Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Cultural Research (Learning to Be Human)

Note: This post deals with my game, Learning to Be Human. As such, it will contain spoilers.

I would like to address the fact that I wrote a socially conscious game about a South Korean social issue, despite the fact that I'm white, I live in USAmerica. I want to acknowledge and own the fact that I am writing to an experience I have never had, and can never have. My racial and cultural difference means that, even though I worked hard to get things right when creating this game, there are aspects that I might have gotten wrong. Because of that, if any of my work was insensitive or incorrect, I welcome the opportunity to make corrections. All that said, making sure the game felt culturally real took a lot of work.

First thing I did was make sure that native South Korean teachers and students would be involved with the project, checking and giving input. While the game was largely a solo project, having other people guide and control my work meant that if I ever did step out of line, I could be course-corrected. I deferred to their expertise whenever they had issues, and used variables that made name adjustments easier to implement. Which turned out to work well, because the names ended up going through several iterations. Once I knew that I was going to be supervised, I was much more comfortable working on the project.

Before writing anything, however, I took time to just research South Korean school life. I watched documentaries, read articles, everything I could get my hands on. For example, I kept hearing themes around students having their possessions destroyed or messed with, so I made sure to include that. Vloggers, especially amateurs, were the best: they were more real and talked more about day-to-day life. I learned a lot about the stress and pressures of daily school life, and the different ways people find solace. Explanation videos from foreigners were also useful, because they tended more to point out anything they perceived as cultural differences. I especially enjoyed the idea of the PC bang, and I knew I wanted to set a scene in one. I also, of course, got some resources from the school itself. And I didn't just look everything up before writing and then quit, I immersed myself, making sure to continue watching videos and reading articles while the project was ongoing.

All of this research was important and necessary, otherwise I could never even hope to respectfully represent another culture, especially around bullying. Even with all I did do, I know that there's no way I could get the full picture of what it's like living as a student - local or international - in South Korea. That's impossible. For example, only very late into the project did I learn about the cultural importance of blood types (A, B, AB, O) in South Korea. I incorporated that into something someone got teased about, but it's not something I would have thought to have, or know to have, included. There are probably other things I could have included or should have written differently, but I still just don't know them. I definitely cared about doing as good of a job as I could, but I understand that it's not always possible.

The important part, however, of doing all this research isn't to show off, but to keep it as knowledge to possibly integrate. For instance, while I read that taking off shoes, or switching shoes, was an important part of entering a building, I didn't include scenes where the students performed this action. It would have dragged things down, and been unnecessary. Just like it would have dragged things down and been unnecessary writing if I had written a story set in the USA and included a sentence noting that the character left their shoes on. Instead, I used this as an example of a foreign student not knowing a cultural norm, which made much more sense.

Second, I made sure to have bullying issues and solutions that respected their culture and matched real-world experiences. I heard repeated emphasis on school stress, stress of fitting in, and even the stress from competitive hobby-turned-professions, such as video gaming and singing. I incorporated those worries. I was also careful to never be dismissive of those worries. For example, it could be easy to write advice telling students not to stress out about school, that it's not a big deal and so they shouldn't be so competitive, but that advice would have been wrong and patronizing. I offered several other coping strategies, but to replace this specific potential solution, I gave advice that classmates and friends now would make for potential work connections later in life.

All of this research made sure that a very personal game felt more personal, and didn't feel patronizing or culturally insensitive. And, as I mentioned before, if anything was wrong about the game, I'd welcome the opportunity for updates.


  1. Your blog post is very interesting and informative. You come up with new and innovative topics and their superb ideas. Thank you for sharing it with us

  2. Oh wow, this was really interesting. Can I know more about this? Is this really a game? Certainly, there are a lot of cultural differences. I am interested in learning about South Korea as well because currently I am learning Hangeul which you maybe aware is the native language.

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