The Middle Ground

May 15, 2008

I know I gave up forums, but there’s a relative new one called Cultures of Play that Ryan Macklin started. Like the Forge, Story Games, and Knife Fight, it seems really exciting in the beginning, and hopefully it will continue to be so for a while. I think I will try to restrain myself from posting too much, because that’s one of the proven ways to ruin a forum. This is cross-posted from there, though.

Ryan’s been talking about this “Middle Ground” term that he and Leonard Balsera have been discussing. This is me unpacking what that term means to me, because I’m probably coming from somewhere else.

“Middle Ground” is a loaded term for me because of the work of cultural historian Richard White, who uses it in a very specific way in his award-winning 1991 book, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. This book was really significant in changing the way I thought about interpersonal and intercultural communication, though Richard White himself warns that many aspects of the Middle Ground he described are unique to the period he was talking about and may not be accurate when applied universally to other situations.

White’s book is about Native American and European interactions during a specific period of French colonialism in the Great Lakes region. His central argument is that — because neither side had the power to dictate the rules of how the relationship between them could be conducted — they created their own system of interaction through a process of trial and error, a pidgin in-between culture founded on misunderstanding the intentions of the other. For example, the French would do one thing, hoping for a certain kind of reaction from the native peoples, and the native peoples would do something else, maybe in response, maybe totally unrelated, and, over time, this formed a set of rituals, rituals that weren’t things native people or French people would ever normally do, but rituals that only had meaning when certain French and Native American people performed them together. Otherwise, they were meaningless. These rituals were both an artifact of intercultural communication and a method of communicating between the cultures. So, basically, before they could communicate, both sides had to collectively create a system for communicating, basically through misinterpreting what the other side was doing.

(Sounds a lot like roleplaying theory, huh?)

Nicolas Standaert, a Belgian scholar of Chinese Christianity (yeah, I read a lot of weird stuff), also wrote a short booklet on this subject, called Methodology in View of Contact Between Cultures: The China Case in the 17th Century. In it, Standaert talks about the various ways scholars have thought about intercultural communication and how it happens. His first three models are:

1. Focusing on how Western cultures transmit traditions to non-Western cultures.
2. Focusing on how non-Western cultures misinterpret and adapt Western traditions.
3. Focusing on how, in the process of transmitting culture, Western cultures also transmit their false understandings of non-Western cultures (Said’s Orientalism being the classic example of this kind of model).

Standaert’s fourth model is something like Richard White’s “middle ground.” He says that this last model focuses on how different cultures come together to create something new as a result of their interactions, something neither of them could have created on their own.

Speaking more generally, not about White or Standaert’s specific thoughts, I think this way of thinking about intercultural communication has many direct ties to what happens in roleplaying, the communication between players that creates something new, often through a process of misunderstanding. It’s also interesting that White’s model specifically posits that this only happens when one side cannot dictate the rules for interaction or overwhelm the other. It only happens when there is a negotiation that occurs because of relative parity. There’s more than a few lessons there, I think, speaking to some of what’s underlying the “player empowerment” that’s often mentioned in relation to small press games.

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