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So You Want to Play With Culture?

By August 6, 2021October 13th, 2021Interviews15 min read

An interview with Dr. Thomas B. Yee on Super Mario Odyssey.

Back in 2017, as a former mariachi violinist living near the US-Mexico border, I was shocked to see Mario playing guitar while wearing Mexican outfits. At first, I thought that someone like me who was living in the middle of these two countries could use the game to reconnect with Mexican heritage once again. Today, though, we continue to debate whether Nintendo’s depiction of Mexico was accurate; or shall we say, accurate enough?

As critics have pointed out, Tostarena, a location in this game, portrayed a stereotypical image of Mexican culture:

At first, I didn’t take issue with (...) Tostarena. It’s bright, colorful, and full of Calacas (...) But for me, the cringe factor was when Mario had to wear a poncho and sombrero... [but people would say] “Who cares? It’s all in good fun. (...) this is a celebration of Mexican culture; it’s joyous and how could you hate that?” [However,] we, as Mexican people, are not ponchos and sombreros; that’s just a caricature. [we]... never wear this garb [like our] “default” outfit as the media would lead you to believe. We’ve normalized these depictions, but we shouldn’t."

Janet GarciaEditorial Writer at NerdMuch

Despite my love for mariachi music, I wondered if Tostarena’s music was really an authentic homage to traditional Mexican music. Thus, after Dr. Thomas B. Yee’s presentation at the Ludo2021 Tenth European Conference on Video Game Music and Sound, I decided to share his perspective on this game.

Dr. Yee, a music theory professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, fell in love with music through Nintendo’s games. His research examines the meaning of music, including the significance of media in real-world situations.

When Cultural Representation Goes Wrong

Dr. Yee began his talk by discussing how the director of the Avatar’s live-action film, The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan, was accused of “whitewashing” the animation series when he cast white people as the main characters of the acclaimed animated series. Shyamalan replied to those comments saying that:

The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous (…) Maybe they didn’t see the faces that they wanted to see but, overall, it is more than they could have expected

Because Avatar is a show inspired by East Asian and Inuit cultures, Asian audiences disliked the fact that the actors in the movie did not appear like those in the animated series. The film was received poorly. Along with poor production quality, Shyamalan’s disdain for racial representation led to the film’s downfall. Shyamalan’s reasoning was that Avatar’s fictional environment had no resemblance to real-world people or traditions.

Dr. Yee referenced the work of Dr. Adrienne Shaw, whose research undercuts arguments like Shyamalan’s. To summarize, Dr. Shaw makes two important points following this logic:

  1. Fictional settings, by definition, are irrelevant to real-world representation;
  2. Fantasy is trivial entertainment not worth protesting about.

However, Dr. Yee refutes these claims and considers that fiction has a real-world effect on people’s attitudes and beliefs.

Fictional movies often blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy. In video games, fiction often gives rich cultural depictions in order to provide a relatable real-world experience.

But while the case of the Avatar film was widely publicized, video game controversies may be more easily overlooked. Dr. Yee believes that researching racial representation in entertainment is “more crucial than ever” given the global need for racial justice.

“This perspective on representation in fiction is hopelessly naive. Just as fictional music devoid of real-world reference is impossible, I doubt that someone embedded in human society could construct a fictional world wholly detached from real world meanings. Rather, fantasy is significant precisely for its immersive and imaginative power, catalyzing learning about ourselves and our own world. We shape our lives according to the stories we tell, including how we view and treat others.”

Dr. Thomas YeeProfessor of Music Theory at UT San Antonio

Sounds Like There is a Problem with Odyssey

While Nintendo changed the game’s cover after Latin American critics accused it of being stereotypical, some gamers considered the media accusations to be exaggerated or unimportant, resembling rhetoric that Adrienne Shaw had observed. The debate was never really resolved.

Since this subject required further dialogue, Dr. Yee sought to explain that racial representation can be heard as much as seen in Tostarena. To prove his point, he compared the music of Tostarena Town to that of Bowser’s Castle. He believes that music can help us understand the attitudes towards racial representation in this game.

The Music of Tostarena Town

Given the fact that the Tostarena inhabitants wear sombreros and ponchos, the music of their land is, unsurprisingly, mariachi. As such, Tostarena gives gamers a tourist-like notion based on stereotypes rather than providing a comprehensive knowledge of Mexico. Tostarena’s mariachi sound is conveyed across the town by a melody composed of trumpets and violins that are accompanied by rhythms characteristic of Cuban music but not commonly found in traditional mariachi music.

One of the game’s many hidden locations, “Dancing with New Friends,” calls for Mario to dress up in a poncho and dance with the Tostarenans. The music here has a trumpet and guitars that sound extroverted. We might say that Naoto Kubo, the composer of the soundtrack, may have tried to create a clear link between the scenery and gameplay in this area. Most gamers undoubtedly got the reference to mariachi. However, for the handful of players who are familiar with mariachi, it may have sounded as if it was done with little insight.

While Dr. Yee notes that mariachi is a well-known Mexican musical genre, he wonders if the mariachi music in Odyssey is authentic. To answer that, he worked with Professor Vicente Barrera, who was a mariachi performer for many years, to evaluate the tracks according to traditional mariachi conventions.

Dancing With Friends – Super Mario Odyssey

The music of Tostarena, despite its obvious reference to mariachi, differs from conventional mariachi practice in many respects. Authentic mariachi is distinguished by its instrumentation, particularly its fundamental rhythm section, which is composed of three guitar-like instruments: the guitarrón, the classical guitar, and the vihuela.

In Tostarena, however, an electric bass replaces the guitarrón, and modern steel-string guitar substitutes for the vihuela. Bongos, tambourine, and accordion are some of the instruments used in Tostarena, which are not in traditional mariachi style. Also, the musician’s playing style is full of exaggerated trumpet and violin sounds that make the music seem excessive compared to conventional practices.

Therefore, Dr. Yee and Barrera conclude that Tostarena’s music is far from authentic due to these deviations from the most authentic heritage, especially in terms of instruments and style. On the other hand, though, this music is considered to be well-liked in Mexico. However, in order to understand the reasoning behind this, we must first consider the use of Japanese music in Super Mario Odyssey.

Tostarena: Town – Super Mario Odyssey

The Music in Bowser’s Kingdom

Bowser’s Castle’s soundtrack evokes cultural connotations to Japan. Dr. Yee contacted Dr. Liam Hynes-Tawa, who has taught Japanese music theory and style at Yale University, to determine how Bowser’s Castle conveys Japanese culture.

Unlike Tostarena’s Mariachi, “Bowser’s Castle” respectfully adheres to traditional Japanese instruments from the Sankyoku, an ensemble of three traditional Japanese instruments – the koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi. None of these instruments are replaced. There are also taiko drums in the background, evoking the percussion drums that are used in the kabuki theatre.

Bowser’s Castle – Super Mario Odyssey

The use of instruments here is chosen meticulously. Once inside the castle, the use of instruments becomes richer, with the shinobue flute and shamisen, by using traditional Japanese modes such as min’yo, ritsu, and miyakobushi. All of these components describe Nintendo’s musical sensitivity to the Japanese market.

While the creators went to great efforts to depict authentic Japanese music, they also made it accessible to Westerners by including other sounds like orchestral strings and winds with European vibes.

You might ask: if Bowser’s Castle also contains inauthentic musical elements like Tostarena, why is the use of non-Japanese instruments in Bowser’s Castle a problem to Japanese culture? Isn’t inauthenticity a problem here? The question, according to Dr. Yee, is not whether the music is authentic, but rather how the music is using authentic elements.

In Bowser’s Castle, instruments foreign to Japan only play Western-style music, whereas traditional Japanese instruments are utilized exclusively for Japanese references.  Nintendo made sure to welcome Westerners while keeping the Japanese music intact. Dr. Yee’s core argument here is that the Japanese and Western instruments exist in the complementary musical dialogue, paralleling the blend of Japanese and Western influences in modern-day Japanese culture

Wait, Do You Wanna Cancel Mario?

We cannot deny that, while problematic, many fans seem to enjoy seeing part of their culture represented in video games, even if it dwindles into stereotypes. For that reason, Dr. Yee considers that we need a criterion other than authenticity to evaluate the cultural references of music in video games. Because not all inauthenticity is the same, Dr. Yee believes that it is possible to make cultural references without falling into appropriation or misrepresentation.

The authentic characteristics that may assist us in defining a specific ethnic identity may be misunderstood or manipulated if they are shaped to meet the expectations of a larger audience rather than being an honest presentation. In the case of Tostarena, however, Nintendo was arguably not even interested in a kind of music that was Mexican:

What mattered most to Kubo was not that the music be Mexican per se, but that it signaled Latin-American associations to hearers. From across the ocean, [authenticity] seemed unnecessary – [this music was] ‘Latin enough’ to play the role, as far as Japanese (and, too often, American) audiences were concerned. Though Mariachi is genuinely Mexican music with a rich history, from a non-Mexican perspective [, the sure-fire stereotype flattens it] into an aural calling card. (...) The crucial problem with Tostarena [is not] inauthenticity per se, but stereotyping. (...) Cultures are complex entities, and any [misrepresentation] is bound to alienate real-life communities.”

Dr. Thomas YeeProfessor of Music Theory at UT San Antonio

The success of the music in Bowser’s Castle, according to Dr. Yee, occurs because it does not reduce Japanese culture to a stereotype, but advances a broader cultural argument. Thus we can learn from Nintendo at least two features of music that command respect for culture:

  1. Productively and creatively combine elements internal and external to culture to advance a broader rhetorical, cultural or narrative argument.
  2. Draw from multiple diverse, non-stereotypical sources to present a multidimensional picture of a culture.

During our interview with Dr. Yee, we discovered that he has also analyzed the music of Mount Volbono, a location in Super Mario Odyssey representative of Italian food. He is interested in discussing the use of mandolin and accordion that is reminiscent of stereotypes such as The Godfather’s Love theme. Similarly, the fusion of Russian and Scandinavian references in Odyssey’s Shiveria Town remains a great topic for further discussion.

The Future of Cultural Representations in Games

Dr. Yee spoke about his upcoming book Gender, Race and Religion in Video Game Music that will discuss issues of representation within different video game titles. In this publication, he will also examine other titles such as Overwatch, Civilization VI, and Raji: An Ancient Epic. Other game titles that he seeks to reference in his book include a comprehensive gender analysis of all the Final Fantasy Series, Horizon Zero Dawn, and its sequel Horizon Forbidden West; and a theological interpretation of games such as NieR:Automata, Lightning Returns, and the Xenoblade Chronicles series.

Ultimately, his goal is to interpret how we make sense of the video game music that connects to us as players to show that, through a fictional world, conveys something more than a trivial or worthless narrative. Rather, these connect to the deepest parts of our identity.

We cannot excuse Nintendo, being a well-established company, for relying on stereotypes and providing a culturally underwhelming product. While no single game developer will know enough about every culture represented in a game, cultural researchers exist and have collaborated as consultants for the entertainment industries. Collectively, scholars and developers can combine cultural research and game design into a compelling product.

During his research, Dr. Yee discovered that a particular team of developers that intended to construct a colorful location based in Mexico actually rendered out a world based on a photograph actually pertaining to a town in Italy. In comparison, Raji: An Ancient Epic is a game that excels at representing ancient India in culture because the developers knew the culture very well.

When you are playing Raji it doesn't feel like this is something that is curated for a tourist’s eye, an outsider. [That game] makes you feel as if you were (...) traveling in ancient India. You stumble upon (...) a festival that's already in progress, but the festival doesn't exist for your sake – it exists for the (...) locals. [It is your decision to ask] what does this mean for you? The festival [is not] curated to your taste or into your understanding as a visitor."

Dr. Thomas YeeProfessor of Music Theory at UT San Antonio

“We need your voice; we need your critical thinking on these issues.”

Raji is a wonderful example since the composer of the soundtrack, Linos Tzelos, is actually Greek and moved to India to learn traditional Indian music. Scholars may also benefit from this kind of collaboration since everyday media conveys valuable information that the academic community tends to disregard.

Furthermore, Dr. Yee, believes that “there are more voices to be had,” in academic settings, such as those in video game journalism. When asked about advice to students and video game enthusiasts interested in doing similar research on video games, Dr. Yee emphatically replied, “We need your voice; we need your critical thinking on these issues.” He considers that there will always be a need for individuals to reflect on the entertainment we consume. We need people prepared to construct a comprehensive case about meaning rather than just dismissing the fictional imagination as unimportant.

Dr. Yee encourages people to speak out if there is an ethical issue with the media and to praise it when it is justified. There are numerous academic disciplines, such as Ludomusicology, that welcome all views and are prepared to engage in more perspectives.

As someone who looks forward to playing Super Mario Odyssey again, I am pleased to hear that the forthcoming monograph from Dr. Yee will include so much cultural commentary about this multifaceted video game. Of equal importance is to know that the excitement gamers feel for these imaginary worlds is just as valid and genuine as the reality that surrounds us. Whether we realize it or not, we project our personality and emotions onto the stories we enjoy.

So, after going through all this, I may finally try Taco Bell, which I have always thought of as inauthentic Mexican food. ​Because culture is an evolving aspect of humanity that should be examined on a case-by-case basis, in the end, everything revolves around the act of learning to recognize and respect the many facets of culture, even in the smallest of reference to its home.

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