Donut County and Cultural Appropriation

I have been disappointed by the lack of discussion in general about Donut County’s appropriating of Hopi beliefs. I think that changing the characters from the Hopi doll-sculptures to animals doesn’t really fix the huge issue of cultural appropriation in Donut County. Especially when some of those animals, like the raccoon, are sacred to general indigenous storytelling. What are your thoughts about this issue?

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“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.”"

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So it’s cool to ‘draw’ from it if you call it folklore, but not when it’s a religion? Sure thing my guy

Disappointed but unsurprised to hear this. I remember being pretty grossed out when I read the above-linked blog post.

I don’t feel like that is what anyone is saying? It sounds like he started off from a deeply ignorant place and turned around on the idea entirely as he learned more and talked to people. He says he’s deeply embarrassed about it. I’m not sure what more can be done?
I literally just beat the game for the first time like half an hour ago, and I’m no expert but I didn’t notice any references to indigenous culture at all. Is there something more that could have been done short of starting the game from scratch?
Would the animal characters be less of a problem if the game never had any links to indigenous cultures in its past?

I’m genuinely curious what the issue is since he seems to have learned from the experience and completely rewrote the game’s story and remade a lot of assets to lose the “inspiration.”

I don’t mean to sound aggressive or anything, I just don’t know what there is still to have issue with.

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yeah i encourage anyone critical of esposito to actually read the article. like im not sure about @Cordeos’ intent, but they sampled the part right before the article (and esposito himself) addresses how fuckin wrong he was.

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the issues at hand are talked about in this thread


and

I am extremely not the person to talk about this, but the seemingly wholly uncritical acceptance of the game (at least as I’ve seen) by games media has struck me as a little odd.

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So uh are raccoons a first nations cultural symbol? I’m genuinely curious.

I mean, the whole “Hey white dudes got a little enlightened, lets pass around the high fives!” is pretty eye rolling, but uh, i can’t even say i even have a clue what is still culturally appropriative in the finished work. The raccoons i guess?

EDIT: I did some googling and it seems like it a first nations thing in many respects. The bigger crime feels like the fact that first nations people’s culture is so thouroughly scrubbed that a lot of people geniuinely don’t know this. Still it brings up what can you use in your work of fiction when it comes to literal entire animals, something something i’m white, so i should probably just shut the fuck up.

In rule 3 it says,

“Don’t put marginalized people in the position of having to explain … their marginalization. … If you don’t know about a topic, research it.”

Please be mindful of that. A helpful search term might be “raccoons in indigenous culture.”

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Thanks man, was already ahead of you, but always appriciate the reminder!

So I’m really confused about this controversy, because according to that RPS article, all reference to Hopi culture was cut? Is there still a problem with the game, or are we just talking about what was going on during its development?

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My understanding is that he changed the aesthetic while keeping the general narrative structure, which was based on an indigenous folk tale or myth. I heard that on a podcast, so I don’t have the citation on hand. I’ll look for it and edit this post if I can find it!

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If you can link me to info on that, I’d be gratefully appreciative. All I’ve been able to find so far is articles saying he removed it all halfway through development, and nothing about its current content.

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Ok, so I dug in, and I think I misunderstood what they meant on the podcast. Instead of it being a narrative that was lifted from indigenous culture that was unchanged, it was the overall metaphor. Originally, the idea was this hole you control represents colonization, which sucks in colonized cultures and replaces them. This is supported by the anecdote about the level set on a reservation in the RPS article linked above (YIKES), and this Killscreen article from a few years ago: https://killscreen.com/articles/donut-county-tries-fill-hole-cultural-appropriation-leaves-behind/

So, it’s pretty easy to see how that was transplanted onto the finished game. Historical colonization was replaced with more modern colonization (gentrification), but the metaphor remained basically unchanged, warts and all. So yeah, I was wrong about what I thought the argument was.

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Thanks for the info! Yeah I’m mainly just trying to find any info on this, raccoons and all. All I can find a scant few tweets that don’t really have any information.

Anyway the original version of Donut County sounds UNBELIEVABLY problematic. Glad it was brought to my attention but also glad that it was taken out

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Honestly, the first games sounds kinda interesting with that metaphor, you know, just if an actual first nations person(s) could make it.

Seriously though, what was he thinking? First Nations material is so high up on the “White people no go zone”. Like just don’t touch that shit at allllll.

I liked Doughnut County, and it looks like he learned his lesson, but damn he was dumb.

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Wait, so no sarcasm or irony, what’s wrong with the version of Donut County available for purchase now other than the bad decisions Esposito course corrected on during development?

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I don’t think asking “is there anything wrong with the game in its current state?” gets at the heart of the issue, necessarily? There were several ongoing discussions last year about games and the context they exist in. How that informed our feelings while we played them. Red Dead 2 and the conditions of the labour that produced it, the colonialist themes found in Monster Hunter World, to name a couple of examples. It was important to recognise that these games didn’t exist in a vacuum and that these issues should be a part of the conversation, even if that made our enjoyment of the thing more difficult.

I think some of the frustration around Donut County is down to the (wilful or not) ignorance of its problematic development. I have not played the game so I can’t speak to whether there’s any vestiges of the appropriation that was once at its core but I sympathise with that frustration, especially considering as Amr points out in that aforementioned tweet that white creators are given the benefit of the doubt in these situations, when poc/marginalised devs get held to higher standards more often than not.

That issues around Donut County were so rarely discussed (despite its success/prominence) that a lot of folks in this thread weren’t aware of the appropriation of indigenous culture speaks to a disappointing double-standard, I think. That some games (or issues concerning certain marginalised people) are given less of a thought than others, even in the critical sphere of games discourse.

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I’m not really sure if I follow Dia’s logic there. Most animals are indigenous to their environment. Doesn’t mean that they aren’t pests. In Toronto we call raccoons trash pandas because they’re cute little jerks that can wreck your stuff and terrorize your pets. To me, they are invaders to the space. That may not be accurate if you take the view that humans are an affront to nature and all that, but it’s just not a practical way to live my life. I kept locks on my trash like anyone else, is that disrespectful to the indigenous animals?

@Emily: I just wish this discussion could be more framed as “look at this interesting development of this game and take it as a case study to do better from the jump in future games”, and not “the White guy gets away with it again and you’re a bad person for not noticing”. Because it feels like this thread is bringing out some holier than thou tendencies that makes me uncomfortable. As someone who did play Donut County, it certainly doesn’t come across as exploitative of indigenous culture. Not any more so than any media generated in the Americas in any case. That the game at one point was problematic and course corrected is a good thing IMO. A developer was able to experiment, get feedback, eventually internalized that feedback, and improved the game. I don’t see what’s constructive to forever mark the finished project with its original sin.

Has there been a case of a marginalized developer facing a bigger backlash for a similar situation? I can’t think of an analogous situation, and google isn’t turning up anything either.

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But clearly they were at least discussed enough that they didn’t make it into the final game, which surely should be the point of discussions of problematic content through development?
The developer listened, learned and corrected their work before it shipped.

At most now we have a game about gentrification with raccoons standing in for the gentrifiers because the primary metaphor of the game is “when gentrifying, people view the old stuff as trash and raccoons love trash.” You can still draw the comparisons of gentrification as modern colonialism but at the very least the actual Hopi content never made it into the game.

That RPS article above is actually super informative about this, even if the poster who shared it went out of their way to highlight parts out of context that make Esposito and his game look bad.

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