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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:tcpip
Date:April 3rd, 2007 03:29 am (UTC)
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That's a very good article. I'll repost it to one of my local gaming lists; we're just about to play the Giant/Drow AD&D1e games but set in Scotland-Norway-Iceland in the late 11th century. It is very appropriate.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 3rd, 2007 06:04 am (UTC)
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I'm not sure where you're going with this. Yes, there has been the concept of light elves and dark elves within Nordic mythology.

However, note that compared to mythology, light elves have been made into quite normal and familiar people, who are good and live in harmony with humans -- vastly unlike the inhuman and dangerous spirits of Nordic myth. In contrast, the dark elves have been changed to be physically identical in all but skin color to the light elves (again, unlike the myths) -- and they are exotic, evil, spider-worshipping monsters with reversed gender roles.
From:aeforge
Date:April 3rd, 2007 06:46 am (UTC)
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If I meant anything (and I'm not sure I did) I guess it's just that I never saw the drow as anything but dopkalfar (aka svartálfar aka dökkálfar). Which is to say, just a way to get one more piece of random mythology into the crockpot that is D&D. I've never really made a leap to thinking of the drow in terms of any stereotype. But then, I've not read any of the Salvatore novels and I've never been in a game when anyone played a drow as a PC, so all I know of them is when they show up as random mobs in games. At that point, they're just another type of orc or kobold or goblin, except they generally have better loot.

On a tangential note, I think the racial stereotype that bugs me the most is that dwarves always seem to speak with a Scottish accent.
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 3rd, 2007 07:36 am (UTC)
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Actually, the original don't have reversed gender roles. They have gender-based division of labour. In the D series, women and men both have military societies with slightly different foci. This kind of nifty structure has steadily degraded into pulp matriarchy, but to be fair, this was probably better before simply because nobody wrote anything.

Plus, light elves are not "dangerous inhuman spirits of Nordic myth." They're associated with the nice-guy Vanir and really are pretty people -- so much so that it's where you got a Norse adjective for being pretty. Dark elves are, by contrast, not really well described at all. Wikipedia says that the word drow comes from Scottish mine-elves, but as nobody knows what the hell they look like in myth, Gygax was copying from Tolkien *and* they're both called elves, I somehow doubt allusions to actual dark-skinned ethnicities were not intended, especially as the description of the group does not refer to any kind of pigmentation that exists in nature:

Drow are black skinned and pale haired. They are slight of build and have delicate fingers and toes. Their features are somewhat sharp and ears are pointed and large, but this does not make them unhandsome. Their eyes are very large, being all iris and pupil. Male drow are of thin build, about 5' tall, have dead black skin and dead white hair, and the irises of their eyes are orange to orange-yellow. Females are slender and shapely, about 5-1/2' tall, and have glossy black skin and shining silvery hair. The eyes of female Drow are amber, though a few are said to possess irises of lambent violet.

Now I've met a few guys with really dark skin, but I think it'd be a stretch -- a really big, willful stretch -- to say that the above was ever meant to evoke images of any real ethnicity. This is only confirmed by the art that was released with early printings of the module, where it's clear that by "glossy" they mean "really frickin' weirdly shiny."

Like I said, this is something that really has transformed over time, though it's really hit its worst with Eberron.

The thing is that there are *two* kinds of baggage about light and darkness and frankly, the idea that dark elves are drawing from the ethnic baggage is a stretch. Light and dark has ethnic connotations and has been used to hurt, but it *also* stands for the fact that human beings are diurnal and the night and going underground are scary for *incredibly* obvious biological reasons. And he drow are explicitly linked, by design to this latter symbolism and delinked in writing and art from the former.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 3rd, 2007 04:59 pm (UTC)
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This seems to be at the point of nit-picking about the drow -- i.e. the original D-series the genders weren't reversed, they just were ruled by the women, whereas true reversal came later. Similarly, after I noted that the drow don't resemble Africans, and you repeat that point with further details.

Similarly, when I note the ljosalfar as being dangerous and inhuman -- you respond, "But they're pretty!" I agree with that -- of the few things we know about the ljosalfar is that they are pretty and associated with the Vanir. This doesn't contradict anything I said. About all we know about the Dopkalfar is that they're dark, and they are identified with the duergar. (i.e. Thor tells Loki to go to the svartalfar for them to forge Sif's golden hair, and Loki goes to Andvari the duergar.)

The larger point is that writing in modern America, if you write a story in which you invent a people where the light-skinned ones are good and the black-skinned ones are evil, there are definite racial connotations. Nitpicking over the linguistic roots or the hair color doesn't change that.
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 3rd, 2007 06:48 pm (UTC)
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The larger point is that writing in modern America, if you write a story in which you invent a people where the light-skinned ones are good and the black-skinned ones are evil, there are definite racial connotations. Nitpicking over the linguistic roots or the hair color doesn't change that.

Well actually, I think it does, if you go to sufficient pains to make the distinction in the work. It's not "nitpicking" to point out that the author took pains to separate what he's talking about from real world ethnicity, and the evidence really is that Gygax did that. The only thing he didn't do is go HEY NOT REAL BLACK PPL, because doing so would have been a stylistic break from everything else.

It doesn't read like an excuse a pretense or a license for others to extend the concept in an offensive fashion. Given that, the only culpability here has do do with the author not making extra-textual statements confirming what he couldn't right-out say for stylistic reasons in the text itself.

Now I suppose you could also say that it's impossible for the writing pocess that created the drow not to have included some subconscious or subtextual racism in the process, but are you really willing to engage in this kind of psychobiography? Because we can fling around comments about Gary Gygax's intent in subtext all day and not get anywhere.

Now while I certainly believe it's important to consider where something plugs into the culture, the author's responsibility only goes so frickin' far. If you write about things that are black skinned because they represent the darkness of a cave, look nothing like any real ethnicity and are designed to weaken when exposed to the illumination that is their symbolic enemy, then you've pretty much dealt with things as best you can. The other option is to never, ever write of anything that somebody could link with America's bizarre approach to visible ethnicity. While I also believe in using discretion when it comes to content, this is far too broad a criterion.

Now when you skirt the edge like this, it is smart to make unambiguous statements outside of the text to clarify things. I don't know if Gygax ever did, but that Parkinson painting indicates something went wrong down TSR way. But after that, the author is only so responsible. Someone who doesn't understand that drow cosplay can be seen as a form of blackface is not the author's responsibility -- especially if the author was "nitpicky" about it. Those cosplayers are loons who aren't thinking things through.
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 3rd, 2007 07:01 pm (UTC)
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Another thing about statements outside of the text:

It wasn't stylistically appropriate for Gary Gygax to confront the issue directly and specifically say what the drow weren't. Should these concerns trump style? I don't know -- maybe. I know I've dealt with the same issues myself and I've been happy to have the Internet as a supplementary medium.

For example, when I wrote Euthanatos Revised, one of the more interesting conversations I had was with a Nepalese gentleman whose religion was oft-mined for concepts when it came to the Euthanatos. This led to a very, very complicated conversation where he asked why I didn't use X and Y (read "bits pf philosophy, theology and tradition that would take a very long time to detail here") and I explained that I was well aware of X and Y but I wanted to keep the Euthanatos firmly fictional, because I felt that some of the ideas I wanted to touch on would otherwise cast a blood libel on real religions.

Now in Euthanatos I got to come right out and say this stuff a few times in the text and created a certain amount of separation -- but to keep it readable I could only go so far. And fortunately, this fellow eventually understood what I was aiming for and we ended up having a quite good discussion about it all. But if you lay it all down with a clear awareness of the issues and people choose to be either oblivious or pretentiously offended, there's not much to be done, really.
[User Picture]
From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 3rd, 2007 08:25 pm (UTC)
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Now while I certainly believe it's important to consider where something plugs into the culture, the author's responsibility only goes so frickin' far. If you write about things that are black skinned because they represent the darkness of a cave, look nothing like any real ethnicity and are designed to weaken when exposed to the illumination that is their symbolic enemy, then you've pretty much dealt with things as best you can. The other option is to never, ever write of anything that somebody could link with America's bizarre approach to visible ethnicity. While I also believe in using discretion when it comes to content, this is far too broad a criterion.

Well, I disagree. First of all, there is another option -- that of having the racial connotations be ones which reflect your own beliefs (assuming that you are not racist). I don't think this one is really so difficult, and for a lot of writers it comes naturally. There are lots of fantasy writers who have resemblances to real-world races without being accused of racism. For example, Ursula Le Guin has been lauded for her works including their treatment of race.

If you're making a conscious effort for there to be no racial connotations whatsoever to your work, then I would say you should pick bad guys who have, say, fish scales or spikes or glowing red eyes or whatever rather than black skin as their distinguishing physical characteristic. You should also probably avoid using the burning cross or swastika as symbols of your sides, for example.

Does just the connotations of black skin matter? Yes, I think so. For example, I just watched "A Girl Like Me" on YouTube, where black-skinned children picked a doll based only on the skin color, often identifying the white doll as a good one. I don't know what it was like around where Gary Gygax was, but when I was in grade-school in suburban New York in the seventies, the kids had teasing chants like "A fight! A fight! A nigger and a white! [X] is the nigger and [Y] is the white." to indicate who they sided with in a schoolyard fight.
[User Picture]
From:eyebeams
Date:April 4th, 2007 02:42 am (UTC)
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Well, I disagree. First of all, there is another option -- that of having the racial connotations be ones which reflect your own beliefs (assuming that you are not racist). I don't think this one is really so difficult, and for a lot of writers it comes naturally. There are lots of fantasy writers who have resemblances to real-world races without being accused of racism. For example, Ursula Le Guin has been lauded for her works including their treatment of race.

Ursula LeGuin is not a great example, as her work just doesn't deal with anything like the practical setup of fantasy RPGs, where a fantasy template with innate difference hooks up to a template with self-developed differences. In Eearthsea, you can either use magic or can't. That's fine, but combined templating is what drives the character options in many, many fantasy RPGs. If LuGuin worked under the same mandate neither of us knows what she would come up with and how you or I might feel about it.

If you're making a conscious effort for there to be no racial connotations whatsoever to your work, then I would say you should pick bad guys who have, say, fish scales or spikes or glowing red eyes or whatever rather than black skin as their distinguishing physical characteristic. You should also probably avoid using the burning cross or swastika as symbols of your sides, for example.

How, exactly, do fish scales or glowing red eyes suggest night or cave darkness and using illumination to drive it off? Your demands are suggesting that one kind of symbol is just as good as another when it comes to conveying something, and that's not true. That a symbol can have unintended connotations is also true, as you say. That those connotations categorically deny use of the symbol no matter how you couch it, all the time? Nope. It's too broad and absolute. If your standard is against the drow, it's not just against burning crosses, but against burning religious symbols that might call to mind crosses burning whether they are, in fact, crosses at all. That's about equivalent to associating black skin with any dark skin colour, whether or not it could ever exist in nature. And oh yeah -- that makes Burning Empires (with its prominent use of a real world religious symbol on fire) a target, too.

[User Picture]
From:eyebeams
Date:April 4th, 2007 02:42 am (UTC)
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Does just the connotations of black skin matter? Yes, I think so. For example, I just watched "A Girl Like Me" on YouTube, where black-skinned children picked a doll based only on the skin color, often identifying the white doll as a good one. I don't know what it was like around where Gary Gygax was, but when I was in grade-school in suburban New York in the seventies, the kids had teasing chants like "A fight! A fight! A nigger and a white! [X] is the nigger and [Y] is the white." to indicate who they sided with in a schoolyard fight.

And I watched a film where Darth Vader stood in for some pretty racist humour by redubbing him with James Earl Jones' voice from other pictures, including one where Vader and two Tie Fighter pilots walked along with Vader/Jones saying, "Us black folks gotta stick together." Does George Lucas have to answer for this? Lucas should obviously answer for Jar Jar Binks, but for the idea that someone identifies a black *costume* as ethnic?

I hear what you're saying, but there's a point where if people are not reasonable it is not the author's fault -- and calling for blanket censorship is premature. A Girl Like Me is not an equivalent situation because the dolls cannot be presented in any reasonable context where they identify as anything *but* representations of people of colour. Saying that Tie Fighter pilots have a basic ethnicity because if their clothes? Not the same situation. The drow are somewhere in between and are specifically designed not to evoke associations with real world races. What your proposal *does* do is hand off a whole class of symbolism -- and universal human symbolism about darkness being scary because it's a lack of light -- to the ass end of American ethnicity issues.

This would be justified if it could be demonstrated that drow do harm as a concept. That's why A Girl Like Me is relevant, after all: It demonstrates harm. Some guy not thinking that his cosplay (a hobby that didn't even exist) would look like blackface is not anywhere on the same continuum as that. And as noted, the harm done is all clustered around altering the concept in some way, either by reworking the drow into a real ethnic skin tone or giving them racist associations, like Xen'Drik in Eberron. But the original article is devoid of these associations.

The next question is whether or not successive interpretations cast a pall on the original, and the answer is yes they do -- but not in my opinion to such a degree as to eliminate the whole thing.

But I agree with you in that there *is* still a danger. Culture is dangerous. It means we need to take reasonable precautions against hurting others, and that what's reasonable is pretty subjective around the middle. I'm not saying that intent and free speech are paramount and I'm not saying that the possible political ramifications of discourse are the main thing. I'm saying that there is room for reasonable people to wend their way between them and that IMO, this reasonableness probably includes some kinds of dark elves.
[User Picture]
From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 4th, 2007 09:39 pm (UTC)
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I'm working on a longer response as a post of its own. However, I wanted to address a particular misconception here in the first place.

I wrote: If you're making a conscious effort for there to be no racial connotations whatsoever to your work, then I would say you should pick bad guys who have, say, fish scales or spikes or glowing red eyes or whatever rather than black skin as their distinguishing physical characteristic. You should also probably avoid using the burning cross or swastika as symbols of your sides, for example.

To which you responded: I hear what you're saying, but there's a point where if people are not reasonable it is not the author's fault -- and calling for blanket censorship is premature. A Girl Like Me is not an equivalent situation because the dolls cannot be presented in any reasonable context where they identify as anything *but* representations of people of colour.

I think you missed a key point in my comment. I am absolutely against censorship in almost every form. In particular, I do not feel that commentary on race should be censored regardless of its form or content.

My statement was advice to writers that if you want there to be no racial connotations to your work, then you should avoid having black skin be the prime distinguishing physical characteristic of your bad guys. I don't think that is an unreasonable statement, nor is it anything like blanket censorship.
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 4th, 2007 10:05 pm (UTC)
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I'm not talking about censorship in the form of an official construction, but as a social norm. Your call to exclude this sort of thing as a matter of course qualifies. Of course, it should also be emphasizes that it doesn't carry the same weight as formal censorship at all.
[User Picture]
From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 4th, 2007 10:34 pm (UTC)
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OK, I'm puzzled. You feel that a social norm where people simply don't like something is censoring it? So, say, if I have poor writing style, I'm being censored by the people who don't want to read my turgid prose?

I can accept that for the purposes of discussion here, but it would be quite surprising to me.
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 4th, 2007 10:50 pm (UTC)
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No no, that's not it. If you prescribe that people not write a thing if they want to be appreciated it's not the same as the Vatican's banned book list. At the same time, constructing the advice passively doesn't change the fact that it is in fact advice not to write something. That's arguing for social norms that censor certain things, not official censorship.

And the thing is, that's *normal*. I have no problem saying that people ought not to create things like Pimp or advocate all kinds of awful things. This is not the same as saying people ought not to have the *right* to do so. It is not the same as calling for something to be banned by force. But it does not change the fact that I am saying I don't want somebody to express themselves in such and such a way, and no matter how you slice it or turn it around, that's what you seem to be suggesting as well. You're putting forth an argument as to why it should be so. I don't disagree with you making the argument at all; I just don't think it has sufficient merit.
[User Picture]
From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 4th, 2007 11:02 pm (UTC)
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I am saying I don't want somebody to express themselves in such and such a way, and no matter how you slice it or turn it around, that's what you seem to be suggesting as well.

I think you're projecting something onto me here. I do want people to express themselves, even if they are expressing a view which I disagree with. In fact, I prefer them to openly express themselves, rather than disagreeing in silence.

I may criticize them, and attempt to get them to change their views -- but that doesn't mean that I didn't want them expressing themselves.
[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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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From:jhkimrpg
Date:April 4th, 2007 10:01 pm (UTC)
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Interesting. Do you agree with your wife that orcs have racist connotations? It seems to me that the orcs are also not identifiable as a real human ethnicity -- at least as much as the drow are.
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From:eyebeams
Date:April 4th, 2007 10:19 pm (UTC)
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Actually, I do, for the reason my wife gave when I asked her: Orcs duplicate real world racist ideas about skin colour and dark elves usually don't. Stereotypical orcs closely resemble racist stereotypes about Africans: violence, strength, stupidity, fecundity, faux-tribal organization and even the need to be led. So it's the link to a real stereotype that's the thing.

I'd go a step further and say that while traditional drow aren't really racist, Eberron's scorpion god worshiping jungle dark elves most certainly are. Actually, I had a conversation with Ed Greenwood not too long ago about Eberron that confirmed to me that colonialist tribal "savages" is exactly the point when he mentioned that like the Realms, Eberron is effectively a vehicle for a number of preexisting in-house ideas (Xendrik is a preexisting "Lost World" concept; the magic trains also predate the submission of the setting, if Ed's to be believed.)

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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.
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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.



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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.
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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.
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From:badgerbag
Date:April 3rd, 2007 09:48 pm (UTC)
(Link)
"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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