Reclaiming Problematic Material

November 19, 2013

One thing roleplaying does really well is the ability to take a setting and simply do it better – excising the problematic aspects.  This doesn’t have to be very complicated, but it does require knowing your setting and genre expectations and how to twist them and being able to talk about that as a group.  Dev Purkayastha’s Firefly re-working is a good example.

A big consideration when you’re reclaiming a setting is how you want to address the problematic aspects:

1. Presented as background

A lot of settings do this, and actually this is why a lot of settings are rife with problematic material.  Someone put something in and didn’t think about the implications for play and whether it fits the rest of the tone of the setting.   Or, worse, they basically thought it would be cool while trivializing something pretty serious and ugly.

This option is pretty shitty all around.  It includes something serious, but doesn’t say where the boundaries are or how to engage with it – it just sits there like a landmine waiting for people to step on it.  When, where, and how do you include it and why?

The only folks who find this a great option are the people who are unbothered BY the problematic thing itself, and use it as a way to engage in a form of “ha-ha-those-people” kind of jokes and behavior through imaginary play – after all, it doesn’t matter how insulting or painful something is if you never have to interact with the targeted group or, you don’t care and you’re using it as a microaggression at the table.

2. Excised 

I often do this for my setting material – just cut out or change the problematic into something ok.  This is a great option when you want something fun, escapist, and don’t want to have to deal with bullshit.  “Ok, we’re doing Lord of the Rings, but women are equal, there’s no “primitives” like Ghan-Buri-Ghan, and no sketchy miscegenation scare BS like the half orc character…”

Excising might also involve ADDING stuff where there’s exclusion – “We’re playing Firefly except Chinese people actually show up as more than weird background folks in 1800s garb…”

3. Criticized

The problematic material exists in the world, but is going to be addressed as something problematic, not ignored or left uncommented on… or worse, celebrated.   This requires some thought and discussion, since you probably want to agree as a group how far play will go into addressing the problems and how dark it might get vs. when to cut away.

Dog Eat Dog, Steal Away Jordan, Dirty Secret, and Dogs in the Vineyard are all games that thoughtfully include problematic material with the idea of it being criticized as a key part of play.

4. Solvable?

A big question is whether the problematic issues are to be solved in the game itself.  If the setting has sexism, can you, through the course of play, change society to remove or at least seriously diminish the it’s power?  Transforming a culture or society is a big deal and certainly a great thing to play with, but if that’s what it’s going to be it’s going to be the focus of your game and you want to know that before you start.

I ran a Dogs in the Vineyard game where a player once decided, without warning, that her character was going to lead the NDNs to revolt against the white settlers… it felt very much like it was coming out of a weird place of white guilt, but just as important, was the fact that I wasn’t playing with the assumption that the problems of setting (Mormon Utah, 1800s, racism, sexism, etc.) were going to be resolvable in play.

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