Sunday, April 29, 2012

Using Anthropology With Game Design

This was a paper from Fall 2011 in my Anthropology 2346 course.

How Does This Course Apply To Me

Every semester, in every class, someone has to ask the age old question of how the class applies to them. This student could be an art major in a math class or a business major in an art appreciation course, or it could even be a game designer in an anthropology class. Of course, being of a category three myself, I chose this course because I knew a multitude of ways it would apply to my planned goals in game design. How does an anthropology course help a game designer? The course helps the design of a full and functional world in even a fantastic environment.

As man evolved from a simpler form, so does a game world. A designer has to first decide if he is creating a high or low fantasy setting, a historical world setting, or any number of sci-fi or punk worlds available to the imagination. The basic setting of a game come together like the building block of a hominid, and depending on just how much you build your cultures determines how upright your ape will stand. What this means is that unless you give some realism and culture to the world, it will be a cookie cutter facade.

The world begins as any other, in the beginning of it's existence, and whether or not it was created by a supreme being or a chain of events over billions of years. Most often in a fantasy fiction world, the supreme beings are cast as world creators, and this leads to polytheism in the characters. The gods and goddesses are broken into categories based upon their role in guiding society. There is a deity for just about any role the character chooses, war gods akin to Thor are most common. Only in a few fantasy fiction worlds that I have seen are there major monotheistic religions.

In a fictional world, humans aren't the only people, nor are they the only ones with a semblance of religion or spirituality. Elves are usually brought in, and tend to be caricatures of the more natural side of humans. They tend to veer towards animism in their religion, and live in a romanticized tribal culture, though they are found in some instances building cities and taking a more technology bent than usual. Lineage for elves is matrilineal for wood elves and patrilineal for most others. Their languages are generally based off of the phonemes of finnish or other flowing european languages like gaelic. Their writing morphemes have more curls and loops than straight lines.

Dwarves by contrast generally are polytheistic and follow a set of gods generally like the Aesir and Vanir of the norse. Their lineages are strictly patrilineal and they are introduced with the previous three or five generations of fathers. Their architecture and other parts of their culture show the strictness and rigidity of their lives. Their phonemes in the language they are given are very germanic, and their morphemes are based off the runes of old. Everything they do seems to be centered around war, minerals, or alcohol.

Orcs and goblins are almost universally given a warring primal culture with few taboos. Cannibalism is attributed to them to make it seem as if there is no limit to their brutality. The strong and vicious lead the bands, and the weak are eaten or must have a quick mind to survive. Linguistically they sound like they have taken the dwarves language and twisted it so far there is no word for peace, love, or friendship. Religiously they are akin to the Aztecs in that every god demands almost daily humanoid sacrifice, which leads to raiding and taking slaves and sacrificial candidates.

A lot of other races are given more ethology instead of ethnology, making them almost animal like in comparison to the civilized humans, elves, and dwarves. Gnolls will have a pack mentality and their heirarchy based upon wolves or hyenas. Naga will act as their namesakes and be generally solitary, but come together for orgy-like snake balls. Naga however do vary from the pure animalistic by having a mystical religious and magic structure to their daily lives. These are the two best examples of using wild animal behavior on humanoid hosts.

Interaction among the races is much like the interaction among different cultures in our own world. Dwarves and elves seem to hate each other, but will work together if a more hated enemy comes along, much akin to the English and the French. They war with each other every century or two, but come to each others aid when a bigger threat comes in like the Germans in the two world wars. Humans have bits of just about every culture, but in a fantasy world their mortality of lifespan makes them breed like rabbis, encroaching on the lands of other races like a hoard of cockroaches. They tend to ally with the dwarves and elves because they show less taboos in their visible culture than orcs and goblins.

When designing a game that is all humans with fantasy elements, you can however just do a ton of research and use real cultures on them. The all human games are the ones that tend to have a christianity style religious structure, with a hand full of pagan cultures hanging on to their roots. A good game of this style will have a nice write up on the culture of each, to use the term loosely, racial division. You will have an Arthurian England culture, a rural Spain, psuedo medieval Germany, a Renaissance France and Italy, a split Dutch and Viking scandinavia, and a fierce Tsarist Russia. Using these cultural dividers gives players the chance to play generally any literature archetype, and if done well can teach about the different cultures. Surprisingly tabletop gamers actually get into the stuff so much they have those fancy library cards and read those things called books.

In most fantasy fiction worlds since the races are generally created by gods for specific purposes, their isn't much of an evolutionary chart. One could, however, do a more scientific world and show the point of play as one that has many off shoots of a common ancestor. Each race is another species that has evolved to fit it's environment, and while some are strikingly similar their gene drift has caused them to be completely different and can no longer produce reproduction viable offspring. The time of play centers when most have developed their own cultures and become civilized enough for advanced architecture and metallurgy.

Using just this class as a guideline, one can make a decent attempt at a more fleshed out world than just knowing they want pirates and ninjas to exist among musketeers and cavemen. Knowing that lineage, linguistics, culture, and religion are all important factors in the daily lives of characters is a major boon to the world created. A barbarian cannot be a barbarian unless there are metropolises of people who consider themselves civil and cultured, and nor can their be the notion of civility without barbarous acts. Norms and taboos keep these ideals in check even in worlds of pure imagination. While someone could do most of this stuff without the course in mind, knowing the ideas of anthropology will make them easier to do because you know you are doing it, and know what you are doing when you give it a chance.


  1. As both a gamer, lover of fantasy, and a Anthropology major, I really appreciate how you applied the major to games design

    1. Thanks, I think this is the only 100 I have gotten on a college paper.