Race in your Roleplaying

November 5, 2011

So, right now on several sites, there’s a few discussions which, sadly, boil down to, “Tell me it’s ok for the racist stuff I want to put in my game!”.

You can easily figure out this is the real motivation in these threads because a) none of these people have considered other media which have used racial issues to compare against, and b) they get defensive when people point out reasons you might not want that in your game.

So what considerations would you ACTUALLY have to go through if you wanted to meaningfully engage the subject?

Let’s start with an excellent point about context, in this case, talking about sexism in Batman:

There is a 60-year tradition of Batman happening in a PG context, and one where maybe there are mass murderers, but people are often less generally shitty in terms of casual racism and sexism than the world we live in.

Suddenly, we’ve got all that shitty casual sexism, but without any rationale for why this should be. We’re outside the bracket, which makes anybody who is in any way comfortable with the usual Batman context uncomfortable. And there’s no good reason for it, which makes most people who care at all about either the integrity of this world, or about, well, women, angry.

Angry because the writers of this game have a perfectly plausible reason to indulge in being not shitty. And they chose, instead, to turn the Shitty Dial up to 11 in a way that violates the whole context of the thing they’re working on.

Context #1: Expectations

One of the points the Batman quote has is that different media produces different expectations. You expect different things from watching a Disney cartoon vs. an Aronofsky film.

Most roleplayers are in it for escapism- usually light hearted adventure, where you don’t have to deal with heavy social issues. (Cluebat for the whitefolks: Only people who don’t ever really have to be on the receiving end of racism consider it a non-issue.)

So, question #1 is whether this is something your group WANTS in the first place and wants to engage with?

Context #2 How does this serve your game?

Also, does racial issues serve the game you’re playing?

This is actually more complicated. Because there’s really only two ways you can deal with racism in your game- critically, or non-critically. (ETA: A great post on the value and harm of how art works or fails to work, critically and uncritically about problematic issues.)

Non-critically means the racism is there, and… it’s just there, there’s no real engaging it. It also means you’ve just said, “Wow, my gaming is made more fun by including racism!”

I’ll leave it to the brighter amongst you to think about what that says.

Critically means there actually needs to be a way to engage and deal with the issue of racism. And this also means saying MORE than simply, “Racism is bad”. That much is obvious, the questions start becoming, “How does it work? What does it do to people? How do you survive in it?”

This is the point when it makes sense to really consider other media dealing with race issues and where it works well, or fails.

For example, the usual cop-outs white media does with racism that makes it into a non-critical treatment:

1) Kumbayah! Racism erased overnight!
2) But everyone’s equally messed up and nice! (Crash)
3) Magical Transformations (District 9, Avatar)
4) Actually, POC are the racists! (Last Samurai, Lakeview Terrace)

Compare all of this to say, The Color Purple or Serafina.

(Cluebat for white people #2: If all this sounds really fucking hard and probably-not-fun, guess what? This is why a lot of people, don’t include it in their games. Especially for a lot of us who deal with enough aggravating shit in life, regularly.)

Context #3 No Cookies for Racists

So I mean, think about all this. If you’re playing your game with your friends, it’s not like the Game Police will show up to check you on your racially sketchy, or straight up racist gaming.

No one need ever know what your game is about.

But these recurring online conversations keep coming up because what’s really going on is that people are looking for reassurances and rationalizations for things they already know, in the back of their head, is messed up.

And in doing so, it really reveals their true intent- it’s not EVEN about pointing out the problems of racism as much as undercover reveling in it- like how a lot of media with rape glorifies the rape scenes while theoretically going, “How terrible, how terrible”

The questions are never in good faith, because they’re extremely defensive to anything except the one answer they want to hear, which is, “Yeah, awesome, doesn’t bug me!”

So yes, racism, like any other heavy real-world topic that cannot be solved with a fireball or giant robot, like child abuse, rape, drug addiction, spousal violence, etc.:

Gaming will not teach you about what you don’t know. – you and your group CREATE the content in your games, if you don’t know about something, you’re not going to magically manifest it to learn it back in play. (Otherwise, you know, we could roleplay “How to create world peace” or “Cure for AIDS” and fix the world).

Gaming MIGHT give you new perspectives or insights on what you know, but if your base assumption place is either, “Racism isn’t a problem”/”Racism is over”, you’re only going to continue from a place of ignorance.

Do whatever you’re going to do with your gaming. But every time one of those conversations pops up? Just remember, it’s yet another example of White Supremacy Evangelism at work…

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