I’m an avid gamer and science fiction author in addition to being an anthropologist. So for me, worldbuilding is everything. A bad worldbuild immediately turns me off to games, and I know that as gamers become more sophisticated, many people are feeling the same. First of all, some of you may be asking, Just what is Anthropology? Well, for a quick answer, it’s the study of humans and cultures. Anthropologists like myself spend years studying culture, identity, and cultural systems. We also have a unique approach that not only helps with building a fictional world but is vital for creating a realistic and immersive world system. (For more on what Anthropology is, check out my YouTube series Anthropology in 10 minutes or Less)
Below are a few reasons an Anthropologist (or at least some anthropology) could augment the quality of your game and the experience of your gamers.
The concept of Holism is a vital component in anthropology and is one of the three elements of Anthropology that make it unique from all other social sciences. Holism is the very real and applicable concept, that culture and identity are an integrated system, and that when you change one thing, it’s going to change everything. Think of the famous chaos theory concept, the Butterfly Effect, that the smallest changes can have a massive and unpredictable ripple effect outward.
What does this mean? Well, your fictional economic system, your family life, your political system, your religion, your ethnic system, your culture’s attitudes towards death, their biology, their environment, the kinds of things that they make, and more, are all deeply interrelated and connected. So when you’re building a fictional world, it’s important to consider these relationships and how they all relate to systems of power, identity, freedom, oppression, and so on. It sounds like a lot doesn’t it? It is. But it’s also why Anthropologists are essentially jacks of all trades. Our job is to understand how these systems operate and change. We look at the big picture of how societies operate as well as how biology and the environment impact us. Ultimately, culture is an adaptation to biological, environmental, and social forces. A holistic approach helps us understand those relationships.
2. More Immersive and Realistic Interactions and Game Changes
Creating a fictional world in game, film, or written form is a massive undertaking, and for gaming and other interactive mediums, considering culture can absolutely make or break a game. It doesn’t mean you have to get worldbuilding perfect, (very few games around have really truly holistic worlds but there are more with each passing year) but, it will also help you to think about the causes, and consequences of the actions of not only the NPC’s but the characters as well. Think about how much more interesting the choices in your games can be for characters if, their actions and choices early game create ongoing cultural changes. Imagine if allying with an NPC early in a game could have real, culture-wide consequences that ripple outward in interesting and meaningful ways (Not just who you get to be friends with later) What would look like? Well, that’s where an anthropologist could come in. We have more then a century of research on what culture changes looks like and how it manifests. For example, when I recently consulted for a major tech company, we talked about how the 1918 pandemic shifted our standards of beauty and made things like tanning popular, and altered our architecture to include more sunlight and open spaces in our buildings in the United States.
3. Anthropologists Are Intercultural Communicators
Our job as anthropologists is not only to study and understand cultural systems but to also act as intercultural communicators. We help different kinds of cultures and subcultures communicate and work together. It’s also why so many tech companies these days hire UX and Design Anthropologists because we understand elements of human behavior that a lot of other people miss. Anthropologists study human behavior and cultural trends and how people experience the world across cultures. So if you want to release an app in India, or China, or Germany, they will necessarily require different cultural considerations. Within a game with diverse populations, towns, and political factions, this becomes vital.
Remember that potential change I was just talking about early game as a potentially major change agent in this hypothetical game world? Your choice of who you align with or interact within the real world can have some hefty political ramifications. Early on in my field research experiences, I learned that not every group, even within a single culture is going to react the same way to change and some may or may not be able to communicate the impact of those changes effectively. One thing you learn really quickly when you go out in the field and work with people and do research is that even the most positive and useful changes you help a culture make will have all kinds of strange and unexpected consequences. Further, no matter what the change, someone is always going to be disenfranchised and will push back against the changes, even if they are beneficial for everyone but themselves. An anthropologist who has been in the field and studied culture for years of their life is going to help you think critically about what those changes will do and how different groups will interact with them.
4. Diversity Is A Strength, Especially if You Want An Immersive Fictional World
There’s a lot of discussions these days about representation and diversity, and rightfully so. The gaming community has been grappling with being more inclusive, not only in the makeup of companies but also in gaming content itself. The reality is, the lack of diversity in your game or film, or writing project is actually just simply, bad writing. The world is diverse and complex, your game should be too. But what do you do if you want to write a game about groups or cultures that are unfamiliar to you? Well first, do some background research at the very least. But ideally, you should reach out and work with different cultures and groups that you are portraying (yes even if they are an analogue… actually, especially if they are an analog). An anthropologist can help mediate these conversations and help all interested parties get around some of the communication traps and internal biases that we all have. Without doing the research, might inadvertently create a stereotypical culture that disenfranchises a real culture and create a headache for your gaming company. Remember, bias is not a comment on your character, it’s just the blind spots in your knowledge and it’s an anthropologist’s job to figure out, how these biases get in the way of communication across cultures.
The more complex and diverse your world is, the more immersive it will feel. You want your gamers to feel like they just stepped into an actual world with diverse characters with different skills, hopes, dreams, and inclinations don’t you? If you understand diversity, this becomes so much easier.
5. Imagination Isn’t Always the Same Across Cultures
There’s a problem with a lot of the fantasy novels. They are all the same. So many just take lifted D&D mechanics or they take place in the same European-based cultures that surround 15th– 17th-century technologies. There are some notable exceptions, but you see in the fantasy fiction world, time and time again, the same recycled tropes and storylines. A lot of gaming RPGs suffer the same fate. They don’t offer anything unique or interesting. Personally, interesting game mechanics just aren’t enough to really capture my attention for the long haul. I need an interesting story and world and characters that I care about. The reason things have become stagnant in a lot of media is that we have limited ourselves to the imagination of just a few cultures and traditions. The world is full of amazing, diverse, and unique perspectives to consider in creating fictional worlds, whether based on something real, or something totally new.
Until relatively recently, creating digital games was really only available in a few cultures around the world. But in the past decade or so, that’s changed. Consider the game Never Alone, also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa in the indigenous language. It’s a unique game that tells a story about the Iñupiaq culture. In fact, the whole game is in the traditional language with English subtitles. My favorite part as an anthropologist? Not only was the game created by indigenous people for indigenous people thus offering a unique experience, but the game offers interviews with Iñupiaq elders that unlock as you complete each level. This gives your gamers a richer experience and helps expand our imaginations and the possibilities of our future as a species. This is important, because as I said in my recent Ted Talk on this topic, what we imagine matters.
6. Anthropology is a Toolkit
All this above by the way is why me and my colleague Kyra Wellstrom decided to sit down and work on a book, just for gamers, fiction writers, and filmmakers that teaches core concepts in Anthropology. The book is called, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers. We wanted to create a quick and easy guide for those who may not be able to hire an anthropologist for consulting on their projects and something that wouldn’t require you to dig through a bunch of textbooks to find answers. The book covers so many of the crucial elements of cultural systems because well, viewing the world from an anthropological viewpoint is a toolkit to better understand the how and why of culture and identity. With well over a century of anthropological research, we have a lot of answers and unique approaches to questions about culture. A little anthropology goes a long way.
Over the years I’ve been creating free resources for creatives to help them think about important questions in their fictional worlds, like cognitive mapping, notions of purity, the purpose of mythology, and more on my website. These resources include podcast episodes, recorded panels at cons, and a host of other tips and things to consider in your projects. I hope all of this helps you to build a better world.
Want to hire an anthropologist to consult on your game? Visit our webpage for more info.