Comedy Racism in Historical Games

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.

Josh Fox

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.

5 thoughts to “Comedy Racism in Historical Games”

  1. Presumably there’s an alternative, which is to tread heavily over the issues. Bad behaviour in a sympathetic fictional character is not endorsed when it is treated as problematic from the author’s point of view. So, OK, characters can be racist, but this is a flaw for dramatic purposes even if it is not considered one by any character in the setting.

    If the player claims not to have an author’s point of view because they’re “just playing the character”, then sure, wonder to yourself why this person enjoys “being” a racist but is unable or unwilling to reflect critically on their own act of doing so. And move on swiftly.

    There is a difference between trying to emulate fiction *about* the period, vs. trying to emulate fiction *from* the period. Unless you are doing the latter, there is no reason why things that are unacceptable now should be considered unproblematic by the players just because they were accepted then.

    So, if you have a character who is casually prejudiced and violent towards vampires^H goblins^H black people on the basis that “they have no souls and are inherently evil/inferior”, and you choose not to make an issue of that, then you are writing very low-rate fiction from a 21st century point of view. Buffy is a racist, and watching Buffy is watching fiction about a racist engaged in race war against other racists[*]. You can find a way to enjoy doing that or not, as suits you. Nobody is obliged to play low-rate games, even if they are excellent in parts, any more than you’re obliged to enjoy big action movies with no real characters.

    I’d be somewhat interested how difficult it is, with a real group of strangers, to problematise the in-character racism that they treat as unproblematic. Since I don’t play games with random strangers I don’t have the opportunity to try it, but if it turns out to be fairly easy then you don’t have to abandon the genre. Just infect it with your right-on attitudes.

    [*] Disclaimer: I only persevered with Buffy to about the point where Faith accidentally killed a white person^H^H human, and suddenly murder was a big screaming deal from both characters’ and author’s POV. For all I know Whedon may have got better on the subject later.

  2. Btw: I don’t think that Buffy is a not-so-veiled parable for real race war. Neither do I think that real racism is (or historically ever was) structured similarly to the human/vampire/slayer power structure.

    But “the presentation of a race-like group as an unquestionable existential threat that can only be met by extermination” is something I view pretty sceptically even in fiction, I think much as you view comedy racism sceptically. It’s not that people who do it are racists, it’s that they’re ignoring racism. The results range from being intensely uncomfortable to being mildly contemptuous, neither of which is how I want to feel in a roleplaying group.

    1. @Steve, interesting. If you’re still reading this after 3.5 years[*]: which of these matches your view?
      – Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a racist story because it includes a “race” who are, in the fiction, inherently evil
      – Buffy is a racist character because she kills people solely because they belong to that race
      – Buffy is a racist character because she kills people who belong to that race, even though some of them are not evil

      The reason I ask is, I have tended to feel that if a group is automatically evil (like a demon or vampire, perhaps) in the fiction, then it isn’t “racism” per se when someone hunts them down. I’m not a fan of the idea that some natural races i.e. orcs, goblins etc are automatically evil, but “unnatural” races like demons and undead seem like they are sufficiently outside of real life that antagonism towards them isn’t analogous to real life racism. I can’t say I’ve given it a great deal of thought, though, and if the fiction started to delve into deliberate cruelty towards those races (and apparent anguish and pain felt by same) then it might start to feel unpleasant regardless.

      [*] No idea why I didn’t respond at the time, sorry!

  3. There is also another kind of racism, often seen in fantasy and sci-fi universes.
    Such as racism towards Elves or Dwarfs in Witcher, or towards other intelligent species in other games.
    Although, its racism towards imaginative creatures, the way that attitude is set up is often based on real expressions of racism. What would you say about that?

    1. @Tag, interesting question. The context of the article was around light-hearted games where the racism is done as background colour / humorous affectation. Although less inherently offensive, I doubt I’d much enjoy a game where fantasy racism is done in a similar way. On the other hand, a game that treats the subject seriously and thoughtfully could be one I’d enjoy whether it is historical racism or fantasy racism.

      So I guess I’m saying – whether it’s fantasy or not makes little difference, other than in that fantasy racism would somewhat reduce the unpleasantness of the experience because not making fun of real people’s historical experiences. Not enough to make me enjoy it, though.

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