April 10, 2010

Kachina board game app

Review:  Here's hoping the Kachina board game app gets some serious kinks worked out

By Sebastian BlancoThe tile game Kachina came to the iPhone/iPod touch platform in waves. First, the app appeared as a single-player puzzle game using the Kachina rules. Then, an upgrade with in-app purchase allowed you to spend US$2.99 to get multiplayer functionality. Now, the Kachina app [$2.99] that you can find in the App Store is the full-featured version that includes both the puzzle and multiplayer modes.

We like the idea behind the Kachina game, which uses Hopi spirit imagery and tests your math skills as you race for the high score, but this is a situation where too many serious bugs destroy what's really an elegant game.

Comment:  The review explains how you play the game and how the software works. It doesn't address the dubious idea of making the Hopi religion into a game.

All you need to know about the game is it involves putting colorful pieces on a checkerboard. The pieces include Hummingbird, Koshari, Warrior, Wolf, Ogre, Eagle, Sun, and Chief.

To my amateur eye, the Hummingbird and Ogre pieces look vaguely like the kachinas (katsinas) of the same name. The Koshari piece looks vaguely like a Koshari clown, although these figures usually have comical rather than distorted or insane faces. The Warrior and Wolf pieces look like made-up kachinas, as does the kachina on the cover.

The Sun and Chief pieces use phony Hopi symbols. The Sun piece looks like a Hopi happy face. The Chief piece is culturally incorrect, since the Hopi didn't have a single chief. Traditionally they lived in autonomous villages headed by kikmongwi, or clan leaders.

The Eagle piece is the worst. It looks like a cartoon bird-man, not like anything in Hopi religion.

If the developers were making up superheroes based on Hopi traditions, I'd say the pseudo-Hopi graphics would be tolerable. All except the silly bird-man, that is. But as actual representations of Hopi religious figures, these images fail. The only one I think is genuine is the sun symbol on the upper right of the box.

No doubt the game's proponents will offer the usual excuses. "We're honoring the Hopi spirit." "Don't be so politically correct." "It's just a game." Etc.

Here's why the game is useless at best and harmful at worst:

1) The Hopi are sensitive about the use of their religion in non-Hopi contexts. Putting their sacred figures and symbols in a game trivializes them. It would be like creating a game with pieces representing God, Jesus, Mary, Satan, angels, et al.

Some people wouldn't have a problem with such a Christian game, but the two games really aren't comparable. Why not? Because our culture represents God, Jesus, and the rest in a million sincere, respectful ways. Anything that misrepresents them--e.g., a board game, a tourist trinket, or an episode of South Park or Family Guy--is a drop in the bucket compared to that. Christians don't have to worry about people getting the wrong idea because their deities are figuratively everywhere.

In contrast, most people don't know anything about the Hopi religion. This game will be their first and only exposure to it. I'd say that gives the developers much more responsibility to get it right.

2) The simple, one-word pieces--Eagle, Wolf, Sun--convey the idea that the Hopi religion is akin to nature worship. To me the myriad of Hopi gods, spirits, and legends is something like Hinduism in terms of complexity. It seems much more complex than the relatively straightforward Christianity.

3) The developers would have a hard time claiming the game has any educational value. From it you'll learn two Hopi words: kachina and koshari. You won't learn what they mean or anything else about the Hopi religion. What you'll learn is that the Hopi have colorful "spirits" that look like cartoon characters, which is basically nothing.

Suppose you invented a game involving poker chips or tiddlywinks. Suppose you put different cartoon images on each set of playing pieces. God and Jesus, Allah and Muhammad, Yahweh and Moses, Brahma and Krishna, etc. This Kachina game would be about as worthless--as uneducational and offensive--as those games would be.

You could create all these games. But since the games have nothing to do with the religious figures, why bother? Invent your own names and images--Zork! Jimbee! Sylandra!--and the game would work just as well. Don't bastardize a genuine Native religion unless you have a much better reason than this insignificant game.

For more on the subject, see Video Games Featuring Indians.

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