Missing the Point part 1

POCGamer GrenadeSo, as I’ve explored the internets in my quest to rapidly expand my breadth and depth of knowledge on the subject of racism and SF&F culture, I’ve come across a disturbing, but sadly predictable trend within the tabletop gaming culture towards POC asking for increased recognition and inclusion in gaming materials. The trend is “Missing the Point”. Tabletop roleplaying is all about several things. Wish fulfilment. Escapism. Imagination. Power fantasies. Story telling. POC want these things too, but are currently, largely, denied it in official materials and canon resources. When a POC or supportive non-POC brings up the subject of racism in tabletop gaming, or of lack of inclusion of POC or other minorities in gaming materials, the result is the same. The POC or commenter is immediately attacked, the discussion hijacked or derailed, and the point they were trying to raise is utterly and completely missed by the attackers or the non-commenting population. Where did this attitude come from?

Tabletop roleplaying has its roots deep in western, Eurocentric culture. D&D, the popular and well known tabletop RPG, was created by white males in the late 1970’s, and originally carried many of the biases of American males who grew up in the era of the American Civil Rights movement. This is not to say that the writers and creators then or now are overtly, or even consciously, racist. However, racist attitudes, when the norm, are seldom recognized as being racist by the people who think them. The result was a segregationist setting layout, where little attention was paid to making interactions between different human ethnicities and non-human player races “normal”, in favour of compartmentalizing them into separate but unequal blocs. As the game was made by white males for a white male audience, little attention was paid to the stereotypes or sexism that was built into the early editions. In later editions, some of the sexism was dropped (females no longer suffered attribute penalties), but much of the racism and stereotypes remained; not because no one noticed, but because to the core audience, the exoticism, orientalism, and fetishization were “normal”. They were the narratives and cultural assumptions they believed to be true, or best catered to the intended audience, young white males in their teens and early 20s. And in an environment that overwhelmingly suppressed the voices of dissent by denying them a way to express themselves outside of their communities, these ideas became semi-formalized in the minds of gamers. It was, and is, confirmation bias at work. [1]

With the dawning of the internet age, those previously mentioned voices of dissent, those of POC and their supporters, suddenly came in loud and clear. They asked for, and then came to demand, more representation in gaming materials, and that that representation be more nuanced and less rooted in the gross stereotypes of pulp fiction. This is because POC face a war on two fronts concerning racism in gaming material. First is racism by omission; POC simply aren’t present, or are present in the most negligible way possible. In campaign settings or games that are regionally themed (like Legend of the Five Rings, or the incomplete but loved Outlaws of the Water Margin), absence isn’t a great an issue. It’s in settings where POC exist (such as the Forgotten Realms setting for D&D), or where they should logically appear (setting free base books, like the PHB, DMG, and MM) where they are omitted. The second front is the aggressive use of stereotypes, caricatures, and tropes to portray POC in quickly recognizable, and incredibly narrow and limiting roles and positions within story narratives. The reduction of the Tabaxi in the Forgotten Realms setting from a vibrant culture to one of cannibals and “noble savages”, bereft of any cultural description or in game support, is an example of the sort of thing that occurs on the second front. Rifts Africa, by Palladium Books, is a perfect example of both; with a decided lack of POC in the art, and the entire continent serves as a place for non-Africans to adventure in. There are 67 interior pictures in Rifts Africa, of which 54 depict non-Africans or landscape, and 13 depict Africans. The first picture with Africans in it has them acting as porters for a white game hunter. Four of the pictures (just under 25% of the pictures depicting Africans) depict Africans as monsters. None of the pictures show Africans using modern or futuristic technology or weapons, none of them are of Africans fighting monsters or “looking cool”. In a single book, ostensibly about Africa, only 19% of the pictures show Africans (omission), and the few depictions of them make it clear they are there as set dressing and nothing more (stereotypes and limited roles).

Here’s where it gets interesting. Privilege, in particular, White Privilege kicks in very rapidly when POC or their supporters come out and question the status quo of gaming. By the standards of the modern world, the request put forward by POC is a simple one, and not particularly demanding. “Can you please show more POC in your book art and please stop using, or at least tone down, stereotypes and tropes?” Within minutes online, any thread or forum with this posted goes from 0 to 11. Now, I covered what White Privilege is earlier, so take a moment to read that post or this great comic. [2][3] The reason this is important to mention now is because the status quo has in the past, and continues to, favour Whites over POC in the realms of SF&F. This is a key point because it is so pervasive and well entrenched that many White SF&F fans, gamers, artists, and writers aren’t aware that POC are consuming and interacting with SF&F materials. The idea that POC might want to interact is bizarre, alien, and to many, vaguely offensive (based on online forums). In the comic, the artist points out that White Privilege is the privilege of being allowed to be ignorant about the world around you, and this is on display with the reactions in forums. Lets examine three of the most common attacks.

“It’s just political correctness gone awry!”

  • Not really. Political correctness gone awry would be if there were NO POC consumers of SF&F materials, and governmental or other official forces were cracking down on companies, writers, and artists for not including them or for negative, stereotyped portrayals. The reality is that there is a small and rapidly growing POC market that is being denied access to, or recognition in “mainstream” SF&F materials and venues, not to mention in the associated social circles.

“If POC want fantasy so much, why don’t they make their own?”

  • Funny, this one comes up a lot. It’s erroneous on at least two accounts, for similar reasons. The base here is profound ignorance. Because they have been so thoroughly denied access to the “mainstream”, POC have created their own sub-genres of SF&F (such as Sword & Soul and Stream Funk), in addition to continuing to write “conventional” SF&F (just with more POC characters). However, their work is less publicized, less accessible, and generally not sought out by the majority of readers (Whites), because they don’t even know it exists. [4] The second reason is that it ignores the effects of enculturation and acculturation. In most western nations, POC have a subculture, influenced by the culture of the lands their ancestors came from, local culture, and the dominant culture. [5][6][7] There is however, a persistent thought, particularly in north america, that ethnicity=culture (it does not). As a result, many White SF&F gaming fans (and fans in general), see SF&F as being uniquely “white” and “theirs”; believing that, for some reason, POC raised in the same or similar environment and with the same or similar media to watch and absorb, will somehow have a completely different concept of  SF&F result. If you grow up watching and reading about knights fighting dragons, you’ll want to be a knight, fighting a dragon.

“Do POC even read/play/like this?”

  • This one elicits a sigh when I see it. Obviously they do, or there wouldn’t be POC authors struggling to get recognition. There wouldn’t be people like me writing this blog. All this question, or its variants, shows is that the writer has a very limited idea of who is reading, gaming, and interacting with modern SF&F. [8]

“It’s not real, it can’t be racist!”

  • This is just a straight disconnect from reality. If you use real life cultural, verbal, and/or phenotypic cues to draw or write a character or people, then bury them in stereotypes, tropes, and/or other established to be racist markers, it’s racist. Remember the Neimoidians and Gungans in Star Wars Episode I?

The idea about segregated POC SF&F, sadly, makes all too frequent appearances as well. This is the idea where POC simply have their own, separate, little SF&F community, and don’t try to “ruin” it for everyone. Since when has adding more points of view or voices in fiction been a bad thing? Never. When has creating more nuanced or creative game settings been negative? Never. The only problem is that the majority market (young White males), is a also a super safe market, that requires minimal effort to access. Deviation from the status quo means thinking, it means risk. It means sharing something already shared in an official capacity. It means POC on covers and in the Science Fiction and Fantasy parts of the bookstore instead of in the African American or Urban writers categories.

All in all, the community in tabletop gaming, is, for the most part, horrible about this. There are the odd bright lights, but the vocal minority of gamers and the silent majority that tacitly supports them make for a terrible go for POC. Through outright racism, ignorance, a reliance on logical fallacies (more on that later), and anecdotal descriptions of the supposed behaviour of POC, they strive to prevent the changing of the status quo. Any straw can be grasped, no matter how racist or how much it needs to be carefully worded to make it through content filters. In 1998, Samuel R. Delaney wrote an extensive piece on his experiences with racism in the SF&F community. [9] Now, 16 years later, not much has changed; except the racism and denial are now allowed a wider audience with the internet, and the systemic racism is somewhat more subtle.

9 comments

  • “This one elicits a sigh when I see it. Obviously they do, or there wouldn’t be POC authors struggling to get recognition. There wouldn’t be people like me writing this blog. All this question, or its variants, shows is that the writer has a very limited idea of who is reading, gaming, and interacting with modern SF&F.”

    That is EXACTLY why I decided to write the “Do Black People Really Do…?” series. To educate the masses of POC who even believe that we don’t read and / or write SF&F.

    Thanks, so much, for your informative and well-stated blog and for including me in it!

    Balogun Ojetade

    • The thanks is to you. Your blog popped up when I was looking into Afrofuturism and has been a great resource for putting me onto topics and issues that I knew (and still know) comparatively little about.

      Your point is well taken though, and a future post will be about POC thinking that POC don’t game, read, or otherwise consume and interact with SF&F materials.

      Thanks for writing a great blog, and don’t be surprised if I link to you again in the future!

  • “It’s not real, it can’t be racist!”

    This is one of the weakest – yet most commonly levied – argument I encounter in SF and Fantasy groups when the subject of race comes up. The reason I find it so problematic is because it attempts to decontextualize game and world creation, in order to make it appear as though SF/Fantasy races or cultures just magically appeared from the ether.

    We get it, Toril isn’t a real place; it was spun from the minds of its creators over at Wizards/TSR. But the spinners didn’t exist in some cultural vacuum deep in the vaults of the gaming company: they exist as social beings enmeshed in a huge and complicated web of other social beings and institutions, all of which influence the minds that bring fantasy worlds to light.

    If “everything” about Forgotten Realms is fake, then how come we can all so clearly see cultural archetypes from our world stamped upon the face of this other one? We all recognize that Waterdeep is a European city-state; Maztica is analogous to “Generic Meso-American Civilization A”, or that the Barbarian clans of the Dales are shadows of the Gauls (Mostly).

    The names, people, and places are fake, sure, but the stereotypes – even down to the naming conventions – are just as real on Toril as they are on Earth.

    At an even more fundamental level, arguing that a given piece of work is merely fiction is not a valid defense against charges of racism. When “The Turner Diaries” was written, the fact that it was fiction didn’t stop it from being monumentally racist. The same holds true for SF/Fantasy writing; Just because an author or a reader claims that a work of fiction isn’t racist doesn’t mean that it isn’t. As the old saying goes, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”

    • Precisely. Unfortunately, some people think that if you don’t explicitly say “This group/person is X”, it means it doesn’t count. That’ll be in the “shifting goalposts” section of the second part.

  • I feel like a lot of things you point out in regard to the three most common attacks on POC in gaming can also be applied to female representation in gaming or just fantasy/sci-fi in general. Generally speaking I find myself at the bookstore struggling to find a non-male European centric storylines and it feels almost impossible. Too often I feel that writers (especially in gaming) feel that humans need to be racially located analogous to our own reality. Forgotten Realms is especially guilty of explicit racial/geographical demarcation. I don’t understand when POCs are included they become almost templated off off reality. It’s a fantasty world we shouldn’t be chained by these conventions.

    • You’re absolutely correct, similar arguments and ideas are used to maintain the sexism all to common in SF&F.

      It’s my thought that they get templated into “Exoticness”, close enough that game designers can say “We totally have POC in our game!”, but not so close that they can serve as anything but a different backdrop for the (presumably) White player characters to visit before returning to the “real” setting.

  • D&D rpgs were something of my youth 12-13, and recently got back into it with an old favorite that I vaguely remembered (NWN and mods). Everything that you’ve mentioned here is clearing the fog and patching up old memories (i.e. like rewatching disney movies) To be specific, the treatment of half elves especially if you roleplayed one and a couple of LIs in both the campaign and expansions was terrible.

    I’m heartbroken about D&D but also disgusted that I failed to look deeper into it. Modders for NWN are still somewhat following the formula as well. This blog is really great! I can’t stress that enough, it’s really a gem!!

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