Recently, I had a chance to play in a one-on-one game with a friend of mine who is just starting to get into Game Mastering. He has been world-building for a novel he is working on, but wanted to run some of his ideas as a game, in order to flesh out aspects of the world that don’t relate to his main plot. He’s been prepping and learning the system he wanted to run, and once he felt comfortable enough we sat down to play a session.
The setting is fantasy themed in a desert area which pulls exclusively from Arabic and Muslim inspirations. Common conceptions about anything I’d previously called fantasy had to be thrown out the window. I played a character who was a thief/assassin type, but who adhered to the written laws, felt motivated by certain religious impulses and lived and breathed the life of a person on Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
It was highly different from any playing experience I’d ever had. The person who ran the game was very familiar with the culture and built a detailed and vast environment for me to play in. I had enough knowledge about the cultural mores to be dangerous in my misinterpretation. I kept getting corrected on how certain things worked in the society. Trying to gather information on the streets was a completely different process than I’ve tried in a medieval fantasy setting. Understanding the class structures and societies expectations of my character was an interesting new dilemma.But . . .
the game was Awesome. Because I couldn’t rely on the assumptions I carried about how things operate in a setting, I had to learn many new things about the world in which I was playing. Since they weren’t just made up facts to support a particular person’s way of thinking, but actual facts and details pulled from an existing culture, I had more of a sense of connection to the world as well as avenues of research that could help me flesh out my character.
It was an incredibly fun and interesting experience to play immersed in another culture without the common stereotypes about it. I also picked up a few things about how to make a different culture feel real and alive, and feel like it was more than just the stereotypes we get from the mass media.
Understand that the culture isn’t that different from your own, except where it is
One thing that struck me about gaming in an Arabic and Muslim-ish setting, is that it didn’t feel all that different from gaming in a medieval society setting. People still ate, slept in houses, gathered on the streets, etc. The NPCs were still the NPCs and the PCs still saved the day. We tend to think of wildly different cultures as composed of the most extreme or different elements, but in reality the exact same functions of life happen in every culture. Not everyone in Japan dresses in kimonos or knows swordplay, nor are they all shopkeepers or wise mystics with a role to play in regards to the PCS. The stereotypes we build about foreign lands obscure the commonalities that we share. Just like the stereotypes we take for granted in games. Eating food in a foreign places isn’t always exotic or has to adhere to certain unbreakable rules. People fart and it doesn’t cause holy wars. Workers work on constructing new buildings that are as bland, in their own ways, as any house or hovel.
Learn the language, speak the dialect
While you probably won’t set about learning a new language in order to play a game in a different culture, picking up a few phrases and words can help immerse yourself, or your players, into the culture. The same holds true for adding a bit of an accent. A simple google  search can bring up all the basic traveler’s words and phrases, and a youtube  search can find examples of foreign languages for you to listen to. You don’t need to go overboard, but just a little will make a huge difference.
Understand that there are thematic differences which can help make the setting feel more real.
One big difference between cultures, with regards to gaming at least, is that a lot of visual elements are going to be different. What is the clothing like? How are the building’s built? What effect does the environment have on the play or the people? Generally you only need to describe one or two major elements in detail as being wildly different. One good solid description of a unique element up front will help de-rail the player’s minds from thinking of the inn as being a square building. Once the players minds are derailed from their stereotypes, you have to watch and try to prevent them from getting back on the rails of the game settings they are used to.
Different names help, even if they’re in English
A inn in a different country might be called a common house. A church would be called a temple. Even if you don’t use the correct foreign language word for something, using a non standard word will cause people to think of it differently. The thesaurus is your friend.
Food, Food, Food
Nothing defines a culture like its food. Download a menu or recipes from the culture and describe what smells and tastes those might have. For a true experience, order some takeout or visit a restaurant that serves that cultures food before the game. It will leave some tactile memories that can be called up during the game.
All in all, playing in a different culture set me a bit off balance, but left me open for new ideas about gaming. It was good to play with someone who wasn’t an experienced (read long time, deep set in their ways) gamer. In my opinion, one of the most incredible things about gaming is that it is incredibly interactive and gets to the deep thinking places of a gamer. Throw in a realistic touch of cultural immersion and you have a great avenue for getting interested in learning about another culture. It was also a great way to get me thinking about ways to make fantasy or unreal cultures seem less one dimensional.
So, what experiences have you had in another gaming in another culture? What are some of the ways that you’ve used to bring out cultural (real or made up) themes in games?