Some game designers, GMs, and podcasters have been discussing racism in fictional worlds. It’s an issue that touches fields well beyond tabletop roleplaying. Your game may benefit from the strategic introduction of racism to the game world, though it can easily go wrong. Below are perspectives on incorporating racism in games, in tabletop and video games.
(Note: Discussion of race and handling race can be terribly fraught. I’m not the best guide, but follow the links and you’ll find worlds of perspective to consider.)
I most recently stumbled on Greg Christopher’s G+ post about incorporating racism for more realistic worlds. In his post, he explains why he’s working on bringing manifestations of racism into the game world as a tool to deepen verisimilitude. One of his first principles is that none of his groups is especially enlightened–racism is something that all of his races will manifest.
In Greg’s scheme, racism is about justification. Justification of Difference, Justification of Success, Justification of Failure, and Justification of Abuse are his four pillars, leading him to specific manifestations that drive characterization (mostly of NPCs), which leads to behavior that can drive plots.
The comments do a good job of bringing up complementary approaches and alternate first principles. They also foreground a concern specific to gaming: are the PCs expected to have the same blinders & beliefs? Depending on how it’s approached, friction between PCs due to their racism might drive the plot, encourage inter-party conflict and dissension, or be an inspiring example of what can be accomplished if you push through your prejudices.
Commenters interrogate the model and discuss how racism will affect the game world, plot, characters, and relations. There are also references to specific games (like Dog Eat Dog) and books where racism deliberately affects fictional worlds. If you’re looking to incorporate racism in your game world, the post and comment thread gives you a framework and examples of application.
Odd Racism Manifestations
Chris Chinn recently pointed readers at an interesting podcast called Justice Points. It’s a wide ranging discussion about (mostly) videogaming, with a lot of examples of racism done poorly. This week’s episode tackled Dragon Age: Inquisition, and mentioned elements of diversity that worked… and many more that smuggled in unexamined assumptions, falling flat.
One key, emphasized by Chris in the post linked above, is that racism as it manifests in the real world comes from a history and context. If you’re not careful, the racism that you added to your game in hopes of making it feel authentic will instead detract–because the manifestations you choose are tied to our history and context rather than reflecting the game world. The fictional racism should express itself very differently if the setting never featured a transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery. His post concludes:
It’s so jarring and weird when modern racism bits are inserted into games or settings which… basically have no reason for it otherwise.
Isms at your Table
The racism that builds one player’s feeling of verisimilitude might be one encounter too many this week for another player at your table. Racism’s manifestation in the game world might tune a player out for the rest of the night.
Blackjack reported a great discussion with a player about a game world with sexism. The same lesson may apply to your table, whatever ism you explore.
“My intent with including sexist elements was to portray real-world problems but in a fantasy setting where they are easier to overcome. Have I missed the mark?”
“The thing is, I put up with enough crap every day in the real world because I’m a woman. My fantasy world is not one where I get to humiliate chauvinists at will; it’s one where I don’t have to deal with that problem at all.”
Racism and sexism are incredibly easy to introduce to games poorly. Gaming isn’t very diverse, which means it’s easy to drift into stereotype–or to borrow unconscious models that apply modern concepts intrusively. Even a nuanced, realistic, portrayal of racism in the game world might dishearten or exhaust someone who faces similar challenges every day. If your game doesn’t tackle racism as a primary theme, carefully consider whether what you’re gaining (verisimilitude, plot drivers) is worth the cost. Consider passing out X-cards or explicitly discuss the challenging elements that you’re incorporating into your game prep before characters are made.
Books versus Table
For a writer, racism can be easier to deploy in service of the story than at a roleplaying table. When the beliefs are spread around the table, it’s important to consider how they’ll be used by everyone–including the players who only skim the background material.
A writer can introduce the consequences of racism to reinforce the themes running through the work. In a collaborative setting like roleplaying, it’s trickier to get a consistent output from the structure you set up. Player actions and the dice might reinforce the tropes that you were hoping to undermine or interrogate.
A different approach to creating conflict between groups is to build the specific cultures, concentrating on their own point of view. By working from an internal point of view, you can often avoid shallow stereotypes. Concentrating on what members of a culture do can be a great tool for showing cultural differences in play. (For more, Gamable Culture discusses a great series of approaches from ThoughtCrime.)
So… have you used racism as a deliberate tool for your game world? Did it work the way you’d hoped? Help us avoid the pitfalls by sharing in comments.