these thoughts were brought up due to Nintendo’s Tomodachi Life controversy. And of course the whole “cultural vacuum” idea was brought up by some people, but as I just explained we shouldn’t listen to them. A somewhat more valid argument is that since gay marriage is illegal in Japan, it fits with their culture to not have same-sex relations in their life sims. An argument that falls to the wayside as soon as the idea of porting and selling the game to other cultures is introduced.

Most companies seem to have understood the notion that if you want to go multi-national or even global with your business, you will have to localise in the different regions. McDonalds, Coca Cola and others have different selections in different parts of the world, because different people are interested in different things. As such something that will sell well in one country, might not at all in another. And changes have been made to videogames as well. Nier had a bishi brother as the protagonist in Japan, while it was a gruff father in the version ported to the west. Bravely Default had certain outfits altered to better suit western sensibilities when it was moved over. I’m sure there are examples going the other way as well, that I am just not aware of.

Am I saying that Nintendo absolutely must change Tomodachi Life before transferring it to North America or Europe? Of course not. I’m just saying that they should. They are certainly free to make the game however they want to, but they are not free from criticism for their decisions. That’s basic freedom of expression. You are in your right to say whatever you want, but so is anyone else. Using “freedom of expression” as your only defense is basically just saying that all you can muster is to state that at least it’s not illegal. Freedom of expression is not freedom from consequence or critique. Privte business and private persons are free to decide they don’t like what you’re expressing, and even to tell you so.

That’s not the only issue of course. Plenty of games, movies, etc. feature only hetero romances. The other part of this problem is how they’ve gone about this. First saying that same-sex relations were a “bug” in the game, and that it was now “fixed”. However true that is, that is a horrible way of saying it. Especially in a game you aim to sell at kids. Kids are basically information-sponges. They absorb the world around them, and pay attention to what they’ve been told, and how it’s been told to them. And there’s rarely any good way of telling whether a kid is or is not gay or bi (or anything else non-hetero). And just forget that idea that many conservatives have that kids can be persuaded to be gay, because that’s bollocks. So telling the kids that being interested in and/or loving someone of the same sex is a bug that should be fixed, that’s a horrible idea to plant in a young mind.

Then they went on to say that they just wanted this to a be a “fun and quirky” game, and didn’t want to make any sort of social or political commentary. Well, guess what? You already did. By taking that stance you are making social commentary. They’re advertising the game along the lines of “it’s your life” and “reality is too limited”, yet they place a lot more limits than real-life has, or even something like The Sims does. These are not healthy ideas to give to kids or even teens who are constantly worrying about who and what they are. There’s an underlying bigotry to this whole deal, a message that only opposite sex relationships are ‘normal’, and personally I wouldn’t let my kids play Tomodachi Life.

If this whole deal doesn’t affect you, and you don’t care, that’s fine. Really, it is. You don’t have to care. It stops being fine when you go out and start telling those who are affected that they shouldn’t care either. You don’t have to speak up against those upset about this. Do you really oppose their being upset so much? Can you really not find enough empathy and sympathy inside you to understand that this could be a problem to someone? That some people face this shit almost every day, and this is just another slap in the face to them? It is okay to think about other people once in a while. We’re stuck on this planet together, after all.

And if you think this only upsets those who are gay/bi/pan/etc., you didn’t quite think far enough. People who sympathise with LGBTQA issues and rights are likely to see it as a problem as well. So again, even if this isn’t a problem for you, could you at least find a little humanity for those who do see it as a problem?

The notion that it often isn’t so much what is done, as how it’s done, that’s the bigger problem can also be extended to other recent (and distant) situations. Like Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes. I won’t go through that whole thing again, even if there might be merit in doing so with a calmer tone, but I will say that Ground Zeroes‘ big problem was one of tone, rather than content. Bringing up such subjects in a game could indeed form an interesting discussion, but when it’s done with so little seriousness, and with such malicious glee towards the suffering of the victim rather than any form of sympathy? Is a little humanity and concern so much to ask for?

All of this is part of a very broad topic, and I have no illusions that I managed to cover everything with this post. I’m certain there will be people eager to ‘correct’ me on some facet or other, or quick to point out something I missed (regardless of its relevance), but this is really all I can think to say for now.

~Wulf

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Posted on May 11, 2014, in Games, Thoughts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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