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Cultural appropriation in games entails the taking of knowledge, artifacts or expression from a culture and recontextualizing it within game structures. While cultural appropriation is a pervasive practice in games, little attention has been given to the ethical issues that emerge from such practices with regards to how culture is portrayed. This paper problematizes cultural appropriation in the context of a serious game for children inspired by Día de los Muertos, a Mexican festival focused on remembrance of the dead. Taking a research through design approach, we demonstrate that recontextualised cultural elements can retain their basic, original meaning. However, we also find that cultural appropriation is inevitable and its ethical implications can be far reaching. In our context, ethical concerns arose as a result of children's beliefs that death affects prominent others and their destructive ways of coping with death. We argue that revealing emergent ethical concerns is imperative before deciding how and in what way to encourage culturally authentic narratives.
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Problematizing Cultural Appropriation
Asimina Vasalou1, Rilla Khaled2, Daniel Gooch1 and Laura Benton1
1 London Knowledge Lab
Institute of Education
{a.vasalou, d.gooch, l.benton}
2 Institute of Digital Games
University of Malta
Cultural appropriation in games entails the taking of
knowledge, artifacts or expression from a culture and
recontextualizing it within game structures. While cultural
appropriation is a pervasive practice in games, little
attention has been given to the ethical issues that emerge
from such practices with regards to how culture is
portrayed. This paper problematizes cultural appropriation
in the context of a serious game for children inspired by Día
de los Muertos, a Mexican festival focused on
remembrance of the dead. Taking a research through design
approach, we demonstrate that recontextualised cultural
elements can retain their basic, original meaning. However,
we also find that cultural appropriation is inevitable and its
ethical implications can be far reaching. In our context,
ethical concerns arose as a result of children’s beliefs that
death affects prominent others and their destructive ways of
coping with death. We argue that revealing emergent
ethical concerns is imperative before deciding how and in
what way to encourage culturally authentic narratives.
Author Keywords
cultural appropriation; game narrative; research through
design; serious games; death; children
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI):
Games can create new and unfamiliar experiences that
extend players’ knowledge and challenge their beliefs.
While this is considered to be a strength of games, it also
introduces challenges. In the case of games that convey new
cultural knowledge and representations, game designers
must be cognizant that their choices offer a lens through
which a particular culture may be viewed in the future,
influencing the public’s attitudes and behaviors toward the
culture being portrayed [8].
Cultural appropriation is “the taking from a culture that is
not one’s own of intellectual property, cultural
expressions or artefacts, history and ways of knowledge”
[21]. Cultural appropriation occurs when game designers
decontextualize cultural history, expressions or artifacts that
belong to a culture that is not their own, in turn
recontextualizing them into game structures. Even though
culturally-sensitive game designers might seek to formalize
cultural elements within game structures such that cultural
authenticity is retained, control over the experiential nature
of a game narrative is rarely possible [4]. Both formal and
experiential aspects of narrative foster the construction of
cultural knowledge that may be offensive to the original
culture. Therefore, we argue that in taking social
responsibility seriously, designers must strive to understand
how games encourage cultural interpretations toward
capturing and responding to emergent ethical concerns.
The aim of this paper is to problematize cultural
appropriation in the context of a serious game whose goal is
to teach literacy skills to children with dyslexia. Our game
world is inspired by Día de los Muertos, a Mexican festival
with origins traceable to the Aztec period, that is focused on
celebrating and remembering the dead. This game design
context introduced two particular challenges in relation to
retaining cultural authenticity: first, the nature of our game
prioritized learning literacy aspects, over the cultural
richness of the narrative; second, our players were children
whose cognition on death is already shaped by their
development and local culture. In acknowledging how the
particularities of our context might shape cultural
interpretations, we adopted a research through design
approach to understand how cultural appropriation and
cultural authenticity co-exist and are experienced by
children. This research does not aim to reduce cultural
appropriation in all its complexity to a set of definitive
game design recommendations. Rather, it attempts to foster
a better understanding of cultural appropriation and the
considerations it raises in the context of game design and in
light of design methods involving cultural outsiders.
The contributions of our research are the following: First,
we show that recontextualised cultural elements can be
interpreted in culturally authentic terms if they convey core
values through symbolic rituals and interactions. This helps
to inform design strategies that may promote cultural
authenticity in the context of games. Second, we show that
cultural appropriation is hard to avoid, especially when the
cultural rituals refer to concepts of universal concern, as
was the case with our game. Our findings highlighted the
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importance of understanding cultural appropriation as the
interpretive product of children’s development and local
culture. Third, we find that striving for cultural authenticity
introduces new design concerns, ranging from the ethical to
the methodological. Even though our research was initially
motivated by ethical responsibilities towards cultures
represented with a view to limit cultural appropriation,
children’s appropriation of the festival raised different
ethical issues and designer responsibilities toward them.
Importantly, some of their interpretations required us to
rethink the consequences and complications of both cultural
authenticity and appropriation.
Culture in Games
Work on culture within the games research community has
most often concerned cultural representations. For the last
decade, researchers have pointed out the lack of cultural
diversity present, and the over-representation of white, male
characters. For example, Williams et al. write that “the
world of game characters is highly unrepresentative of the
actual population and even of game players [25].
Furthermore, when culturally diverse characters are present
in games, often they present negative or problematic
cultural stereotypes. For example, in considering
representations of black males, after studying 149 games,
Burgess et al. found that all black male characters were
either athletic, violent, or both [2]. With respect to
representations of Native American cultures, Lameman
points out that male characters are frequently portrayed as
vengeful warriors or mystics, and otherwise as generic
warrior types, while female characters are excessively
sexualized and tend to play minor roles [13, 14].
The lack of diversity and stereotypes within games might
be less troubling if games truly were enclosed “magic
circles”, where meaning within a game was separate from
meaning outside of it. Various scholars have refuted this
notion, however [3, 7]. Indeed, serious games in particular
are premised on evidence that games encourage meaning
making, foster knowledge and develop transversal skills
that are transferable beyond the game [6]. In reflecting on
what this means for cultural representations, Leonard
argues that games serve as a form of tourism, allowing us to
“try on other bodies and experiences so that players can
“indulge in the other” [16]. Nakamura suggests that due to
heavy stereotyping, identity tourism in games is currently
more about supporting experiences that are “entertaining,
nonthreatening, and committed to sustaining racial
hierarchies than it is about being enlightening [17].
Through the process of becoming a game character and
interacting with other stereotyped characters, Deskins posits
that games can serve as a form of reinforcement of
prejudicial, if not racist beliefs [8].
Cultural appropriation, a specific form of cultural
representation, has as yet been largely overlooked by the
games research community. Cultural identity, culture, and
appropriation can all be contextually defined, thus it is
sometimes difficult to tell when cultural appropriation is
taking place [21]. Often, the “taking” also involves a
transformation process, during which the representation,
interpretation, meaning, and context of the cultural
elements can change. In games, cultural appropriation can
be argued as taking place whenever elements of a culture
are decontextualised and recontextualised to fit within a
game’s world, narrative, and mechanics, by designers not
from that culture. The Turok games, for example,
appropriate Native American cultures in the service of
entertainment, representing Native American characters as
warriors who fight with bows, arrows and tomahawks, and
possess connections to spirit worlds and almost alien
tracking and sneaking abilities [11].
This transformation process has been viewed as potentially
problematic, as it can lead to appropriations that are
considered inappropriate and wrong by the members of the
“original” culture [27]. For example, in Native American
cultures, feather headdresses hold special meaning, and the
right to wear them must be earned by the wearer. Yet,
Native American-inspired feather headdresses have
frequently been appropriated by members of other cultures
as fashion accessories and costumes [19]. Often, the culture
that has been taken from also constitutes a minority culture.
Due to a lack of knowledge, members of the majority
culture who experience the recontextualised cultural
elements may have little idea of the “original” meanings
associated with them. Thus, we should not expect majority
culture members to easily identify instances of cultural
appropriation. But as Eglash et al. point out in the context
of ethnocomputing, cultural appropriation is not always
negative, potentially supporting empowerment and two-way
cultural shifts in both people and technology [9]. The
different perspectives on cultural appropriation highlight
the important role of the designer in considering the
benefits and ethics of cultural appropriation in games, in
order to proceed accordingly.
Strategies for Conveying Cultural Characteristics
In turning our attention to practical design strategies related
to how culture is portrayed in games, given the globalized
nature of the games industry, many games undergo a
process of localization prior to local distribution.
“Localisersend up mediating our knowledge of the world,
and “filter the images and narratives that are sold and
marketed to global consumers [5]. This localization can
range from modification for clarity e.g. changing user
interface metaphors to ones that are culturally familiar to
modification for cultural appropriateness e.g. making
nude characters clothed. Carlson and Corliss present two
strategies that localizers use: domesticating, in which they
swap details deemed too culturally specific to another
culture for culturally familiar ones, and foreignizing, in
which they seek to retain the cultural and historical
provenance of the source text [5].
Both techniques come with disadvantages: domesticating
potentially runs the risk of cultural appropriation and
sacrificing the character of the original text, while
foreignizing potentially runs the risk of culturally alienating
players, exoticising and drawing undue attention to details
which, in the original text might have been mundane. A
third technique commonly used by Japanese game
developers might be described as ambiguifying. This
technique embraces mukokuseki or statelessness as a design
strategy, in which characters have ambiguous racial and
cultural backgrounds (for example, having blue hair), in
order to appeal to the broadest market possible [5].
In general, cultural representations in games currently leave
much to be desired. Especially in the context of serious
games, where the intention is for players to reflect on game
experiences and for learning transfer to occur, we should
approach the representation of different cultures
thoughtfully. In light of the global games industry and other
forms of transcultural exchange, cultural appropriation in
games is an additional phenomenon of which we should be
cognizant, facing many of the same difficulties as cultural
representations in games, as well as additional ethical issues
concerning the recontextualisation of cultural elements for
use in games. Domesticating and foreignizing are two
approaches that have been used in game localization for
addressing cultural elements, but both have their
weaknesses. Adopting blanket rules to not represent
elements of other cultures is not an ideal solution either.
Amongst other reasons, it hugely limits people’s exposure
to other cultures, and cultural ownership is frequently not a
cut-and-dried affair. Clearly, there is a need for designers to
consciously reflect on how to represent culture in games
respectfully, while taking into account the characteristics of
their players to avoid alienation. The present work focuses
on and problematizes cultural appropriation in the context
of the design of a serious game for literacy featuring a
Mexican festival celebrating death. It has a particular focus
on children’s meaning making processes, and the issues that
arise from deeply considering player participation in design.
The objective of the game we are designing is to strengthen
the literacy skills of players. Our target audience concerns
late primary school aged children (ages 9-11) who live in
England with reading difficulties, many of whom find
reading to be a demotivating activity. Previous research
shows that best practice teaching for dyslexia involves
‘explicit phonics teaching’, which is often performed
through multisensory drill and practice activities [20]. Part
of our design challenge therefore became to present
versions of these activities within a motivating frame. In
particular, we sought to pique enough interest in players
such that they would return to the activities repeatedly, with
the game featuring no set ending point. We wished to
situate the game within a world that was both familiar and
unfamiliar, in which the player’s role would be a heroic one
involving language decoding, and the other characters
would be reliant on the player. Having decided to
foreground maintenance of friendships with characters as a
means of encouraging replaying of activities, we also
needed a world that would feature a multitude of interesting
We eventually chose a world inspired by Dia de los
Muertos, or the Day of the Dead (DotD). The core message
of DotD, a two-day festival that is observed in Mexico and
other central American cultures, is of remembrance and
acceptance of death, with death being viewed as a
continuation of life [1]. On these days, friends and family
gather to celebrate the lives of the departed. The living
build shrines for their loved ones. They honor the dead by
giving offerings to them such as sugar skulls, marigold
flowers, traditional foods and beverages, by praying for
them, and by writing and performing humorous poems and
songs about them. It is believed that over those days, the
souls of the dead awake to visit the living. DotD is
associated with a particular aesthetic, characterized by
bright colours and cheerful, playful representations of the
dead as skeletons. We initially became interested in DotD
because of its aesthetics. On further exploration of what the
festival signified, particularly, reflecting on the central role
of communication in DotD, we decided to draw on it to
inform our game world as it could be interpreted as aligning
with the pedagogical goals of our game.
A guiding value of our work was to maintain the cultural
authenticity of DotD in the game world. However, in
designing a culturally faithful account of the festival, we
faced challenges. One such challenge arose from the
primary purpose of our game, which was to strengthen
literacy. The world setting played a secondary role of
support in motivating learners to continue playing the
game. This meant that as designers we could not privilege a
rich cultural exploration of the DotD. Such narrative
constraints are inherent to serious games. Socialdrome, for
example, aimed at developing children’s social skills
acquired in a fictional island called Cascara. While the
island provided the context for numerous learning activities,
its role was to motivate the learning goal of the game [23].
Thus, our first research question was: can cultural
authenticity in game design be maintained by presenting
children with a narrow perspective of the festival that
retains its core message and rituals?
A second challenge emerged from the fact that neither we,
nor our target players, are Mexican, and concerned the
meanings, interpretations, and practices surrounding death
in the cultural context of childhood in the UK. While
cultural appropriation debates have focused on ownership
of particular cultural artefacts or knowledge, death affects
everyone and is not tied to any specific culture; indeed
every culture interprets death in its own ways.
Previous research provides some insight into children’s
cognitive and cultural understanding of death. Children
understand the natural causes of death by middle childhood
[10, 15, 22]. This understanding is in part mediated by the
media’s persistency in reporting death. Challenging a
sociological claim that death has become a private matter,
Walter et al. argue that death is at the centre of public life,
with the British media ‘trespassing’ into the family realm
on a daily basis [24]. They argue that the media privilege
the reporting of the deaths of public members of society, or
deaths that have occurred under extraordinary
circumstances. Their analysis also demonstrates the media’s
fascination with the feelings, emotions and grief associated
with death, which they call ‘emotion invigilation’. As
children’s understanding of the natural causes of death
evolve, supernatural explanations also begin to develop;
such explanations go beyond what can be explained by
natural laws. In a meta-review of relevant empirical work,
Woolley and Ghossainy show that despite the common
belief that children display credulity, compared to adults,
children are less supernatural in the way they conceive of
death [26]. Even though children and adults both agree that
biological functions cease upon death, adults tend to
propose that cognitive processes continue beyond death.
Crucially, culture plays a central role in this belief shift.
Testimonials from loved ones, such as parents and teachers,
foster children’s belief in the supernatural [10] with
supernatural explanations of death increasing with
children’s age [15].
The research described above thus claims that children
already have understandings of death, which are strongly
culturally situated. In exploring how to approach cultural
appropriation in the game design process, it was important
to examine to what extent children contributing to the
design would seek to appropriate DotD to make it more
familiar to their ways of understanding, despite designers
best efforts to maintain cultural authenticity. Our second
research question was: will the festival mediate children’s
understanding of death and how?
To address these questions, we adopted a research through
design approach undertaken through a participatory,
constructivist game design method described below.
We undertook two design workshops with two classes (year
five and six) at a single mainstream primary school in
south-east London. The school is located in a socially and
ethnically diverse area with a higher than average
proportion of students whose first language is not English.
The children were all within our target age group (ages 9-
11). A total of 37 children participated (20 boys and 17
girls), with 22 children within the year five class (aged 9-
10) and 15 children within the year six class (aged 10-11).
The children were divided into groups of four or five, with
a total of five groups in the year five class and four groups
in the year six class.
Materials and Procedure
Each workshop lasted for about one hour and was
facilitated by three to four researchers. The children’s class
teacher was also present throughout the session. We based
the workshop on a constructivist approach. Through
children’s development of stories, we explored their
cultural beliefs, understanding and experiences of death.
The workshop involved three related phases. The activity
structure within each phase, along with adult facilitation
when necessary, provided scaffolding for children’s
development of stories. The activities were designed to
encourage the children to actively construct stories in
collaboration with their peers and imbue them with their
own meanings. Moreover, to ensure that children’s stories
aligned with game structures, workshop activities required
an incremental building up of a game system, as recently
proposed by Khaled and Vasalou [12]. For instance,
children designed game characters before they went on to
design events that took place between these characters.
Importantly, we chose to retain the festival’s cultural
authenticity by highlighting the core values it expressed
(indicated in small caps within the text), ensuring in turn
that these values were an intrinsic and central part of the
activities. To derive the values, prior to the workshop, the
authors conducted research on the festival. After each
researcher had read numerous secondary sources, namely
online articles written about the festival, they convened to
discuss their understanding of the festival and to define a
first core set of values. These values were later verified in
discussion with two cultural insiders who served as
informants to our method. Thus, workshop prompts and
activities were based on this preliminary research aiming at
building a design method that reflected the cultural
authenticity of the festival.
Presentation of design context: we explained to the class
that we were designing a game based on the DotD festival,
and that we welcomed their ideas for game characters and
stories. First, we highlighted the purpose of the festival in
celebrating the lives of those who have died, exemplifying
the UNIVERSALITY of death to all humans and living
organisms. We then showed the students a 3-minute
animated film of a young girl’s experience of the festival1.
The film had been created by art and design students and
had received a Student Academy Award. It started with the
girl’s visit to her mother’s grave on the DotD. As tears
flowed down her face, she was drawn by a sudden force
into the world of the dead. Even though she was initially
afraid, the girl slowly joined the festivities dancing with one
skeletal figurine in particular, whom she recognized as her
mother. As mother and daughter held each other with love,
the girl found herself back at the grave site. The story ended
as the girl skipped with joy away from the graveyard. The
video encapsulated the festival’s core message of
REMEMBRANCE and ACCEPTANCE. It also served as an
introduction to the aesthetic style of the DotD. Next, one
researcher told a 5-minute story about a girl and her dead
dog using a PowerPoint deck featuring photos of Mexican
DotD festivities to support the storytelling process. This
story was built upon our research on the festival and was
purposefully designed to introduce children to values,
customs and traditions for honoring and calling on the dead,
including customary foods, marigold flowers, poetry
written for the dead and dedicated shrines. These customs
expressed the INTIMACY fostered on the day between the
dead and the living.
Development of characters: we then asked the children to
create their own characters in groups for a story about this
festival featuring one living, and one dead character. Each
group was provided with paper templates for each
character, which they could fill in with details such as their
hobbies/interests, job, and relationship to the other
character. Example templates based on the story told to the
children at the start of the workshop were displayed on an
interactive whiteboard as a prompt for groups who were
struggling with ideas. Once the children had agreed on their
two characters, they were provided with modeling clay as
well as a selection of other art materials including paper,
beads, and other accessories. Using these materials, they
built or drew each of their characters.
Narrative construction: we invited children to create a story
about their characters. In supporting the children in
developing stories that described relationships and
communication between characters, they were asked to
consider the following questions: Why does one of your
characters want to contact the other character? How do
they contact them? What are they saying? How does the
story end? Through this narrative, children were able to
explore all three emotive and cognitive components
fostered by the festival: INTIMACY, REMEMBRANCE and
ACCEPTANCE. Each group was provided with a blank paper
storyboard on which they could document their ideas for
their story. Lastly, each group was given a Flip video
camera and asked to capture their story on it. This activity
required children to integrate all of the ideas they had
developed into a cohesive narrative.
To summarize, our method closely defined some parts of
the narrative with a view to promote cultural authenticity,
while other parts were left ambiguous and open, such as for
example character roles. We intentionally included this
underspecificity in order to invite, capture, and understand
children’s cultural interpretations of DotD values, and their
proposals for suitable game design elements.
Where possible during the workshop, researchers took
written notes about events taking place, and took photos.
Post-workshop, the notes were compiled into full written
accounts of what happened within each group, and the
videos recorded by the children were transcribed. The notes
and transcripts were transferred to an online qualitative
analysis tool and were analyzed according to thematic
analysis drawing out key themes in conjunction with the
photos, videos, character profiles, drawings, models and
storyboards produced during the workshop.
Aesthetics of Death
Children connected the concept of death to characters and
physical properties of the world to create playful
combinations. Using the aesthetics of the festival as a point
of departure, dead characters were often designed as
skeletons putting to use the modeling clay we had provided.
Children proposed a ‘skeleton orchestra’. They envisioned
the ‘dead playing football with their skulls’. All of them
perceived the world of the dead as a place of both decay
and mystery, with little light, homes made out of bones, and
moldy food. Children were fascinated by the strangeness in
the world’s decay as they envisioned it.
Aesthetic and creative choices were also prompted by
opportunities suggested by the arts materials made
available. One team first identified a shiny heart icon in
their arts packet before deciding to attach it on their living
character’s body to express love for her dead dog. Overall,
it appeared that children’s engagement was sustained
through the constructivist approach taken where aesthetic
Figure 1: Clay models of dead and living characters
expression and meaning making was encouraged. Figure 1
displays several clay models that children made.
Actors, Causes and Interpretations of Death
In most of the stories developed, children depicted dead
characters to occupy an important status in the world of the
dead. For instance, a dead dog acted as protector of dead
inhabitants and their animals. Status was also acquired
during the transition to the world of the dead. A character
who used to be a schoolgirl in life became a doctor upon
entering the world of the dead. Another group of children
created a story between an uncle, Pedro, and his niece,
Pearly. Upon meeting in the world of the dead, an evil
leader, Zorgon, arrived and told them that Pearly was not
allowed to leave. Pearly defended her uncle and defeated
the leader, leaving Pedro as king of the world of the dead.
Figure 2: Pedro, the king of the world of the dead
Children made sense of death through both natural and
supernatural explanations. Those who focused on the
natural cessation of biological functions tended to
sensationalise and dramatize death through gruesome
details. One team described the killing of a living character,
while enacting it by disassembling the physical props: ‘A
car came out and hit Johnny. Blood poured and her heart
fell out and then her body was split in half. She got buried
in her grave piece by piece.’ In a similar fashion, another
team described a fight erupting between two characters in
the world of the dead: ‘She takes Pedro’s gun, shoots
Zorgon in the eye sockets and bones start falling out of
them. She then punches Zorgon’s skull off and kicks it
away’. While natural causes of death emerged in children’s
stories, many children made reference to supernatural
causes that did not adhere to natural laws. Some discussed
the continuation of life after death. Drawing on their own
religious ideologies, they compared the world of the dead
with heaven. Moreover, dead characters were envisioned to
continue praying and thinking of their loved ones,
suggesting a continuing bond between the dead and the
living. One team designed a Facebook application called
Ghostbook’ that was proposed to sustain this
communication. Highlighting the importance of the
supernatural, another team discussed the role of fate in
dying: they talked about a living pirate who had travelled
the world and taken many risks only to die at the same spot
as his grandfather.
Figure 3: A ‘Ghostbookmessage sent by a dead to a living
As Walter et al. caution, children in England are exposed
daily to media portrayals of death that privilege and
sensationalise both the deaths of public figures as well as
extraordinary causes of death [24]. Indeed, the influence of
culture was evident in children’s construction of stories.
Moreover, we note that violence and status in relation to
death are frequent tropes in the context of games. Game
heroines are comparable to public figures as they almost
always occupy an important status in game narratives.
Additionally, coping with violence in games is perceived to
be a rite of passage by younger children, with in-game
violence seen as unrealistic compared to their real world
experiences [18]. The perceived lack of realism associated
with games could have thus served to foster the violent
accounts of death that children provided. Turning our focus
to the supernatural, our participants belonged to an age
group that has begun to incorporate religious beliefs into
their reasoning processes. Even though the exploration of
the supernatural was encouraged through the festival and its
rituals, children interpreted the supernatural from the lens
of their own religious and fatalistic perspectives.
Cultural Rituals as an Entry Point for Exploring the
As noted above, the workshops explicitly invited children
to consider supernatural elements through the lens of
Mexican cultural rituals for communicating with the dead
(e.g. marigold flowers). As mentioned earlier, researchers
provided an example story for inspiration that described a
living child being drawn into the world of the dead as she
stood over her mother’s grave. Although “novel” ideas did
feature in the children’s stories, when designing the initial
communication act between the living and the dead, most
children relied on the cultural rituals we had provided.
Communication often began at a three-tier shrine, it was
encouraged by marigold flower petals and through placing
customary food at graveyards. Similarly children mimicked
the example given by researchers as inspiration with most
of them describing a sudden force pulling the living
character into the world of the dead.
Figure 4: A young girl leaves marigold flowers at the site of
her dog’s grave
Only two teams provided new ideas for character
communication. The first team of children described a dead
father who used to be barrister. The father appeared in his
son’s bedroom with a special mist flowing into his wig. The
second team described the importance of mutual gaze
between a dead father and his living daughter. The
characters acknowledged each other’s presence only when
simultaneously looking into a body of water. In interpreting
these findings, we recognize that the DotD served as a
novel and legitimizing cultural lens from which children
could explore the supernatural. In light of the cultural
unfamiliarity of the concept of directly communicating with
the dead, they drew on Mexican cultural rituals and
practices to establish their stories. To continue the stories,
they then moved to more culturally familiar tropes and
practices, shedding light on their own culturally-relevant
explanations and meaning making processes.
Emotions and Death
Children’s narratives described a series of emotionally
charged events whose sequence was directed by the
narrative structure we had guided them to follow through
the storyboarding activity. Most stories began by expressing
the living’s state of longing, sadness and nostalgia for the
dead. Stories went on to describe the moment where the
dead and the living met again. Living characters typically
experienced fear and shock when first facing their loved
one. After fear subsided, children proposed interactions in
which characters expressed their love for each other and
shared meaningful moments. Upon the living’s exit of the
world of the dead, they talked about growing acceptance
and peace with death. This composure was often
maintained through yearly meetings between characters at
the time of the festival. One team for example narrated a
story between a father and a daughter who both shared a
love for swimming: ‘Well Philip died when he went to the
Olympic stadium. He had a competition and accidentally
drowned. His daughter (Elizabeth) tried to save him, dived
in but it was too late and the daughter was very, very sad…
Ok, they communicate by Elizabeth saying a poem to her
father and… She goes underground and gets grabbed by a
hand, a bone hand, she screams but then her father shows
her his swimming move and they are both happy and when
they hug each other, the daughter is back saying her poem’.
Most notably these emotional narratives aligned with the
festival’s message of celebrating and accepting death.
Figure 5: A living and a dead sister communicate through a
While the majority of stories started with emotions of
sadness, which progressed into acceptance and relief, two
teams constructed this emotional journey in different terms.
The first focused on the living character’s revenge and
anger about the death of her friend who had been killed in a
road accident: ‘Lucy stamped on the car, and crushed it and
was very angry with the driver. She ended up putting the
driver in the hospital and ended in prison behind bars’. This
group of children went on to describe the meeting between
the dead and the living character, after which the living
made sure that cars could harm no child by casually killing
other drivers she encountered. In contrast, the second team
emphasized the living character’s feelings of guilt and the
external pressures imposed on the bereaved in suppressing
their emotions. Upon hearing of the death of his father, a
young child Lucas thought ‘it is not my fault’. After asking
‘when is he going to be back?’, Lucas was told that his
father is never coming back. He was so upset that he began
to jump on his bed and broke it. His mother said in disdain:
‘why are you jumping on the bed like that? You just broke
the bed. That’s £150. Learn to be a good boy, a good boy..
now you’re going to sleep on a broken bed’. These two
groups of children deviated from exploring the festival’s
message and expressed responses to death that could be
viewed as problematic if not further discussed: the first
game character expressed revenge, while the second was
punished for showing grief in his own way.
In summary, our workshops revealed how children interpret
death in the cultural context of our game concept. Their
characters and stories embodied the tension between strict
cultural authenticity in games and involving cultural
outsiders as game design participants. We used their
interpretations to reflect on the role of the game as a
‘cultural artifact’ that encourages certain ways of thinking
about death through its narrative and interactive values. We
explore their design implications next alongside how they
advanced our understanding of cultural appropriation.
Co-Existence of Cultural Authenticity and Appropriation
When the children were asked to engage with new
perspectives on the supernatural, they drew on cultural
knowledge that the researchers had given them. We found
that children could not easily conceive how the dead and
the living communicate. Lacking their own points of
reference, they strongly relied on the cultural rituals and
customs of the DotD for proposing how this could happen.
Our findings echoed one of the concerns associated with
foreignizing as a localization approach, namely, that it led
to the exoticizing of particular details [5]. In our case, those
details concerned being pulled into the world of the dead,
which encapsulates only a small part of the DotD. At the
same time, we did not find much evidence that the other
significant disadvantage of foreignizing, cultural alienation,
was taking place. While children heavily relied on our
descriptions of DotD rituals, they simultaneously utilized
the rituals as a vantage point for understanding the meaning
of the festival. Indeed, the festival’s emphasis on
remembrance, intimacy and acceptance were understood
and enacted by most of the teams. In directing children’s
construction of stories by providing the purpose and
outcomes of the festival, we were able to maintain some
cultural authenticity. In drawing this conclusion, however,
it is important to recognize that the workshops were run
with participants from an ethnically diverse school.
Children’s pre-existing exposure to cultural diversity might
help to explain why they were open to exploring the rituals
and narratives of other cultures. Nevertheless, in line with
our first research question, our findings are encouraging for
games such as our own where narrative exploration is not
an end, but serves as a means for motivating another
primary objective. We thus argue that game narrative can
communicate cultural authenticity as long as it retains
components that exemplify its core cultural values.
At the same time, establishing cultural authenticity was not
a straightforward process. Despite our efforts to direct them
toward culturally authentic stories, children appropriated
the festival and imbued it with their own meanings.
Leonard writes of games enabling people to try on other
bodies and experiences” and to “indulge in the other” [16].
Conversely, we observed that children sought to make the
experiences more familiar. Certain elements and narratives
associated with the DotD festival had resonance with them,
including relationships between characters, responses to
death and causes of death. In those cases, children tended to
construct stories in the context of their own cultural, social,
and religious background and experiences. To give one
example, children engaged in what Walter et al. call
emotion invigilation where they elaborated and dramatized
the emotions of the deceased [24]. Therefore, while cultural
authenticity was retained and benefited children in
understanding death in different terms, children also
naturally gravitated towards cultural appropriation. As
Calleja argues, game narrative is not only formalized by the
designer, but also interpreted, reshaped and experienced by
the player [4]. In the special case of cultural representations
of death, given the universality of death as a phenomenon,
it may be argued that appropriation is not only inevitable
but also imperative if children are to make sense of death
and bereavement. With respect to our second research
question, our findings demonstrated that children’s cultural
understanding of death played a determining role in shaping
their understanding of the festival.
Ethics of Cultural Appropriation
Observing children’s cultural appropriation of the festival
raised several ethical questions. While children of the age
group involved have been shown to understand both natural
and supernatural aspects of death, our findings question the
extent to which they have accepted death. DotD addresses
the universality of death to all human beings and living
organisms. In contrast to this view, our participants
explicitly avoided describing death as an event that touches
all people: those living in the world of the dead were mostly
assumed to be people of status. One explanation advanced
earlier was that children might be mimicking the way that
death is portrayed culturally in the media [24] or in relation
to game protagonists. However, it is also likely that they
believe death is not of relevance to them, or a distant event,
a finding that has been shown in previous empirical
research [22]. In maintaining the cultural authenticity of
DotD, our game would need to promote a universal view on
death, potentially demanding children to confront their own
mortality and that of close others, thereby facilitating a
change in cognition.
Additionally, DotD foregrounds closure as a means of
accepting and coping with death. Some children departed
from this perspective on coping to experiment with
different ways of thinking and acting. They described
counterproductive and detrimental ways of coping with
death, including revenge and the suppression of emotions,
thus missing the message of emotional acceptance mediated
through the festival. Exposing such ways of coping might
help children explore when, how and if to regulate emotions
during grief [24]. However, neither the workshop, nor our
initial game concept, included provisions to encourage
reflection on these kinds of interpretations of death. Finally,
while participating children had not suffered bereavement,
grieving children will undoubtedly understand the game in
different terms raising further ethical considerations.
The present work was motivated by an ethical obligation
toward the originating culture, in which cultural
appropriation in games was viewed as problematic. Our
findings broadened this ethical obligation by exploring
design conflicts that can arise as a result of children’s
cultural appropriation. This highlighted the importance to
design for cultural authenticity such that clashes with
children’s existing beliefs are handled with sensitivity.
Design as a Mechanism to Mitigate Cultural
Appropriation and Related Ethical Concerns
In the context of games, mukokuseki has been used as a
means of appealing to the widest possible audience, as
mukokuseki design is ambiguous and cannot be clearly
associated with any particular culture [5]. Within our
workshop, we observed that ambiguous aspects were
interpreted in culturally familiar ways and thus
paradoxically invited cultural appropriation. Some
designers might argue in favor of unambiguous, closed
representations of other cultures that maintain as much
cultural authenticity as possible. Nonetheless, as our
findings show, the experiential nature of narrative suggests
that cultural appropriation will happen. Studies such as our
own that take a research through design perspective to
understand how cultural events, artifacts or knowledge are
interpreted by end users and assimilated into their own
cultural knowledge will be vital to determine the ethical
issues that might arise, and to design opportunities for
further mitigating these concerns within and outside of the
game. In the context of our game, our findings have
sensitized us to the importance of exploring and
acknowledging children’s ongoing reflections on death
during an educational intervention focused on literacy.
Design Participation For Cultural Authenticity
Acknowledging children’s interpretive role in games, in the
present work we set out to observe their interpretations of
the festival with a view to understand if and how cultural
appropriation happens. This research demonstrated the
ever-shifting balance between cultural appropriation and
authenticity, while also helping us to reflect on how to
mitigate emergent ethical issues. Although we engaged our
participants in storytelling activities during the workshops,
our aim was to generate knowledge about cultural
appropriation rather than to share design control with them.
Yet, our findings suggest that attempts to co-design in light
of cultural appropriation concerns will introduce new
methodological challenges, especially with regards to who
participates and what participation means. Participatory
design in particular foregrounds the needs and perspectives
of end users. In understanding users’ cultural beliefs, needs
and values, designers aim to create appropriate tools and
systems. Both pragmatically and ethically, it stands to
reason that users should be directly involved in design
activities. Games and virtual worlds can feature cultural
representations of diverse cultures, human and non-human
alike. These cultures may be new to intended players. In the
context of our workshop, if we had drawn largely on
children’s ideas to design the game world and narrative, we
would have largely relied on domesticating as an approach
for representing culture, as well as cultural appropriation.
Therefore, in cases where designers want to share control
with users for applications and systems that represent other
cultures, new considerations arise.
Within our workshop, we presented children with cultural
rituals and encouraged them to embed them into their
stories. Children balanced the use of such cultural
resources, and the meaning making encouraged through
them, with their own stories about death. Thus, the cultural
context of the workshop empowered them to make meaning
of a sensitive topic [9]. As discussed earlier, this strategy
was used by children to understand the core values of the
festival. Future work could develop this approach further
through participatory methods that support children to
acquire cultural expertise before their input to design. A
further approach that balances cultural authenticity with
children’s experiences would be to involve cultural experts
and consultants in working together with children. Such a
design team could establish shared understandings of death
that accommodate cultural authenticity and at the same time
are sensitive to children’s development and culture.
The present work drew attention to the implications of
cultural appropriation arguing that it can influence how the
originating culture is perceived, while changing the nature
and meaning of important cultural rituals. Our research
focused on how cultural appropriation can arise during the
design process of a serious game. Targeted at primary
school children, the game’s narrative was based on the
Mexican festival, Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead,
celebrating the lives of those who have died. Taking a
research through design approach, we set out to explore
how cultural authenticity can be retained through game
structures and narrative, while capturing if and how cultural
appropriation may happen given children’s contextual,
cultural understandings of death.
Our findings demonstrated that cultural authenticity can be
fostered if designers foreground rituals and relational
dynamics that allow users to make sense of the
underpinning cultural values. However, we also found that
in the case of cultural rituals that implicate universal
concerns, cultural appropriation is unavoidable. Most
importantly, we showed that cultural appropriation can
extend designers ethical considerations beyond members
of the originating culture, to include end users. A key
outcome of our research was to gain insight into children’s
new beliefs, understandings and ways of coping with death.
Cultural appropriation became an issue of ethical concern
not least due to the subordinate role of our game narrative,
highlighting the importance of creating space for
exploration and discussion on death within the context of
our educational intervention. Our work also served as a
springboard for discussing methodological implications for
those espousing co-design approaches to game design.
Given children’s tendency toward cultural appropriation,
we emphasize the importance of developing children’s
cultural knowledge before they assume an active role in
design. Finally, we hope that this work has raised attention
to an important design consideration, shedding light into
research processes that may support designers to better
understand the occurrence and implications of cultural
appropriation within their respective domains.
This work was funded by the ILearnRW (project no:
318803) FP7 ICT EU project. We gratefully acknowledge
the children who participated in this workshop contributing
with their creativity and enthusiasm.
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