One Gamer Sociologists’ Comments on Race

First, if you haven’t listened to the cast on race in gaming, scroll down and listen to it. I’ll wait.

Got it?


Secondly, before you even think about reading my thoughts on the subject, read this excellent post from io9 about N.O.C. (nerds of color).

Still here? Okay.

Okay… so I was at a wedding when they were recording that (congrats Tom and Marnie!) so I couldn’t be there, but, as Lexx pointed out in the cast, I’m a sociologist and we obsess over race. So yeah. I actually do have a few comments. Here they are:

1) There was a discussion about whether or not fantasy in particular, and D&D in specific, would be different if people who weren’t white created it. While I disagree with putting this as bluntly as Lexx’s high school friend did (“it would be different if it was written by Black people!”), I do think there’s something to be said for this. As was discussed earlier in the cast, fantasy settings often had very racist elements (i.e. LOTR = white people good, middle eastern people/dark people = bad). Fantasy games also draw explicitly on European, particularly western European mythology. This means that the lore of a certain people have kind of become the “default” fantasy setting, while any other group’s myths and lore (middle eastern, south Asian, Asian, African, South American, Native American, etc.) become tangential (i.e. in some module you go to an Asian flavored land, or something, for a period of time). Imagine how different fantasy would be if the default setting was, say, Arabic mythology, or African mythology. I’m not saying it would be totally different, nor that the games would play differently, but I do think there’s something to be said for the games, books, whatever, having a different flavor. The “default setting” of Western Europe in fantasy does give it a certain vibe and someone drawing on different ethnic and cultural traditions and sensibilities (intentionally or unintentionally) may, very well, create something different.

1a) I also think there’s something to be said for the sort of inherent racism of treating the myths and lore of one group of people as the default and treating everything else as exotic coloring (pun intended). Please note, I’m not saying you have to care about this at all, or even think about it, but it is something I think about, and I do think there’s a sort of inherent racism in saying that a bunch of white guys on horses in chainmail battling wizards and dragons is “normal” or at least “default” fantasy, but brown guys dressed in dessert garb wielding scimitars and battling a djinn is somehow exotic. I try to be aware of this and think about how different cultures and racial groups could actually play out in fantasy settings, which I think makes them more interesting. I think it makes games more rich to think about. Which leads me to…

2) I think whitewashing (pun intended) over racial tension in games (be it fantasy races or more real-world races) is weak sauce. It makes games a hundred times more immersive to deal with them, but…

2a) it’s like Scott said, white people tend to either have white guilt or be assholes, and you don’t want to be an asshole. I’m not saying white guilt is a good thing to walk around with, but attempting to be sensitive is hardly a bad thing. Most of us don’t like people making fun groups we’re a part of, especially when they’re outside of that group.

2b) The solution, to me, is twofold.

-Address issues with the proper balance of weight. Gaming isn’t the real world, but it can deal with issues in the real world. If you take the issues seriously and treat them like you would treat them in real life (or like they deserve to be treated in real life) then you’re doing it right.

-This can be accomplished, I think, by avoiding stereotypes, especially of minority groups. People are diverse both across races and within races. Almost any time I’ve felt someone was portraying a race poorly it was because they were presenting a stereotype or a caricature rather than a real person. Even a real person who appears to be a stereotype on first glance is almost guaranteed to be deeper than the stereotype if you get to know them. When you’re making your character, if you’re thinking “how do I portray someone of this race” you’re probably starting from the wrong direction (i.e. the outside in instead of the inside out). It seems to me that the better question to ask yourself is “who is this person, and how does their race or ethnicity play into who they are?”

3) As Lexx pointed out, this was about the most respectful cast ever. In fact, as the person who did the editing, I had to edit out a LOT of long pauses as people very seriously considered their words. I think this is an interesting thing which demonstrates our ambivalence about race in our society. The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva interviewed scores of white people for his book Racism Without Racists and found that a high percentage of them descended into incoherence when talking about race. A large number of people have accepted the general idea that racism is a bad thing. A large number of people, however, are also racist. Likewise, people have varying definitions of racism. You can just look at the news to see that. For some people, racism is a quality of individuals (as in “that person is really racist”). For others, racism is a quality of society (as in “this society treats groups unequally”). Both kinds of racism exist, but most people tend to think of it in one way or another.

This can mean that something you don’t think is racist, others may. For example, I very much think of myself as an anti-racist person, but I have pointed out how race appears to function in a situation to people before and been called a racist (i.e. I pointed out to someone that Chicago is a racially segregated city and they told me, in effect, that the fact that I noticed that was evidence that I’m a racist, where I would say the exact opposite: I notice that because I’m against racism). As such, talking about race is a minefield. At a single table you can offend one person by saying one thing, another by saying something else, and both of them by saying a third thing.

I do think that this points to a positive thing in the world, which is that people want to do right. Unfortunately, I think people often don’t know how to do right.

I actually think that this is an area where role-playing can be a really useful thing. A game can allow people to discuss these kinds of issues in ways which are actually more comfortable than having the real world conversations. Why not have issues of race in your racially diverse gaming group? Everyone could actually learn from this, and Kumbaya and all that stuff.

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