Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why Are All the Elf Ears White? Revisiting Steal Away Jordan, Race, Identity, and Live Action Role-Playing Games

We have discussed slavery, historical memory, and the limits--and possibilities--of traditional pen and paper role-playing games (and other types of simulations) as teaching tools on a number of occasions.

Ultimately, our dialogue centered upon questions of representation, identity, and the ability to present the indescribable aspects of human evil, be it slavery, genocide, or the Jewish Holocaust, in an accessible format with rules for "playing" that in turn deem said experience a type of  "game."

The Transatlantic slave trade role-playing game Steal Away Jordan was the initial focus of this conversation

Said post remains one of my favorites here on We Are Respectable Negroes because I learned a great deal from the range of comments there and how all parties involved--new voices and established commentators too--offered their insights on some very difficult questions.

My initial response to Steal Away Jordan was based on the source materials and the abstract idea of the game; Now, after hearing the interview, I remain unchanged in my opinion that black chattel slavery is not suitable subject matter for a role-playing game (for me).

However, I am open to how it may be "enjoyable" for others.

Canon Puncture led me to another set of discoveries that I would like to share with those ghetto nerds and others who may be so inclined and interested. 

The live action role-playing (LARP) community is apparently large enough to have been the subject of a documentary, as well as academic conferences and workshops. The latter makes sense given how live action role playing is a type of theater. As such, it is a worthy site for critical inquiry and intellectual work.

Whatever the topic, a person can find an expert on it. The truism holds for live action role-playing.

To point. I discovered the Nordic Larp group through the website Story Games.

Here are two clips from the Nordic Larp organization that I think you will find enlightening and provocative.  

First, what do you do when all of the elf ears you bought at the store for your game are white, and your live action role-players are black, brown, and Other? 

Confronting institutional racism is integral to any anti-racist project. We must still also acknowledge how white privilege plays out in very subtle ways. 

In traditional pen and paper role-playing, as well as live action role-playing environments, the assumption that genres such as high fantasy are "white" and naturally "European" spaces remains a standing rule among too many gamers. For example, when I dabbled in Dungeons and Dragons as a teen, my character was a Moor or other like character. We can have dragons and magic in our games, but no black and brown folks? I think not.

Lars Nerback smartly talks about identity issues in live action role-playing:

Second, live action role-playing can be a very intense experience for many players. If we factor in how so many "geeks" and "nerds" often feel socially marginalized in their day-to-day lives, then feelings of vulnerability and exposure are focused and crystallized in their play and improvisational theater fantasy experience. 

These are not just "privileged white people problems." Rather, they are human challenges, moments in which such identity categories as race, ethnicity, class, gender, ability status, or sexuality can be focal points where those feelings and insecurities are amplified.

Sarah Bynne Bowman comments on that dynamic here:

Play is political. Play is also a space where identities are recreated, reinforced, re-inscribed, contested, made into sources of agency and resistance, and a means through which broader social relationships of Power, inequality, and hierarchy are legitimated. 

This dynamic holds true for live action role-playing and also those games that take place in the digital world.


grumpyrumblings said...

A nerd theory: Because black elf-ears => dark elves => universe of RA Salvatore => male elves subjugate to female elves => not attractive to the people who would be buying the elf ears in the first place. (But probably not.)

Scalzi often brings attention to how misogynistic aspects of the nerd culture are, especially the cons. Obviously it's all aspects of heterosexual white male domination that are at play, not just the misogyny.

chauncey devega said...

Do you think that is true for the run of the mill white larper or cosplayer who, like in other areas of life, just operates from a de facto framework of white privilege and doesn't even think about how "European" i.e. white that imaginary is in a conscious way, but just finds it "comforting?"

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Sujata said...

Speaking as a Vampire LARP nerd, I noticed an interesting phenomena in our games. More often than not, women, queer people, and people of color would end up playing their own game, while the straight, white guys were playing their own. There wasn't any malice involved, but in that shared space, we essentially ended up in two separate games that interlaced occasionally.

More interestingly, it was the straight white guys who tended to play the clans (the ethnic groups among the vampires, mind), who had the power in canon -- the power-brokers, the witch-vampires, the cultural arbiters. Essentially, the people who ran the city. My queer, female, and POC friends and I gravitated towards the clans which were considered "outcast" in some way: Lunatics, horror-movie monsters, and half-feral vampires.

chauncey devega said...

Ironic, or maybe not, how even in play and fantasy we locate ourselves in that fictional society in much the same way we are in the "real world."

lula_vampiro said...

Thanks for checking out the interview, CdV. Your thoughts on Steal Away Jordan from that first article are actually a major influence on the way I play and present SAJ to players now.

The "all elf ears are white" issue is symptomatic of a really annoying and widespread paradox where white Europeans are not just the standard, but also the only perceptible "safe" choice: in order to change the game, those in power—usually straight cis white men—have to introduce diversity, but then how can they present diversity without committing cultural appropriation? (My answer tends to be "hire me to do it for you," but that suggestion might betray an ulterior motive ….)

Janra Roberts, Jim Crocker, and I talk more about this kind of thing on the MythSpoken podcast special on race and nerd culture—you can find parts one and two at . It's divided up pretty evenly between RPG talk and comics talk.

chauncey devega said...

These Internets are something else, all sorts of folks able to talk to each other :)

I appreciate you taking on that challenge. Most of us do not want to confront the politics of pleasure. It is good to some like you doing that.

I will certainly check out the podcast.

OaktownGirl said...

It's late and I'm just seeing this now, so I'll have to get back here tomorrow when I'm fresh cuz I do have something to say.

In the meantime, in case it wasn't already mentioned above, the IFC show "Maron" has an episode (episode #101) you can view online right now (for the time being, not forever) called "Internet Troll". You will see the White elf ears come into play (no pun intended) in a games group. (The lack of differently pigmented elf ears really sucks). If you like Marc Maron (and I do), you'll enjoy the show. Or if you don't like Maron but enjoy role playing games, you'll like this episode. Anyway, here's the url:

Blurred Lines said...

You are exactly right about the elf ears, the black Nerd in the scene (JaMarlin Fowler has on white elf ears and Marc makes a joke about it and the elf calls him a racist lol

OaktownGirl said...

Yeah, it's a good episode. Thanks for getting that actor's name, but I had trouble with the link. This one might be better: