Hopi-less: How Kachina Became Donut County

Two years ago, GDC 2013’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop featured a game that had the crowd cheering and applauding in delight. It was Ben Esposito (The Unfinished Swan) with Kachina. This year’s GDC revived an old favourite of the show, the Failure Workshop. This was a chance for developers to share the stories of their disasters, and the good or bad that came from them. And during it, Esposito generously and honestly told an engrossing and humbling tale of how Kachina became Donut County [official site], and the hard cultural lessons he learned along the way.

Kachina, as presented at GDC 13, was a beautiful and completely novel puzzle game, in which you played a hole in the ground. By sliding the hole around the ground, you could place it under objects smaller than its circumference, and they would fall in. As the hole consumed, it grew in size, letting you gobble up larger and larger objects, from trees to buildings to mountains. Esposito then demonstrated other mechanics that allowed wonderful interactions, spitting objects back out of the hole to solve puzzles, manipulate environments, and generally look incredibly lovely and cheerful. It also had a vaguely Native American vibe to it: totem poles, carved figurines, that sort of thing. The reasons didn’t come up.

It turns out the reasons were inspired by Esposito’s having taken a fondness to doll-sculptures he’d seen created by the Hopi. Intrigued by their design, and a desire to incorporate this style into the game, he wrote on his game’s website that the project was, “Drawing from Hopi folklore.” A sentence that would come to embarrass him, after an awkward journey.

“There’s no such thing as Hopi folklore,” he told a packed crowd at this week’s session. “It’s a religion. It’s not cool to be ‘drawing’ from that.” He further explained that the depth of his research into the topic had been, well, liking the look of those dolls. But at that point, it was the design of his game, it looked good, and he was happy. And then he got sent a link to a blog post.

A teacher, writing for an educational website, American Indians In Children’s Literature, had written a short post explaining why she was disappointed by what she’d seen of Kachina, and that it was being funded by The Indie Fund. A calm, pleasantly worded article, not calling for bans, but rather expressing a disappointment that it was, in her opinion, having a negative impact on the efforts to educate people about native US cultures. She observed that teepees and totem poles had nothing to do with the Hopi, and explained to Esposito that she was disappointed that his game might be unhelpful.

Esposito explained that he had the worst possible reaction. “I decided to prove her wrong. I would make the most authentic game. It would be heroic… I am quite embarrassed about this.”

To do this, Esposito began research. He bought books. He read about the Hopi, their stories and legends, and began working on making them be part of his game. His player character, a young girl of Hopi descent, would be exploring her own heritage, learning about it as the player did too, taught by Esposito through his game. Hopi dolls would guide her on her journey, and the story of the erasure of the Hopi people would be told, authentically, educationally…

To illustrate how far off his original plan the game had become, Esposito showed a series of screenshots showing some frankly awful ideas. A sequence in which your hole would be responsible for burning down reservations, and then to build houses all over the site. Teeth-clawing. And somehow there was also to be a smelling mechanic – your hole could detect smells, then seek their source, and, er, yeah.

“I was so far out in the weeds,” said the developer. “I didn’t know enough about what I was talking about. I started asking people for help.” People like professors of indigenous cultures, people who could help him to fill in the gaps his research could not. And it was when speaking to one such professor that the elusive obvious was put to him. “Why don’t you actually talk to the Hopi tribe about this game?”

It was finally doing this that led Ben to realising how far off track he’d gone. After talking to people of the tribe for a while, listening to them about their art and their stories, he had his apocalyptic moment.

“They’re people.”

What had been a project, part faithful desire to tell unknown tales, part desire to prove someone wrong, he realised, was actually the real-life stories of real-life people. “And I was not treating them way,” he admitted with humility. “A lot of what I was doing was hurting them. I couldn’t do it justice, because they didn’t want me to do it justice.”

Donut County is a beautiful game about a hole that consumes and regurgitates objects, set in the place Esposito lives, telling the stories he’s involved in. It looks as magical as Kachino once did when first revealed in 2013, but it features no totem poles or Hopi dolls. Esposito wants to tell his own story.

“Research does not equal lived experience,” he said in conclusion. Before adding something pretty damned wise. “Folks are not trying to silence you by telling you you’re trying to silence them.”

I love Esposito’s story. I want to defend him, champion him for his good intentions, his benevolent desire to communicate something. And I struggle along to the same conclusions, that sometimes a story is not your story to tell. “If it’s really important to tell someone’s narrative,” he adds, “let them tell it.” If someone is not in a position to tell their story, maybe look at ways to help it get told. But don’t assume it’s yours to tell.

“When you get called out,” Esposito finished, “shut up and listen. Examine your position. Learn from them. Learn to shut up.”


  1. Eight Rooks says:

    This is fascinating, yet at the same time makes me deeply uncomfortable, and not really for the reasons mentioned. I’m always very, very wary of the idea you should only write what you know, you’re not allowed to write about other people’s experiences, etc. – I have a bunch of stories at various stages of completion which – while they’re fantasy – draw from historical setting and which I’ve tried to put enough research into to give people the idea these are obviously inspired by actual places, eras, peoples, and so on. None of them are explicitly trying to say Something Really Important (or to show how clever I supposedly am) but several have protagonists you could potentially describe as marginalised, let’s say, and sometimes their marginalisation informs the storyline, for example.

    I’m continually petrified this is going to step on someone’s toes – cause hurt or offence or worse – and while I really, really don’t want to do that, at the same time when I think someone’s reaction might be “This is not your story to tell” my instinctive reaction is who the (expletive) are you to say that the idea that sprang into my head is “wrong”, somehow? Who are you to tell me that this or that aspect of it is superfluous, careless, hurtful, that it’s off-limits to me? I’m aware of how that makes me sound, I do not in all seriousness think my authorial intent automatically trumps every other concern – as in, when I say this stuff petrifies me, I mean I’ve got fear-induced stomach cramps just typing this damn post – and yet I really, really think people don’t realise what a terrible, awful thing it can be to say to someone “Nope, you can’t use that idea – do something else”.

    I admire Esposito regardless – I mean, it seems pretty obvious he was going way off the rails with this one, that he never really “needed” that aesthetic in the first place, but I totally understand why someone would want to do this regardless and I’m astonished at the willpower and humility it must have taken to make that step. (I look forward to the inevitable commenter completely ignoring that I said this.) But I can’t agree it’s always going to be unquestionably the “right” thing to do, for everyone in every possible circumstance, and when I think about the possibility I’m only “allowed” to draw on a pasty white guy’s cultural heritage or make up some nonsense out of whole cloth (carefully vetting it to ensure it bears no resemblance to anything problematic) I find that horrifying. I can’t not. And no – going by what John has written, as well as Esposito – I don’t agree I’m straw-manning.

    • FuriKuri says:

      Welcome to the world of Web 2.0 where everyone operates under some imaginary delusion that they have the “right not to be offended” and free speech is chilled to the point where nobody can say anything interesting any more. Where every perceived slight ends in a maelstrom of ostensibly outraged (but in reality, bored and entirely narcisstic) tweets.

      Just leave such people to grow a thicker skin. I mean, I’m not saying you should go out of your way to offend people but no matter what you do somone will take offence to it.

      Good luck with your writing.

      • frymaster says:

        I don’t give a monkey’s uncle whether or not anyone is offended, but I do care if people are injured, and that definitely includes emotionally. Certainly I want to walk into a situation where I might do harm with my eyes open; maybe I need to go ahead anyway, but only when informed.

        I suppose from a writing point of view – if I’m writing about something I don’t have first-hand knowledge of, that happens to be a situation that has some sort of inherent suck to it – becoming an orphan violently as an early teen, or being part of a group that is disadvantaged in the situation it finds itself in (via prejudice or whatever) then I should take an effort to confirm my characters are reacting in a “valid” way. A writer should try to do research anyway, but getting, for example, police procedures wrong doesn’t have the same “kick ’em when their down” effect of, for instance, grossly misrepresenting the living conditions and attitudes of Ethiopians during the famines in the 80s. In the first instance, shrugging it off isn’t a problem, but undergoing hardship and then having some dude come in later on and tell someone how they ought to have felt would sting a little, I think

      • Bremze says:

        Welcome to the world of Web 3.0, where you can deflect all critique by telling everyone to grow a ticker skin!

        The key thing is that instead of keeping the dolls as a neat visual element and fixing the problematic parts, he went on a crusade to disprove a point no one made. Appropriation is fine and unavoidable, just know that it doesn’t absolve you on being educated on the subject.

        As an aside, being able to take critique is pretty much mandatory if you ever want to get better at any creative endeavor past a certain point.

        • FuriKuri says:

          Nothing is beyond critique (not even me, apparently) – free speech overrules all other concerns. My point was perhaps enunciated poorly so let me reiterate;

          People should be mindful and should take others into account. If you’re writing on an unfamiliar culture then you should take pains to educate yourself. I’d file this much under ‘common sense’, personally (and anyway, how good can your writing be if you’re too lazy to do this?). However there is an ever-growing number of people who seem to do nothing but await the next thing to be offended by, and use their status to place themselves on a pedestal that nobody is allowed to question. This isn’t equality. It isn’t making the world better. It is just narcissism.

          To which the only sane answer is to shrug them off and go on regardless. These people will never be appeased even if you attempt to bow to their twisted ideas; thus you should not.

          • April March says:

            The problem is that, if you’re unaware of how a thing affects a group of people you have done insufficient research on (which just might be any amount of research, since sometimes you can’t figure out what is the other’s experience except by either living through it or being very close to someone who did) you might come to the mistaken conclusion that a fair reaction based on the way one sees the world is actually an overreaction to a harmless thing. If you admit that you might not know enough about a group/culture/whatever that you might be unable to portray them realistically without research, how can you in the same breath assume that, without that same knowledge, you’ll know if one’s objection to your work is valid or not? You don’t – you simply assume that something that wouldn’t hurt you or your group/culture shouldn’t hurt anyone else.

          • El_Emmental says:

            @April March: Absolutely, and I think FuriKuri is also aware of that (even if s/he might not have phrased it that way).

            The problem is how some people found out that, since a person can never be (objectively) certain that what they’re creating is not offensive to a group or culture, anything that is created can be accused of being offensive and immediately used as a platform to promote someone’s ideology (how a society should be and the only ways to achieve it) and ego (being the person overseeing that ideology).

            Since it is impossible to prove that something is not offensive, no one can ever prevent that exploitation from happening: if a blogger calls a movie or a novel “racist”, it is impossible to prove it isn’t – at best, with the help of prominent members of the group in question, the author can point out that it’s not racist and “only” offending some members of that group – which is basically, in terms of public relation/image “still a bit racist” (cf the wonderful tool that “internalized ___ism” to explain away the prominent members support).

            Now that everyone has several ethnic/regional origins, one or several countries where they live, one or several citizenships, one or several cultures, speaking one or several languages, believing in one or several or no religion, anyone can publicly claim they are offended/being oppressed by a piece – and no author in the world will be able to do something about it.

            This mechanism of transforming a subjective opinion into an objective fact, by cleverly using what’s currently being marked as morally wrong, is becoming the norm on the public sphere online.

            When previously being offended remained a subjective opinion only spreading within your close social circles – only becoming an objective one when a critical mass of converging subjective opinions would meet in protest groups and discuss the subject (wearing down the subjective elements while focusing the protest on the most objective ones) – we’re now seeing subjective opinions being broadcasted at an higher intensity and with a much wider reach than objective ones, “thanks” to the technological changes and the media focus on how the readers should “relate” to the story at a personal, subjective level, rather an objective one.

            The result is clearly visible with pieces featuring satire and sarcasm: rather than being “controversial” creations because not everyone agree it’s satire, they are being labeled as hateful/racist/sexist/discriminatory because a group of people (no matter its size) claims such thing.

            What used to be a social control (requiring a critical mass and organization) became an individual control, where a single person can decide what is morally right and morally wrong for the rest of society, simply by pulling the right strings of online social and media communication.

      • John Walker says:

        Wow, way to ignore the whole point.

        • FuriKuri says:

          Please note my initial response was not concerning your article; I have reiterated my stance above.

        • FuriKuri says:

          But then again, after some thought, I think it applies as well. It looks like he went from one extreme to another. Was there really no room for compromise? No potential to work with these people and produce something informative and respectful?

          Instead we’re left with a game which looks like it’ll still be fun… But in a short-lived bubblegummy sort of manner. I can’t help but feel everyone lost out here.

          • pepperfez says:

            I think he always basically wanted to make a fun, bubblegummy game. The Hopi angle was just there because he found the kachina dolls aesthetically appealing, and it turned out that doing justice to the religion of an oppressed people wasn’t something he was equipped for.

    • RQH says:

      I think the lesson to be taken here is that if you’re trying to write about a race or culture that is not your own and you don’t personally know anyone of that race or culture, it’s likely that you are doing that race or culture a disservice, and you shouldn’t be surprised if someone of that race or culture calls you on it.

      In the age of the internet, I don’t think it’s that people are more sensitive; rather, I think the reach of what we say and write is wider. It used to be that if a white writer picked the bits of, say, Hopi culture that he found neat and ignored the rest, the odds that he would ever come in touch with a person from that culture and receive their feedback were extremely low. So said writer could go on oblivious to their mistakes and probably reinforced by a mainly white readership that is also oblivious to those mistakes (or to the humans who are disserviced by this kind of appropriation.)

      For me the problem of cultural appropriation is the tendency to make a fetish of so-called “exotic” cultures in a way that denies the full humanity of the people whose beliefs, customs, and actions create those cultures. It’s entirely possible for a white writer to avoid this trap, but I think it’s highly unlikely if they exist in a hermetic bubble of entirely white voices.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        Just to clarify, I’m really, really not a fan of “Grow a pair I WRITE WHAT I WANT RAAAAAR” either. I don’t think anyone who gets offended at whatever I hypothetically write just needs a thicker skin, case closed. But I have started to believe – crudely phrased, maybe – there’s a particular school of thought where people have a tendency to think their lived experience is the only possible way those events could be interpreted, that anyone with a different take on it is living in wilful ignorance at best, malicious bias at worst, that they’re the only ones who can pass judgement on anything that touches on that experience… and I don’t think that’s always the case, and it worries me when people behave as if it might be true.

        I can only repeat that the essay Shaun just linked below is, in my view, a much better way to approach it – that you are free to write about whatever the hell you want, and no-one has the right to tell you otherwise… but it behooves you to be aware, as an outsider, there’s a chance people with more experience of whatever you’re talking about may not like what you’re trying to do, and in so doing you may be unconsciously revealing prejudices you didn’t know you had. That is very, very different, in my mind, from “If someone is not in a position to tell their story, maybe look at ways to help it get told. But don’t assume it’s yours to tell”.

        If my stories (or anyone’s stories) touch on something deeply personal to you, by all means say “Uh, I don’t think you’ve really thought this through” and I’ll do my level best to listen, to understand and to learn from whatever you’re saying. If I didn’t, that would make me a jerk, yes, and I’d deserve whatever ridicule you could come up with. But my stories are still my stories, regardless of whatever historical or cultural weight the ideas within them carry.

        • RQH says:

          I don’t think you’ve said anything unreasonable. I think we’re in pretty close agreement. I think it’s important that white people don’t just write about white people by default; that more diversity in subject matter is, on the whole, a net gain, no matter who the author is.

          That said, I think I have a little more sympathy for the “my lived experience” crowd for a number of reasons. Mainly, it’s that as I see it they’re largely rowing upstream. There is a long history of white male cultural product being seen as “more legitimate.” (Women authors are still chastised for not writing about lofty subjects, or male subjects, or in a masculine enough voice, for example, and that’s not a different culture, that’s half the human race.) A lot of what is represented of other cultures in literature is through a very specific lens and that lens is still considered more “universal” or “legitimate” by publishers and readerships, especially when compared to the lived experiences of the people of those cultures. The result is that we get a lot of one kind of perspective and not a lot of another, and certain depictions become self-reinforcing, as readers come to expect certain tropes. In that environment, you may want to tell a certain kind of (true, empathetic) story, and be unable to find an audience or publisher for it. It’s even harder if the “you” in question is not part of the group that makes up most of the authors published.

          That said, I don’t think it’s as binary as the final quote from Esposito suggests. It’s great that he realized that this wasn’t his story to tell (that strikes me as a legitimate personal realization.) But that doesn’t mean that someone in his position couldn’t have told it in a sympathetic way, in a way that opens doors for others to tell their stories, and in a way that celebrates our common humanity, rather than reducing members of certain groups to stereotypes. However, if they do, they should be prepared for criticism–for the possibility that they may get things wrong, and also for the possibility that someone may misread their intentions, given the historical and cultural context of appropriation in which anything they create will necessarily exist. And if they value the culture they are trying to depict, I think there’s a responsibility to be gracious about such criticism, rather than trying to shout it down as a knee-jerk reaction.

    • Rizlar says:

      The article does leave you with the impression that what they are saying is ‘don’t tell stories about other people’, but I’m guessing that isn’t really what Walker or Esposito want. The bit at the end of the article that seems to put forward this idea probably does go a bit far, although the idea of empowering people to tell their own stories is admirable.

      Obviously Esposito’s real problem wasn’t one of coming from outside the culture. It was that he never really wanted to be making stories about the culture, he just thought the dolls were cool. He never really wanted to make a game about the Hopi.

      Great article and a really interesting story anyway.

      • April March says:

        I think a better thing to take from this story is, “don’t try to tell stories about people that don’t want you to tell stories about them.”

    • Author X says:

      I think the two most important parts of what he said were, “It’s a religion. It’s not cool to be ‘drawing’ from that,” and, actually talking to the Hopi people. “A lot of what I was doing was hurting them. I couldn’t do it justice, because they didn’t want me to do it justice.”

      The problem with cultural appropriation is that it erases the actual people – he saw this cool doll, then he was doing a bunch of research, then talking to professors, etc – and even worse, thinking he was doing the Hopi people some kind of favour by telling their story. But cultural exchange involves learning from the people themselves, who can give you the proper context, and respecting their wishes. It’s not a flat-out rejection of anything “other”.

      So if you want to write stories involving a different culture, group, or experience than your own – look to the actual people. Talk to them, if you can, about their experiences and what your story is (the internet is a pretty big place). And try to avoid coming in with an attitude of, “here’s what I’m going to do, please give me a stamp of approval.” If they say, “this is offensive, don’t do it,” then maybe just don’t do it.

      • Author X says:

        Also, I’m really no expert either, but there’s a difference between, say, including a black character and writing a story about Black Experience. You said yourself, “None of them are explicitly trying to say Something Really Important” but in this case, they’re talking about how Esposito specifically took it upon himself to tell the story of the Hopi people… obviously, this isn’t the same thing as just including certain elements or Hopi characters.

        You could debate exactly where the line is drawn, but I don’t think saying “don’t tell someone else’s story for them” is the same thing as, “don’t include someone else in your story.”

  2. Shaun Green says:

    This is a great piece. Good on Esposito for (eventually) recognising and working around his cultural appropriation.

    Er, anyone after a useful primer on cultural appropriation may want to try this: link to whatever.scalzi.com

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Thank you, that was very good, and a much better approach to it than “no u cannot haz”.

      (Obviously he did not write the essay, but Scalzi still fascinates me in that I couldn’t stand the one book of his I’ve read – but I still found his blog fascinating and I greatly admire him for hanging around with/helping to promote cool and interesting people.)

      • Shaun Green says:

        I reviewed Scalzi’s Old Man’s War waaay back in the mists of time and thought it fun enough, but I’ve never been particularly tempted to read more of his work.

        Without wanting to throw around strong opinions of things I’m not familiar with, I get the impression that Scalzi is very skilled at positioning himself within genre culture. That’s no bad thing; he’s been a better SFWA president than pretty much anyone who’s held the post in… fuck, probably decades.

        But yeah, Whatever can be an interesting blog. It’s hugely, hugely popular too, so it’s about as influential as any author’s blog can possibly be.

        • Eight Rooks says:

          It was Old Man’s War, off a Humble ebook bundle. Technically very well written, I thought, but something about it just really rubbed me the wrong way.

  3. Eightball says:

    I wonder if the anti-appropriation police have ever watched anime. They’d have to declare war on Japan with all the appropriation going on.

    • shevek says:

      You’re right that Japanese pop culture isn’t exactly a byword for sensitivity to issues of race and culture. Good to see you’re thinking about these things.

      • musurca says:

        You can be dismissive of Japanese appropriation, but don’t forget Paul Simon’s Graceland, the collected works of David Bowie, and Russian literature in the 18th and 19th centuries, just to quote a few of many examples. These are vital products in their own right that began as appropriations of foreign culture. In the history of art, I would argue that appropriation is the primary means for generating important “new” forms of work.

  4. 26PM says:

    Live and learn, thanks for sharing this personal story, intriguing, funny, and helpful.

  5. swerty says:

    I don’t know how to interpret the message of this article other than “American white men should only make stories about American white men.”

    Which seems counter to the push for content diversity in games (if not the push for developer diversity) that RPS (and I) support.

    • Noc says:

      The thing about pushing for diversity is that it isn’t about “we want the snare voices to start writing about a wider variety of topics!”

      Rather, it’s about actually trying to help *voices* we don’t usually hear speak up, so we actually hear from new perspectives rather than just adding to our repertoire of… motifs, really.

      Like, the diversity problem isn’t really one of “ugh, it seems like games can only be Generic Fantasy or Generic Sci-Fi, we need more ways to skin our games!” so much as “a lot of games are clearly made by a very narrow demographic for a very narrow audience (which is resulting in that sense of sameness), so we need more creators from different backgrounds who aren’t already bought into the same habits and assumptions.”

      • swerty says:

        Okay, and that’s great! But embedded in that is still the idea that people are only supposed to create things about themselves or their own cultures.

        • Noc says:

          Sure it is! My point is that this principle doesn’t run counter to the idea of wanting more diversity.

          And obviously it’s not a hard-and-fast rule! But I think the general principle that “we should let (and help) other people tell their own stories, instead of telling their stories in their stead” is fairly sound?

          . . .

          Like, we totally get this principle in regards to published work! Like, I think we can generally understand where the following statements are coming from:

          – Adapting a work in way that goes against the spirit of the original is bad!
          – Adapting a work in a way that’s marketable but missed everything that made the original compelling and interesting is bad!
          – Adapting a work in a way that gets it and that includes subtle nods to the source material, is good! It lets us know that it’s being handled by Our People, who appreciate it in the same way we do.
          – It kinda sucks when suddenly everyone is only familiar with the (shitty) new version, and doesn’t realize that all the cool stuff about the old version was even a thing.
          – If they were going to do this, why couldn’t they have just done their own thing, instead of using the names and characters of Our Thing?

          So we totally get the principle of “this is Our Story! If you want to do a thing, go tell your own story, instead of taking ours away from us!”

          Except for some reason, we only get that in the context of specific, published works? Like, if you’re making a thing and it ends up looking really similar to another published work, you’re probably going to cringe a little and rething some things so you don’t end up ripping it off. And obviously you can’t just take their names and character designs wholesale! That’d be shitty!

          But we wouldn’t think twice about basing our work off of real events, or off of a specific person’s experiences, or off of a religion or folklore or mythology. And when other people react in the same way, with objections of “Why are you taking our thing?” we’re really quick to assert that, “Uh, you don’t own that! It’s not yours.

          So there’s this thing where we get how appropriation can be shitty, but where we’ve got this huge, glaring blind-spot for the principle of, like, cultural ownership! Of people’s stories, and the stories they tell, just kind of…not really being ours. And that’s…weird and more people need to start being able to see that.

          . . .

          And obviously, yeah, a blanket statement of “All appropriation is bad! People should only ever tell wholly original stories or recount things that actually happened to them!” is silly! Like, we’re generally fine with people being inspired by other works, and creating new stuff that does new things with the same concepts but doesn’t do the original a disservice!

          But I think we totally get where a new creation can be at the original’s expense – like where a little-known creation gets ripped off and eclipsed by someone with a massive advertising budget, and such.

          So when you’re making stuff, it’s important to think about who’s stories your’e using, and how much they’re already being told — and if your work is going to get in the way of someone’s ability to tell their own story, then that’s…bad, and you should seriously consider doing something else.

          • Baffle Mint says:

            So we totally get the principle of “this is Our Story! If you want to do a thing, go tell your own story, instead of taking ours away from us!”

            Do we, though?

            There’s a lot of fanfiction out there, a lot of people who want to write stories about batman or Harry Potter or Bella Swan.

            We have intellectual property laws that hamper this, especially when people make money from it, but the urge is still there.

            And you know what? Whenever an author comes out against fanfiction, whenever they say ““this is my story! If you want to do a thing, go tell your own story, instead of taking mine away from me!” there’s usually a pretty huge backlash.

            Also, I really hate the metaphor where competing stories “silence” or “take away” your own story, because, first of all, those things seem like a stretch. The existence of a more popular story hasn’t destroyed or removed your story from existence, nor does it prevent you from speaking.

            It may prevent you from being heard by as many people as you would care to be heard from; or it may prevent you from making a living in an artistic field of your choice, but you haven’t been silenced.

            Also, one reason I’m feeling more and more divorced from left-wing criticism is that it often applies these institutional criticisms to individuals. The last thing we need is another bland pastiche of totem poles, teepees and kachina dolls, but we’re talking about one indie game developer here. To imagine that one middle class foreigner has the power to shout down and silence the entire Hopi nation seems, well, kind of nuts. It’s going to be hard to get more resources and visibility than, I don’t know, EA Games or somebody, but getting more resources and visibility than a single schmo with an indie puzzle game is entirely within the realm of possibility even for fairly disadvantaged people.

    • pepperfez says:

      “When you get called out,” Esposito finished, “shut up and listen. Examine your position. Learn from them. Learn to shut up.”
      It’s not that you shouldn’t write about things you haven’t experienced; it’s that if people who have experienced them tell you, “That’s kinda offensive. Here’s why,” you shouldn’t take that as an attack, or an argument to be defeated, or anything that puts you in a defensive posture. It’s someone honestly saying that your writing has hurt them, and if you’re a decent person you should care about that. Acknowledge that, not having lived their experience, you don’t have all the emotional nuances, so things that don’t seem emotionally charged to you may to them.

      • swerty says:

        Yep, this all makes sense. Mary Anne Mohanraj’s article posted above helped to clarify a lot of this, thanks.

    • Heliocentric says:

      My dream alternative ending is one where he does his research properly, finished the game and opened people’s eyes to something new. I prefer my version.

      • Urthman says:

        Preferring your own imagined reality to the actual reality you share with other people is the whole problem.

        Nobody told Ben he couldn’t make a Hopi game. It’s just he talked to some Hopi people and decided, “By my own standards, I’m going to make an ass of myself if I do this.”

        No one’s saying you can’t write what you want, they’re suggesting that if you actually listen to the real world people whose cultural stuff you want to use, what you want might change.

      • pepperfez says:

        I think he did do the proper research, and what he found was that he didn’t actually want to make a game dealing sensitively (to his satisfaction) with the reality of Hopi culture; he wanted to make a game with cool graphics about dropping things into a hole.

    • April March says:

      Not to repeat myself, but already doing so, here’s another way to read that article: “If one who would like to tell a story about people who do not share his cultural heritage talks to said people and realizes they don’t want one to tell their story, it would be better for all involved if one decides not to tell a story about those particular people.”

      I admit that’s not as catchy.

  6. musurca says:

    I think people often forget that cultural “appropriation” is the primary means by which culture is transmitted across boundaries. Look at the history of Japanese cinema (many of which are an appropriation of the tropes of American films), or jazz, or rock and roll, etc. etc. etc.

    Like language, a healthy culture mutates as it is interpreted by foreigners in strange new ways. It shouldn’t be a dusty old museum where we’re not allowed to touch anything.

    • valrus says:

      It’s not really cultural mixing in the broad sense that gets people on the defensive. (Most indigenous people I know like fusion arts and seeing old favorites reinterpreted in the light of global trends like hip-hop.) It’s a combination of a few things, but your note of a “healthy culture” highlights one of the things, is that these aren’t two independent cultures in a rough balance. One was still trying very hard to eradicate the other in living memory. Among many other things, the U.S. and Canadian governments, as a matter of policy, took young children away from their communities and parents, and punished them until they stopped “talking Indian” and “acting Indian”. (And “punished” is putting it VERY mildly.) I’m not talking about centuries ago; lots of those children are still alive.

      It’s a bit astonishing to realize that what remains does so because *elementary school students* were sufficiently stubborn that they decided to resist and get beaten (and sometimes killed) rather than stop talking their language, singing their songs, and playing their games. So communities are often really protective of what remains, and sometimes talk about it like it’s their last economic resource remaining, in the absence of things like actual control over mineral rights on their land.

      This is the situation that a lot of white artists blunder into when they decide indigenous stuff is cool and want to use it, and then are surprised and hurt at the reaction. But from the other side, what they see is businessperson from comparative wealth and ease who wants to use this “last resource” of some very poor communities for self-aggrandizement (getting famous, getting rich, etc.), but who didn’t bother to talk to anyone about it. So yeah, communities act kinda like they would if a mining company started mining without asking anyone “Does anyone own this place? Ahh, who cares what they think; it’s not like they can do anything to stop me.”

      • musurca says:

        This is a great point, and obviously the historical treatment of native cultures should not be forgotten in this discussion. However–to take the heartless long view for a minute–I would argue that appropriation almost never occurs between two cultures in balance. Appropriation is a by-product of assimilation, from Greek statuary/religion/literature (purloined by the Romans) to folk music, the blues, and hip-hop. It’s a brutal process, and yet paradoxically it seems the best way to preserve and transmit the assimilated culture for posterity.

        The desire to protect one’s own “authentic” culture from appropriation–as a valuable economic resource, as you point out–can also condemn it to irrelevance, although one can and should empathize with the underlying sentiment.

        • valrus says:

          I entirely agree that the best chance of preservation, transmission, and downright cultural survival involves openness, collaboration, and even evolution. Culture kept secret is forgotten, languages not spoken now are not spoken in the future. But luckily, it’s not like there’s actually a stark choice between “Appropriate at will!” and “Everything will be forgotten!” It’s really not THAT hard to do intercultural works with respect; it just takes some talking and listening, and sometimes being willing to take criticism and being open to changing your mind.

          Also, for anyone else thinking of something like this: if it’s intended as a commercial product, do go ahead and think about hiring artists, programmers, or other creative professionals from the community in question! Or maybe there’s a way to set up some internships for young people who might be interested in pursuing careers in technology and videogames. You might not have a big budget, but there’s often something of value you have or know that can be a fair trade for the value you’re getting.

          • musurca says:

            Having been involved in a couple of projects that deal with similar issues (not involving indigenous cultures), I should point out that it often IS quite hard to do intercultural works and feel that you’ve done so with respect. You’re rarely dealing with a monoculture, so there are usually competing voices within a community that want to speak with authority, plus members of a diaspora who feel emotionally connected to a cultural legacy but are in fact generations removed from any real contact. You try to work with as much integrity as possible, but in the end—if the work is interesting—someone’s probably going to be upset.

            Your point about spreading the wealth within the community to some extent is a good strategy, if possible—but who exactly should reap the benefits? This is a thorny question. (Did you have experience with this?)

            At this point, some people would just say, “so don’t do it.” But—at the risk of sounding cold-hearted—I think that reasoning would eliminate a lot of vital work that may have been done without any sense of deference. (As well as a lot of awful crap, admittedly, but time tends to sort these things out.)

            But I played Donut County briefly at Fantastic Fest, and the creator mentioned that it was now about the struggles of a local donut shop against the forces of encroaching “Big Donut.” Which I think we can all agree is a worthy mission.

          • valrus says:

            I’d meant more that the basic “due diligence of respect” for this sort of intercultural project isn’t as insurmountable as some of the comments here suggest, and the responses not as extreme as people fear. But you’re totally right that there can be a lot of self-doubt involved; I do intercultural projects and I doubt myself all the time. And criticism is inevitable, and sometimes that criticism is well-founded and sometimes it isn’t. So it’s not always easy in the emotional sense. But it’s not hard in a practical sense.

            For the question of hiring and similar things, there’s definitely concerns about access and benefit, since it’s not like there are ever enough jobs/internships/consultancies to go around. Will the people that benefit most be the people who are already part of whatever power structures (band council, school board, IT department, etc.) you’re working through? I would imagine so, it would be a weird world if that weren’t the case. But adding some opportunities for young people, or putting some money into a depressed economy, is probably a good thing nonetheless.

  7. Baffle Mint says:

    I feel like the reason stories like this make people uncomfortable is that if you take what is being said at face value, it becomes really hard to see how any fiction could be legitimate, or even how any non-biographical writing could be legitimate.

    I have a couple of problems with the quotes in this article:

    The first is nitpicky, but,

    “There’s no such thing as Hopi folklore,”

    Really? I find that very, very hard to believe. There’s not one single urban legend, or fairy tale, or anything at all like that in all of Hopi culture? That would make them pretty unusual, especially after being surrounded by a white culture that does have folklore. No white American folklore got picked up or modified?

    Presumably he meant something like “Calling Kachina Dolls part of Hopi folklore is wrong and offensive, the same way it would be wrong and offensive to call the Gospels a piece of European folklore.” But that’s not what he said.


    “If it’s really important to tell someone’s narrative,” he adds, “let them tell it.” If someone is not in a position to tell their story, maybe look at ways to help it get told. But don’t assume it’s yours to tell.

    “When you get called out,” Esposito finished, “shut up and listen. Examine your position. Learn from them. Learn to shut up.”

    If we took this seriously, fiction would pretty much be impossible. Hannibal is not written by psychopathic cannibals. Shakespeare was never a prince of denmark or a teenage italian girl, but he still told stories about them.

    If we took this seriously, at face value, fiction would be impossible, accept for maybe thinly-veiled autobiography from the first person.

    So he must actually mean something else, but what? You even feel like you must be a bad person for asking, because a good progressive person shuts up and listens. Even if they don’t understand, I suppose.

    Also, something that just occurred to me as I was writing:

    “Folks are not trying to silence you by telling you you’re trying to silence them.”

    So, saying something that other people disagree with = trying to silence those people.

    Somebody telling you not to talk about something at all = not trying to silence them.

    We are now arguing that “Learn to shut up.” is not an attempt to get people to be silent. Forgive me, but I really don’t see what else it could be. The literal meaning of “shut up” is to be silent. I mean, nobody can force me to be silent just by saying “shut up”, but then by the same token nobody can force me to be silent by depicting me in a manner that I disagree with.

    Look, I don’t disagree with any of the artistic decisions outlined in this article; Just throwing a bunch of stock “Indian” motifs together into a blender is an offensive thing to do, and pretty much always there’s no valid reason to cause that offense, because throwing a bunch of stock “Indian” motifs together without thought doesn’t result in something that provokes thought or even looks all that cool.

    But the narrative being told about this decision is one that makes all fiction, hell, all reporting suspect; even autobiography must include opinions about other people; opinions that may not agree with how they feel about themselves.

    And when you press people, they always go “Well, okay, sometimes it is okay to present somebody else’s story. It’s totally okay to write about Hitler or Charles Manson or George W. Bush in a way that doesn’t agree with how they think you should tell their story.”

    But… maybe instead of these nonsensical blanket prohibitions that nobody could follow, we could talk about what our actual goals should be?

  8. bill says:

    This has been an interesting discussion that has brought up several things I hadn’t really considered. But I’m still rather confused about what the problem was.
    Was using the Hopi dolls some form of sacrilege? Like making a picture of mohammed?
    Was it the combination with stereotypical objects like teepees?
    The article seems to suggest that it was simply attempting to use images or art from another culture, but that can’t be right because that would cover about 75% of all art, including most of the interesting stuff.

    I see that there are certain topics that require sensitivity, but I don’t see how that applies to all mentions of any other culture than your own.

  9. Foosnark says:

    This has been my favorite article here in a while.

    For those that don’t get it:

    Imagine you’ve had a pretty hard life, and so have your parents, your parents’ parents, and their parents, and it’s the same story for everyone you know. The dominant culture, who’s basically responsible for most of your troubles, basically ignores you.

    Your great-great-great-great-grandfather, madly in love but penniless, carved a beautiful statue of your great-great-great-great-grandmother in order to woo her. It was very personal, very touching, and should be a family heirloom. But some stranger liked the look of it, took it to put in a museum, and mass-produced copies of it to sell in gas stations. Passersby see the statue, think they’re nifty, and buy them without knowing anything about your family history.

    And now some other stranger sees one of these statues and decides to make a video game about it. In place of actually trying to tell your GGGGGF’s story, he throws in some stereotypes that are swiped from a completely different culture becase he doesn’t know the difference. Somebody points this out to him. He thinks “okay, maybe it would be cool if I got this right and found out what the real story was so I can tell it.” And he goes around asking a bunch of other people who aren’t your family. Eventually one of them says “dude, ask so-and-so who actually knows.” Finally he comes to you, and you point out that your GGGGGF was actually a very private and shy person, and wouldn’t necessarily want his story told to strangers, especially not by another stranger. And you respect that. But people on a forum about video games don’t understand why the “censorship.”

    It’s about respect.

    • ChatterLumps says:

      This is a really good comment that explains why this was a problem in the first place. The part about asking EVERYONE except the people you were writing about was really telling that he wasn’t really respecting the culture and religion he was writing about.

      Another thing, it was really important for him to realize Hopli didn’t have “folklore” because it was a religion. A really key difference which allowed him to make the mistakes he did.

      Also a lot of people are talking about “limiting what people can write about” and you know, that is kind of true, but in the end it is just limiting the bad stories.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably have to say it again: “I wish you wouldn’t say that” is not censorship. “You’re right, I shouldn’t have said that and I’ll stop” is still not censorship. It’s only censorship when it becomes “Don’t say that or I’ll take your job away, or put you in jail, or kill you.”

    • El_Emmental says:

      “I wish you wouldn’t say that because it’s offensive/racist”… in public, in front of an audience of 50 000+ people, many of which won’t look for the entire context before forwarding the message to their contacts and organizations.

      It’s de facto censorship, when a single person or a small group of people, exploiting the leverage of social media combined with sensationalism, force an author or an organization to remove content because of the resulting mob emailing, tweeting and calling editors and distributors to remove the piece from their network and prevent it from ever accessing it in the future.

      When the targeted person or organization needs their piece distributed to cover the cost of its creation, or simply make a living, it is bankrupting that person/organization by misguiding a mob to actively prevent them from working.

      That mobbing (also known as online lynching) can go beyond commercial harassment, when the information being spread depicts a worsening crime and ultimately reach unstable and violent militants.

      In the case of Kachina, the use of “Hopi folklore” can very easily turn into “white dude makes fun of native americans in a video game, see no problem with that” (because the dev didn’t immediately answered to all the 350 aggressive emails s/he received, along with the 500 tweets – to beg them that s/he is sorry and didn’t mean that), to “How a video game made by a white supremacist wants to bury Hopi people in a hole to make them disappear from our historical landscape – the second genocide of the native americans is happening and what can we do about it”.

      Forward that to violent militants, along with the personal address of the developer, and you’ve got SWAT teams storming her/his home at 3 am, threats in the mails, windows smashed with rocks at night and graffitis on the front door telling them to die – along with an actual risk of being physically attacked when going outside or at conventions. That’s how mobbing works.

      Now tell me it’s not censorship when authors targeted by mobbing are scared of publishing anything that might be controversial, because it could prevent them from making a living and could also endanger themselves and their family. Censorship isn’t just the Pope or the King putting a “Nope!” stamp on your latest piece while patting you on the back (“better luck next time!”), censorship is real and takes many different forms – some of which are seriously dangerous.

      • Premium User Badge

        Phasma Felis says:

        Okay. If any of that had happened, I would totally agree that it was a problem and that we should push back against it. I did say that “Don’t say that or I’ll take your job away” is real censorship.

        But none of that did happen. You’re looking at a guy who says straight up that he made a decision of his own free will, without anyone bullying him into it, and you’re telling him that no, he’s wrong, he was actually totally censored, because somebody might have threatened him (but didn’t).

        For fuck’s sake, if you’re worried about genuine mob censorship, you should be cheering this. The people who didn’t like Kachina did exactly what you would have wanted–they spoke calmly and rationally and changed Esposito’s mind through honest persuasion, not threats or bluster. Instead, you’re arguing that no one should ever say that anything is offensive, no matter how circumspectly, because it conceivably might result in censorship. Don’t you see the irony?

        • El_Emmental says:

          That’s not what my message says at all.

          First, you said ““I wish you wouldn’t say that” is not censorship”, and taken out of the context of the Internet and mobbing, it is 100% true. It is not censorship: someone can say that sentence and nothing happens. Problem is: we’re talking online, about online reactions to some content published online.

          Second, you didn’t mention it was solely regarding the case of Kachina, your entire original post is making a global statement. What I detailed above is how mobbing can very rapidly become censorship.

          Third, you haven’t any access to his email addresses, Twitter, Facebook, phone numbers and other social network accounts, and therefore can not confirm if he received, or not received, any threat or aggressive emails. This is why I did NOT said he received any threat, I only said how the initial sentence can lead to such threats, even if it seems harmless. I’m not talking about that anecdotal episode (Kachina), I’m talking about the mechanism of mobbing online.

          Fourth, I am not cheering this because:
          a) I do not have access to the author’s private email addresses, social network accounts and phone numbers (home, mobile, relatives’ mobiles) and have no way to know how peaceful and calm the entire experience was.
          b) Esposito expressed a very binary view on the issue, telling people that creators should “shut up” when being told to. As pointed out by other commenters above, a more nuanced approach (still fully respecting people, cultures, religions – while preserving a certain level of creative freedom) is more than possible.

          Fifth, “Instead, you’re arguing that no one should ever say that anything is offensive, no matter how circumspectly, because it conceivably might result in censorship. Don’t you see the irony?” is completely false and is consciously misreading what I just wrote in my original post.

          If you read it more carefully, you can clearly see I am never saying no one should say something is offensive, I am CLEARLY pointing out that the problem resides in, and I’m quoting the original post here: “exploiting the leverage of social media combined with sensationalism”. That very specific action, that is NOT “simply saying something is offensive”, is the ONLY thing that is problematic here and I really hope you’ll stop skipping that part to reach preconceived conclusions where the only possible question is “Should we say it’s offensive?” and the only possible answers are “Yes!” or “No!”.

          There is huge difference between:
          – initially contacting a creator to tell them how you feel about a piece, then sharing that feeling with your close friends, then if the creator is not responding after a long time or not being receptive, share that feeling with the rest of the world once you rationalized and thought about that initial reaction on that piece.
          – broadcasting a passive-aggressive blog post or tweet or Facebook post in the following minutes of encountering a glimpse of a piece, inciting people into being outraged at the situation, that you intentionally (consciously or not) decontextualized to maximize its dramatic effect. That stuff is happening constantly online, especially on social network, and it is what I clearly outlined in my initial post.

          I’m gonna provide some examples, so there’s no misunderstanding:

          1) You go the grocery store, buy some food, it cost $12,5, you hand over a $20 bill and received the changes. When you check your wallet later back home, you only find $5,5 (= $2 are missing).
          – option A: you contact (using your phone, the Internet) all your friends, the friends of your friends, and tell them the clerk is a thief. People in the comments publicly call for a boycott of that store. The store gets several negative reports on its Yelp! profile, mentioning systematic change theft. The clerk is fired and the store put a public apology letter on its website and storefront.
          – option B: you try to contact the store on the phone, ask for the manager, etc. You get some coupons for the store and a manager apologizing for the inconvenience.
          – option C: next time you go there, you mention the problem with the clerk. If it doesn’t work, ask for the manager. If it still doesn’t work, casually mention it with one or two friends and forget about it. Maybe don’t go back to that grocery store for a while.
          – option D: it’s just 2 bucks, I’ve got other things to worry about (nb: only available for people who never worry about the rent).

          A is mobbing. It is terribly wrong and should not be tolerated.
          B is being a little overreacting, but that’s nothing too problematic: it’s ok to be a little aggressive on your own, it’s just going to be ~30 unpleasant minutes for the store employees.
          C is what most people do and in my opinion, the most reasonable thing to do.
          D is what carefree (or financially comfortable) people do.

          2) At the cafe or while waiting for the bus, you overhear someone make a racist or sexist (or both) remark/joke.
          – option A: you tweet a picture of that person online, along with what you believe that person said.
          – option B: you post the quote on your blog, saying how it is saddening to hear this in 2015.
          – option C: you sigh and look away, feeling about humanity.
          – option D: you openly say aloud “really?” or “excuse me?” or “seriously?” while looking at the person to express how surprised and kinda disappointed you are.
          – option E: you directly talk with that person and tell them that what you just heard sounded quite racist or sexist (or both). Two variants: (a) innocent until proven guilty approach (b) accusatory approach (the Spanish Inquisition!).

          A is mobbing. It is seriously wrong.
          B is the usual blog posts about the subject. Not that constructive, but still has a purpose. What most people who react to such situations do.
          C is what most people do, to not get into “troubles”.
          D is the first step of being proactive about it.
          E is for the brave or the fools, unafraid of violent people.

          Mobbing is not an overly complex concept, it is elevating an anecdotal situation to a society-wide live conflict, using social media and the Internet increased social connectivity as a lever, only to drastically increase the balance of social power in one’s favor to completely demolish the other party and become victorious in that anecdotal situation.

          That mechanism was branded by optimistic idealists to the common people as the “beautiful” power of the Internet, how the small people could stick to The Man; like how the Arab Spring is still called the Facebook/Social Media Revolution (when it’s absolutely not the case, just ask the people who marched and died through these revolutions). But like with all tools, it’s not the system itself that is any beautiful or powerful – that’s completely inaccurate – it is how the people use it that defines if it’s any beautiful or ugly, powerful or powerless.

          That’s how the whole “power” of the social media and networks can become a seriously problematic: when it’s used by people with no political or social vision, or very authoritarian ones, people who never think or care about the actual consequences of their acts before publishing or forwarding anything.

          I understand there is a difficult element to accept here: a person, only willing to do good and improve society, may participate or even be at the origin of mobbing, resulting in an unproductive and dangerous situation where the mob is looking for blood, for revenge, for violence and suffering.

          In the 90s or 00s, you could say “it’s just a blog post”: online mobbing wasn’t really an issue because social media and networks weren’t there in full force, hundreds of millions of people were still living an offline-only social existence. These times are over, nowadays posting anything can have massive consequences, that’s why everyone is responsible of the consequences of their online activity, and that includes mobbing.