More Thoughts on Racism in RPGs

As I anticipated, yesterdays article proved to be controversial, much like the social media discussion which inspired me to write it. I also want to thank you folks for commenting and keeping things civil aside from a bit of snark, which is expected with such a topic. We’re still friends here. 😉

I have to admit that my thoughts on the issue are not as refined as some of the criticism pointed at it. It’s a complicated issue and it’s not easy to find a good solution considering you even see it as a problem. Fantasy RPGs thrive on tropes, on clichés. It’s what makes them so easy for many players to get into, but these tropes may be laden with problems. Clichés by their nature, simplify and generalize things. I also often struggle with putting my thoughts into words especially when I am using English which is not my native language. This combined with my perfectionism often makes it incredibly hard for me to reply to some of your comments directly.

Let’s get back to the topic. If you want to run a traditional roleplaying experience with – let’s say – D&D and you love simple dungeon romps where the players kill everything in their way and take their stuff, no one is keeping you from doing so. If you use various humanoid races as antagonists to kill with wild abandon, that might be unproblematic, as long as everyone at the table is OK with it. Intent plays an important role as well. As with everything else a GM should try to run a game everyone at the table is comfortable with. If there are elements a players in not OK with, the best course of action is to talk about it and make the necessary changes.

Things are a bit different if you write your own adventure, or design your own game. Then you definitely should take the time and think about how you depict certain humanoids in game. If you are aware that some fantasy tropes may have some racist baggage they carry with them, you can more easily avoid them. I also think that subverting tropes can be a lot of fun. Make things more complex. Having an orcish clan rampaging the country side because “it’s just what orcs do” is boring. Give them a legitimate reason beyond “they are just evil”. Just put a bit more thought into it. In my opinion it’s in the best interest of most game designers to make games more inclusive since it might directly translate into more sales. It’s also the right thing to do.

But wait, the longer I think about it, the more I realize we are actually tackling two issues at once here. The one is the traditionally depiction of non-human humanoid races and the idea that they might be inspired or influenced by the racism of the past, the other is the “murder hobo” style of gameplay, where every enemy is just there to be killed and looted. Personally my power fantasy more often than not includes helping people, overcoming prejudice, fighting injustice, and making peace. I guess it has a lot to do with what I experienced in the last 40+ years and how powerless I often felt. So just killing stuff for the heck of it is often not enough for me – especially when it comes to roleplaying games I want to be deeply immersed in. I don’t mind playing some mindless Diablo-style video game from time to time though. Yes, I know, I am weird.

I definitely don’t want to ruin anybody’s fun or drive them from the hobby. Far from it. I am just trying to look critically at our favorite hobby and find ways to improve it. If we get better people in the process, even better. I can understand if people want to just have fun and not think about complex topics like racism, misogyny, etc. when they are gaming. Roleplaying games are escapism and sometimes you just don’t want to be confronted with real life issues while sitting around a table with your friends trying to have fun. But in the time between games, why not spare some thoughts on the issue? If we realize at the end of the day, that the depiction of humanoid races in games like D&D isn’t problematic at all, then this is a perfectly acceptable outcome. But if we come to this conclusion we should at least have looked closely at the subject first.

By the way, I just found an article on Psychology Today titled “No, Orcs Aren’t Racist” and while I disagree with some of the points made, it definitely is a thought-provoking read.

I think one of the main points I want to make is that there’s a risk we are keeping alive highly problematic tropes which seeped into pop culture decades ago and are now traditional elements of the fantasy genre. I believe it doesn’t hurt just to be careful.

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!

“May you live in interesting times”

Even though this is not a traditional Chinese curse as often claimed, it makes for a perfect title when you intend to sum up what’s going on right now. The current times are interesting indeed, and with a global pandemic in full swing at the moment, all of our lives (and our hobby) have been severely affected in one way or the other.

Roleplaying games are social activities and even though playing games online is a thing, nothing beats the face-to-face experience with a group of friends sitting around a table, munching snacks, and having a blast. Personally the effect on my gaming was pretty slim since I was playing in a number of online games even before the current crisis and most of the other games went online as soon as “social distancing” rules have been in place.

Times are tough and the current circumstances have definitely messed with a lot of my plans including the ones for my blog. Things have been pretty stressful at work. My employer – a German university – had been victim of a major malware attack earlier this year (we were hit hard by a new variant of Emotet) and now we’re struggling to facilitate online lectures and the like. As you can imagine this is not a great situation to be in.

There are a few games I really wanted to review, but at the end of most work days I am just too tired and emotionally drained to do anything productive. Hopefully things will get better in the future, but don’t expect daily posts from me anytime soon. I actually had planned to write more about the various methods you can use to play RPGs online, but there are already countless posts on this topic available which would make any additional ones quite redundant.

If I have to give any advice, it would the this: don’t take social distancing to literally. Use online tools to talk to your friends, play games together, have fun. Sure, it’s not the same as really meeting at a friend’s place, but it’s definitely better than having no interactions at all. And if you go outside, make sure you follow the rules: keep your distance to other people, possibly wear a mask, wash your hands properly, and cough or sneeze into your elbow.

I am sure even these “interesting times” will eventually end, and things will go back to more or less normal. Just make sure you stay safe in the meantime. And if playing tabletop RPGs online can help with that, don’t hesitate to try!

Image credit: NIAID

A Roleplaying Games blog

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

If you leave a comment on our site you may opt-in to saving your name, email address and website in cookies. These are for your convenience so that you do not have to fill in your details again when you leave another comment. These cookies will last for one year. If you have an account and you log in to this site, we will set a temporary cookie to determine if your browser accepts cookies. This cookie contains no personal data and is discarded when you close your browser. When you log in, we will also set up several cookies to save your login information and your screen display choices. Login cookies last for two days, and screen options cookies last for a year. If you select “Remember Me”, your login will persist for two weeks. If you log out of your account, the login cookies will be removed. If you edit or publish an article, an additional cookie will be saved in your browser. This cookie includes no personal data and simply indicates the post ID of the article you just edited. It expires after 1 day.