Racism in Role-Playing Games

Recently there was a discussion on social media about whether the depiction of orcs in some (if not most) tabletop roleplaying games was racist. As with all discussions of this nature on social media things got pretty heated quickly. It also showed that there’s a divide among RPG fans. There are the ones who want to break certain old conventions and make tabletop roleplaying more diversive, more open, less racist and less misogynist. And there are the ones who don’t see the problem. A common idea among those folks is that “games are fantasy” and so there can be no real racism be in there. This is of course bullshit.

Initially I didn’t want to comment on this controversy, but – you know me – sometimes I just can’t keep my mouth shut. Let’s start with making one thing clear: humans are racist. Period. Some of this has to do with how we – as humans – evolved. We tend to trust more in people who look like us, talk like us, are perhaps closely related to us – and we fear “the other”. This comes from a time when the largest social structures were large families or clans. If you believe you never had a racist thought, you are probably wrong.

A lot of racism also comes from our upbringing. If you look back one generation, two generations, etc. you notice that racism becomes more widespread, more common, accepted even. Everyone has that racist uncle everyone ignores at family gathering, or that grandpa who spews racist nonsense while watching the news. Racist ideology is all around us and even if you had the most sheltered childhood you probably have been affected by it.

If you look at some classic children’s books, fairy tales, etc. through a modern lens, you notice quite a few racist motifs. These motifs are also visible in fantasy media. Orcs are often portrayed as an evil horde (usually coming from some steppes to the east) or as noble savages. Gnomes and Dwarves often share traits who were traditionally attributed to Jews. Modern fantasy borrows a lot from traditional (mostly European) myths and fairy tales and so it inherited some of its racism.

Ok, what do we do about it? We realize that humans are prone to racism because of our evolution and our upbringing, and this also lead to a lot of racist tropes in our favorite hobby. The important part is to always be aware of that, always question ourselves and never act upon these urges. If you think you are immune to racism, you are wrong and you will probably not understand what all the fuzz is about. After all, YOU don’t see skin color…
Being aware of an issue is the first step in actually solving it.

When it comes to tabletop roleplaying games we can stop or at least reduce using those common tropes. Treat orcs like individuals and not like a faceless horde you can kill without feeling any remorse. Avoid tropes like the money-grubbing gnome or the greedy dwarf. Think twice about topics like colonialism and slavery before introducing them into your game. Most importantly listen to what members of minorities and people of color tell you – don’t doubt their experiences. If there’s something problematic within your game and some one points it out to you, treat it as an opportunity. The idea is that we make our hobby a better place for everyone. Being aware of the problem and taking responsibility is the first step. Then you can roll up your sleeves and start changing things.

One last thing: You may share your thoughts on the subject in the comments below, but be civil and respectful. Thanks!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

6 thoughts on “Racism in Role-Playing Games”

  1. The trope of an evil horde that comes from the east has existed for thousands of years. It’s not something that can be easily erased from the cultural memory.

    The Huns, the tribes that invaded the Wester Roman Empire, the Mongols, the Ottoman Empire.

    People in the Middle East have the same memory of Alexander the Great.

    It’s going to seep into popular culture whether you like it or not.

    1. I am aware that these tropes have already seeped into pop culture. That’s why I mentioned the evil horde in conjunction with Orcs. But I also think that some of these tropes carry some racist baggage which we should be aware of, and it’s often more interesting to subvert tropes instead of repeating them ad nauseam.

  2. I always find this an interesting topic. Certainly you’re right that some real world racist tropes make it into RPGs , or any popular media and we should be aware of them. But I’m not sure it’s apples to apples in a meaningful was as to how we should handle it.

    For example, yes, it’s racist to judge someone by their race in the real world because in the real world race is a social construction. Every “race” in the real world is actually the exact same race. We just carry different elements within our phenotypical range. Darker or lighter skin or hair or eyes. Taller or shorter, etc.

    Where as in a typical RPG, different races are actually very different creatures altogether. Is it racist to say that a horse less likely to attach you than a mountain lion? Is it racist to warn others of mountain lions in the area? That’s a better comparison to something like Orcs. Because orcs have been defined within the genre, not as individuals, but as evil creatures seeking destruction. This is pretty much canon in the games I play. If you want a friendly good natured orc, you’ll have to homebrew it. Which is fine and many do. But using orcs as they were designed doesn’t seem racist to me any more than using mountain lions as they are. Not sure if I’m getting my point across.

    Basically, yes, we shouldn’t prejudge humans by race because we’re all the same race and if you prejudge its purely based on “fear of other”. But if you assume that an orc acts as all orcs act (or any MONSTER), just like a mountain lion acts like all mountain lions, you’re not really being racist. The alternative is treating monsters like humans (ie trying not to be prejudiced). which would mean interrogating every kobold, orc, wraith, vampire, dragon, beholder, etc to find out if they’re friendly, or perhaps oppressed or suffering from depression or whatever might have an influence on human behavior.

    Lastly, racism has a power element. Racism in this world exists because of a power structure that allows certain groups to have power over other groups. In many fantasy settings, depending on the setup, racism may not be possible. For example, if the setting is human centric, Elves and Dwarves might not really be capable of racism if they don’t wield power over other races, at least not in the sense that we view racism in the real world.

  3. TL;DR.
    1. I understand that I’m seeing through the screen door from my privilege.
    2. I always used the “inherently evil” races to represent the things humans fear from a young age.
    3. I have to constantly keep engaged with the dregs of humanity because otherwise someone’s going to usurp some name and then I’ll be Evil by association?
    4. Ginsberg’s theorem (You can’t win. You can’t break even. You can’t get out of the game.)

    These are topics that begin to make me want to abandon RPGs altogether. I spend a great deal of my daily life wrestling with ethics involving politics, power-structures (businesses/government/police), historic media, current media, security (ITSec), etc. Everything from trying to acknowledge and remove prejudice from my responses to clients and coworkers, to trying to parent my children away from sexism and other prejudices. This is a fight I doubt I’ll ever win. In today’s age, there seems to be a free wheeling resurgence of the anti-intellectual garbage across the world/internet and, even more frustrating, it gets swept directly into politicizing the COVID-19 health crisis. You can’t punch the stupid out of people, no matter how frustrated you are.

    So my understanding that “Orcs,” or whatever Evil entity you want to substitute in, are the embodiment of the very deep, lizard part of the human brain’s ‘fears of the unknown’ – what goes bump in the night. They were not the stand in for this Asian culture, that African culture, or the other Aboriginal culture – they were the darkest fears given name and form, so we could figuratively stand up to our fears and hit back.

    Even here, though, jack***es can usurp the “Orc” and now it’s assigned as the racist stand in for Asian Culture R. Now we have to argue it all out again, all over – and if I include Orcs in a game with my kids as the embodiment of their fear of the dark (or the basement when you know no one is there, but something is still right behind you) – now I have to develop a doctoral thesis to defend myself. I hate, HATE, the idea that I’d be lumped in with the next group of hate-spewing “Other Tribe” bashing. But apparently I’ve been using the representation of the Orc as the release valve for the very human behavior of tribalizing and fighting with “The Other.” (Whether Other is really this racism or Other is the monster under your bed.)

    So. What is the next actionable step? Do I just give up? Does this become the perpetual doctoral thesis defense in philosophy where I have to define all of my parameters explicitly and be judged? I used Orcs as the embodiment of cruelty and evil – but someone over there used it as Asian, so now I call my creatures “Bruce” because Orcs have to be a “Civilized, Sapient” people or I’m Racist, Colonialist, Imperialist …. because otherwise I’m evil?

    //”I’m old enough to know that a longer life isn’t always a better one. In the end you just get tired. Tired of the struggle. Tired of losing everyone that matters to you. Tired of watching everything turn to dust. If you live long enough, Lazarus, the only certainty left is that you’ll end up alone.” -Doctor Who (The Lazarus Project)//

  4. “Psst. Did you know that thing you love is secretly problematic?” I think there’s a strong case to dismiss the “orcs are racist” position on the grounds that it’s a bad faith argument. How many declare that view because it’s a low-investment way to virtue-signal and show woke creds? vs How many people have actually been victimised by our culture’s perception of orcs? As far as I am aware (privilege etc notwithstanding), nobody is shouting “F*cking orc” and “Go back to Mordor” across the street. I guess it depends whether you think that, because orcs can be depicted as “dark” green and/or “savage”, it means that orcs are automatically racist because all dark and savage descriptions are. I get the reasoning, but it seems to lead to a place where a) no one can describe anything as “savage” anymore, and b) we end up excising all references to (racist) perceptions of savagery from culture. Now all cultures are just differently civilised (which they are) but with no discussion allowed regarding how these cultures saw or see each other, however problematic those perspectives are. The “Tolkien orcs are racist” argument also winds me up because orcs aren’t an analogue for other, non-white races in Tolkien. There are actual non-white human cultures in LotR that are absolutely depicted in “problematic”, actually racist ways. Maybe complain about that, instead? From a rules perspective, also, there’s real confusion between the way RPGs use the word “race” and the way its used IRL. We all know race means species in RPGs. Getting upset that RPG races have racial bonuses is like getting upset that tigers are stronger than hedgehogs. My earliest memory of racism issues is also an RPG memory. My brother and I were playing AD&D (as far as it’s possible for two young kids to understand that ruleset) and my Dad overheard us debating races. He misunderstood and gave us a stern talking to about equality. IMO, it is absolutely possible for tropes in fiction to perpetuate harmful stereotypes, but let’s put to one side the (disingenuous) edge cases, and tackle the obvious cases first.

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