Ethnicity in RPGs

This is the second part in my series dedicated to reading and rebutting the booklet Diversity Dungeons1 and in this blog post, I’ll be looking at ethnicity. This is a somewhat skewed and queer reading of the text. I also want to point out that I am not a person of color. This means that I’m likely to be incorrect in some instances.

The language Desborough uses in Diversity Dungeons when it comes to ethnicity is mildly disturbing. He cites minute biological differences as a signifier, backtracks and then states that:

Race is something visual and immediate. It is often associated with these other differences (alluding to biological differences, among others “genetic disorders”, my notes) and often with cultures or places much further afield and much more different than those we might regularly encounter.2

As far as I’ve been able to verify this, Desborough is correct in that we do tend to divide ourselves into groups, but the visual or biological signifiers doesn’t necessarily have to be the strongest forces at work. In The Power of Others author Michael Bond brings up psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s experiment “Robber’s Cave” which he performed in 1954. A group of adolescent boys from the same social and cultural background were divided by no more than a line in the sand3. That was enough to prompt tribal behavior including discrimination and intolerance. Human beings are social creatures, yes, and we also trust authority. Biology – except for the biological quirks in all of us – has very little to do with why we treat people differently when they don’t belong to our in-group.

These tribal proclivities are knitted into our physiology, moderated by hormones and neurotransmitters such as testosterone, which promotes competitive behavior, and oxytocin, which boosts people’s love for their in-group (…). This helps explain both our innate hunger for social connections and the excoriating effects of loneliness. The presence of others can lead us astray, but their absence can propel us to a far worse place.4

Bond mentions the process of othering, as does Desborough, and although Bond claims the same thing as Desborough – our tendency to “other” groups that are “different” from our in-groups, and this boils down to biology – Desborough focuses on what makes a person with brown skin different from a person with white skin.

Bond and many scientists that he cites in his book, are in agreement. What differentiates one group from another can be something as simple as a line in the sand. Biology as a superficial and visual trait has very little to do with it.

This allows us – as game designers – to play with the idea of racism and divide people in our worlds into groups based on other traits than skin color. Look at Horizon Zero Dawn5 There are four tribes in that game, the Nora, the Carja, the Banuk and the Oseram. Each of the tribes has a distinct culture and social structure. The dividing factor here isn’t skin color. It’s geography. Racism can be given many shapes, even or perhaps in particular in a fantasy world. For someone struggling with racism and discrimination, a repeat of that struggle in a fantasy setting isn’t much of a power fantasy. It doesn’t invite escapism, rather the other way around. I can see an argument forming about playing someone who is fair skinned in order to get that rush, but that just reinforces that as someone dark skinned you are simply not good enough.

Let’s return to the phenomena of othering for a little while. This is a thing that happens when one group of people want to distinguish themselves from another.

The way I read Desborough’s text, two things stand out to me. One is the unwillingness to distinguish between biology and the mechanics of othering. The other is the almost subliminal ways that the text insinuates that we are correct in othering based on ethnicity. Bear with me.

Whatever the true story, colour and other superficial racial markers still identify someone as an outsider and as competition and so racial prejudice can combine with other – sometimes genuine – concerns about immigration, terrorism and ideological differences to create a potent mix.6

In the table that follow, characters of a “noticeably different race” receive a -2 modification to social interactions. Ethnicity comes first in the table, religion and culture on second and fifth place. The modifiers and reactions to ethnicity and species rank skin color and religion high. The truth is that othering can require as little as a line drawn in the sand. Based on that frailty and humanity’s tendency to create and stick to in-groups, a role-playing game wanting to investigate the mechanics behind racism can make up any random group indicator. I spoke with some friends who play RPGs and who struggle with racism on a daily basis. Their power fantasies do not include the same prejudices they face in daily life. Instead, if you want to play with racism, use other signifiers than skin color, or subvert the stereotypes. If you absolutely want to use racism in your game, be mindful of this and be respectful towards your players.

One of the most common comments I received when asking what a designer could do to create a game with a representation of ethnicity that felt like an improvement or a power fantast, the answer to that question was “representation”. Show that the game contains positive imagery of persons of color. Ethnicity matters to those who have continuously been discriminated against on that basis.

Through his wording in the chappter on racism in Diversity Dungeons, Desborough presumes to know what racism is, and he’s conveying that knowledge as a certainty. It’s and issue throughout the booklet, the assumption of authority, and the introductory dismissal of other people’s experiences. He states that in no circumstances should the author or creator let concerns about representation trump vision or free expression.

So what happens to an insulated little area of gaming if it’s okay to rehash the same prejudices over and over without any input from other sources, only the self-prescribed authority of the authors, uncriticised, unquestioned? Edward Said points out in his introduction to the book Orientalism, that this way lies reinforcement of stereotypes.7 He goes on to say:

Too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically innocent; it has regularly seemed otherwise to me (…) that society and culture can only be understood and studied together.8

In other words, there is no way to isolate role-playing games from the culture that surrounds us. With this in mind, reinforcing stereotypes by reproducing them – which is exactly what RPGs are doing over and over again, especially with game worlds based on older literature such as Robert E Howard’s books about Conan or H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos or for that matter Tolkien’s Middle Earth – is not harmless. The texts we use are not “just games”, no matter how much we may want them to be.

Desborough also brings up stereotyping, using a white person as the stereotypee. Just a few paragraphs earlier, Desborough has explained that stereotypes usually have som basis in truth, whether that basis is justifiable or not. He goes on to say:

A white person might be expected to be middle class, polite, relatively well off, less likely to be a criminal(…) 9

Considering the previous statement about justifiable stereotypes and the concept of othering whereupon the others traits are based on what the in-group is not, the context turns the choice of stereotype into an awkward display of what racism is and how these prejudices shine through even in a text that may not have had that intent. Normally this might seem picky, and as if I’m looking actively for issues but this is serious business. Writing about diversity and inclusion requires thinking about the language used. How we speak of something is ultimately just as significant as that we speak of it. By saying what white men are, Desborough is also pointing out what everyone else isn’t.

Doing it right

The PS4 game Horizon Zero Dawn10 is an example I’ve mentioned before. Zero Dawn subverts tropes through ignoring them. With the division of tribes through geographical areas instead of skin color or ethnicity, Zero Dawn sidesteps the issue. You can be any skin color. The distinction is not ethnicity but culture. Instead of piling on racism as it expresses itself in our society today, Horizon Zero Dawn ignores it. Through ignoring it, it sidesteps the traps of patronising persons of color, the imperialist heritage and ruling persons of color “for their own good”.

The Swedish RPG Western11 is built on a historical basis, which means that you might expect women to be scarce and racism rampant. That is true. The game does deal with racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. It also represents – in a positive way – first nations, persons of color and women. All of them are amply represented in a way that expresses a varied range of situations. You will not find only white men inside the covers of this book. That said, the authors take the issues of racism and sexism seriously, and they’v even worked out rules to handle these situations. Being a person of color or a woman is a drawback, but in order to use the drawbacks, the characters will gain advantages. The writers go on to say (my translation):

Since the game Western uses history as a starting point, the surrounding society is both narrow minded and racist. It gives rise to conflicts and adventures where the characters have an opportunity to make a difference. If you let racism become an important part of your gaming, persons of color might experience a harder time, and that they’re treated worse by their surroundings (…)

We would love it if more players defied conventions and played something else than white, hetero men, even though it breaks the most common cliché. Society at large may be run by white men, but there were those who broke convention and went their own way.12

The gist of the text is that playing is supposed to be fun. If you face prejudice, there are rules in place to give you advantages. (Full disclosure, I’ve worked with Tove and Anders on Western. My contribution was primarily diseases, horses and voodoo.)

In Eclipse Phase, no human bodies are irreplaceable, only the mind matters. Despite that, there are still versions of racism, but those versions have shifted from human skin color to human bodies. In Eclipse Phase the mind can be transplanted from one body to another, called morphs. These morphs – and this mechanic – does away with any need to focus on gender or race. Despite this, there are still conflicts in the world of Eclipse Phase.

This mixture of reverence and nostalgia for Earth sometimes has a darker side. Individuals who choose to have morphs that are visibly non-human experience a mild degree of prejudice in many habitats, and militant bioconservatives denounce those who look sufficiently non-human as being covert allies of the TITANs.13

In other words, prejudice still exists but it has been removed from the everyday racism that persons of color in a predominantly white, western society face. In the fantasy game Hjältarnas tid (In the Time of Heroes) 14ethnicity isn’t even mentioned, but there are plenty of skin colors on display in images in the game. In other words, the game designers have been mindful of one of the most important aspects – representation.

Read up, talk to people, try to be aware

The best way to be mindful about issues around ethnicity is to start by reading up on the subject. Edward Said’s Orientalism is a good place to start. Educate yourself around the topics you are tackling in your game. Not only will you become a better game designer, but you might find mechanics that are interesting by doing so. Maybe you decide to stick with old fashioned racism, but you’ll at least have made an informed decision and not just assumed or acted by rote.

Once you have read up, talk to those who are living the situation every day, or if you are a person of color, use your own experiences. Don’t ask people to educate you. That’s not their jobs unless you pay them to. Instead, ask what would make them happy to see in an RPG. What are their power fantasies? How would they like ethnicity to be treated?

If you care about these things, that’s the way to tackle it, I think. Maybe you’ll end up like Western – using historical fact to drive decision making. Maybe you’ll go the Horizon Zero Dawn route and subvert the tropes. Maybe ethnicity won’t even be mentioned but amply represented as in Hjältarnas tid. It’s up to you. But whatever you decide, make sure that those decisions are informed.

Next part in this series is about gender.

Diversity Dungeons – Part 1

  1. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  2. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. 3. Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  3. Bond, Michael. The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and how the People Around us SHape Everything We Do. xiv. London: Oneworld Publications, 2014.
  4. Bond, Michael. The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and how the People Around us SHape Everything We Do. xv. London: Oneworld Publications, 2014.
  5. Horizon Zero Dawn. Guerrilla Games. (Playstation 4 Game). Sony Computer Entertainment, 2017
  6. Diversity Dungeons[note]Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. 6. Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  7. Said, Edward. Orientalism. 26. New York: Random House, Ltd, 1979.
  8. Said, Edward. Orientalism. 27. New York: Random House, Ltd, 1979.
  9. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. 10. Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  10. Horizon Zero Dawn. Guerrilla Games. (Playstation 4 Game). Sony Computer Entertainment, 2017
  11. Gillbring, Anders, Gillbring, Tove and Thelin, Lukas. Western: Rollpersonen. 4th Ed. Vilnius: Åskfågeln, 2016.
  12. Gillbring, Anders, Gillbring, Tove and Thelin, Lukas. Western: Rollpersonen. 4th Ed. 6. Vilnius: Åskfågeln, 2016.
  13. Boyle, Rob and Cross, Brian.
    Eclipse Phase: The Roleplaying Game of Transhuman Conspiracy and Horror
    . 42. Lake Stevens: Catalyst Game Labs, 2009.
  14. Sundelin, Krister. Hjältarnas tid. Litauen: Helmgast AB, 2016.