Donut County and Cultural Appropriation

Sorry kinda off topic, but killscreen is still up? I thought they had to take it all down cause no one was paying server costs. Happy it’s still up in some capacity at least

1 Like

This discussion has been really helpful in informing and crystallizing my understanding of this issue. Thanks, everyone! I’ve seen Dia’s occasional tweets about the issue and been a little frustrated that she didn’t have any substantive critiques to point me to (though it’s by no means an obligation for her to do so).

Things that I think are probably fine:

  • The overall narrative of Donut County at release
  • The fact that Esposito took steps to correct the appropriation he was rightly accused of perpetrating

Things that I think should be considered in critical discussions of the game:

  • The fact that there were extremely problematic themes in earlier version of the game, and anyone who isn’t an expert on the topic may not be able to identify echoes of it that exist in the final product. I didn’t notice anything in the game that appeared to still be appropriating indigenous culture, but I’m nowhere near well-versed enough to say that there wasn’t anything. I feel like this is the stance that non-indigenous critics should generally be adopting if they didn’t take issue with the game.
  • The grossly congratulatory nature of a lot of the existing coverage of the game’s development.

Things that, as far as I can tell, are still problematic about the finished product (given the context of development):

  • Raccoons being invaders in the story

Anyway, dunno if this is helpful but it’s a summary of how I ultimately feel about this issue. I’m not at all indigenous, and it’s just my own takeaway, so grain of salt and whatnot.

6 Likes

Side note: if anyone wants a really great discussion on the right way to make a game about indigenous culture, there is an episode of History Respawned about the Iñupiaq storytelling in Never Alone (hint on how to do it: the game’s lead writer is Iñupiaq storyteller Ishamel Hope).

3 Likes

I want to ask a few questions re: cultural appropriation in this thread if it’s okay since it is clear that there are people here with well-considered opinions on the topic.

First is: obviously it’s pretty questionable when a white male decides to write a story centered in the folklore or religion of a culture light years from his own, but as a literature major (who is also interested in writing) this brings up a lot of tough questions. As a writer I’m always interested in trying to populate my stories with diverse characters; where is the line where I move too far into a character that it becomes uncomfortable or inappropriate?

Secondly, one of my main fields of interest in lit has been postcolonial literature. I love (among many other things) getting to read these amazing works from writers all over the world and the way they often use the English language as a weapon against itself and against a history of colonial oppression. However, whenever I write critical work about postcolonial lit (or African-American lit, etc), I think I often have similar worries as in the above question; am I even really qualified to be able to speak to what’s going on in these novels? Can I really fully appreciate them as a citizen of a colonizing nation?

Also, how do people feel about novels from writers like David Mitchell or Adam Johnson that end up largely or entirely centered in completely different cultures? Is this an act of broadening Western audiences’ perspective when done responsibly or does it lean towards cultural appropriation?

Please know that I ask these questions because I genuinely want to be as sensitive as possible about these topics. And if this is not appropriate to this forum, I completely understand if the moderators wish to remove my post. Thank you!

2 Likes

I did not expect that this post would have this much replies. Thanks for all of the replies! I didn’t link to Dia’s tweets about Donut County because I wasn’t sure if that was okay to do on multiple fronts, but I should have because she has the actual experience to talk about this in a way that I don’t. I am just Puerto Rican, so yeah. The way I think about this topic is that if a non Puerto Rican made a game about Puerto Rican folklore and stories and just changed some things to be less Puerto Rican I would still have an issue with said game because the ideas, the metaphors, the stories, the folklore would still be Puerto Rican. Also, thank you to the mods for providing more information about the subject!

Honestly, from my perspective it feels like there’s an effort being made to make it a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” for Esposito and the only way he could have come out of this clean was to have never gone anywhere near indigenous narratives and just released Donut County without a single reveal of the process.

6 Likes

Killscreen daily was taken down, but the main site is still up. I’m not sure to what extent the articles from the site were preserved, but I’m able to find some of the articles I remember when looking for them.

I definitely won’t defend the way Killscreen treated their writers, but I can’t help but feel like something important was lost when it closed.

1 Like

Unrelated to the discussion being had here, but this: https://archive.org/web/ might be of use in finding those old articles.

1 Like

Looks like AICL wound up doing a followup post, spurred by the RPS article.

3 Likes

To start: I greatly enjoyed Donut County and it was one of the few joyful, just-for-me pieces of media I allowed myself in 2018. However, I definitely think there’s stuff that critics can and should talk about regarding its development and even its release form.

That being said, I think there was a point lost from up-thread about the fact that the narrative of Donut County kind of stuck around from Kachina; the colonizing destructive force became the destructive force of technology on modern environments. @TheCastleBuilder mentioned that this narrative is “probably fine,” and I would agree in a vacuum. However, I think it’s okay to be critical that this was preserved in the new form of the game and ultimately leads to the moral lesson at the heart of it.

@Blackie62 I think your comment is in a bit of bad faith; no one is saying here that Ben is damned or a bad person for releasing the game as-is. That isn’t the purpose of criticism; the purpose of criticism and discussion is to examine these things in their context, and to say, hey maybe this could’ve been done better or isn’t above scrutiny. I think I can safely say that no one is out here trying to ruin Ben Esposito’s career.

3 Likes

ive always though of following the “Fast and the Furious” approach when wanting to include diversity in works of fiction as a white person. Have it, because diversity is good, but make that probably the extent of it. “Fast and the Furious” has a fairly diverse cast for an action movie, to their benifit, but isn’t really about that diversity in any meaningful respect. As a white story teller, digging too deep can be destructive to both the culture you are trying to represent and to a much lesser extent yourself. I feel like its very important to be inclusive to all when writing stories, but leave the culture to those who are a part of it

1 Like

If you have the means, hiring sensitivity editors would definitely be something worth looking into if you have a concern as a writer. Twitter is a great resource for finding folks of all different backgrounds and ethnicities.

2 Likes

I’m a little loath to dive into this discussion because I had it countless times in undergrad and it always seemed to result in the conclusion that there was no 100% viable answer to this question, and just a lot of cyclical discussion by everyone involved. (And to be clear, I’m not talking about a bunch of white guys sitting around a table discussing this—I’ve gotten markedly different opinions from people with a wide variety of backgrounds).

But I do want to question how this approach can also heavily tokenize both the identities of those characters and the diversity a work is attempting to include. A large part of pushing for more diversity and inclusion in fictional media is so that people can see themselves reflected in it—but if the writing strategy effectively erases the non-visual or non-superficial aspects of that diversity, I think it can end up being just as destructive as “digging too deep.” Honestly, if you want to follow the metaphor maybe a bit too far, it feels uncomfortably colonial to me, as it then becomes about a white writer giving their work the appearance of diversity for… I’m not sure what the purpose is at that point. The charitable interpretation is to try and set a precedent for other works? The uncharitable interpretation is a larger audience to read (and buy) their work.

And like, the clear solution is for white writers to support marginalized creators so they can go out and make their own art. That is the 100% viable answer to the question that @mundanesoul brings up. It’s also doesn’t actually answer the question of what said writer should do in their own writing. I can’t pretend to know an answer for that, because (as should even be clear from this thread), there just isn’t a consensus.

5 Likes

Great point, diglett. I have spent most of my career as a graduate student trying to shut up about my own shit and be as encouraging an ally as I can to the other students who I know have less privilege than me, and I think maybe that’s where I’ll continue to focus my efforts based on a lot of what I’m reading here.

Quantumdot’s suggestion is also a great one; personally, I don’t often write characters marginalized by their race or sexual orientation because I don’t feel I can address it adequately, but if I ever decided to it seems vital to consider working with folks who have lived through those experiences.

1 Like

I disagree that @Blackie62 is coming from a position of bad faith, as it’s something I too am concerned about after reading some of the discussions here. Some comments upthread include references to a “grossly congratulatory nature of a lot of the existing coverage of the game’s development” or the “the RPS’ article light touch”, and I’m just not comfortable with that notion. Like, Esposito decided to demonstrate a mistake he made and how he corrected it, and just because coverage of this isn’t adversarial we must go right to “grossly congratulatory”? I think raking devs over the coals for transgressions that they own up to is just going to result in a chilling effect where nobody owns up to their mistakes lest they get pilloried by the internet. A “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, if you will. At least that’s what I took from that comment.

14 Likes

Its a tough line to walk i agree. I can’t say i’ve solved it, as its not like i have any finished work i can point to and go “see, look, it works!” And i agree with you that my initial post was probably too much of a binary. I think its okay to have some nuance on a character level, after all everybody is defined by their social situation. But as a white writer, having a story “about” that culture is such a huge no no. A power group talking about a non power group is inherently exploitative.

You are definitely right that the actual solution, is for a white author to forgo his own creation to facilitate those from cultures that haven’t been of power.

I understand the notion that Esposito’s journey from Wrong to Better has been chronicled in a way that can be perceived as celebratory. On one hand, it is celebratory: it’s not common for a man to publicly, intentionally fuck up, be shown that he is wrong, and to rectify that in a public, apologetic, regretful way that pushes himself forward in a way that benefits everyone around him. We read about men who do the exact opposite in the face of criticism every day.

But, it’s only reasonable to see this as something to celebrate when we compare this rare instance of really trying to do the right thing with the overwhelming majority of instances in which the man who fucked up just doubled down instead. So, on the other hand, I’m sure it is exhausting to see another white man’s epiphany as something to celebrate. Like, they shouldn’t need these epiphanies in the first place. All we’re doing is rejoicing at the revelation that “they’re people, too.” Well no shit, Ben.

Having said all that, I personally agree with the AICL statement on Esposito’s effort to right his wrong. He went above and beyond to very publicly admit fault, and showed his work in doing so, creating a good model in the process for anyone who fails after him.

I can’t say what is and isn’t fair in this situation. At a certain point, it’s both possible and reasonable to say that it will never be fair. That’s just the way that it is now. All I can say is that we can’t know what is in someone’s heart, we can only guess based on their words and actions, and by all accounts, Esposito has worked very hard to do the right thing. While I don’t think it’s something worth celebrating, I think it’s, at worst, a good thing.

5 Likes

Yeah, nuance really is the key here, right? And it gets even messier when we start to look at things intersectionally, outside a bubble of just talking about culture or race (which are often related to other ways in which people can be marginalized). This brings up the question of white writers who might be marginalized in some other way, or who are writing about something like class or mental illness, etc. (these are specific examples that are relevant to me as a writer but there are obviously many others). Those things can very frequently intersect with matters of race and culture, but they’re also not something that writers marginalized on one way are any more qualified to write about.

I’m not sure what I’m saying up there ^^ but I think the main point is still just that like, this is complicated and there’s no easy answer. The conclusion I’ve reached personally for my own writing (obviously in addition to supporting marginalized creators) is that I need to never assume someone’s experience, do copious research about everything (even if I don’t think it’s connected to a specific marginalized culture—e.g. the raccoon thing here), and always be open to listening to criticism that others have of my work.

2 Likes

While we appreciate the various perspectives this conversation has brought forth, having discussed it internally we’ve elected to close the topic here. The thread has moved on from discussing the appropriation of indigenous cultures once found in Donut County to discussing the merits of the developer who created it, which we feel may only serve to encourage further speculation and infringe on rule 10.

While frustration about criticisms of a game is understandable, we think it’s important to remember to treat others and the arguments they bring to the conversation in good faith. This includes thoroughly engaging and understanding what has been said and being careful not to frame those points in reductive ways or to make assumptions about intent. Similarly, we feel it is important to respect the feelings of marginalised people both in & outside this community, and to be cautious of putting people in a place of having to defend their marginalisation. This is also means recognising the limits of your own perspective and to consider when & where it is better to listen. We apologize for any confusion caused by the lock.

Thanks, Waypoint Mods

8 Likes