There’s an interesting article over on Tor about minority settings in RPGs. There’s some talk about computer games, but mostly it’s talking about tabletop RPGs. This is my area of expertise, and this range of topics and the presumptions around them has been a topic of debate for me going way back, but more intensely over the last 5-6 years, especially the last three.
I hesitated to write this response/thought piece in response to this article, simply because the discussion (such as it is) is so febrile, contentious and nasty that it hardly seems worth the inevitable bile and recrimination which will follow. In a sense it’s freeing to know that your stock can’t get any lower with some people, but it remains infuriating to be smeared, lied about and even boycotted by people operating on hearsay and horrible distortions of what you actually say and believe.
I empathise with Sam Harris’ recent travails, albeit on a smaller scale.
So, while this is probably a horrible idea, I have little left to lose with the kind of people who will take exception, and hopefully anyone else will be willing to discuss, rather than simply point the finger and scream abuse.
This kind of self-censorship, which we see reflected in other issues, concerns me greatly, and I hate doing it. So damn the torpedoes.
This article will take the form of quotations from the original article, which I will address and then riff off of. I’d suggest reading the original article first for full context.
Role-playing games offer participants limitless opportunities to explore new places, characters, and ideas. Do you want to be a vampire pirate? Cool! A cyberpunk android? All right! Do you want your game to take place in a medieval fantasy kingdom, a post-apocalyptic dystopian wasteland, or even other galaxies? No problem! With imagination the only barrier for what can be created, there should be a vast field of narratives told through games. Yet, role-playing games are often more narrowly defined.
The opening paragraph here kind of… defeats the point of the whole article in a way. As is pointed out, tabletop role-playing games are pretty unique in that there is nothing – whatsoever – set in stone about the setting. Everyone’s game, everyone’s setting, everyone’s characters and outcomes are different and the whole experience is only limited by the imaginations of the players and how good they are at wheedling the Games Master.
So. Really. The only thing holding people back is themselves.
Narrow definition can be true of some settings, especially the more lore-specific ones, but this seems a very strange criticism to make in the context of the rest of the article – as we shall see.
Defaultism is the idea that we fall back on the status quo when something is not defined. We go with what is most familiar and “normal.” White Americans are a little over two-thirds of the population, but the vast majority of our media is dominated by this demographic, not just in games, but movies, TVs shows, and books. Because of the primacy of white characters in media, if a character is not explicitly stated to be of a different race they are often assumed to be white. Similar problems arise with gender expectations and sexual orientation. Women are commonly typecast as secondary characters, like the love interest, or the victim, while queer characters are rarely seen, or used only as comic relief. Most gamers unconsciously gravitate to the straight white male as our hero, our role model, and the baseline for play.
I’m not especially convinced that all of this is true, and it does present a rather ironic problem in that many culture critics and activists in the fictive space have an extremely narrow, Americanocentric view of the world. I also don’t think it’s entirely appropriate to compare the TTRPG space to conventional mass media, or to use analysis tools and language which is already dubious when applied to mass media on games – particularly TTRPGs.
‘Defaultism’ is actually fairly valid, on a purely probabilistic level. If you had a hypothetical random race/gender/sexuality generator that matched reality, it would in our societies, weighted by ‘how things are’ produce somewhat similar results. In most cases with NPCs in tabletop games, none of this information is relevant. The players aren’t going to know or care that the beggar they just tossed a copper coin to and will never see again is an Inuit lesbian who identifies as an attack helicopter. It’s simply not relevant and the assumptions don’t leave the player’s heads anyway.
Most RPG settings are – as was said – open. There’s usually space for these sorts of things to be brought up or brought in if they’re important to your group. Certainly there’s rarely, if ever, any sort of prohibition on them – save, perhaps, the negotiable importance of canonicity or simulating an historical period.
When defaultism is the norm, vast groups of people and entire cultures are left unexplored and unused in games. These are lost opportunities to engage our imagination, to roam in rich, fertile and vibrant territory. Simultaneously, lack of representation makes the role-playing hobby harder to access for minorities. Without seeing themselves in these stories, why would they participate? The answer is that many times they don’t. I know that in my case, I was pulled in at a very young age. I may have turned away from role-playing games if I had come to them as an adult.
This is the complaint from minorities that is very, very hard to understand in a fictive context in general and in the RPG space in particular. Why would you look to be yourself within a fictional world? Sometimes there’s appeal in being an altered version of yourself, but I tend to find this more appealing in computer games than TTRPGs. Isn’t a huge part of the point to be found in exploring the other? Things that don’t even exist, haven’t existed in a long time or might exist.
I am not an ennobled diplomat from a wrecker’s planet, descended from criminal gangs in the Star Wars universe. Nor am I a Scottish born hacker in an alternative timelined 2020. Nor am I a science fiction author, defrosted and instantiated into a synthetic body some years after a hard-singularity wrecks the Earth. Nor am I bisexual ice-themed Chaos Magician reincarnated into the World of Darkness. Yet I have played all these things – and more.
To simultaneously decry games for lacking a familiar experience, and to try and sell the idea on the back of different experiences, seems schizophrenic and confused. The very point of these games is to step outside of who we are and take the role of someone – or something – else. Even repugnant villains on occasion.
With regard to a lot of fantasy and historical settings the question becomes even more pointed. If the setting is a low magic, pseudo-medieval European setting, why would you necessarily expect to see a black or brown face (at least away from some ports or, unfortunately, slave markets – or the royal court).
That said, damning these games on these issues seems somewhat ill-informed.
To take two ‘big deals’ in the Genre, Tolkien’s Middle Earth has Southrons, Easterlings and Forodwaith and while these are associated most closely with the forces of Mordor if you know the lore a little better there’s plenty of opportunities present to play these races in a more sympathetic manner – as, in fact, our guild did in Lord of the Rings Online.
To take Forgotten Realms as a more direct example, and one even older than D&D, the Realms have Kara-Tur, Zakhara, Maztica, Chult and more, corresponding to various fantasy pastiches of different cultures much as the more familiar settings are pastiches of various European mythological and historical concepts.
It’s there, already, and has been since the beginning.
Specifically employing minority settings in RPGs is an easy and direct way to punch through defaultism. Changing the setting alters the cultural foundations of the world on which everything else is built, causing a fundamental shift and opening up access to viewpoints and stories that rarely get told. This can deeply enrich the storytelling while also making the game accessible to a wider audience, signaling to underrepresented groups that the narratives that speak to them are part of the fabric of the game. It’s a win-win.
I do not think this factor is that important. For one thing, as shown above (and the situation has only improved since) representation already exists. Studies in the video game world have shown that players don’t necessarily care about the nature of the protagonist they experience the game through anyway (though I suspect this may different somewhat in TTRPGs). RPGs are, in their essence and in one of their main strengths, about exploring the other, so this is already being engaged in, but again to point out the contradictions in the piece, they’re trying to simultaneously sell the value of exoticism, while demanding the familiar.
I think it’s important to ask why the supposed lack of diversity in the TTRPG audience is a problem at all, something people seem reluctant to even consider, and why it is the way it is in the first place. I have a few ideas on this, but they’d need to be confirmed.
Briefly then, though I can follow up or discuss in the comments…
Is a Relative Absence of Diversity a Problem?
It’s a desire, that some people have. Is it a problem though? Why is it being treated as an issue that must be overcome? Gamers are evangelical, which is part of it – we always want more people in our hobby. More people means more players, a larger social circle, being to ‘talk shop’ with and so on. It’s natural to want more people to be enthused by the same things we’re enthused by.
We do not see the same agonising by in-group populations in other areas though. These same concerns have plagued the RPG community for as long as I’ve been a part of a broader RPG comunity (1990 or so) in a way they haven’t anything outside the ‘nerd community’ and moreso – dare I say – than even other nerd communities who fret about this.
We do not seem to worry in the same way about the lack of ethnic diversity in basketball, or heavy metal – at least not to the same extent. Which makes you wonder why the nerd community is so sensitive to it. Perhaps because the community of nerds has been treated so poorly in the past, it wants to be as inclusive as possible – which is laudable, but perhaps destructive.
There’s been some criticism, ironically mostly from the same people who want gaming to be more inclusive, that gaming is TOO welcoming to people with mental issues, social dysfunction, poor hygiene and so on.
Why is there a Relative Absence of Diversity?
It’s worth examining why gaming is quite as white, middle class and male as it is. You can’t address a problem, assuming you think it’s necessarily a problem rather than just ‘how the dice fall’ without accurately understanding the underlining causes. I won’t go into this in depth here, but I suspect the main reasons – well ahead of diverse settings and depictions (which already exist) are the following:
- An historical cost to social standing of being nerdy.
- Racial/Class hostility to educational attainment and capability.
- Racial/Class hostility to ‘frivolous distractions’.
- Spare money/time to devote to hobbies.
- Access to travel/technology.
- Differences in religiosity between ethnic groups.
To take one of these as a case in point, I recall social studies in the UK at least (and I suspect these would be replicated elsewhere) indicating a deep rooted hostility to educational attainment and prowess, notably amongst Afro-Caribbean British school students, and working class/underclass male students in general (most notably whites). Gaming requires maths skills, English skills, artistic skills – at the very least orally – and as such would be associated with the negativity surrounding skill at school subjects.
If you really want to get more minorities into gaming, it would seem like re-starting the D&D Schools program and campaigning for better education and wealth redistribution would seem a better bet than adding a token black guy to page 124 of your Player’s Guide.
For example, I am writing for a tabletop RPG called Dead Scare (a pun on “red scare”)—it’s a game about 1950s housewives fighting off zombies after the Soviets dump biological weapons on suburban America. The game takes a step away from the default right away, because it focuses specifically on women and their children surviving and fighting on their own merit and skill in an era where both were disempowered by society and largely voiceless outside the home. Women in the United States were not even able to apply for a credit card without their husband’s approval until 1974!
1974 was coincidentally when D&D first came out.
However this example, and others later in the text, bring me to another important point and problem with this article.
The game Dead Scare explicitly limits you to playing housewives.
In an article complaining about a perceived (and I would argue not really true) bias in conventional mass-market RPG games, the solution that is offered seems to be explicitly biased and narrow games that genuinely do force you into a very, very tightly interpreted and singular experience which is the very opposite of diverse.
Conventional mass market oriented games tend to be very broad in what they allow you to play and do, and so could much more convincingly be given the title ‘diverse’, whereas games like this or Night Witches are explicitly exclusionary. Something that came up in my response to a Youtube video on a similar topic.
It’s hard to see how very, very narrow game settings (and this occurs a great deal within the politicised Indie scene) which are often only really any good for one-shots, can encourage or create diversity when their design is antithetical to diversity.
The excitement over minority settings does not begin and end with a single piece, however. Jason Morningstar’s recently released game Night Witches, which is explicitly about female bomber pilots in the Soviet air force during WWII, made nearly 1000% of its Kickstarter goal. Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman, an urban fantasy game that asks questions about ethnic identity in an attempt to capture the diversity of cities, made well over 1000% of its Kickstarter goal. Avery Mcdaldno’s Monsterhearts, a game about teenage monsters and the complexities of sexuality and queerness, was short-listed for five major gaming awards.
I think this spin on what’s going on is amazingly naive and optimistic. Much like the Indie scene in computer games, what you tend to have is a small community funding each other, accompanied by a great deal of virtue signalling. The same thing happens in reverse. I’ve become associated with the fight for free expression in games and when I have done crowdfunding I run into a similar issue with people virtue signalling or ‘sticking it to the man’ by donating money.
The money is nice, but I’d rather this came from people who genuinely believed in the projects, mine or yours.
Again though, it’s noteworthy that all of these games are the antithesis of diverse, offering extremely narrow experiences fixated on a singular perspective. Diversity in everything except ideas.
It’s important to point out that sometimes games make an effort towards diversity, fail, and go back to make corrections. This is not only okay, this is great! Game making is an iterative process, and by failing we often learn much more about what works and what doesn’t. For example, in an effort to ensure that How We Came To Live Here engages the culture and myths of the indigenous peoples that inspired the game, the designer Brennan Taylor has temporarily halted sales of the game as he works with Native American consultants to improve it.The Strange was initially criticized for its approach in depicting Native American people and its use of stereotypes, but Monte Cook Games is now working with Native American writers to fix these issue moving forward.
Excuse me while I laugh, long and bitterly.
No, the community these ideas come from is not OK with you making ‘mistakes’ (and heaven forfend you not see your ‘crime’ as a mistake). If I can lapse into personal anecdote for a moment, I’ve written some widely misunderstand articles and games and no matter the amount or length of explanations and clarifications gone into, the misperceptions persist – even years down the line – with an immense amount of grudgebearing.
If you’re accused, nothing short of total capitulation and self-flagellation will do, and honestly it’s a shame to see designers so cowed and threatened that they compromise their vision to such a huge extent.
You will never satisfy these people and you will never be forgiven.
I’m trying to reconcile myself to the fact that there’s never going to be a way to get through to these people. They are simply not open to dissent or alternative ideas and conclusions and once they’ve decided you’re ‘bad’ there’s simply no shaking it. Let it go, if you can, but it’s extremely wearing to be considered things that are antithetical to your core beliefs about the world, just because some arsehole can’t read.
Despite the propensity for leaning on default Western narratives aligned with the white male experience, minority settings and stories are not only accepted, but hungered for, not just in tabletop, but in video game RPGs, too.
There is a tendency for designers to get quite out of touch with the gaming audience and to get a wild hair up their arse about concepts and ideas that don’t necessarily connect with the audience – who, sadly it seems, mostly want to play dwarves and elves again. There was a Pulp glut a few years back, that never really connected, despite the adoration many RPG designers have for the pulps and when it comes to stranger, less familiar or more ethnic settings there’s also been a string of failures, which means they represent a huge risk for anyone doing game design full time, leaving it to part timers who can afford to take the risk.
Even the most celebrated weird/ethnic setting, Tekumel, only has a relatively small hardcore fanbase keeping it going.
Currently, the greatest interest shown in exploring non-normative narratives in both analogue and digital settings has been by independent gaming companies. In part, this is probably because the larger companies have financial stakes in long-existing franchises and there is a perceived risk in alienating the core audience if a franchise moves away from the status quo. While some companies like Paizo and Wizards of the Coast are changing, progress is slow.
Some of this is down to flexibility and risk, some of it – unfortunately – is down to politics. One need only see the phrasing when it comes to Paizo and Wizards ‘progress’, to see the assumptive bias behind the statement. It isn’t a desire to make better games or even to – really – make more diverse or inclusive games. It’s a desire to make politically correct games and to shame designers and companies into a particular party-line.
Diversity in everything except ideas.
Minority settings give visibility to huge parts of the world, past and present, that in our media goes largely ignored. And it helps break negative stereotypes by connecting us with the lived experiences of real people. At its best, we can learn about each other through the games we play, building greater communication and empathy into our own lives, and making our worlds all the richer.
And they’ll likely continue to go ignored, even when published. Especially so long as what is – I’m sure – genuinely heartfelt desire to improve things, is couched in shaming language and media-lynchings by Twitter mobs.
Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning, so we may yet see genuine artistic desires to create new and diverse settings, insulated from the judgemental and unforgiving mobs.
Why Don’t I Make Diverse Games?
In terms of ideas, settings, systems. Some are relatively constricted by setting, others aren’t, but that’s never really a particular concern.
What prevents me doing it more, and in a sense closer to what the article writer means is… because of people like the article writer.
Designers, writers, media creators of all kinds really, who are put in this position tend to get caught in a Catch 22.
- Include [minority thing] and get excoriated for ‘doing it wrong’ leading to opprobrium and endless corrections, apologies etc.
- Don’t include [minority thing] and get excoriated for not trying.
There’s no winning move and it’s easier simply not to try.
Do I want to make more ‘diverse and inclusive’ games and wilder, stranger settings? Absolutely. I’m constrained, however by the fact that they’re hard to sell, and by the fact that no matter how I approach them I know it will be wrong and years more harassment (in the proper sense) will follow.
For example, I’ve considered creating a set of games halfway between full games and the episodic Indie format, the first of which would relate to a setting I’ve discussed earlier, where the US Civil War is a stalemate, emerging into a three-state America – one of which being a free nation of emancipated slaves and sympathisers. The game would take place during the civil rights era, across all three nations.
Dare I do it? I hesitate for the same reasons I hesitated to write this article. The hate that would follow, no matter how well executed, simply because my name was attached, would be blistering. I end up hating myself for bowing to such pressure, even without putting pen to paper.
It’s a smaller, hostile market who you simply cannot please and who would not buy anything from me anyway. Where’s the mileage in doing so other than as a side project for personal satisfaction? Even staying out of the process and trying to mentor people to help them get games out has been met with indifference or hostility. What more can someone realistically do and, given that this kind of reaction is consistent, why try?
Better Ways to Bring More People to Gaming
- Get involved in schools again. Tap into this ‘gamification’ wave. Get studies done around social skills, maths skills and English skills and prove the long-suspected utility of RPGs in improving all these skills.
- Emphasise the diversity we already have, and have had since before even D&D was a thing.
- Fuck off and Make Your Own Shit – Stop trying to police each other, at least to the absurd extent things have gone. Make what you want to see, the bar has never been lower.
- Think about what DID bring you into games.
- Remove the ideological lenses – no solution proceeds from bad data.
In the spirit of point three, I’m simply pointing out issues I see in the arguments. You should still make whatever games you want to see but, crucially, you should leave people alone to make whatever games they want to see. You should stop treating anyone and everyone who disagrees with you or who has a different vision as being exclusionary or bigoted. That’s no way to progress and it’s turning the games environment hostile and offputting. Not encouraging and welcoming.