Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The White Racial Frame, White Fantasies, and Role-Playing Games: Grappling with Pathfinder's "Africa" as a Land of Magical Talking Apes

Yesterday we began the first of our twice yearly fundraisers here on We Are Respectable Negroes. The first day was nice. I am so very touched by those of you who donated. I had quite a few surprises which I really, and truly, appreciate.

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. 

In my kindest, but most encouraging voice, if you like and appreciate WARN, do throw some duckets into the change pile. I appreciate you all.

We Are Respectable Negroes is something I do out of love. But, I do not monetize the site. Nor, do I sell advertising here on the site (despite having been approached on many occasions.) Plus, the sooner that folks help me to reach my fundraising goal, the sooner I can stop asking you all for money. Help a respectable negro out if you would...

If you can, and are able to support We Are Respectable Negroesthe Paypal link can be found here or on the right sidebar.

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?"


Black Sci-Fi said...

The problem with the gaming universe in general is that it has become all to acceptable to teach children to distrust and kill darker folks while they play. It's not too big of a leap to understand the "unintentional" subliminal messages these games send our collective youth.

chauncey devega said...

These spaces are very racialized. But, can or should we expect fantasy games to not be a reflection--like other cultural texts and objects--of the moment and society which produced them?

Remember power works through a matrix of relationships; culture is all that stuff we don't think about and just accept as normal. Role-playing games exist in that context.

chauncey devega said...

Thanks for the extended and thorough comments. We are going to have lots to talk about later.

One thought though: "The racist science you mention was never really science."

That science was understood to be science in that moment. In hindsight we can sit back and judge it, but as Foucault has repeatedly pointed out science is part of a regime of power that is normalized as common sense. Race science had all of the authority of the Natural Sciences backing it. Those echoes are still with us today.

I have no problem w. talking apes in theory. But heck, surprise me. Given them an antarctic civilization. Or maybe have talking animals in each civilization. The decision to fill Africa up with such tired European pulp stereotypes just smacks of laziness.

We need to broaden who participates in geek and nerd culture. There are plenty of poc and women in the game. Now, how do we make sure those voices have a seat at the creators' table. Make our own stuff?

James Desborough said...

Yep. Ultimately that's the way to get it done. That's something we could talk about.

Like any industry, there's a lot of impetus to play it safe and there's a lot of nostalgia fetishism going on (which I don't always mind, but other times, bleh...)

Stuart said...

I was born in Zambia but moved away when I was still a pre-schooler. I've forgotten all of the Bemba I learned, and most of my memories are pretty fuzzy. We have lots of pictures though, and I've always felt a strong connection with my roots.

My concern would be if Africa was depicted as being very primitive, savage, uncultured, or lacking in diversity. If it was a fantasy world that showed a variety of different cultures and ethnicities as separate from fantasy creatures like gorilla people, chimpanzee people, lion people and elephant people... and some places were more "wild" and other places had cities and libraries, I'd feel good about that.

A good setting would have heroes and villains, travellers, storytellers, merchants, and clashes of cultures within this fantasy version of africa.

kokanee said...

Hi Chauncey,

Just wanted to send you a couple of things your way.

1) From Democracy Now yesterday:
President Barack Obama: I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

Cornel West's response:
That was him saying, "Keep your expectations low. Sharpton, don’t get them too fired up. Keep the rage contained." We know, when it comes to the history of the vicious legacy of white supremacy in America, if the federal government did not move, we would still be locked into state’s rights. And state’s rights is always a code word for controlling, subjugating black folk. That’s the history of the black struggle, you see. So what he was saying was: Don’t expect federal action.

2. This: http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/7204/christian_atheism__the_only_response_worth_its_salt_to_the_zimmerman_verdict/

chauncey devega said...

I had something in the cue on Butler. I appreciate the followup. Good stuff. I don't know what to say about Brother Cornel. Your thoughts? Their beef is personal.

chauncey devega said...

Africa is a huge continent with so much diversity and amazing history. Some of humankind's greatest civilizations were in Africa. They are stuck on a Eurocentric fantasy of African-Orientalism that is so old school that it is taken for granted as normal in the present.

Maybe the solution is that we need more voices like your own! Get in the game and share your story too ;)

The Reverend Dak said...

http://stream.aljazeera.com/ Racism is the subject for today.

Andy Kitkowski said...

Note: The longer comment you cited ("Well, if the other hypothesis...") is from a man in Norway, who isn't as aware of American civil rights/slavery history as the rest of us.

I'd find his comments really powerfully problematic if he was from the US or Canada. I only hope he learns more about the state and history of race in other countries from discussions like these.

chauncey devega said...

good catch. context and history matters.

SunKissed said...

Still waiting for your views on Bioshock Infinite. I have so much to say about it's depictions of race and racial issues but I'm holding back so as to not spoil things.

chauncey devega said...

Still have to play it :( way behind.

kokanee said...

Yeah, Cornel's angry. But it's an acceptable anger. Along with Michael Moore, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky and others, they all advocated voting for Obama in a swing state. I haven't forgiven any of them. My guy is Glen Ford. "Obama is the more effective evil." As great as it is having a president with visibly black heritage, he has endorsed his racist white side. And as a socialist/anarchist type, I'd like to tear the whole thing down and start over.

Racist (definition): Someone who thinks there are more than the one human race.

Be well.

Mephisto said...

Bioshock Infinity. There's SO much I'm dying to say about that piece of crap.

Alan Kellogg said...

We do have a bad habit of assuming when we see something, instead of figuring it out. We see sexism when a young man says hello to a woman. He see racism when we hear a white man say to a black man, "Excuse me.". I expect that the talking apes of Golarian "Africa" is simple fans of old adventure fiction thinking, *They were neat in Tarzan, why not our game?" with no though to any connection to historic bigotry.

Let's be honest, certain people will see us a certain way no matter what we do, but because of our appearance. You can't change them through persuasion. Let them be and deal with the people who can listen.

Talking apes? Of course there are talking apes. A talking ape typed out this comment. We are talking apes, cladistically speaking, and I am proud to be one. We're also humans, even those of us who are part neanderthal.

The Mythus seting Aerth also has an Africa (spelled "Afrika"). It has black kingdoms and white kingdoms, even a red kingdom (Aegypt, which is actually pretty much mixed race, and the once red race majority is giving way to a new demographic). It also has domesticated zebra and quagga, which means the central Afrika is a very different place then our Africa. (The Waziri of East Africa (formerly West Africa) are fine zebramen and hire out as cowboys and mounted scouts throughout the area.)

No talking gorillas or anything like that in Afrika, but I'm not finished with the revision, so there may just be. I may even go so far as to introduce talking yeti or sasquatch in some out of the way place in Azir or Vargaard.

My point is, some people are going to hate you because you're black. ust as they're going to hate me because I'm aspie. Don't bother with them and work on those are can listen.

And one other thing, insofar as we, as a species, are descended from Homo heildebergensis, we all come from Europe. True, their ancestors came from Africa, more immediately we're all Europeans.

chauncey devega said...

"I expect that the talking apes of Golarian "Africa" is simple fans of
old adventure fiction thinking, *They were neat in Tarzan, why not our
game?" with no though to any connection to historic bigotry."

I hope you are kidding. I will leave it up to others to either play along with your performance art or for you to clarify.

"Talking apes? Of course there are talking apes. A talking ape typed out
this comment. We are talking apes, cladistically speaking, and I am
proud to be one. We're also humans, even those of us who are part

Black Sci_Fi said...


POC buy (into) these game at the same or higher levels as the global white community. I dare say Asians buy (in) more and are, IMHO, more willing to sublimate their cultural identity (Anime, etc) and adapt a Eurocentric reflection of themselves.

I wonder does subliminal seduction work the same in Asian cultures, or are the Eurocentric appearence of game characters (Anime?) in games produced in Asian nations just a reflection of their desire to market to a broader audience.

Godzilla comes to mind as a subliminal reflection (allegory) of Asian (Japan) perception of European Imperialism imposed on the world (Japan) through nuclear blackmail.

Is the average Asian teen video game player brainwashed into looking down on the darker races based on their gaming experience, or are they aware of the context of Eurocentric racism reflected in the games?
Thanks for another in a long series of great articles. I always send links to your website to my friends. Keep up the great work.

Hypersmurf said...

My assumption is that the Talking Gorilla Civilisation is located in Africa because _that's where gorillas live_.

If I create a Talking Lemur Civilisation for my game, I'll locate it in Madagascar. If I create a Talking Polar Bear Civilisation, it goes in the Arctic. Talking Kangaroos? Australia.

So if I decide that I want to include a Talking Gorilla Civilisation, I'll locate it where I'd expect to find Gorillas.

Seonaid said...

I guess my response to that would be "why apes? why not lions? or giraffes?"

Hypersmurf said...

It's much easier to fit a Gorilla PC into the Pathfinder rules (skills, weapons and armour, etc) than a Giraffe. A Gorilla Fighter can wear a breastplate and swing a sword. A Gorilla Rogue can pick locks. A Gorilla Wizard can read a spellbook and point a wand and manipulate material components.

A talking Giraffe will have trouble with all of that.

In David Brin's _Uplift_ novels, the talking animals are apes and dolphins... humanity picked them to Uplift because they're the brightest. But the book about dolphins needed a pretty specific situation to be viable, whereas the book about apes could have been set anywhere humans can go.

You could do the talking Giraffe civilisation... but it'd be a tougher sell, because it's much easier to imagine Gorillas discovering fire and writing and agriculture and wheels, than Giraffes... opposable thumbs are pretty neat.

Seonaid said...

I understand your point, and while I think that "giraffes are too difficult to fit into the setting" is kind of lazy, I'll take your comment for what it seems to be. So why not elephants? Elephants are very intelligent and have prehensile trunks. Or why not bats? Squirrels? Otters? A brief glance at the list on africanfauna.com yields those four suggestions. I'm sure more in-depth research would lead to an even longer list of "non-primate animals who could have evolved or been created to speak."

That being said... I'm pretty sure that talking apes is fantastic, and by definition fantasy doesn't have to adhere to real-world rules. Why NOT have talking polar bears in not-Africa? Why do talking kangaroos have to be bound to Australia? As the OP said, it's kind of lazy.

Hypersmurf said...

To me, putting the talking Polar Bears in the Icy North is intuitive, while putting them in Africa feels like different-for-the-sake-of-being-different, without a lot of positive to counterbalance the mental disconnect it creates.

I think a Talking Otter race would be fantastic (but I think Otters are awesome regardless).

But: Gorillas are smart. Gorillas have hands. Gorillas have learned to communicate via sign language. Talking, civilised Gorillas is a smaller leap of credulity than civilised Otters, and there's more precedent in literature and popular culture for them to build on. If you're going to include a Talking Animal race in your game where the elves, goblins, and dwarves are all smart and have thumbs, it shouldn't be weird that the first animal you pick is smart and has thumbs.

And once you've picked Gorillas for your talking animal, it makes sense to put them in the place in your setting that maps to where Gorillas live.

It's not a commentary or an allusion or an insult to the humans who share that continent; it's a combination of the fact that a/ Gorillas make a workable race for an RPG, and b/ Gorillas are from Africa.

chauncey devega said...

choices have consequences. they do not exist in a vacuum.

Hypersmurf said...

"I like kangaroos, so I'm going to make kangaroos a playable race in my campaign setting. Since kangaroos come from Australia, I've chosen to locate the race in my Australia-analogue."

"I've decided to construe your choice as a commentary that you believe Australian people are kangaroo-like, and since the comparison to a kangaroo is insulting, your setting is offensive."

Is the offence valid if it only exists because of a logic-chain that the second person invented himself?

T. Woolley said...

Alan Kellogg appears to be some kind of troll with respects to RPGs. I wouldn't pay him much mind.

T. Woolley said...

Just found this post about this because I'm compiling a list of resources regarding the particular issue the dark "races" being portrayed as either evil or noble savages, as well as the issue of the ways in which African cultures are portrayed in DnD.
At the same time, I'm looking for sources so the next time I run a game set in fantastic not-Africa, I'm not being flippant with other peoples' cultures, and because dwarves, elves and hobbits get really really old.