Appropriation in Video Games

I have a broad question about appropriation in games which was inspired by the sand kingdom in Mario Odyssey. There are probably at least two distinctions here:
Firstly, when thinking about appropriation how should we view scenarios where a culture is used as the butt of a joke (I’m thinking of some of the culture here in America around Cinco De Mayo) versus something used by the creators as an “insert interesting colorful setting”.
Secondly, does the relationship between the culture creating the content and the culture being appropriated matter? My understanding of the historical relationship between Mexico and Japan is limited, but I don’t believe Japan has a history of oppression and conquest in Mexico the way the United States does. Would this lead you to give Mario a pass or view less harshly compared to if it had been by a studio in the US or if Nintendo had been using say a Korean setting?

This mirrors some of the chatter around Persona but I think is different enough that it could be a separate conversation. If this was discussed to death around the release and I missed it I apologize.

Lindsay Ellis got heavy into this subject with regards to Pocahontas and Moana, describing the dynamics of how cultural appropriation intersects with broader subjects of imperialism and colonialism. The easy shorthand is, if it’s a culture with a history of imperialism/colonialism (USA) appropriating from a culture that’s been a victim of colonialism (Native Americans, Indians, Polynesians, etc), then it’s considered to be a bad form of cultural appropriation because of the power dynamics involved.

Mario Odyssey is an odd beast. The relationship you have is a Japanese made property, using the imagery of Mexican tradition to add a regional set dressing to the “Tostarena” town. This includes Mario himself doing touristy things like wearing a sombrero and poncho while playing Spanish guitar to earn a hidden power moon.

The dynamics here are “large mostly-imperialist nation using imagery and symbolism from smaller culture”, which in itself is kinda bad, but the context does matter here, where that imagery is used to conjure up a vague intonation of visiting a city in Mexico, rather than depicting the culture wholesale using imagery that’s not their own.

Look at it this way: Mario Odyssey views Mexican culture with the same wonderment and fascination that it views what it perceives as “American” culture, of a bustling New York-ish cityscape where all the people are dressed in 60s era business attire while spending their time playing jazz music. It’s viewing these in the same way a tourist would, as “wow isn’t this culture different and exciting?”.

The power dynamics are still not good, American culture is so big that stereotyping them has effectively no harm on anyone, whereas stereotyping Spanish culture risks diluting their identity as a society in the grander scheme of western society. It’s not great, but it’s a far cry from, say, an American music video of a white pop star using imagery from eastern cultures.


Thank you! I really appreciate this response. The video from Lindsay Ellis was exactly what I have been looking for. Queuing up more of her video essays now. Mario Odyssey is certainly an odd beast. it can be hard for me to separate myself from the pure joy of bouncing around as Mario.