Why Your Narrative Design Team Needs An Anthropologist or at Least Some Anthropology

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.

1. Holism.


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.

17 Things I have learned teaching Cultural Diversity and Anthropology

Want more on Anthropology? Consider checking out our book Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers at Amazon.

This is a bit of a “Rules to live by” post I guess. I have spent the last six years of my life teaching both undergraduate and graduate students anthropology, culture, and diversity. In my classroom I try to make things as practical as possible. We can fill our students heads with theory all day long, but what I try to do is try to give a baseline understanding of how different cultures view the world so that when they encounter other people in work or out traveling the world, they can find a way to understand another person and prevent some of the conflicts and communication traps that we run into.

I find myself repeating a lot of the following over and over and so I thought maybe it would be useful to some of you out there. Of course, you can completely disagree with me (that’s kind of the point here) but these are things that if you apply them, you might be able to understand those difficult people in your life in a new way.

1. There is no glorious past when things were better. That’s a figment of the cultural imagination and based on the ideals we want in the present. There is no period in history, no culture in history that was ever perfection and/or paradise. Fantasies of the past are fun, but they are just projections on the wall in the great cave of our times.

2. Every culture, every religion, every language, is weird. We are all weird, our entire species is weird as hell. The only reason you don’t think your ideas/thoughts/beliefs are weird is because you are used to them.

3. If one group is disenfranchised, that means someone is benefiting. I.E. if Women are payed less, that means Men are paid more and reap the benefits. If people are treated poorly because they have darker skin, that means if you have light skin you benefit (even if it isn’t obvious). That’s what privilege is. It is not an attack on your character, people cannot help what system they were born into, but they can change it.

4. Everything has a cost, everything. Nothing is cost free. Every major world empire was built on, and is maintained by a river of blood. The very fact you live in this country at this time in history means you benefited from war, colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing and all other manner of terrible things. But so has every other great empire. The Romans, the Islamic Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Chinese Dynasties, they all did the exact same thing. So why teach them? Why talk about our mistakes and terror? Because I believe we can choose to be different. The first step is acknowledging that our culture did some fucked up things to other cultures.

5. Communication is really freaking hard. Words are really powerful. Everyone has words and images that they are sensitive to and trigger them (obviously survivors of trauma like many of my friends and myself have to spend a lot of time working through this) Figure out what yours are and watch your reactions. Sometimes just watching and understanding which words hit you hard can be a powerful tool for healing. But do remember, the only thing you can control is you. Life and most the world doesn’t care if you are triggered.

6. People are allowed to change. Something someone did 10 years ago does not necessarily reflect who they are now. Social media has created a distortion of static identity. Digging up ancient photos and tweets is only really useful if people are still exhibiting the same terrible behaviors now as they were then. Most of us go through a long hard process of testing ideas. This is normal and healthy, until you let your ideas take over and make you rigid.

7. Ignorance is not the problem in this world. Everyone is ignorant of something fundamental. Ignorance simply means to not know something. The problem is willful ignorance. When someone presents you with a new idea or a challenge to what you think about the world, take a breath. Let the emotional outrage simmer down and then try to approach it with calm and detachment and weigh all the evidence. Sometimes you might still be correct, and sometimes not. This is an uncomfortable but powerful process.

8. Being socially active, being mindful, being able to give back, boycotting products or getting an advanced education are all a privilege. Not everyone has access to these things. Remember again, that the only thing you can control is you. But also remember that you are powerful and that individuals are capable of making great (and terrible) changes to the world. You cannot force responsibility on other people and you should always remember that people face different barriers in life.

9. Read lots and from a wide variety of perspectives. Try and consider that you might be wrong about everything once in a while. It’s terrifying but sobering. Consider how little knowledge is contained in the entire human experience compared to the vastness of the rest of the universe.

10. Make sure you learn the difference between something that is opinion or cultural options (i.e. Monogamy or Polygamy are the best kinds of marriage) vs something that is objectively and verifiably true (I.e. The Earth is round). While your at it, learn about the scientific method and what good evidence is. Most things on the internet are easy to debunk with a little effort and awareness of your own bias.

11. Take a moment before you blame someone else for your problems or the problems of your culture. Yes, sometimes things are out of your control, structural violence absolutely exists, sometimes crazy random shit happens, and some people are unlucky, but if you keep seeing the same pattern over and over again, you might be a part of the equation. On a cultural level, if we are scapegoating people, who benefits? Blaming other populations for our issues, historically always turns out to be shortsighted.

12. Apathy and greed are deadly and destructive. A society that bases it’s institutions on these things will always have very serious problems. Empathy and generosity go a long way.

13. Listen to people’s stories. Share your own. If you don’t represent yourself, someone else will. Stories are how we save the world.

14. Diversity and difference is one of the most powerful tools in the human experience. Why? Because different people and cultures think about things in different ways. That means that there are many ways to approach complex problems. Sometimes we can’t see how to solve something because we are too close to it (personally or culturally).

15. There is no such thing as a homogeneous culture. People are people everywhere you go. Just because someone has the same language/religion/gender/nationality/income doesn’t mean they have the same inclinations or hopes or dreams. Each one of my children have different hopes and dreams about the future. Why would a group living on the other side of the world be any different? Don’t put people in boxes or make grand assumptions.

16. The is no one size fits all solution to anything. There is no single solution to solve any of the worlds major issues. All of history demonstrates this.

17. You are the bad guy, the evil empire, the oppressor, the asshole in someone’s story. No one in history is perfect. The people we claim as saints were either assholes earlier in life and grew from that or we are missing information. Plenty of people think I am an asshole. Plenty of cultures think Americans are terrible. No one ever thinks they are the asshole and every culture thinks they are they greatest ever.

I could probably think of more, but those are a lot of the things I find myself repeating most often. You, of course, are free to disagree, and of course comment and discuss.

Why Social Media Can Be Such a Dumpster Fire

We have all had the experience right? Someone decides that it’s time to blow up your post about something you feel passionate about, or worse, something that you simply thought was funny. Next thing you know, it’s all out war on your page and you’ve spent 4 hours of your life you never get back, leaving you to feel emotionally and physically exhausted, if not in a terrible mood. 

But why does this happen? There are lots of articles that talk about confirmation bias and that people are more divided than ever before or how hard we cling to certain ideas, and so on… 

But after teaching a college course specifically on diversity in the modern world, I have come to discover a few things when having in class discussions about social media. Now I may not be the first to notice these things, but I think there are at least three major problems (feel free to comment if you see an additional one) that we face when communicating online that we should consider.

1.People have different intentions for the internet 

This one, in particular, was really hard for me. As a person who loves books and learning and the spirit of debate, I view the internet as a space to discuss important issues and try to learn from and understand people who are different than me in both philosophy and culture. 

For years I loathed it when people shared cat videos or jokes or posted memes. I would grumble to myself about “what a waste of an amazing opportunity” and yes, sometimes I would comment just to be a jerk. Or, someone would post something that was clearly misinformed and I would go on the attack, because, of course, I must. How else would they‘learn.’ 

Do you know what I learned from thinking and behaving that way? I was completely and totally wrong. Also, people think your an asshole and it’s counterproductive to any useful thing you might say. 

People use the internet for a host of reasons. It may be to share news, or keep up with family, or post information about their baby or their cat, or perhaps they like to joke or are looking to relieve stress after a hard day at work. Maybe they are promoting their new book, or using as a space to promote their business. Some people are looking to build awareness around particular issues and provide a space for discussion. I have to tell myself all the time that for some, critical debate is the absolute last thing they want to engage in at the end of their day (or the beginning). 

There is also another side of this. Some people use the internet because they want to troll and bully others. Their idea of humor is to harass and bully and get cheap laughs at the expense of others. So we have this group into the mix aswell, which further complicates things. A few weeks ago, when discussing this exact topic in a class, one student raised their hand and said, “But don’t you think it’s funny to write a bot program to troll people and have them waste all their time arguing with a mindless bot?” My response was, ‘well, I suppose that’s one way to engage online.’ But in reality, I think that is hugely problematic for a number of reasons, but I won’t get into that here. 

The point is, when you are on social media, it is hard to remember that people’s intentions and use of the social space vary greatly. We are not all on the same page, and so this alone creates conflict, confusion, and misunderstanding. 

2. There is no paralanguage, and so we put things on other people that might not be there. 

Paralanguage is the components of speech that help us to understand the meaning. It includes pitch, tone, speed, gestures, and facial expressions. It’s how we understand if the following phrase, “That’s so amazing.” is a sincere expression or a sarcastic one. 

We don’t have that in written speech. Grammar helps, and a good writer can create a scenario where you understand the tone and attitudes within dialogue, but even then, stuff can get lost in the translation.  Also, think how hard it is to tell if some people are joking or not. I am told often, that I have a dry sense of humor, and it’s hard to tell if some of my jokes are serious and that’s in person. 

So add this to a forum of total strangers. You don’t know any of these individuals, or you might know a few from previous online interactions. So, someone makes a statement like, ‘That’s so amazing,’ to something you said. But the context of the conversation is such that you could interpret it as either. 

In that situation, what your brain does is make assumptions. If you are in a bad mood, or you have had other bad interactions in this conversation, your brain may frame the statement as an attack or a comment in bad faith, which could launch a series of escalating replies and blow up the whole conversation, even if the person was commenting in good faith. 

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me on both Twitter and Facebook and recently even had to unfriend and block someone who took a comment that I said, as support, in a way where she nuked my page because she understood my comment as something completely different.

It is always always important to get clarification before you lash out at someone online, on social media or in anemail, because a lack of paralanguage will have our brain fill in the gaps. Depending on our history and our current experiences, we may completely misunderstand what the other person is saying. Remember when you assume you make an Ass out of U and Me (I have never stopped loving that play on letters). 

3. When it comes to issues of diversity people are both at different stages of understanding and different states of acceptance 

First of all, before I dive in here, there is a very excellent episode on the Netflix series “Explained” on PoliticalCorrectness that I highly recommend watching. It is a highly complex thing, and there are no easy answers there. The episode talks about the history of the phrase and some of the debates around free speech vs. censorship. But it does not provide you any clear answers, and that, in this case, is a good thing, because there are none. 

The internet is constantly alight with debates of diversity and inclusion. Regardless of how you feel about these conversations, they are, for the most part, productive and useful to ensure that people who are sincerely facing injustice and oppression, are opening other’s eyes to their experience. 

The problem with these conversations is multi-leveled. And when I say problem, what I mean is, why they are so combative and tense. These are important conversations. This is how society changes into something better. 

I will illustrate this with my own experience. I am a white guy, as white as you get. All my ancestors are white as the snow in the northern countries from which they originate. I am a Cis, I am straight, and I grew up in an all-white community. For the first 12 years of my life, before I moved to Colorado, I grew up on the east coast in Philadelphia, in what was possibly the whitest community you can imagine. Segregation in Philadelphia (and many North East Cities) is a real problem (See this for more). So, when I moved to Colorado at twelve years of age, I was shocked to discover there were still Native Americans alive. I had been taught, by omission mostly, that all Native Americans had died out years before I was born. 

Let that sink in for a moment. 

I could go in more detail, as to the various kinds of ignorance I had going into college, (middle school and high school was also an all-white experience)because, for me, college was terrifying. Everything I thought I knew was challenged. It was a kick in the gut, it was uncomfortable, but it was a good thing. Why? Because there are a near infinite ways of experiencing the world, and I had made endless assumptions that really, the world was simple, orderly, and experience was mostly universal. 

 I was, legitimately ignorant of so much of the rest of the world. And that’s a real thing. There are a lot of people out there like that. Even ones like myself, who became an anthropologist, who lived and worked with other cultures, took a long time to challenge all those deeply planted ideas. And I am a person, who is willing and open to learning and accepting that I might be wrong on things. The reality is, some people aren’t willing to learn. Some people are, what we call, willfully ignorant. In other words, no matter what you say, no matter how well you craft an argument, you aren’t going to change their opinion on something, even if you have all the data and truth on your side. 

Remember too, we are all ignorant of something, we all have sizable holes in your knowledge and experience. This is based on your gender, race, class, religion, family, language, etc. You cannot know everything, and it is not reasonable to expect someone, who grew up in vastly different circumstances to intuitively understand something you do. If you have never seen poverty for example, how can you understand what it’s like to live that way for your whole life? You can, but it’s no easy task, and you have to think critically about it. 

So, when discussing online, the first thing you have to figure out is, which kind of ignorant do you have? Do you have a person who is willfully ignorant? Or is this a person who simply lacks exposure? That does make a difference, and it is a big mistake to treat both kinds of people to ad-hominem attacks because both of those individuals have entirely different intentions when discussing. 

This comes to the next point, which is, even people who are willing to listen and learn, they can’t do it all at once. Keep in mind, that by the time you are an adult, your brain has been programmed to think in a certain way for at least eighteen years of life. Neurologically speaking, you simply cannot dismiss ideas overnight, unless you have a massive brain trauma that changes your brain chemistry drastically. 

Using myself again as an example, when I first discovered the Implicit Bias test, (the test that measures our subconscious assumptions about things like race and gender) I thought, of course, I would receive the coveted neutral result. Because I didn’t hate anyone or any group right? At age 23, when I took this test and got “A Strong Bias Toward Individuals of European descent,” I was shocked. But, this is entirely explained by the background I grew up in, which I already explained. After that, I went out into the world and studied anthropology. I learned about other cultures, worked with them, and lived with them. After a few years, I remember that test. Took it again, and got “A Moderate Bias Towards Individuals of European Descent.” It wasn’t until after graduate school, that I finally got a Neutral result. 

The point? If you are online, you cannot reasonably expect people to understand an issue overnight. You are fighting against years and years of programming and often, lack of quality education. People need time and space to digest things, to shift gears in their thinking. Acceptance of a new idea, rarely happens overnight and the older you are, the longer it takes because there is more social programming. 

Does that mean you don’t hold people accountable for saying or posting really awful things? Of course not. But remember what you are fighting against. Remember, that you may not win that discussion, but also, other people are reading and watching even if they aren’t interacting, so it’s still worth having those discussions if you have the intention and inclination to do so. 

To Sum Up

The internet can be the most amazing place for building ideas and spreading important social critique and creating a space for inclusion. But it can also be a messy imperfect mess that allows for long-established ideas, to persist and spread. We have seen some pretty terrible events in the last few years, like what happened in Charlottesville or a number other instances of social media being used to spread all kinds of nastiness. 

But, if you want to avoid dumpster fires on your social media, keeping some of the above things in mind, may help. In reality, though, it’s not possible to avoid problems, because well, people are messy creatures, and any social space is fraught with controversy and difficulty. But I hope this lengthy piece was useful to the few of you who got all the way to the end. I wrote it, because I believe, that we can do better. 

Note: Sometimes I have friends read my blog posts before I post them to get feedback.


This time around, a friend recommended this amazing Ted Talk titled “A Black Man Goes Undercover in the Alt-Right” I highly recommend as he covers a chunk of what this blog talks about long before I ever even considered it.