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April 2nd, 2007


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03:12 pm - Examples of and Approaches to Race in RPGs
There has been a fair bit of discussion regarding race and RPGs on Vincent Baker's new forum on "God, Sex, and RPGs" -- the eclectically-titled "I Would Knife-Fight A Man". I had posted first in the thread "Examples of Racism in RPGs" -- which broke down in controversy, but there were many follow-up threads, as seen in the forum category race & rpgs.

Via the IRIS Networks' Race and Ethnicity in Games sub-forum, I read an article on a Milwaukee newpaper site, "A new tone in gaming", about the third game in the Guild Wars series, "Guild Wars: Nightfall", which is set in a fantasy world inspired by North African culture. It was written by former TSR author Jeff Grubb (whose tabletop RPG credits include Marvel Superheroes, Buck Rogers, and D20 Modern).

Also via IRIS, I saw "Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet" by Lisa Nakamura.

Examples of Race Issues

As I said in the Knife-Fight thread, I have never experienced racism in a game in the blatant sense of someone explicitly denigrating me based on race. However, there have been times when I have been made to pause and think about race. I'll talk about two of them.

At AmberCon NorthWest '06, I played in a game called "Exponential". I was playing the only Asian in a group of American scientist PCs, and as it happened, I was also the only Asian player. My PC was a rabid anti-communist, but even so when the destruction of the world was threatened, he suggested that we (the U.S.) talk to the Chinese government to work with them rather than trying to fight them to wipe out a project of theirs. However, everyone else was insistent that the Chinese couldn't possibly be made to understand the danger. Now, this is mixed up with anti-communism attitudes, but the vigor did give me pause. There wasn't anything overt, but it made me think. cf. my ACNW07 report

Many years earlier, I was playing in a horror campaign set in Victorian London. I was playing a white police inspector who was racist and violent, and we encountered Fu Manchu as a villain. Here's the bit that gave me pause. Naturally, my PC Inspector Grimmond was all violently against Fu Manchu, and there was an old Chinese shopkeeper (NPC) whom we had encountered. Grimmond was convinced that he worked for Fu Manchu, and went to beat him up. Now, as it turned out, in retialation for his brutalizing the old man, Fu Manchu captured Grimmond and tortured him. He was rescued by the other PCs with his lower half thoroughly chewed up by rats. As far as we had seen in the game, Grimmond's assumption that all Chinamen worked for Fu Manchu was correct. However, the GM was quite upset at Grimmond's racist and violent behavior on the basis of that assumption. He was perfectly aware of the racist nature of the Fu Manchu stories and mocked it, but nevertheless in retrospect I think that race was an issue here.

I'll have to ponder about other cases.

Issues of Race in Game Systems/Settings

There was an IRIS thread about creating non-racist fantasy races/cultures which was interesting. As many people have noted in the past, fantasy settings often reify common racist thinking -- i.e. there are inherently barbaric and/or evil races like orcs; race is a very concrete effect on one's abilities and personality; often there are distinct cultures especially tied to race (i.e. dwarves are good at mining and stonework); and race is a discrete quality (i.e. there are elves and dwarves, with nothing in between).

The Knife-Fight thread broke down in particular over issues with the drow in D&D, and in particular of white gamers dressing up as black elves. I'm not completely settled on this issue, but it certainlyi gives me pause. I imagine someone unfamiliar with it seeing a person dressed up as a drow at a convention:

P1: Is that dude dressed up as a black guy?
P2: Er, no. He's dressed up as a black elf.
P1: Interesting. There are black elves?
P2: Well, sort of, but not really. There are black-skinned elves, but they're an evil race who live underground, and have a different culture.
P1: Oh.

On the opposing side, the drow don't match most stereotypes of Africans -- but I also don't think that it a coincidence that the only black-skinned elves are evil.

Approaches to Real Races (i.e. Africans, Asians, etc.)

Among real races, blatant discrimination or essentialism is rare. (i.e. There are no games which have a "black" race with +2 Strength and -2 Intelligence modifier.) Still, there are problematic approaches. Two common problems I've seen seen are:

(1) Having non-white races be Western stereotypes of them. In particular, even if generally positive the races are often exoticized -- i.e. portraying Japanese as all ninja and/or samurai, with larger-than-life drama over honor. If there are multiple races, then the one race will all be the same culture and beliefs.

(2) Having non-whites just be whites with changed skin -- such as writing a game with no mention of race and illustrations of primarily white heroes, but then adding a footnote that other races exist and are treated equally.

While in principle, it is possible for a game to explicitly focus on racism -- I think a good approach is to concentrate on making other races normal. That is, for non-white races to have diversity within themselves as well as a relatively ordinary populace. In the Vinland campaign, I made a point to contrast the different cultures. My game was set in 1392 of an alternate history where the Icelanders successfully settled in the Hudson Valley. I played up the contrast of the traditionally more peaceful Algonquian tribes with the encroaching Iroquoian tribes (who were unifying under Hiawatha) who were the enemy. While in principle this might have been viewed dimly by an Iroquoian-derived player, I think for my players it was a study in the clash of cultures.

Approaches to Fantasy Races

On both Knife-Fight and IRIS, there was discussion made of fantasy races like elves and dwarves. On Knife-Fight, Simon C. wrote:
I think fantasy races are interesting because they're just that: a fantasy about race. They're what racists want race to be: permanent, unalterable, genetically distinct, with clear implications for who that person is. It's okay to think that orcs are stupid, because if that's the way your world works, all orcs are stupid.

The built-in mechanics of race are interesting in that way. I note that while there is slight acknowledgement of half-breeds (such as Human/Elf and Human/Orc), they are presumably infertile because there are no quarters or other mixtures.

My own fantasy games have generally been all-human rather than featuring much of fantasy races like elves and dwarves. Still, I do recall some breaking of race assumptions. I remember years ago I played in a GURPS Fantasy game which was set in a post-apocalyptic Europe where magic had returned and history was repeating itself -- so you had elves and dwarves amidst Imperial Rome and medieval France. I decided to play a Romanized elf -- Antonius Publius Eldarus -- who had completely rejected the backwards ways of his people and was passionately Roman, extolling the virtues of Roman civilization. He acknowledged that there were problems with slavery (among others), but claimed that in order for the lives of all to be improved, there needed to be institutions that rose above what isolated tribes could do for themselves.
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[User Picture]
From:tcpip
Date:April 3rd, 2007 12:48 am (UTC)
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Among real races, blatant discrimination or essentialism is rare. (i.e. There are no games which have a "black" race with +2 Strength and -2 Intelligence modifier.)

Hawkmoon had some pretty substantial modifiers for the geographical locations for characters; and Man, Myth and Magic allocated specific skills and abilities according to 'race' (Hebrews gained +15% on all treasure found!)
From:aeforge
Date:April 3rd, 2007 01:53 am (UTC)
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On the opposing side, the drow don't match most stereotypes of Africans -- but I also don't think that it a coincidence that the only black-skinned elves are evil.

Ljosalfar and Dopkalfar have been around for a long time. I think Drow are more Dopkalfar than anything else.

http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/columns/archetypology15jun01.html
[User Picture]
From:mcroft
Date:April 3rd, 2007 02:45 am (UTC)
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A bazillion (internet) years ago, I read an article that suggested swapping characteristics of the elves and orcs to undermine the racial stereotypes. Urks where graceful, lithe, cruel, and bred in great numbers to overcome their natural shortcomings and diminished lifespan, while Olfs were hulking, clumsy oafs who were at one with nature and wise, but dying slowly as they lived long but only reproduced rarely.

The idea was to see if the players wanted the plusses or the elvishness. It went on for pages, and I'll be damned if I can find it on the whole damn web.

When we played Shadowrun, we ignored the "races don't matter now that there are trolls", because we couldn't imagine the old racists not just assuming trollishness was just another sign of the degeneration of modern culture. We had Black Muslims who were Elves. The PCs initially thought they were bad guys, but it was Shadowrun, so the first guess is what someone paid someone else some creds to make you believe...
[User Picture]
From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 3rd, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC)
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Interesting.

The olf and urk reminds me of the Sovereign Stone RPG, which curiously tried to break the assumptions about fantasy race stereotypes. It's elves were overpopulated from their long lifespan and primarily urban; whereas it's orcs were a proud seafaring people. They each retained some similarities to the Tolkien roots, but with some prominent reversals.
[User Picture]
From:badgerbag
Date:April 3rd, 2007 09:44 pm (UTC)
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The Fjelltrolls and whatsits, the elfy people, from Banewreaker and Godslayer are an interesting example of playing with orc and elf racial identity. Carey makes aesthetics and race a bit more complicated; especially the way the elfy people point and say "UGLY!" and assume from that both "primitive" and "evil". Meanwhile the Fjelltrolls are given sympathetic personalities and a sort of Beowulfy warrior/hero-culture. On top of that, there is the tribe of Bushmen-like people in the Kalahari, and actual genocide. I don't have a complicated or deep analysis of this at the moment, but it was quite interesting.

Touched by Venom (Yes, I'm bringing it up again) also explores race, not just between humans and dragons, but between humans and the green-skinned Djimbi.





[User Picture]
From:eyebeams
Date:April 3rd, 2007 03:36 am (UTC)
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With this in mind, I actually reread the original Drow series a few weeks back. It was interesting that the drow were originally specifically described in a way where they could not be likened to any real world ethnicity.

(The other interesting thing is that D1-3 drow belong to a more orthogonally gender-stratified society where men and women divide military and economic roles pretty much evenly.)

Then Keith Parkinson painted one of the most destructively influential paintings in D&D history, and we still feel the effects with, say, Eberron, where they're the Evil Brown People from the Temple of Doom.

I think, really, it's a matter of fluid context. Some things have signifiers in some ways to some people that others don't. I believe Gary Gygax has said he mined Norse mythology for the dark elves and nothing about them indicates that he means to say anything about ethnicity. Even the darkness of their skins is explicitly meant to evoke an underground lighting condition. Illumination renders them powerless, after all.

The question is: Is Gygax responsible for future interpretations of this kind of thing? I think the answer is, "somewhat." This is a lot like the swastika issue. You might be the guy who really, truly reclaims the swastika for Western people in a non-racist context, but you're still a jackass; the significance is too strong. (This isn't the same as the swastika in other cultures, since the context usually surrounds it.) I think D&D's use of the term "race" to cover divisions of people that exist only in fantasy fiction has been especially troublesome over time.
[User Picture]
From:badgerbag
Date:April 3rd, 2007 09:54 pm (UTC)
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"I believe Gary Gygax has said he mined Norse mythology for the dark elves and nothing about them indicates that he means to say anything about ethnicity."

Okay, but nothing about what Gary Gygax intended matters all that much to the context, which is a world where we have super intense racism! I don't think anyone's saying that Gygax is especially more racist than any other well-intentioned but clueless-about-race-because-of-level-of-privilege white person in the U.S. I would like to hold games to a higher standard than that.

Here is a good starting point for some edumacating, thoughts from Pam Noles about Wizard of Earthsea and growing up black and an SF fan, I think the experiences in her essay are directly relevant to gaming and game designers and authors could benefit from reading it: Shame.
[User Picture]
From:eyebeams
Date:April 4th, 2007 03:10 am (UTC)
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Okay, but nothing about what Gary Gygax intended matters all that much to the context, which is a world where we have super intense racism!

You know, you would really do better to respond to my comments in their entirety or something representative of that entirety. My point is that the moral agency of writing really *does* matter, and exactly what was written really *does* matter, because they are signposts as to how responsible a creator or user is for a work once it is given an objectionable context.

Gary Gygax did not have the intent, and wrote to specifically exclude realistic ethnic skin tones. That's agency and content. *Context* is still a problem -- I never said it wasn't.

I don't think anyone's saying that Gygax is especially more racist than any other well-intentioned but clueless-about-race-because-of-level-of-privilege white person in the U.S. I would like to hold games to a higher standard than that.

My point is that if you go to the source text and art it is *not* clueless about race; it makes an effort to divest the drow from real ethnicity. Subsequent people re-associated it. Gygax is not wholly responsible for what appears to be a lack of imagination on the part of Americans who can't visualize the drow without assigning ethnic African traits.

Here is a good starting point for some edumacating, thoughts from Pam Noles about Wizard of Earthsea and growing up black and an SF fan, I think the experiences in her essay are directly relevant to gaming and game designers and authors could benefit from reading it.

I've read the essay before, though I admit that these days, the balance of my knowledge about the black (and women's) experience in fandom comes from talking to my wife. In fact, just now I grabbed he and asked her about dark elves. I asked, without preparation, if she associated dark elves with real ethnicities. She said no. She further said that she thought they were kind of cool.

She *did* say that she thought orcs had racist connotations, though.

She's a sample size of one: not too big a deal in general, but something I think is not unreflective of general attitudes, either.
[User Picture]
From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 3rd, 2007 06:58 pm (UTC)
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Hm. I think that most racism is easy in the sense that it is an automatic result of acculturation. i.e. I don't think that people these days are often raised without significant racism and then become more racist later in life by study. So in that sense it may often be "lazy", but I'm not sure that's an important distinction.

By the way, as far as I've seen, G.W. Bush is fairly race conscious. For example, racial equality is a driving force behind the "No Child Left Behind" policy, though I think it is misguided in its approach. As a born-again Christian, religion seems more of a sticking point for him.
[User Picture]
From:badgerbag
Date:April 4th, 2007 01:19 am (UTC)
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I'm not so sure that it's a driving force behind NCLB so much as what some people tried to make of it along the way. I still think the real issue behind NCLB is to destroy the system of public education completely, which will jack up our democracy even more than it is.



[User Picture]
From:eyebeams
Date:April 3rd, 2007 03:56 am (UTC)
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In the Vinland campaign, I made a point to contrast the different cultures. My game was set in 1392 of an alternate history where the Icelanders successfully settled in the Hudson Valley. I played up the contrast of the traditionally more peaceful Algonquian tribes with the encroaching Iroquoian tribes (who were unifying under Hiawatha) who were the enemy. While in principle this might have been viewed dimly by an Iroquoian-derived player, I think for my players it was a study in the clash of cultures.

I took this by the horns when writing the setting section for the (perennially unreleased) Dominion: Modern Feudal Roleplaying. In it, there was never methodical colonization in the Americas, the technological differences were trivial and disease wasn't a problem.

So I applied a few rules. First of all, there would be no use of the term "tribe," "band" or anything like that. Nations would be described as if Europeans in the setting had no hegemonic privilege. This means that there is no "Iroqois Confederacy." There's the Haudenosanee Republic, which diplomats and travelers describe as being a quasi-Roman system where feudal duchesses select princely representatives to attend a senate. They have designs on another nation the Euros call Wendatia.

Sure, "tribe," "chieftain" and "band" are, strictly speaking, neutral in a look-em-up-in-the-dictionary kind of way, but are contextually loaded. "Prince," "senate" "fiefdom," and "duchess" are also culturally loaded, but in a way that suits my purposes, which is to run cross-cultural intrigue in a world where aristocratic European-derived city states exist in the midst of never-colonized, industrialized North American nations.
[User Picture]
From:badgerbag
Date:April 4th, 2007 06:47 am (UTC)
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Oh that sounds amazingly cool! I'd love to see it sometime if you let people take a peek privately.
[User Picture]
From:badgerbag
Date:April 3rd, 2007 09:48 pm (UTC)
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"I note that while there is slight acknowledgement of half-breeds (such as Human/Elf and Human/Orc), they are presumably infertile because there are no quarters or other mixtures."

I've noticed this especially ever since I tried to write a "homeland city" for the "Half-Orc" race on my old MUD. It seemed insane to just write a homeland for them without considering where they came from or why. So I had this whole setup with an urban slum with rural/wilderness immigrant orcs, with orc tenements, bars, whorehouses, tough and sexy orc women, and furtive human customers... and then these religious institution orphanages where the half-orcs mostly grew up. It really pissed people off.


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