Identity and Multiculturalism in Non-Video Games

An abomination from Hecatomb card game.

This article was originally written as an essay for the course Communication and Media in Multicultural World at Jyväskylän yliopisto (University of Jyväskylä).

In this essay I aim to describe and analyze how games represent (cultural) identity through game mechanics and fictional worlds[1]. Games have to simplify many aspects of fiction in order to create working game mechanics. For example, the traditional game of chess identifies two basic layers of identity of game pieces: color and class. Children's games often work with two antagonistic group (social) identities robbers versus policemen, cowboys versus Indians… In this essay I would like to take a closer look how more complex games represent identity.

1. Cultural Identity in Game Mechanics and Fictional Worlds

Many games have to work with conceptualization of identity in order to establish a comprehensible system for players. For example, the highly influential pen and paper role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax, Arneson 1974) came up with simplified layers of identity which were then used in many following games. Gygax and Arneson tried to capture ethnical, social and interactional identity with these three categories: race[2], class[3] and alignment[4]. This approach to identity can be described as functionalistic – personal identity is mostly formed by various group memberships (Tajfel, Turner 1979, Stets, Burke 2000). So-called “othering” (Kearney 2003) plays an important role in forming the identity of characters[5] (Langer 2008) and monsters (Švelch 2011) in games.

While Dungeons & Dragons do not establish a hierarchy in identity layers, many derivative games such as Magic: the Gathering (MTG) (Garfield 1993) employ a dominant identity[6]. In MTG all cards are distributed among six groups which are represented by five colors, the sixth group (in MTG terminology called “neutral”) is considered colorless. All colors symbolize the ideology, core values and geographical location of given group, e.g. green faction resides in forests, its ideology is built around the concept of growth, its creatures are beasts, elves and other wild-living creatures, black faction is connected to swamps, darkness and death. Pentagram on the back of each MTG card also describes basic relations of these five factions – neighboring colors support each other, opposite colors are considered as enemies. MTG of course works with more layers of identity but I would now like to move on to examples of newer card games (inspired by MTG) which have more interesting and more complex character identities.

A Game of Thrones Collectible Card Game (AGoT) (Lang et al. 2002) uses a dominant identity that is tied to feudal system of the fictional world of Westeros as it was created by the writer George R.R. Martin. Characters are divided by their allegiance to six noble houses. Other part of identity is conceptualized by keywords[7]. Keywords represent various types of identity: class or social role (e.g. lady, knight, bastard or ally), ethnicity[8] (Ironborn, Asshai), house (House Florent, House Tarly) or specific group membership (Brotherhood, Kingsguard, Queensguard). Every character has at least one keyword. From a meta-gaming[9] viewpoint of a player who wants to build a winning deck, certain keywords can be considered lesser and some other superior. For example, very common keyword of Ally in practice lowers the survivability of character, because there are more ways to get rid of an Ally than of regular character with any other keyword. On the other hand, keywords Lady/Lord increase the chance of survival.
Regular (on the left) and unique character from House Baratheon (AGoT).
In addition to keywords, AGoT implements another system of identity called crests. There are only five types of crests and from meta-gaming perspective they are generally considered as beneficial to a given character. Holy, Learned, Noble, War and Shadow[10] crests play an interesting role in defining the identity. Normally we would assume that all Lady, Lord, King and Queen characters would have the Noble crest, but that is not the case. Keywords are more common than crests, also crests can duplicate the identity (so there can be a Lord with a Noble crest), but they also enrich the identity (e.g. a Lord with a War crest). The use of crests plays a larger role in meta-gaming than in the fiction, as different versions of the same characters can have different crests.

Many card-, board-, and miniature games also work with a concept of a unique identity. Unique characters tend to have stronger abilities and are in general more powerful than the regular ones[11] and they represent only one individual character from the fictional world of the game. On the other hand, all the other (regular) characters can be perceived as random representatives of a certain group identity (e.g. Old Red Priest from AGoT). From my personal experience, players are more emotionally invested in unique characters[12]. In case of playing more copies of regular characters, players sometimes customize their appearance and give them sense of a unique identity[13]. The game mechanic of uniqueness is very closely tied to the fictional world as it prevents unrealistic situations with two identical characters. 

From the description of identity representation which I gave above, it is now quite apparent that the identity in card games is very static, largely due to the medium of physical paper cards which cannot be altered without permanent and irreversible consequences. Players can sometimes manipulate the identity of characters (in AGoT you can add, or change the keywords and crests), usually by adding some so-called Attachment (or Enchantment) cards. The former identity is still visible and players can reverse it back. This representation is in accord with the functionalistic (Lahti 2012) or social scientific (Mednoza et al. 2002) approach to identity. I would argue that games use this simplification of identity, as something objective and fully understandable, mainly due to limitations of their medium. But at the same time they can still work with homogeneity/heterogeneity within certain groups. I will explore this topic in the second chapter along with its relations to multiculturalism (and intercultural competence).

While most card and miniature games represent identity according to functionalistic perspective, Hecatomb’s (Elliot, Tweet 2005) approach is more interpretative (Lahti 2012, Mednoza et al. 2002) as it manipulates the identity through interaction (Spreckles, Kothoff in Lahti 2012) of characters. In Hecatomb all creatures are called minions and they can be brought to play as individuals or as a part of an abomination[14]. The pentagon shape and translucent parts of card allow the player to turn a card and put another on it. As a result the player can create an abomination comprised of up to five minions. Only the top minion retains its full identity while all the others now express only a small part of their personal identities – i.e. their dominant group membership[15], strength and certain types of abilities. In case they do not have any of these abilities, they become anonymous representatives of their groups. Two of visible abilities express minion’s competence to form abominations: Hosts can work only as the bottom minion of abomination while Parasites stop the player from adding further minions to a certain abomination. Whole abomination has the identity of everything that is visible – it can in effect belong to more group identities[16].

Single minion from Hecatomb.
Hecatomb works with an idea of identity dependent on context. While it uses a very rough simplification of interaction, situation and context, the difference in identity representation between older games and Hecatomb can be, in my opinion, used as a metaphor for progress in the scientific study of identity: “[…] the move from static, essentialist conceptualizations of the construct to a more dynamic one recognizing shifts in signification within diverse contexts […]” (Mendoza et al. 2002: 313)  

2. Multiculturalism and Intercultural Competence in Game Mechanics and Fictional Worlds

In video games, individual cultures (or better put, culture representations) are not easy to recognize and scholars usually do not delve deeper into multiculturalism than to distinction of different races[17] (Douglas 2010). Non-video games are easier to analyze in this aspect. Multiculturalism also has very practical implications in card and miniature games. Many games use the concept of culture-specific resources which are required to play characters from the specific culture. Therefore players are often forced to build homogenous decks, usually around one or two cultures, to satisfy the resource cost of characters and other cards. Miniature games often enforce the rule that all characters in a player’s band have to belong to one culture. Game mechanics therefore represent multiculturalism, on a level of dominant group identities, as something very hard or even impossible to achieve. 

For example, A Game of Thrones Collectible Card Game penalizes the player for playing cards out of his house by increasing their cost, therefore acting in accord to Kearney’s findings: “Most human cultures have been known to deploy myths of sacrifice to scapegoat strangers. Holding certain aliens responsible for the ills of society, the scapegoaters proceed to isolate or eliminate them. This sacrificial strategy furnishes communities with a binding identity, that is, with the basic sense of who is included (us) and who is excluded (them). So the price to be paid for the construction of the happy tribe is often the ostracizing of some outsider: the immolation of the "other" on the altar of the "alien".” (Kearney 2003: 26) Outsiders are not welcome to player’s house, a penalty which can represent inhospitality to other cultures, has to be paid in addition to a normal resource cost of an out of house character.

While cultural homogeneity within a deck of cards has its benefit in a better resource management, homogenous decks are at the same time more vulnerable[18] and less adaptable. Dominant group identities (colors in MTG, houses in AGoT) are usually built around a common theme or game mechanic – group identity greatly influences personal identity of all group members, same as in social identity theory (Tajfel, Turner 1979). This group identity defines group’s strengths and weaknesses. In general, having more different cultures in a deck makes it more universal. Of course groups are not always strictly homogeneous and players can usually find dissenting characters which have abilities and identities resembling other groups.

Multiculturalism can be also represented in an individual character belonging to more than one group. In MTG it usually[19] means that a player needs all culture-specific resources to bring such character with multicultural identity into play. From meta-gaming perspective, multicultural cards are in general more powerful but harder to play successfully due to increased requirements on resource management. In AGoT multicultural characters are not limited by need of culture-specific resources. From meta-gaming perspective, they are more universal as they can participate in more decks than characters with only one group identity.

The MGT approach forces a player to form a multicultural deck in order to successfully play multicultural characters. In a strange way this perspective coming from individual’s need for belonging into a group (Tajfel, Turner 1979) creates a strange society in which multiculturalism is only successful and beneficial on the level of group-to-group multiculturalism. AGoT effectively hinders multiculturalism at a group-to-group level. From meta-gaming perspective, AGoT is more open to multicultural individuals because it does not use culture-specific resources.

Intercultural competence in meaning of “an ability to positively meet cultural diversity” (Jokikokko 2005) is also represented in non-video games, but in rather inconsistent manner. There are roughly two basic approaches to this: the intercultural competence either resides in characters themselves (MTG) or outside them in more abstract game components (AGoT). The latter literary means that there is no individual competence, while the first option usually takes two positions: characters either enable cultural diversity (usually by lessening the resource cost) or are empowered by it, therefore they promote it.

There are more interesting topics and details about how identity and multiculturalism are represented in games, but there is no more space for them in this essay.


Identity plays a very important role in games, both in the fiction and the game mechanics. Quite often players are in situation in which, for example, all Knights in play gain some bonuses. While group memberships are the most commonly used identifications, games are able to use more modern approaches to identity than just social identity theory (Tajfel, Turner 1979). For example, Hecatomb quite successfully experiments with a game concept built upon interpretative, context-based identity.

Multiculturalism is a very popular topic in videogames (Langer 2008, Douglas 2010). In my opinion, non-video games represent multiculturalism even more crudely and are struggling to achieve a balance between promoting multiculturalism and completely hindering it.

Theories concerning real life identity and cultural competence are valid in game research. Due to great popularity of games like Magic: The Gathering, I think it is important to study how games work with these themes and how they potentially influence players in their views on identity and multiculturalism.


Card photos by Véva

Douglas, Christopher (2010). Multiculturalism in World of Warcraft. Electronic Book Review. retrieved online [2012-02-23]: http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/intrinsically

Elias, Skaff; Heinsoo, Rob; Tweet, Jonathan (2003). Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game. Wizards of the Coast.

Elliott, Mike; Tweet, Jonathan (2005). Hecatomb. Wizards of the Coast.

Festinger, Leon; Riecken, Henry; Schachter, Stanley (1956). When Prophecy Fails. Harper-Torchbooks.
Garfield, Richard (1993). Magic: The Gathering. Wizards of the Coast.

Gygax, Gary; Arneson, Dave (1974). Dungeon & Dragons Volume 2: Monsters & Treasure. Lake Geneva, WI: Tactical Studies Rules, 1974.

Jokikokko, Katri (2005). Perspectives on intercultural competence. In Räsänen, R. & San, J. (Eds.). Conditions for intercultural learning and co-operation. Turku: Finnish Educational Research Association, p. 89–106.

Juul, Jesper (2005). Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. 

Kearney, Richard (2003). Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness. Londom; New York: Routledge.

Lahti, Malgorzata (2012). Perspectives for the study of cultural identity. Lecture handout provided on 22.02.2012.

Lang, Eric M.; Petersen, Christian T; French, Nate. (2002). A Game of Thrones Collectible Card Game. Fantasy Flight Games.

Lang, Eric M. (2004). Call of Cthulhu: Collectible Card Game. Fantasy Flight Games. 

Langer, Jessica (2008). The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post)Colonialism in World of Warcraft. In: Corneliussen, Hilde; Rettberg, Jill Walker (Eds.). Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader. p 87−110. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008.

Mendoza, Lily S.; Halualani, Rona T.; Drzewiecka, Jolanta A. (2002). Moving the Discourse on Identities in Intercultural Communication: Structure, Culture, and Resignifications. Communication Quarterly, Vol. 50 No 3 & 4 Summer–Fall 2002, p. 312–327.

Stets, Jan E.; Burke, Peter J. (2000). Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3, 224237. SAGE.

Švelch, Jaroslav (2011). The Monster and the System: Representations of Monstrosity in Game Mechanics. Poster for FROG 2011 conference in Vienna (21.−23. 10. 2011).

Tajfel, Henri, Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.). The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33-47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

[1] According to Juul (2005) games consist of two main parts: rules and fiction.
[2] Race in Dungeons & Dragons is a biological feature which affects both physical and psychic abilities of a given character. According to Langer, race in World of Warcraft works similarly: “[…] race is not only a biological feature, but is tied inextricably and physically to particular personality and intellectual traits. […] appearance signifies familiarity or otherness rather than good or evil.” (2008: 103)   
[3] Class in Dungeons & Dragons is connected to social identity and in general represents different professions and specializations of fantastical adventurers.
[4] Alignment in Dungeons & Dragons represents a standardized mode of behavior. Dungeon Master (the one who enforces and interprets the rules) is motivated to reward the players for behaving in accord with their chosen alignment, or to penalize ones who act contrary to their alignment, therefore acting as motivational force to reduce possible cognitive dissonance (Festinger et al. 1956). Also non-player characters controlled by Dungeon Master are supposed to be behaving as their alignment dictates.
[5] Langer explained how group identity and othering works in case of MMORPG World of Warcraft: “[…] World of Warcraft carries out a constant project of radically "othering" the Horde, not by virtue of distinctions between good and evil but rather by distinctions between civilized and savage, self and other, and center and periphery.” (2008: 87)
[6] Even Dungeons & Dragons spin-off game Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game (Elias et al. 2003) sort all characters by their membership to four basic factions. In first edition this dominant identity was based on alignment, in second on ecosystem/geographical location.
[7] Call of Cthulhu: Collectible Card Game (Lang 2004), and in a simpler way MTG, use a very similar system.
[8] “Othering” is very visible in this (ethnicity) layer of identity representation. As the dominant ethnicity (Westerosi) is missing as a keyword, “other” ethnicities are therefore presented as something different from the majority.
[9] Meta-game is an approach to gaming that takes into account more than just the rules, for example learning which are the most played decks and strategies increases is a meta-gaming knowledge which can in competitive games increase chances of winning.
[10] Shadow crest has different implications for the game than the other crests. It was added to AGoT as a new game mechanic in King’s Landing expansion.
[11] Usually there can be only one copy of a unique character in play at one time. This rule is present in MTG, AGoT, Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game or Call of Cthulhu: Collectible Card Game and many other games.
[12] My girlfriend always gets very sad and angry at the same time when her unique character dies.
[13] My gaming friend paints his Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures if he has multiple copies of the same regular character. Making a character unique in its visual design has practical reasons for the game – players do not get confused with many same looking characters. This approach is quite usual in many miniature games, but does not work well in card games.
[14] Hecatomb uses the terminology of horror literature (especially as it was invented by H.P. Lovecraft). Abomination could be described as a team of two to five characters with one leader who gives the abomination her identity.
[15] Minions belong to four groups, described in the fiction of Hecatomb as Dooms: Corruption, Deceit, Destruction, and Greed.
[16] Game mechanics also use interaction of dominant group identities in order to tell if a special triggered effect happens. Minions have synergy with ones of their kind as often as with members of different groups. Triggered effects are resolved when a player brings a minion to play.
[17] Both Langer (2008) and Douglas (2010) explore the question whether race is being represented as biological function or rather as a social construct – culture.
[18] For example, MTG has many card effects which destroy all characters belonging to one dominant group identity.
[19] In 2005 MTG published an expansion Ravnica: City of Guilds which introduced hybrid mana costs that are an exception to a basic rule that you have to pay all culture-specific resources for a multicultural character.

1 comment:

  1. Nice essay! RPGs on the other hand promote multiculturalism, as they are easier when you combine skills of different races, don't they?