Every year, a dialogue arises around the subject of Halloween costumes and the divisions between cultural misappropriation and excessive political correctness. This discussion has gone on for ages, but there is never a lack of controversy surrounding people’s costume choices.
One group, Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS) at Ohio University, has gained traction in their attempts to stop the annual insults to minorities that come from offensive costumes. Their campaign “We’re a Culture Not a Costume,” which started last year, features posters of young men and women standing beside costumes that drew on stereotypes of their ethnicity and culture.
While there are certain costumes that are blatantly offensive, sometimes the discussion turns to the idea of authenticity and correct appropriation. Would a burqa be an appropriate Halloween costume if it was the appropriate length and made from the correct materials? Do you have to understand all the implications of the outfit and be informed about the culture from which it comes?
When the discussion veers this way, it is important to remember that Halloween isn’t necessarily the best time to be having these conversations. Halloween has been thoroughly severed from its origins – pagan, Christian, or otherwise. It’s a holiday of candy, costumes, and consumerism. If your costume is going to spoil someone’s good time by mocking his or her culture, then perhaps it’s not worth wearing.
The debate around costumes is a good start for promoting cultural sensitivity, but these incidents happen at other times of the year. Other cultural appropriations occur in fashion lines all the time, including recent controversies with American Apparel and Urban Outfitters referencing Navajo culture. When these incidents blow on, people can now take sides on a public stage. Accusations of insensitivity—or over-sensitivity—are bandied about through blog posts, Twitter hashtags, Facebook statuses, Tumblr gifs, reddit threads, and more.
More and more frequently, these conflicts play out across the sphere of social media. The virality of the Internet can have both positive and negative consequences, from the outreach done by the STARS campaign to the offensive Mohammad video that sparked riots in the Middle East this past September. The STARS campaign is admonitory in its tone: “You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.” Rather than boil down cultural differences into a controversial costume, we need to find ways to promote a healthy dialogue year-round. What’s more, it’s becoming increasingly clear that networked technologies will play a big role in that process.
So how might games fit into an intercultural dialogue? For starters, the affordances of a game can provide a valuable context for exploration. Scot Osterweil has broken down the anatomy of play into what he calls the Four Freedoms: the freedom to experiment, the freedom to fail, the freedom to try on different identities, and the freedom of effort. Here, the third freedom—which, really, is in part an extension of the first and second—becomes especially intriguing. How might we imagine interactive encounters with different lives and cultures?
Consider a game we designed called Fair Play, which most recently won the People’s Choice Award at the International Academic Conference on Meaningful Play 2012. Funded by a grant from NIH, the game aims to reduce implicit biases (i.e. unconscious assumptions that arise from group stereotypes) against underrepresented individuals in academic science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. Players find themselves in the shoes of renowned science professor Dr. Jamal Davis, transported to the memory of his graduate school days as a young African American doctoral student who experiences bias on his way to landing his current position. The virtual game world, which provides players a safe space to interrogate the biases around diversity issues without fear of repercussions, becomes a tool for self-reflection.
Our work with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations on the Create UNAOC Challenge has similar goals. With this international competition, the hope is to encourage developers to produce apps and mobile games that open new avenues for intercultural dialogue. Five finalists will be awarded $5,000 and invited to the 2013 UNAOC Forum in Vienna, where forum delegates will be given a chance to use the apps.
These are but two entryways among many into the larger discussion that’s taking place. Technology has, more than ever, enabled outrage. Let’s start thinking about what the push back might look like.
– Adam Mandeville and Michael Suen
(Photo by Jennifer Rogers)