What does it mean for a videogame to have a Latin American identity? Does it have to be set in the Caribbean? Is it enough if you put Mexican sombreros in a level somewhere? Shouldn’t we be making “universal” games (like they do in the US)? In this video, we explore some of the common confusions in the search for a Latinx videogame identity, and we point out what videogames can learn from magical realism and other art movements.
What does it mean for a game to have a Latin American identity? After all, a studio in the United States might release a graphic adventure game based on Aztec mythology and the Cuban Revolution (“¡Viva la revolución!”), while an Argentine studio can develop the latest entry in a 4X strategy game series steeped in US imperialism and exceptionalism.
Hi, I’m David Marchand, and this is Matajuegos.
Many Latin gamedevs feel that their regional identity is like a fence that limits them, an invitation to make unimaginative games about very specific issues, while outside that fence there’s a fantastic world of people making… (quote) “universal” games about anything they want.
However, this supposed universe is also another set of very specific fences. There’s the US fence, the European one, the Japanese fence, and because of power, money, and cultural influence, us Third World gamedevs try to make games within those fences, which look like the extent of the possible universe because we can’t even imagine what might exist beyond their limits. The creative possibilities for Latin games are as deep as they are for US games, but we don’t notice because we can only see the surface of their potential, where there are, I don’t know, Candy Crush clones with mates and footballs instead of candy.
Now, culture doesn’t really work like a series of fences with discrete borders. However, the view of games from the global north as “universal” has imposed itself as common sense, and it is worthwhile to defy it with alternative views.
2) Local Color
“The Argentine Writer and Tradition” is an essay by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges against “local color” in Argentine literature. According to Borges, Argentine literature has to appreciate its intellectual virtues and its creative originality more, and fall less into the predictable themes of the gaucho way of life, the tango suburb and Argentine slang and turns of phrase. Gauchos who sing about gaucho honor and Pampean life, like Martín Fierro, were invented by the writer, José Hernández, and other upper-class intellectuals, while real gauchos sing about philosophy, culture, and whatever else they want.
Borges points out an astute observation by the historian Edward Gibbon: the Quran never mentions camels.
…the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels. I think we Argentines can emulate Mohammed, can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color.
Does the Quran mention any camels? It probably does. Did Edward Gibbon say it doesn’t? He probably didn’t. Borges’ observation is more astute than true, but it does represent a creative impetus that is worth reclaiming.
If your goal is to redefine national identity around capitalist modernization, it makes sense to write about a marginalized gaucho who talks about the gaucho way of life and eventually comes to terms with civilization. If your goal is to maximize your Steam clientele, maybe it makes sense to make the most popular and generic type of game you can come up with, set it in your country, and see if that’s exotic enough to the US public to help you stand out from the crowd.
But, if your goal is expanding your artistic horizons, examining how First World influences might be limiting your creativity, or discovering new depths in the Latin American experience… then things get interesting and pre-made formulas stop working.
Magical realism is one of the most famous Latin American art movements of the 20th century, but it’s not made up of novels about football players or paintings of spicy food. Some of its defining characteristics are:
- showing the unreal and strange as if they were common and ordinary,
- representing members of the popular classes,
- and proposing a circular or fragmented model of the flow of time.
None of these elements are typically or exclusively Latin American. We can’t travel to the 1930s, observe Latin culture and predict that the avant-garde is going to start writing about time being a wheel. Magical realism took the concept of circular time and made it a feature of Latin culture, not the other way around.
This is true of any art movement or videogame trend with known geographic roots. Visual novels took a certain kind of NPC interaction and made it a Japanese idiosyncrasy. Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM took a camera perspective and movement scheme and made it a part of US culture and militarism. Whatever is going to define Latin games in the future, it isn’t Latin yet. We have to make it Latin with our games.
Maybe one day there’ll be a genuine Latin games movement. Maybe there already is. Maybe there’ll be a more general Southern Hemisphere games movement. Maybe there’ll be a hyper-specific Santiago del Estero games movement.
If we want to make sure it never comes to be, we can go on operating as individual entities trying to participate in the global north, each dev on their own. If it ever comes to be, it won’t be defined by predictable, superficial elements. We’re going to have to build it game by game, arguing among colleagues, writing manifestos, playing Latin games to absorb their influences and identifying their strengths, weaknesses and recurring themes.
That is a future I’d like to be part of.
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Notas del episodio
- Grim Fandango (Trailer): youtu.be/hV1NBHL9Fa4
- Grim Fandango (Playthrough): youtu.be/kZgONWl579Y?t=620
- Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (Trailer): youtu.be/dAf8WiRWnpw
- “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”: gwern.net/docs/borges/1951-borges-theargentinewriterandtradition.pdf
- Jorge Luis Borges (Interview): youtu.be/2gu9l_TqS8I
- Martín Fierro: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martín_Fierro
- One Hundred Years of Solitude: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Hundred_Years_of_Solitude
- Pedro Páramo: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedro_Páramo
- Tokimeki Memorial (Playthrough): youtu.be/ZycJEzh-5g4
- Wolfenstein 3D (Playthrough): youtu.be/NdcnQISuF_Y
- DOOM (Playthrough): youtu.be/iFnOLFd_ByQ