Welp, I've been back from my short "vaca" for a day or so, and it's time to get back to "work" (such as my work is). Had a lot of thoughts come into the old "think box" during the course of the trip...thinks that might apply to my proposed "South American" campaign setting. However, as I've found that writing 20,000 word, meandering posts tend to be less-than-effective at communicating (or organizing) my ideas, I'm going to try to break these up into bite-sized chunks.
SO, as a bit of a "precursor" allow me to say that on our way back from Montana we stopped off in Leavenworth, Washington for a couple nights. This was my first trip to "the Ultimate Holiday Town USA" and it was pretty trippy.
See, Leavenworth was established in 1906 (as the souvenir t-shirts proudly recount), but the small logging town went into a long economic decline after Great Northern Railway relocated its headquarters to nearby Wenatchee in the '20s. Located on Highway 2 (the road that cuts through Stevens Pass in the Cascades) the town would probably have appeared to be a nice little vacation getaway for folks seeking outdoor recreation...say fishing the Skykomish or hiking. But the building of Stevens Pass Ski Resort in the 1930s, the presence of Lake Chelan for boating and water sports, and the sheer number of similar small towns in rural Washington probably contributed to Leavenworth being nothing more than a wide spot in the road for road-trippers heading out of the more populous King County. I'm guessing.
So it was that in the 1960s, a pair of "Seattle business men" who had bought a roadside cafe and was looking at a way to increase the tourist traffic to the area, hit on the idea of developing Leavenworth as a "theme town," a recreation of a Bavarian village with buildings featuring architecture out of 1800s Germany, shops selling lederhosen and Alpine hats, and menus filled with schnitzel, beer, and brats. The wikipedia entry says they were inspired by Solvang, California who sport a Danish-themed town, whose town has been a tourist draw since the late 1940s, pulling a million visitors per year. As Leavenworth draws twice that number annually, I think it's fair to say they've succeeded in becoming the tourist attraction they want to be.
For me, I have mixed feeling about it. Yes, it's cute (and I am, of course, a fan of beer and brats), but it feels excessive. Worse, much of it feels, not just artificial, but a touch insincere. My kids' first reaction was "it looks like Disneyland" (they've never yet been to Disneyland), and why not? Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle is the model for Disneyland's iconic palace, and it's located in the heart of the region (and time era) that Leavenworth seeks to model.
And that's the thing: I've been to Bavaria. I've been to Neuschwanstein and Munich and Rothenburg. And while, yes, there's a lot of beer and schnitzel and sausage to be had, there's much more than that. There are plenty of buildings that don't have the cutesy architecture and faux gothic signage going on. I mean, even the local hospital looks like some sort of Alpine chateaux!
The thing about Solvang is that it was a Danish community that originally settled it. And it was Danish immigrants and their descendants that, after WWII, tried to recreate some of the architecture and sculpture they'd seen in the fatherland while fighting in Europe. When the Danish Prince Frederick visited Solvang as part of his US tour in 1939 it was to see the Danish people living there...the "theme town" hadn't yet become a "thing," though I'm sure there were Danish traditions being kept alive in Solvang just as the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle keeps alive parts of the community's Norwegian and Swedish heritage (you can buy lutefisk at the right time of year, they have a seafood festival to commemorate Norwegian Constitution Day, for example).
Leavenworth, on the other hand, has no particular German heritage, and certainly no connection to Bavaria. They could have chosen to style themselves after an English village or a province of China or some town in Mexico or whatever. It's cultural appropriation, I guess...though since the culture being appropriated doesn't belong to a minority or historically oppressed people, I suppose there's no real stink to be raised about it. Probably there's some enterprising business folks in Berlin considering how to transform some small community into a theme town based on the "American West" with cowboys and Indians and saloons and whatnot.
[oh, wait...there already is (thank you, internet): Pullman City Harz is an American "wild west" town in Northern Germany. Awesome...especially as it appears to be named after Pullman, Washington (Go Cougs!). If I ever get back to Germany, maybe I'll give it a visit]
Anyway, despite my queasiness over the blatant commercialism...and a certain amount of bloatedness that comes from two days of sauerkraut and maibok....the place IS cute and a very nice place to visit. Yeah, it's goofy/weird but at least I can get a German-ish meal at a restaurant that will serve my kids, too (such is not the case with the best German-style pubs in Seattle), AND a big ol' stein of HBH. Most of the locals are engaged in the tourist industry, and most of the working folks I saw were younger than me, or not much older. I'd guess they've never known their town as anything other than what it is, and while they share a similar strained-weariness all tourist-industry folks have towards their clientele, they still approach their theme with a certain amount of gusto. When I spoke of "insincerity," I wasn't talking about the people, more the choices made in executing the "theme" (I can forgive a hotel called The Edelweiss but "Mozart's Steakhouse" is a bit tougher for my Austrian heritage to swallow).
*ahem* The POINT being, that Leavenworth is a fun place, and one I wouldn't mind returning to...maybe not for Oktoberfest, but definitely for a long weekend in summer or around the winter holiday season. And while I doubt I'll ever pick up a pair of lederhosen, I'd probably buy a beer stein if I found one that suited my taste (or lack thereof)...and I wouldn't feel too bad about it.
All of which, I realize, appears to have ZERO to do with gaming. But as I consider using real-world geography, history, and peoples to build a campaign setting, these issue of cultural appropriation looms in my mind. I'm not so much worried that I'd be giving offense to someone, so much as I worry I'd be perpetrating bad, false, or tasteless stereotypes in the name of "fun." How much is "appropriate appropriation" and how much is excessive? What amount of authenticity is acceptable and what constitutes "too little?" What amount is respectful to the cultures in question? Maybe these are silly, academic considerations (especially considering I'm not even running a game at the moment), but they are things I think about.
More on this later, along with some ideas I've had on possible approaches to my "problematic" campaign setting.