Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

We creative folk have a tendency to drift towards the history of our culture as the inspiration for our mythology and fantasy. The single biggest aspect of culture is language. So if your primary language is English, that then means English culture is where you'll most-likely go. It doesn't matter if you're actually European or not: the cultural legacy you most closely identify with is English. This is why the swords-and-sorcery fantasy genre is so huge in gaming. Yes, you can say a little something about D&D's monumental influence, but the reason why it was even in a position to set that kind of precedent is because its audience can feel a sense of one-ness with the setting.

I have always struggled with that one-ness, that sense of belonging within the realms of traditional, medieval-inspired fantasy. I do speak English. I do identify as white. But all it takes is a quick glance in the mirror to realize that there's a whole other side to me. I'm half-Thai. And that whole other side of me doesn't get represented at all in the vast majority of games I play.

And so sometimes, I drift towards mythology/fantasy with a more Asian bend to it. And it doesn't take long for me to feel alone and disconnected from that fantasy, either. I'm half-white, afterall. Not only that, I'm a writer, a person with an actual academic and professional interest in the English language. And so embracing Asian legends also only represents half of my cultural legacy.

So where do I go when I want to feel completely comfortable with my cultural identity? Thankfully, there is one thing I that I am completely: I am an American. 

And finally, we come to my point: I am definitely not the only person out there with a tangled ancestry. So why does English/Anglo-Saxon fantasy continue to captivate our imaginations so much? Why don't we see more fantasy inspired by American history?

America may be considerably younger than many nations out there, but we have a deep...and, more importantly, dramatic...history. The War of Independence. The Civil War. The Wild West. The Roaring 20's. The World Wars. Vietnam. 

I realize there is a certain sex appeal to English fantasy. You've got your glistening armor, your elegant longswords, castles and stuff. But American history's got plenty of iconic stuff, too: The six-shooter. Boomtowns. The automobile. English fantasy has kings, queens, nobility; we have patriots, moguls, and politicians. They have knights; we have rangers. 

And don't even get me started on the thematic elements American culture can draw upon. Manifest Destiny. The American Dream. Independence from tyranny. The battle to make every person equal in the eyes of the law. Rich, powerful storytelling stuff. Yet we continue to confine ourselves to the same old pointy-eared elves and stocky, bearded dwarves, blandly fighting Good versus Evil.

I know one quick answer to this question: medieval drama tends to be more unapologetically black-and-white. That makes the stakes easier to understand, and thus allow us to skip to the action faster. There are monsters that are clearly evil, devil worshippers that are clearly trying to disrupt the natural order of things, and there are heroes who don't have a single drop of bad blood in their bodies to fight them off. America is much messier. Hell; we've been the monster, at points in our history. But that's true of English-inspired fantasy, too. 

I know there's a lot of American-inspired gaming already out there. Deadlands. The Weird War settings. Lovecraft. It's not like it doesn't exist. But organize a meetup for a Western-themed RPG and a fantasy-themed RPG, and guess which one fills up faster? One of them will have a waitlist; the other will have open seats. Why is that?

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