There is a genre[*] of roleplaying game that covers a mix of historical games that are trying to be faithful (in a strictly non-academic way[**]) to “real life” and pulp games set in historic-ish settings, more like Pirates of the Caribbean than the actual pirates of the Caribbean, if you see what I mean. This genre is pretty popular, at least amongst the internet forums I occasionally frequent. It also commonly includes elements of racism.
Woah there Rabalias! Where did that come from? Ok, let me say up front: I am not saying these games are racist, I’m not saying the people who play and enjoy them are racist. I’m talking about fictional racism.
Games set in World War 2 that include casual jingoism towards the “Jerries”. Games set in the old West where black slaves are commonplace. All manner of historical racism, sometimes brutal but usually casual and even humorous. These are fun settings for games, that many people enjoy. And of course, many roleplayers would not feel right about playing games in such settings without including the racism from the period. So we see players having their characters act racist for “realism”‘s sake. Usually this is done with a knowing smile – I’m not racist, the smile says, and this is all just good fun, why don’t you say something racist back and we can all laugh about it?
What I have discovered is: I am not at all comfortable with this. It is just a story, but I don’t want to be in a story where my character is a racist. I don’t want to play in a group where racism is common, even if it is strictly in-fiction, and even, perhaps especially, where it is done with tongue in cheek and a knowing smile. It makes me feel uncomfortable, and it inhibits me from fully taking part in the game. I can’t shake the feeling that by portraying heroic characters, or even just sympathetic characters, who are not merely just incidentally and occasionally racist, but frequently and casually racist, towards real historical victims of racism, I am on some level endorsing or taking part in that racism.
Unfortunately for me, games don’t typically advertise if they will be including such themes. I am lucky in that the people I roleplay with day-to-day don’t seem to be into playing comedy racists, but I can’t be sure when attending a convention or playing online that I won’t come across this. Sadly, I think I may have to avoid games from “historical” settings with notorious racist attitudes, unless I feel confident the group will tread very lightly indeed over those issues.
[*] Possibly too strong a word, but read it broadly.
[**] In my experience, such games are far more likely to be based on fictional accounts of history than actual historical knowledge. The result is that the social attitudes reflect those seen in movies and books. How racist were people historically? They may or may not have been as racist as the characters in “historical” games.