Pocket God

For some time now, an application named Pocket God has consistently been at the top of the iPhone application store list of bestselling apps. One review describes Pocket God as “an entertaining app that lets you explore multiple ways of tormenting your cute little islanders.” But see for yourself:

I just wonder how it is that Apple finds an application in which people can throw shoes at a virtual Bush unacceptable, but find the virtual torture of Pacific Islanders perfectly OK? And how is it that after weeks of being one of the bestselling iPhone games, hardly anyone has commented upon the game’s racism? Just imagine, for instance, a game in which one were presented with a virtual shtetle filled with Jews one could torture, or a plantation full of African slaves? How is it that such applications would certainly be rejected by the Apple Store, and yet Pocket God does not even provoke controversy?

I suppose that most people who play this game think of the island’s inhabitants as fictitious primitives, rather than representatives of a particular ethnic group. I doubt people playing the game bear any hatred towards Pacific Islanders. And yet, I can’t help but see our inability to view cartoonish depictions of indigenous peoples, such as sports mascots, as representations of living peoples as problematic. In particular, I feel it ties in with the myth of a vanishing race, of a people who, defined in terms or their primitivism must have already given way to the forces of modernity, their very existence denied.

UPDATE: I don’t personally think Apple should be in the business of censoring applications based on content, but here is another story that is relevant to the current discussion:

The release (and subsequent removal) of an iPhone app called Baby Shaker this week has Apple in hot water with angry parents and children’s groups, who are demanding answers from Apple.

UPDATE: Seems that Canterbury University Lecturer Malakai Koloamatangi is now raising a stink about the game. See here and here (via Indigeneity)

UPDATE: Looks like the developers are going to make some changes in response to criticisms. (They are also hiring a PR firm.)

80 thoughts on “Pocket God

  1. I’m the developer of Pocket God. I enjoyed reading your article, especially the fact that you present the question of why hasnt there been backlash but allow for the possibility that we and our fans bear no hatred of any indigenous peoples. Although we have had a couple of emails where people were not happy with the theme of the game, for the most part, we have many pacfic islander fans that love the game and have no issue with its presentation. When we started the game, we never set out to create any controversy based on racial stereo types, we simply were looking to create a game with an island theme with an edgy sense of humor. No different that South Park or Happy Tree Friends.

  2. You seem to have answered all your own questions and raised fairly obvious points. I do think this is an interesting point, but is there a way to press it further?

    Alas, we don’t come into the world magically sensitized to various racial injustices. That takes work, and for most in the US that work has been done on behalf of Jews and African descendants, but has only been done unevenly on behalf of others. This means that anthropologists have work to do – also fairly obvious points.

    What interests me is finding ways to communicate to others how and why something like this is problematic without them dismissing us as overreacting. How can we speak and actually be listened to, for those who think such a thing is possible?

  3. Did Dave Castelnuovo just argue that he isn’t a racist, but his program is (hey, didn’t you get the memo: racism is OK if you call it “edgy.”)? Holy Pinocchio Batman, this program’s so popular because it really is alive.

  4. Watching the video was initially pretty troubling to me (I actually had the sound turned off, so there was at least one sense deprived, for better or worse). But I’m also missing the game play and other aspects of the game that may not be shown in this video, so my comments are provisional.

    1. I don’t think that this game is clever in the same way that South Park can be clever. In South Park there is a kind of democracy of cruelty and affront. Here it is directed at a single group of people. From what I’ve seen this is a more or less cavalier american (western, white, whatever – oh, maybe that’s what www means!?) sense of entitlement. A kind of naive post-politics that abounds in American and Canadian politics (racism is so yesterday; women have gained equality; etc.).

    2. Kerim, I think all your questions are valid and I’m glad they’re posted as questions rather than righteous indignation. Yes, it is interesting how Apple chooses to censor its games and I think that this does open up all of the fascinating issues that you raise.

    Aside from the sadistic foundation of the game (though that is up for grabs, I think. Can one be sadistic to pixels? Throwing little pixel-fetish-people into a volcano or grabbing them by their hair is troubling but I’m not sure how easy it would be to show any sort of correlation between acceptable violence towards ‘backwards’ people and the playing of the game – or the creation and acceptance/possibility of the game).

    I assume in the logic of your argument we are to see that by extension all so-called/so-imagined ‘primitive’ people are understood to be inherently anachronistic: presumably this means Amazonian Indians. But then what from there? That they should be protected from capricious gods, states, and exploiters (which would probably lead to various forms of paternalistic intervention)? That they are too primitive to save or be worth saving? That their primitivism justifies their exploitation?

    Perhaps it is more effuse than that. The game works as a reminder that history doesn’t matter. A post hoc apology for colonialism and imperialism.

    The game is made possible by the fantasy of Pacific Islands primitivism in our society. The tropes are instantly recognizable (the volcano, the Easter Island head, the palm tree, the natives, and perhaps most importantly the susceptibility to the whim of the gods etc.). This is the sort of thing that reinforces chauvenism towards nomadic hunters and gatherers. But it is already at several removes. We also see this tiki primitivism abound in popular culture. In this case it is the mixture of sadism and tiki primitivism that is troubling. I would suggest that this calls for a more nuanced understanding of sadism, though.

    I don’t think that it is worth engineering outrage against this or even working harder as anthropologists to show how bad this is. I see in Kerim’s statement a ‘teachable point’ = there is a reason that this game is possible: it relies on all kinds of stereotypes that abound in our society. These stereotypes probably have real-world ramifications in the lives of people who are identified as ‘natives,’ ‘primitives,’ etc. But these real-world ramifications are probably also nearly impossible to every fully reconcile.

    Thus what is troubling about cultural artifacts like this is the way that they show up a public secret, not that they are allowed to exist – at least I don’t see that as the point of anthropology (but then I’m not an activist anthropologist).

    I realize this comment flip-flops on a commitment to politics but I have a deep distrust of academic authority and the seemingly inevitable policy recommendations that come out of this.

  5. Hi, I’m the art and animation designer for Pocket God. Yes we monitor Google for anything about our app! Maybe I can defend PG from the perspective of how we came up with idea. Our first thought wasn’t “let’s make a game that tortures an indigenous people”. We wanted to make something that was humor based. Our first thought was, why don’t we make an app where you have characters on a screen that you can manipulate (the meanness came later). Then we thought, why don’t we say the user is a god? Avoiding allusions to the big religions, we thought how about the player is an island god so we can have a pretty tropical background? Then, let’s make the characters iconic, innocent, cute, lovable, and kind of semi-human, creature-like. And finally, the tropical background influenced the character design. Then we just tapped into our generally misanthropic sense of humor.

    I think it was less influenced by South Park or Happy Tree Friends and more by Warner Brothers Cartoons. Was Chuck Jones a duck-hater because Daffy was put through the ringer? We are excited by the success but would like to avoid the notion that we were somehow making a racial statement. But everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

  6. Oh, as an additional note. This video is dated now. We update the application weekly. We’ve added more features, some mean, and some are nicer. The characters now go fishing and eat coconuts, watch beautiful sunsets, wave at the player. The characters are now named trackable (if they die, you merely bring them BACK with the plus sign) so you can see what sort of things have happened to them and what their mood is. While the framework of the game seems a little cruel, the fans have definitely grown an affinity toward the characters shown by fan art, and hand made dolls all can be seen at pocketgod.blogspot.com. This sort of reaction was what we were hoping for!

  7. I have to say, as much as I appreciate Craig and Kerim’s commentary on this game, the most interesting thing about this thread is not the skull-grinding racism of the game itself — which is just a startlingly open example of something that usually goes at least partially unspoken — but the spectacle of the game’s designers showing up in order to completely miss the point. They simply are not speaking the same language here, or rather, they seem completely unable to hear what’s being said here. Quite a sociological text in its own right.

  8. Can I request a slavery version of the game? Lovable but quirky slaves being tortured by the often ruthless but sometimes horny plantation owner/god?

  9. As long as the game designers are present I’ll offer a few thoughts (which are not meant to be condescending but are offered as a series of real questions):

    1. Why is it that you can make this game but not make a game that depicts Jews or African Americans (as Kerim points out).

    – This is the sort of question that interests sociologists and anthropologists. How do people in our society make decisions about what they can and cannot do? Or perhaps, about what they should and should not do? Many of us spend a lot of time thinking about this kind of question.

    2. While a person’s intent may not be bad when they say something or make something the things that they say or make can be very revealing about their assumptions about how the world works.

    ie. It is not okay to represent fun violence against blacks and jews (or women or animals, for that matter), right? Why is that? Why is acceptable to show fun violence against against ‘mythical’ people, like aliens, robots, and natives.

    Oh, wait what if natives aren’t really mythical? Of course the little people depicted in this game are fantasy people, but they depend on a host of cliches and stereotypes to function. They stand in for a type of person/people: natives, primitives, etc.

    One big question that comes out of this is what happens with these stereotypes and cliches? How do they effect and reinforce our beliefs about people in the world? What if you replaced the ‘natives’ with transvestites? The implication would be completely different.

    The fact is that these little people are identifiable as ‘natives’ and are thus linked by implication to other ‘natives’: American Indians, Indigenous peoples, etc.

    The main question that I see here is:

    What are the conditions that make this game possible. Or, why is it that you could imagine these people would look like this and that these sorts of things could be done to them: what is the historical logic behind the decisions that make this game possible, successful, and pleasurable.

    Many academics have developed fairly nuanced ways of talking about other cultural texts (like films and literature). These make room for multiple experiences and question assumptions about what constitutes pleasure and enjoyment. Rather than just watching violence (and developing a variety of different possible responses) video games implicate the player. This re-opens the debates around the relationship between the spectacle, violence, pleasure, and interpretation.

    Anyhow, that is some of the context of these comments. I’m sure others will pipe in though and I’m eager to see, as Aaron suggests, the possibilities for a conversation that crosses academic/public boundaries.

  10. One more thought on this: We’re dealing with categories created by anthropologists (Pygmies). There is no doubt a certain amount of colonialist guilt and corrective in this concern over the meaning of Pocket God.

    Of additional interest is a “forum”:http://forums.toucharcade.com/showthread.php?t=9640. where the game features are discussed by the fans and developers. This provides an interesting window into some of the assumptions behind the game.

    BTW, I hope the game developers won’t get scared away by this discussion. That said, I assume the response to this thread will be: “what a bunch of politically correct eggheads, we’re just trying to have fun here.”

  11. whew, I just write a really long response and it got deleted because I didnt enter the spam protection.

    To Craig. I was just saying in my last response that I enjoyed finding this article because I like a good debate and would love it if we can argue this point without anger getting into the mix. I dont see you as politically correct eggheads. We all come from a our own unique background that leads us to the assumptions we make at this point in our lifes. I think the best way to make progress is to understand and accept the other’s point of view and come up with a mixed sensibility rather than finding a way to convince the other guy that we are right.

    That said, I had some points that I write in the earlier post but I don’t have the engery to regurgitate them again. Probably later in the day. I will be tracking this for a while and hope to continue our discussion.

  12. I agree with Aaron and Craig; there is certainly a disconnect between the two camps on this thread. And it’s fascinating to see the tacit assumptions and stereotyping coming to the fore, and the their non-recognition by the game’s creators. This discussion would be excellent for a class discussion on native stereotyping, the “invisible” Indian, and so forth. To avoid being more redundant with my comment, I’ll just say I think Craig C. hit it on the head with his second to last post. The questions he raises are important, esp. with respect to the current topic.

  13. Oh, and the depiction of the Moai helps place the game’s setting in a historical context, effectively removing it from the realm of fantasy, in my opinion.

  14. Wow as an avid video game player who works with a Pacific Islander I’m torn…

    …I think what bothers me most about this thread is that it criticizes the game developers for creating a game where you can engage in the torture of ‘indigenous people’, as if it was somehow ok to torture nonindigenous people in video games. Video game violence happens, and if you think the developer of these games has issues then you’ll also have to take issue with every ‘god game’ out there from Populous to Black and White, along with most open-ended fantasy RPGs, the Kirin Tor quest chain in Borean Tundra, etc….

    The violence in this game is quite mild compared to what you what the industry offers. What _is_ problematic to me is the way that the Pacific Islanders are represented, as Craig C. says: the moai as an icon of the primitive, the bone through the hair. These are images that are 1) not accurate depictions of Pacific Islanders today and 2) Are part of a wider variety of images that come with a history — a history which is one of colonialism, dispossession, and humiliation.

    This game probably seems funny and harmless to the designers in a way that a game about feeding watermelons to blacks to make them harvest cotton does not because American racial politics is familiar to the authors, while the politics of the representation of Pacific Islanders is not.

    But even if they were not involved in these issues before…. they are now that they wrote this game! These images matter in peoples lives, and have for generations. These images accompany political and economic situations where PIs are told that they have no heritage worth saving, no traditions that are not primitive, and that PIs are too stupid to do anything in life except manual labor or possibly dance for tourists. They are demeaning for a lot — although perhaps not all — PIs.

    I understand that the game designers didn’t get that when they made the game, and that’s cool. For those of us who live and study in the Pacific, we are much more attuned to these issues. Maybe too attuned — I feel like a lot of the commentors on this thread are so used to finding and denouncing representations like these ones that they sort of do it angrily, and on autopilot. But I think we need to remember that the people who designed this game are just that — people. So as we proceed to let them know about all the different conversations their app has now made them party to, lets try to remember that…

  15. Thanks Rex, I agree that this discussion has a lot of value to us all and it would be more worthwhile if we can find a common ground and figure out where our assumptions diverge rather than just being confused as to why we aren’t just getting it right away.
    I think Craig’s 1st question is a perfect starting point for this. But instead of using race, I would like to use the word Culture instead. It seems that these lines do not always have to be drawn along racial lines, although race might be the easiest to identify. There seems to be a line that society enforces as to which cultures need protection. It seems to me that the purpose of this line is to one day, create a world where ever culture has the security of knowing they will not be targeted or discriminated against because of a stereotype that accompanies the culture they belong to, but dealt with as an individual that brings their own uniqueness to the table.

    My question is whether all cultures should get this protection whether they need it or not. How do we determine whether a culture needs this protection? I think Jewish, African American, and Gay culture in the US absolutely needs this protection today. Things are getting better but we need to make a little more progress before these groups can feel completely safe in the world. The fact that these groups are so vocal about any potential discrimination against them proves the point that there is still a lot of cultural anxiety that we need to heal.
    Also, what do you think of the lobbying of Italian Americans against the Sopranos? What do you think of the Burakumin in Japan and their issues with American cartoons that are shown in Japan?

    I also want to clear up the misconception that our game is something that only white people use to infringe on the rights of pacific islanders. Our game is worldwide and is very popular among the Asian countries. In fact we have many fans from Malaysia, China, Philippines, and Thailand that go out of their way to contact us and send us fan art of the game.

    I guess one last thing? I take it the title “Savage Minds” is a reference to the indigenous people that you study? What do you think of the term Savage in that context?

  16. Great comments, Rex. But I just went to Castelnuevo’s site. I looked at those pictures. I don’t think we can absolve the makers of PocketGod by saying that they just don’t understand the colonial and racial history of the politics of representation of Pacific peoples. Those little bone-in-the-hair, big toothed, big lipped, brown-skinned peoples are straight out of the genre of 1920s and 1930s cartoons in which Africans are depicted as innocent but scary, stupid but devious others. Can we say ‘pickaninny’? Check out “Banned Cartoon – Betty Boop” on Youtube (at about 3:10), http://tiny.cc/kWqXn. Or how about “Black Stereotypes,” at :44, http://tiny.cc/eBHwz. This is just the surface of what I could find out there.
    Suddenly the work of these designers and developers is not looking so cute, edgy, or modern. They’re reproducing racist stereotypes. They are ostensibly disconnected from their own history. But can people disconnect themselves from their own social history? Can they take themselves out of context? Can they take themselves out of meaning?

  17. Wow, lots of comments. Three things:

    First, I’d like to thank Dave and Allan for participating in this discussion. Regarding the site name, please read the about page for an explanation. Also, even if the title were taken literally, the “savage minds” would be us, the anthropologists, not the people we study.

    Second, regarding the fact that the game is “very popular among the Asian countries.” I don’t suppose you are aware that some of the worst oppression of indigenous peoples in the Pacific has come at the hands of the dominant ethnic groups in these countries?

    Third, although I tried to be even handed and restrained in my comments, the phrase “semi-human, creature-like” has left me speechless.

  18. Hey Kerim, thank you for being a fair host and providing this discussion outlet.

    I see your points on 1 and 2 and understand. I think Alex said it the best that now that we made this game. it has taught us a lot about these issues.

    I have to defend ourselves on point 3 though. We did not go about making a game about indigenous people. the game is about a small race of beings that are about as big as your thumb and live inside your phone. What Allan is trying to say is that we purposely made their representation non human because we do not want to represent human beings of any sort (they could be thought of as island elves). The game is not set in the real world. We used a loose representation of a Moai purley as graphical treatment, not to set a context.

    Not once has one of our fans taken the leap of reasoning that this game is about an existing culture in our world. When you say that these are real indigenous people, you are adding that part of the story yourself.

  19. Thanks for your comment Dave. I appreciate your recognition that there are serious social justice issues facing Pacific Islanders. At the same time, I’m not really sure why I am supposed to be reassured that your game is spreading negative stereotypes not just to white players, but to players all over the globe?

    I’ll let others discuss race/culture distinction and the history of racial classification used in the Pacific which you have (perhaps unwittingly inherited). I’ll just say here that although you’d like to change the language from ‘race’ to ‘culture’ I think ultimately the bearer of rights (and hence our obligations) is the individual, not the group (Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued this point in his book _The Ethics of Identity_). So for me the issue is not whether ‘cultures’ or ‘races’ need to be protected, but whether and how individual lives are negatively affected by their membership in a group however defined, and which ever groups they chose (or find themselves) in.

    Your example of the Sopranos is a good one — I think that Italians (or people from New Jersey, or pole dancers, or who ever) should be able to say what they like about the show, and we should listen to them and assume they have something to say that we don’t know about already. The Sopranos is wonderful because of its challenging, complex portryal of the Sopranos in ways that are attractive and repllent (often simultaneously!) And even more interestingly, within the show they have Italian Americans _talking about_ their ambivalence about these stereotypes — in one scene, for instance Juli Delfi’s ‘accultured’ son and Oberlin student says he feels empowered (well, not in such fruity terms) by macho Italian stereotypes, while her ex-husband hates them.

    In your game, in contrast, there is little nuance in the portrayal of Pacific Islanders. Also, they are not portrayed as being able to speak for themselves and discuss their culture the way the characters in the Sopranos do.

    If you are really interested in ‘healing’ the conditions which give groups good reason to be ‘anxious’ then considering the content of your game would be a good start. Perhaps you could create a version with a game dynamic like Missle Command, where you played King Kalakaua of Hawai’i and you had to stop endless streams of Anglo-Protestant investors from dispossesing native Hawai’ians of their land and turning it into sugarcane fields and illegally overthrowing the government in a coup in 1893. Or you could even have a missle command game in which you try to stop the 66 nuclear bombs which the United States exploded in Micronesia on the assumption that it was ‘remote’ and which caused radiation poisoning so serious that women give bith to stillborn fetuses so terribly deformed that they call them ‘grape-babies’.

    I think the key recognition to make here is that the issue is not for groups to ‘heal’ now that things are ‘better’ and there ‘anxiety’ is misplaced. With all due respect, the thing to realize is that your game is part of the problem, that things are not ‘better’ and this ‘anxiety’ is well-considered. As a wise mand once said, you can’t stick a knife nine inches deep in a man’s back, pull it out six inches, and call that progress.

  20. Dave,

    How is it that Pacific Islanders can be taken as the model for “semi-humans,” who don’t “represent human beings of any sort”? I understand that you see them as not representing “real indigenous people” – this is exactly the point of my post.

    I also recommend Ilya’s “comment”:http://ilyagram.org/blog/archives/2271.html which he had to post on his blog because he had problems posting it here.

  21. Not all all anthropologists study ‘primitive’ people. Lots of us study western culture, including computer designers.

    I’m glad that you (the computer designers) are engaging here. I used to be a computer programmer myself, and I understand that you created this game to be a fun and cute application. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t look deeper into the ethical implications of what you have created.

    Especially since you included an easter island sculpture in the animation, it is pretty clear that the people on the island ARE intended as representations of pacific islanders (whether consciously or unconsciously). Which means that the colonial history of these islands IS relevant. You say that jewish people and african americans are deserving of certain protections because they have been historially persecuted. Pacific Islanders have also been persecuted, enslaved and continue to have their lands stolen (or nuked). Just because you, (and most people) are unaware of that history does not make it less relevant than history’s better-known persecutions.

  22. Ilya’s comment is bang on!

    The game developers would be well served by his advice and have some fun by infusing the game with some other equally savage stereotypes. Greenpeace protesters, H-bomb testers, missionaries etc. would only add to the game experience.

  23. While I’m sympathetic to all the sentiments expressed here about representations etc, I also have the nagging feeling that these arguments have a sort of theocons-on-the-teletubbies ring to them…

  24. It is interesting to raise such issues about representation, privitism and racism. But as raised earlier, some anthropologists produced, disseminated and still teach such privitism in their classroom. Before educating the masses about the negative implications of such popular images, anthropologists should begin to question their own methods of knowledge production and dissemination within the classroom and outside.

  25. What do you mean by “primitivism” and who still teaches it? (if it means what I think you think it does)

  26. Kerim,

    Would you have raised any issues had Island God been Space Alien God, or Monsters God (no human depictions)? The issue of cruelty and violence, as a subject in itself, doesn’t seem of great concern, though it should be. I feel it is the multiplier effect (+ in left hand corner) that is most disturbing–don’t have enough islanders to exterminate, just keep adding and adding. There is this notion of breeding and the identical image of the islanders which dehumanizes them (the cariacature representation and aural accompaniment humourizes their fate). But are you also saying that the game represents the creators’ blindness to this kind of racism, or that it promotes this sort of racism?

  27. To answer Avid Gamer’s request, by primitivism, I mean romanticizing the other through the ethnographer’s gaze and writing. The primitivist discourse celebrates and advocates the preservation of so-called “savage/simple societies” and tells us that these societies shouldn’t embrace a so-called “modern” world, which is supposed to be damaging to their “culture” and “identity”. When you do some of Discovery Channel style of anthropology, that’s primitivism! The danger here is that romanticized “simple societies” have now become objects of consumption and spectacles of “modern societies”. The romanticized other has become objects or games. Games! You hunt for food or for pleasure or for unidentified reasons. But in this case, the romanticized other has become a hobby, captured in the electronic world. Since you cannot go out, hunt and kill human beings for pleasure, once they are reduced into electronic format, you can say to yourself “Oh well, this is just an electronic game, it’s not a real human being'”. But what created these electronic beings is history and ideology produced and disseminated by early anthropologists that some of us celebrate as heroes of the discipline. You bring these heroes and their texts (see the picture posted by Craig C in this blog) in the classroom without challenging the ways in which they packaged the other. You keep silent issues relating to racism, colonialism and imperialism because you want to be politically correct. Isn’t this also a way of teaching primitivism in the classroom?

  28. Paul, in the Canadian universities I have seen (and I from what I gather of American institutions as well) the contemporary identity of anthropology is largely formed around reflexivity and de-colonization. So I’m not sure who is keeping “silent issues relating to racism, colonialism and imperialism because you want to be politically correct.” I would say that the core of the discipline today offers a profound challenge racism, colonialism and imperialism (among other things).

    What is interesting to me about this thread is less the pronouncement of whether or not Pocket God is inherently offensive (or racist) but rather the language that we mobilise to talk about it. The questions that are asked in such a conversation are fascinating.

    The issue of violence that Fred raises is a good example. I think the violence of the game intensifies the implicit chauvinism and ignorance that is behind the thinking that made the game possible in the first place. By ignorance I don’t mean stupidity but rather an absence of knowledge about something. That ignorance is crucial because so much defensiveness seems to come from not knowing what the rules of the game are or from decrying that the rules of the game are not explicit.

    The developers know they can’t make this game about a Louisiana slave plantation. As people of good faith they say they know that there are limits on expression. But they claim that their characters are purely fantastical and as such there ought to be no offense taken. Clearly for the creators of this game there are no Pygmies (their word not mine) and there are no Pacific Islanders (clearly implied by the leaf skirts, bones and stone head) to take offense.

    But now they know that there are Pacific Islanders and that there are people who are still called Pygmies and that these people still suffer injustice and inequality based at least in part on our own fantasies about progress and modernity (capitalism). So what is to be done? Probably they can just ignore this. There are clearly enough people in the world who don’t care.

    If you read their forum (which I linked above) there is discussion of creating little Pygmy Eskimos among other things. Why not some bankers worshiping the tickers on wall street? Or Baptists, or other so-called modern people? Or, again, there are always robots to torment.

    Ironically the central trope of the game is a tribe of ignorant primitives (savages, natives) suffering at the hand of a callous god. The myth of modernity in the West relies on the myth of primitive other (backwards, irrational, powerless, superstitious). It is a fantasy of ignorance founded on ignorance. It is the jock who looks into a dirty mirror and laughs at the ugly savage, not realizing he sees himself. But there is no stepping back to say, oh shit, look how dumb we are.

    I suppose I don’t have a problem with virtual violence but I’m willing to walk away from it when someone cries foul. Or better yet, find a creative solution to it.

  29. Fred asks: “are you also saying that the game represents the creators’ blindness to this kind of racism, or that it promotes this sort of racism?”

    I am saying that these depictions, like those of sports mascots, are not viewed as being racist for reasons that are unique to the representation of indigenous peoples, namely that they are seen as only existing in the past.

  30. Is it “Tomahawk Chop” defense time again?


    The problem is that cartoon are by their very nature stereotypical, the goal is generalizable depictions, after all and (like most of our students), “regular people” (read non-anthropologists), and, apparently game designers just don’t want to unpack that baggage.

  31. If Jared Diamond was an infantile game designer what would he produce?

    I think what makes this such an interesting and perhaps ‘teachable’ case is the depth of the cultural tropes drawn on here. There’s the dubious character representations sure – merging Lilo with Stitch, and echoing back to those pre-1950s cartoons KateG draws attention to (I think of Chuck Jones’ Inki, rather than Daffy) and before that vaudeville etc (Josephine Baker in a banana skirt). Volcano sacrifices and Moai have their cultural histories too. But the central trope is the capricious God, the whims of fate. And young boys everywhere are tuned into that (and I am willing to bet young boys make up a large percentage of those downloads) – burning ants with magnifying glasses, experimenting with the goldfish, and if only those SeaMonkeys were as cool as they said. When I was young I had a game called “Little Computer Peope” on the C64 and if you didn’t feed him he went green and tapped on the screen. These games allow you to be the adult or the god, and objectify the arbitrariness of power – kids love it. But what slips in (as is particularly evident in this case) is a reproduction of the structures of power – the Great White Hand of that colonial God, always pokin ya.

    And Paul, I think you have it quite wrong. If Anthro has anything to do with this it is in promoting the ‘islands as laboratories’ trope – which has been with since at least Magaret Mead. And still plays out – Easter Island as a microcosmos, a lesson for us all. Thanks Jared.

  32. bq. The problem is that cartoon are by their very nature stereotypical, the goal is generalizable depictions, after all and (like most of our students), “regular people” (read non-anthropologists), and, apparently game designers just don’t want to unpack that baggage.

    Pamthropologist: Media in general thrives on stereotypes — I don’t think that lets video games “off the hook” anymore than it did silent films, Bugs Bunny cartoons, or blackface minstrelsy. (Or blackface BugsBunny cartoons, for that matter!) Of course the purveyors of images don’t want to “unpack that baggage” — that’s how it works in the first place. After all, it’s “just” a video game (or a joke, or a movie, or a song…). I certainly hope that we as anthropologists aren’t stuck in aplace where we shouldn’t do our thing becuase otehrs don’t want to hear it — I think it’s our *obligation* to unpack the baggage from this sort of depiction.

    (That doesn’t make the developers bad guys, that makes them members of a society where images of “the primitive” have been so naturalized as to appear wholly harmless and in no way unusual.)

  33. I think that a very relevant issue here is in the fact that neither Apple, nor the creators, nor the players of Pocket God see anything wrong with it.
    It should be an indicator that Pacific Island history, and an understanding of just how they have been persecuted and abused by Westerners, is being overlooked in American educations. We are trained up in public schools to develop a sympathy for and understanding of Jewish persecution and the Holocaust, African American slavery and segregation, and (to a lesser extent) LGBT persecution and the need for acceptance of their “different” lifestyles and sexuality. But what about PIs? What about Italian Americans in New York? What about the elderly? Or the obese even?
    There is no education for the masses that addresses these other groups of people who also deserve to be respected and treated as individuals, not just grouped into a stereotype and shunted aside. THAT is what we learn from this, not that the creators are furthering a stereotype of a certain group of peoples, but rather how disturbing it is that no one seems to have a problem with it. I guarantee if it had been Jews in a ghetto having bricks dropped on their heads, or Black slaves on a plantation being forced to work while lightning zapped at them from the clouds there would be hell to pay.

    (BTW, I have Pocket God on my iPhone, enjoy it very much, and until this article was written I never once considered it’s racial implications. I guess that makes me a sadist and a typical Westerner.)

  34. “Sociological Images”:http://contexts.org/socimages/2009/04/18/border-patrol-video-game/ has an example of a really horrible flash-based video game called “Border patrol”:http://nerdnirvana.org/g4m3s/borderpatrol.htm .

    What does Border Patrol have to say about Pocket God? I suppose most reasonably progressive people could look at Border Patrol game and see immediately recognize it as a nasty articulation of ignorance, xenophobia, and racism. Whacked-out right wing shit like this make Pocket God seem like a harmless game. Then again, perhaps the mundane and unnoticed little chauvinisms that make Pocket God possible in turn allow mean spirited games like Border Patrol to exist.

    I’m pretty sure the makers of Border Patrol would be subject to persecution under hate crimes laws in Canada. But then I’m moving to Texas in a few months so I guess I’ll learn what freedom of speech and border troubles are really about.

  35. Kerim, you ask compare the games racism to ‘a game in which one were presented with a virtual shtetle filled with Jews one could torture, or a plantation full of African slaves’. It’s not clear to me that the game is as racist as such other games would be, although I think this maybe because I don’t understand when a game is racist.

    If one thought that how racist certain imagery is in part dependent on the context in which it is created and played, in such a way that how racist it is is proportional to how connected it is to actual oppression of the group in question, then the relative obscurity of the racial imagery of the game in the US compared to e.g., stereotypes of black or gay people would mitigate how bad one thinks it is.

    I take it that one reason the game designers above have resisted the charge of racism is by appeal to the degree to which Pacific Islanders are discriminated against in the US compared to, e.g., homosexuals…. (as evidenced by the relative prevalence of e.g., pro-gay rights groups). Now, it’s not obvious to me that this is true. And even if it is, the obvious response might be that this just attests to the _visibility_ of the racism in the game. But if the above line of thought is correct it might also ipso facto mitigate how racist it is.

    Does this seem right? I’m not seeking to depend the game, but get clearer on the conditions governing whether a game is racist?

  36. Dustin,

    I don’t think I was arguing in support of the gamers at all, quite the contrary. Nor do I think there is much doubt that I understand all the meanings associated with stereotypes or the need to unpack their baggage. My post was more along the lines of feeling the sorrow of having to do so over and over and over again…… That’s all.

  37. I would normally type a long and loving comment here, however, i’m quite tired from teaching freud to 19 yr olds today. Therefore, I will not go into a great amount of detail. Rather, I will say that I find this Iphone app to be incredibly offensive, in a way that the Sims, for example, is not. The name of the game, in combination with the “Easter Island Head dude” the bone in the hair, the island… If we think it’s harmless fun, we will perhaps not be happy for having gone on the record with that sentiment, especially about, oh, I don’t know, 60 years from now, when this will look, if it doesn’t already, like all of the cartoonish negro-belia we now know to hate…. or to “appreciate for camp value.”

    Really, I’m just shocked and disgusted.

  38. Does anyone know the geographic distribution of Pocket God? Is it only an American phenomenon, or was it meant to be more widfely distributed, per Japan, Europe and anywhere iPhones are sold? Also,was Pocket God’s representation of islanders meant to capture a particular segment (age. economic, whatever) of iPhone users? Or was it meant to have a broad public appeal? About the animation, it appears to me as if it’s built on animie, and I kept having images of Hello Kitty in mind as I saw the islanders. So I guess where I am going is what is the marketing context of Pocket God, and did that marketing contribute to its final form?

  39. notice how much the natives look like the figures from “Polynesian” restaraunts.
    (Tiki huts… )
    these are pretty fixed streotypes, and something we have to point out to students.

  40. Isn’t this a tempest in a teapot, given that racism, by which I mean stereotyping individuals in terms of racial categories is endemic in gaming and the fantasy fiction tropes from which so many games are derived? Elves, orcs, dwarfs, sorcerers, humans, hobbits, balrogs…. just go to your nearest bookstore and peruse the SF/Fantasy shelves.

  41. If it is a tempest in a teapot to focus on a single case instead of the wider phenomenon, then focusing on racism in SF/Fantasy gaming and literature would also be a tempest in a teapot since that is but one case of the expression of racism in society in general. When does it stop being a teapot?

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