The philosophical framework of any media offering is based upon factors of increasingly subtle paradigms, from the individual’s interaction with the world, to the consumer’s interaction with the creators, and to the consumer’s relationship to their own biases and how they are enforced by the system. Fair warning, this blog post is dense, and long.
Every system contains within it implications regarding what the artist holds to be true. Escaping bias is difficult if not impossible; we’re creatures of habit and thinking outside of yourself requires constant empathy. Most of the time, we act in accordance with the way that we were raised, the morality that we have learned and our beliefs about the society we participate in.
The world of Dungeons and Dragons, for example, was introduced in the mid 70s, in America, by men who happened to be white, cisgender and heterosexual based on our current understanding of their lives. This created a series of inherent biases in the game that are obvious; female characters had different statistics, certain “races” of people, ostensibly intended to be like different species were portrayed in ways that in hindsight were thin and racially insensitive allegories. Furthermore, early on in its inception a paradigmatic relationship was created between the player and the world by virtue of the mechanics of the game and its implications; players were part of a colonizing force, driving back “savage” locals with “evil” cults to expand their empire. Early iterations of the game actually contain rules to arbitrate for these kinds of things.
I’m not arguing that anything they did was wrong, or that Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson were racist colonizers. Rather, I would present the mistakes that they made as being part of the zeitgeist of America itself. In Gary and Dave’s world, the civil rights act and the voting rights act had only been passed ten years prior. While I can draw absolutely no conclusions about how these two men felt regarding racial segregation it’s not out of the question to say that their work was influenced by the belief systems they had available to them, as well as the myths and stories which they had been told ostensibly during an era that was extremely racist.
A lot of these paradigms have fallen away from Dungeons and Dragons, and Dungeons and Dragons certainly isn’t the only victim of these presumptions. It could be said that much of science fiction from the early eras of America, post-enlightenment, has these kinds of issues; you can formulate an argument that Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, is one really long breeding program to create an ubermensch. While the fictive and fantastic elements create exceptions and excuses for these kinds of paradigms the core of the ideal is still there; power can be acrued through generations by selective breeding of the human population. Paul Atreides comes from a “special” and “destined” bloodline which of course presents him as the natural protagonist of the novels. Furthermore, he needs to learn techniques from a group of desert nomads who possess hidden wisdom who he eventually comes to lead again because of this destiny, and his heritage.
Calling this exoticism is the generous interpretation. Exoticism can be defined as a fascination, albeit ignorant and largely aesthetic, of a culture that is not yours. While not overt, exoticism still functions to position the narratively privileged group as the one who will solve the issues at hand. The archetypical “other” in science fiction frequently cribs from human cultures outside of those of the author. Particularly pernicious in eurocentric nations, America certainly isn’t the only cultural group that partakes, nor are white people the only ethnic group that holds presuppositions about people’s ability based on their heritage. That being said (and it’s a lot to say), there are elements of these paradigms that still exist in Dungeons and Dragons by virtue of there being an impetus for it to both change with the times and stay the same so that it is familiar.
The transition to Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition, for example, removed references to demons and devils because of negative backlash against the game in relationship to American Christian values. Still, though, races that were not human were called demi-humans and while they could advance to a higher level they still were not as capable as humans were. This of course positioned humans as the default within the setting which, when combined with the insensitive use of allegory for these demi-human races continued to create the paradigm that we’ve been speaking of.
In the year 2000 (which was 21 years ago, oh my Gods I’m so old), 3rd edition DnD was released. In this edition, player options were expanded and the system itself was modified in favour of unification of rulesets. Now, most things were arbitrated with the d20. Furthermore we can see an additional step away from the bio-essentialist reading of race that the game began with; in this edition there were no longer any restrictions on class and race which both increased diversity and helped create new paradigms regarding fantasy race and allegory. With the changing zeitgeist the old understanding of fantasy races being lesser humans became taboo. Now, the races were separate but equal.
Seven years later, 4th edition was born. It got a lot of things right, particularly in its ability to explain the roles and reasons of a roleplaying game and the ease at which it could be accessed by a new player. Races, as well, were beginning to be recontextualised within the pages of the books with small descriptions providing exceptions to the rule. Now not every elf was aloof and not every orc was a savage. However, this quote pulled directly from the pages of the 4th edition Player’s Handbook should make it clear that they certainly had more work to do.
“Many different intelligent creatures populate the world, creatues such as dragons, mind flayers, and demons. These aren’t characters you can play; they’re monsters you fight. Your character is an adventurer of one of the civilized races of the world.”
If you imagined a pompous aristocrat saying “one of the civilized races of the world” I’m right there with you. Furthermore, the colonialist legacy of the game is writ large here for you to see; while two of the monsters listed here are expressly evil and do evil things which would absolutely warrant them being hunted down and killed (I draw the line at eating people’s brains, personally) one of the monsters, the dragon, has absolutely no negative implication and yet you are supposed to gladly tag along to kill them. Note that it doesn’t say that these are creatures that you are supposed to contend with, it specifically says that these creatures, who are not like you, are meant to be attacked and killed. They are monsters.
Dungeons and Dragons, and many other TTRPGs which derive their art direction from early eurocentric fantasy continue to fall victim to the simplified and honestly dangerous way that exoticism, race, and culture informed these works which some people argue are formative to the genre. That isn’t to say that they can’t be appreciated for what they are; artwork can’t be divorced from its contemporary period. Rather, I posit that we should be trying to create games which make a point to branch away from these paradigms into a more egalitarian and less ignorant sphere. Here are a few ways I feel that we could do that.
- Let’s stop calling them races: The term race has a lot of real world connotations, and those connotations will make their way into the framework of your game.
- Let’s step away from biological determinism: You’re not better because of your parentage, nobody is. Your traits shouldn’t be about who your parents are, but rather what they taught you.
- Let’s create more symmetry between “player” and “monster”: Having some monsters be irredeemably evil because of their actions is fine, but let’s not fill entire books with nothing but stuff to kill; a sphinx can be bested with a riddle.
- Let’s step away from colonialist narratives: The idea of an untamed place is often a fiction told in the real world by people hoping to exploit that place’s resources. The reality of the situation is that these places are almost always inhabited already by people deemed savage or lesser by the colonizing force.
- No more evil cultures: This one is more difficult to achieve because of the sheer vastness of the trope, but an objectively evil society can’t exist. A society is capable of doing very evil things or even having an evil ethos but people born into that society aren’t evil by default.
In all of this, I am arguing for an ounce more of subtlety and an ounce more of empathy. I’m not saying that you have to play an entirely different game, but rather what I hope to convey is that there are elements of the past which become embedded in our genre tropes that we can and should think about. In our community we have a lot of people who are directly affected by these paradigms and tropes in a way that you might not be. Let’s try to make this space where we play with imagination, wonder and fantasy a place that includes them fully. This is going to be hard; we’ll have to write villains with motivations beyond inborn hatreds or biological drives. We’ll need to write heroes who are conflicted about their actions and choose the path less walked. We’ll have to look back at some of our heroes from our youth and read them with a critical eye. But in the end, I think that’s the least we can do.