I am halfway to my plane ticket goal to pay a surprise visit to my mother. Little old black ladies--like all moms--like seeing their kids so they can nag them in person.
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I always get excited when we have an opportunity to talk about the relationships between race, racial identity, and role-playing games. In fact, one of my guests in Season 2 of the We Are Respectable Negroes podcast series is a game designer who has worked on pen and paper role-playing games.
We have touched on this topic several times with some great conversations about role-playing and slavery, using LARPS as a means to discuss privilege and inclusion, BDSM sex retreats which feature a chattel slavery theme, and how practitioners of "living history" are trying to educate the public about the long journey from slavery to freedom that African-Americans endured.
I enjoy learning about these issues because the conversations are almost always a bit above the norm as compared to when issues of race and representation are engaged by the general public. Geeks and nerds play role-playing games. By definition it is a nitch hobby. Such spaces are also very white and male. Geeks and nerds tend to be pretty bright. Those who participate in the gaming community also tend to not think of themselves as being invested in systems of privilege because they themselves are likely marginalized in and by their own peer groups.
Such a mix of elements can make for some very insightful and revealing moments of dialogue and learning about race in post civil rights America.
The controversy over at the website Story-games about the role-playing game Pathfinder is one such example.
Pathfinder is a traditional role-playing game in the Dungeons and Dragons mold. The game's innovation is that it features a simulacra or surrealist version of the Earth with an alternative history. This innovation also relies on a basic conceit: the "realms" of this gaming universe are very similar to our own in terms of relative location, myths, folklore...and yes, stereotypes.
The kerfuffle over Pathfinder centers on how the continent of "Africa" features a race of talking apes. Yes, talking apes are a story element in a game that is set in a place that is not Africa, but really in fact is.
[Here is a link to a map of that gaming universe.]
Those of us with even a little bit of understanding about the history of white supremacy in the West, and the Americas in particular, immediately see how this is problematic: the purported link between Africans, black Americans, and apes was one of the primary ways that White Supremacy legitimated the enslavement, rape, exploitation, and murder of black people by the tens of millions. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Racial State, and its organs of the media, education, science, and religious authority created a whole system of belief that rested upon an understanding that black people were not really "fully human" in the same way as white people.
In all, black Americans, were suggested by White Science as being closer to apes and monkeys than we were white Europeans. An entire regime of knowledge was created to legitimate and circulate such a "fact" as a type of "common sense", and to maintain the racial order which resulted.
The conversation about the role of race in the Pathfinder game contains most of the familiar elements through which racism and racial ideologies are reproduced in the post civil rights era.
There are mental gymnastics by likely otherwise reasonable folks who simply are numb and ignorant to the power of the white racial frame and White Privilege. For example:
Well, if the other hypothesis is that they're secret KKK-members pushing for a retrograde perception of race... Myself, I'd bet on this being simply the kind of fantasy world that seems fun, powerful or beautiful to the creators. There'd need to be a clear profit-motivation of some sort for racism to be intentional in something a hobby company like that makes. (Even if a single secret racist were in an influential position in the company, one would presume that they couldn't make very sweeping choices about their direction without justifying their strategy on economic or artistic terms.)
As for Willow's question, I don't find an ethical wrong in what I know of that setting. It's aesthetically insipid and boring by my measure, but that has little to do with how it treats race or whatnot, and very much to do with the kind of fictional content and type of fiction 3rd edition encourages in the first place, so it's not that surprising.
In the spirit of answering the train of thought in the OP, I should clarify that although I don't see an ethical wrong here, I do see a racist setting: Golarion seems to be a pretty ordinary member in the historical train of commercial D&D settings, and they're all (or lets say, I can't think of a counter-example right now) powerfully racist. That's just the type of fantasy that's sold under the D&D brand, they're worlds of color-coded monstrous humanoids. I imagine that most people take this phenomenon in the spirit of counter-factual speculation that speculative fiction relies on: a writer telling about a world where racism is true, good, and a powerful political force is telling a fantasy story, rather than commenting upon our world. Few assume that the D&D teaching about where evil is to be found and how it should be dealt with is intended to be applied to the real world.
One might ponder whether a racist setting hewing more or less close to the real world, as Golarion seems to be, is in ethical error when it implies untrue things about the real world. I'd argue that although such might cause accidental harm (e.g. reaffirm real-world stereotypes among the particularly vapid), it could not be considered an ethical wrong because freedom of expression is so much more important than protecting people from reading wrongful ideas...
On the other hand, if the (seemingly far-fetched) KKK hypothesis were to hold true, and Paizo were actually intentionally drawing real-world parallels for e.g. ideological or economic reasons (that is, they'd either want to educate people to be racist, or they'd want to conquer market-share among a racist demographic), then that would surely be an ethical wrong; they would be spreading harmful lies (as I understand the nature of our world, anyway).
The balance of probability being what it is, I'm willing to say that Golarion doesn't seem to be any more ethically problematic than D&D in general, or any counter-factual literature. Aesthetically problematic, that I'll agree to. Also, were one to forward some sort of positive discrimination argument, that would presumably require its own treatment - as far as I understand, the ethical justification of positive discrimination relies heavily on local political conditions, so I can't comment upon that in the abstract.There was also a comment that I felt was particular insightful and which I keyed in on immediately:
Yes, sorry if that wasn't clear. My point is that people seem okay with using vicious stereotypes about people of colour as a fantasy trope, but we never seem to do the same with white people and cultures. Defending this practice by saying that it wouldn't make sense to put intelligent apes anywhere else but Not-Africa is, as Adam said, weaksauce.Role-playing games, and popular culture more generally, are sensitive sites for discussing racism and White Privilege. Whiteness is comfortable in these spaces because they are just "fun", "harmless", and exist for the purposes of wish and fantasy fulfillment. Rarely do those who are playing with and enjoying these games--and who are also white, male, straight, and can trace their lineage back to some imagined version of Europe--reflecting on how the Other is marked and stereotyped in such games.
Thus, white folks and others retreat behind the redoubt of "fantasy" as a defense against interventions and critiques which they find unpleasant. In all, a detachment from the day-to-day difficulties of "real life" for privileged white folks may actually not be that much fun for other people.
I experienced this dynamic when I attended Worldcon and white folks left the audience of a panel in a visibly hostile state because it dared to discuss the White colonial and racist imaginary of Steampunk.
Thus, two important and related questions. In role-playing games, be they pen and paper, live action, or digital, whose fantasy is being represented? And what types of people and bodies have to be rendered subordinant, invisible, and stereotyped for the fantasy to be fulfilled?
In the interest of transparency, I do not really enjoy the Lord of the Rings books or movies because they are a Eurocentric triumphalist narrative where those brown and black folks from "somewhere else" are evil and wicked threats to "civilization." Likewise, the high fantasy genre as embodied by Dungeons and Dragons left me flat too. I like(d) hanging out with my friends more than the I enjoyed the gaming universe. After a while, it gets tired having to see all the "darker" races being represented as evil or untrustworthy.
I have not played Pathfinder. I am eager to hear from those of you who have.
Ultimately, I am a fan of diversity in creative and other work spaces not because of some politically correct commitment to anti-racism or multiculturalism--what are two terms, catchalls signifying very little if anything radical or truly progressive in the Age of Obama--but because when you have a mix of smart, outspoken, and talented folks working together on a project you come up with a better product, and are able to leverage human capital to its fullest and most productive.
And hopefully someone opens their mouth and says, "you know, maybe having a "fantasy" version of Africa which includes talking apes is just a bit of an epic fail. How about we do Y instead?"