I just watched an interesting presentation by Antero Garcia called; “Dungeons & Dragons in an Era of Terror, Nationalism, and Gamergate.” Academic discussions of role-playing games (RPGs) interest me for several reasons. It’s a chance to connect interests that I normally experience in different parts of my life (gaming and scholarship on the one hand, and storytelling in gaming and storytelling in other contexts on the other). So, I was excited to see a new source on the topic.
A copy of one of Antero’s books is on the way, but in the meantime…
This talk is a bit of an intellectual shotgun blast. Antero is busy introducing a broad range of themes and analytic tools for much of the presentation, so much so that his main point is barely taking shape at the end of the video here. Still that point, namely that race and gender politics (among other things) are very much a part of the gaming experience is a good one. I wish he had spent a little less time introducing his key terms and more time developing this main theme, because it’s definitely worth considering.
One thing that struck me about this presentation is a point that Antero makes a couple of times in here. He says that players are “supposed to enact racial practices” in games like Dungeons and Dragons. Take for example the following section of the Youtube transcript which starts at the 41 minute mark:
“Oftentimes when I had sit at the table play with other people if someone was a dwarf they would see an elf who’s play who is at their table and say I don’t like elves right and you were supposed to enact racist practices towards other races within the game right if you’re a human you’re skeptical of orcs right if you’re an elf you don’t like dwarves there is there is racism built into the system in terms of the attitudes you’re supposed to carry with other people”
Here we have the basic case for taking fantasy racism seriously. I am amazed at the number of players who don’t see this connection, but perhaps some folks are just being a little too defensive here. We don’t have to give up our dice or even our magical axe of kobald-slaying, but perhaps we could be asked to entertain the idea here that it matters when we choose to tell stories, interactive stories, set in a world where race and racism are built into the setting.
What struck me most about Antero’s presentation is that the norm here strikes me as significantly less obvious than Antero suggests. It may be that he oversimplified the matter in a hasty delivery, and I do think his point is essentially sound, but as presented, this does strike me as an oversimplification.
I don’t know that players in an RPG feel an obligation to play their characters as expressing racist attitudes towards other fantasy races within a given setting. Players are often expected to run their characters on the assumption that such attitudes are pervasive in the worlds where they live, and the significance of such beliefs are serious boosted by a degree of objective differences between the races which is often hard-wired into the games (orcs get a bonus to strength, dwarves to constitution, etc.), but despite all this, players are normally free to shape their own character’s attitudes within such a world as they see fit.
Simply put; players are free to buck the racist world in which their characters live.
More simply put (2.5 edition): Players are free to emulate the heartwarming story of Gimli and Legolas, a dwarf and an elf who somehow find it within themselves to become friends despite the widespread enmity between their races.
But does this happen often, you may well ask?
Yes, it does.
In fact it happens so often it gets a little tiresome. I recall once seeing a satirical bit on some gaming site in which the author complained that not all drow needed to be chaotic good rangers. Misunderstood orcs abound, and odd friendships are outpaced if anything but unlikely romantic couplings. It is sometimes a problem to see just how often and how easily players set aside the stereotypes built into fantasy races and rise above racist attitudes with an ease that belies even the social realities of the fantasy setting (let alone the hardwired elements of racial character built into the game). Sure, people sometimes play the stereotype. That does happen. But they also play against it. That happens too. So, it doesn’t really work to say of any given dwarf and any given elf inhabing the same campaign setting that the players running them are supposed to enact racist attitudes towards each other. It’s at least a little more complicated than that.
One way of thinking about it might be to suggest that the issue enters the discourse in the form of a presupposition rather than a normative principle. The players are expected to act as if their characters are immersed in a world within which elves and dwarves are likely to hate one another. What they are to do about it is another matter. Moreover, players are usually free to imagine the specific history of their own characters as they see fit, which means in practice, they can easily come up with reasons to make themselves the exception. “…oh yes, I’m a dwarf, but I was raised by a kind elven lady who took me in after I was orphaned in the last orc war.”
You get the idea.
Players are not necessarily expected to run their characters as racists; they are supposed to run them as characters in world saturated with racism. That this is a world in which race is also assumed to be real certainly does complicate any efforts to buck the system, but the reality is easier to ignore in role play than Antero suggests.
So, does this solve the problem?
Are we in the clear now?
No guilt here?
Roll a die 20!
Unfortunately, no, this does not settle the issue. It just makes it more interesting. The problem now is what do we get out of the various performances people enact in role-play? Is a player who imagines his character as the exception to fantasy bigotry really delivering a kill shot to the influence of racism in his life or that of the other players at his game table? Or is he just enjoying a catharsis, perhaps even building up some cheap moral licensing credentials? Will his performance help the other players to see through racism in their own lives, or will they all emerge from the game a little more comfortable with their own prejudices?
The answer to these questions aren’t clear to me, and I suspect the answer varies within the details. Hell, I don’t even want to suggest that the answer varies between one player and another or one campaign and another; I mean, the answer may vary between one moment and the next in a single game. It might well be that a player running a fantasy half-orc expresses some genuine social awareness in her decision to spare the elven prisoners in the wake of a hostile encounter …only to give vent to some real malice when she BBQs a hobbit later that evening. The relationship between the players at a game table and the characters on that table and within the game universe is always complex, and real world issues cannot be mapped directly from one to the other, but neither can we say that what happens in game stays in game, so to speak.
It matters that race is built into so many game systems, and yes, we should be concerned about that, but we can’t say once and for all that a player running an elf-loving dwarf is any more enlightened than a player reveling in the chance to commit fantasy genocide with his Paladin heading off to slaughter every last goblin from the dark swampland..
Okay, maybe we can draw some judgements about the guy running that Paladin.
In the long run, I suppose the real question is what does it mean that a significant portion of the gaming public regularly chooses to interact with each other on the basis of fantasies in which race is real and racism is pervasive? That’s a damned good question. The question is at least a little more interesting when we acknowledge that these people are free to shape their own attitudes towards the issues of race and racism within these fantasy worlds.