Racist stereotypes in roleplaying

So, I have been keeping a wary eye on the discussion of Wolsung and with a deep breath I ploughed through the RPGnet discussion of it. Now, I haven’t read Wolsung and I’m not going to get into my opinions on the game. But there were some interesting arguments thrown around on RPGnet that I’d like to talk about here.

1. It cannot be racism if the target is a fictional, nonhuman race. This seems pretty obviously false. A blatant racist stereotype against a particular real life group remains just as blatant if you shift it wholesale onto a fictional race (particularly if you make the fictional race resemble the stereotype in question in an extremely identifiable way). Whether you did it on purpose or not is beside the point, though when the resemblance is very strong, people may find it hard to credit that it was accidental.

2. It isn’t racism if it’s about national culture or if national culture is just as important in the game as race. Well, ok, the term “racism” doesn’t apply to national stereotypes. This doesn’t make it better though. Cultural (and NB also religious) stereotypes seem to have somewhere along the line become the acceptable face of bigotry. But, you know, it’s essentially the same deal – painting an entire group with one brush, and a skewed and, uh, stereotyped brush at that. Focusing on the fact that genes aren’t involved is missing the point.

3. It’s ok because it’s an accurate representation of the historical period that the game is modelling (in this case the Victorian age). Well, this is kind of true. It’s true that some people, perhaps the majority, maybe even the vast majority[*] of Westerners in Victorian age held pretty horrendous bigoted views about foreigners. Note, of course, that the game permits you to play non-Westerners, so this argument is pretty much missing the point as well – why should the game be presented exclusively from the Western viewpoint? Indeed, why not select a few admirable exceptions to the (perceived) general bigotry to act as your perspective characters while noting, perhaps in a sidebar, the general prevalence of racism. In other words, why view the entire game through the lens of racism?

4. This leads me to a more difficult question, for me at least. Point 3 about is really an allusion to the fact that many of us like our fantasy worlds to model reality quite closely, warts and all. Now, the point has been made to me that if we’re happy to fill our games with orcs and airships, why do we suddenly insist on realism when it comes to racism? Well, I just don’t think the two things are the same; orcs and airships are essentially background colour, whereas realistic social behaviour is quite fundamental. I’m in the camp that tends to not want to gloss over real-life phenomena like racism. To be clear, my games have not been known for including racist themes or tackling racism – but I’d like to think I could do so, and I’m keen on the idea of games tackling such serious subject matter.

But it’s equally clear that if you’re going to tackle such serious subject matter in a published game, you want to do so in a careful, nuanced and respectful way. You should ideally have taken some serious study on the matter before charging into such murky waters. I’d go so far as to say that you should take this approach even if you aren’t publishing – if you’re just playing in your living room. If in our enthusiasm to be realistic, or to faithfully replicate a historical period (albeit with orcs and airships and so forth) we accept any old attempt at “serious” issues, even done in a cartoonish and badly thought-through way, then we’re pretty much betraying the principle of gritty realism in so doing, and we’ve trivialised the issue in the process.

One last thing. I think part of the reason people get so defensive about this is that they think “if this game is racist and I like it, then I must be racist; I’m not racist so the game can’t be either”. Well, racism isn’t like a disease that you have or don’t. It’s a spectrum of behaviours and cultural themes which permeate the whole of Western society. You are at risk of saying or doing stuff that’s racist if you don’t examine yourself, even if you yourself are not a racist. You can enjoy a game that covers racial themes, even in a ham-fisted way, without being a racist, but you owe it to yourself to give yourself some careful scrutiny before you do so.

[*] I’m really not sufficiently a historian to argue this point, but the idea that all Victorians were raging racists strikes me as also a possible stereotype.

Author: rabalias

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

2 thoughts on “Racist stereotypes in roleplaying”

  1. In relation to your point 4 I would also add that there is worlds of difference between a gritty, warts and all game background which contains some racism internal to the fantasy world and racist artwork of the sort I have seen in Wolsung which is marketing material external to the game world.

    Lastly I would also say that the thing about racist stereotypes is that they are only stereotypes. One way to successfully deal with this in a game would be to have the group which is racially discriminated against constantly exhibiting to the players how the sterotype is totally rubbish – you know how like in the real world those sterotypes turn out not to be true. Unfortunately I don’t get the sense from the artwork that this it what the game is proposing.

  2. I don’t feel like wading through RPG.net threads, so appreciate the summary. FWIW I don’t find any argument that states “racism is OK/doesn’t apply here because -” credible. We evaluate art with 21st century eyes; we can objectively understand why something from another age would be a cultural institution, but that doesn’t change it from being racist.

    Still, I tend to think that people are racists, games are just badly written or in poor taste. TBH my first reaction to Wolsung was “another steampunk/Victoriana game? Really?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *