RACISM IN ROLE-PLAYING GAMES!
Nearly forty years ago, as my friends and I sat at lunch discussing our latest scores on Pac-Man and Defender at the arcade – in the ancient of days, there was no Playstation, Wii, Gamecube or any other home game console (astounding to y’all yungins, I know) – I looked around and noticed that at every white table (yes, Caucasians sat separately from us – Chicago was, afterall, the most racially segregated city in the nation – it is now third most racially segregated) the male students were having a good time hurling plastic cubes (which I recognized as dice), pyramids and an array of other polyhedrons as they referred to books and charts and sheets of paper.
I alerted my friends to what was going on and – being the bold fellas we were – we sauntered over to a table and observed.
“What are y’all playing,” I asked.
No one answered. They were lost in what I discerned to be a battle that was taking place entirely in their minds, but was represented by the charts and sheets and books.
I asked again – “What are y’all playing?”
The name of the game sounded cool and being a fan of fantasy literature and of games – particularly wargames, such as Risk and games like Clue, in which you assume the role of a character – my interest was piqued, as were the interests of my friends. We stood watching the action, growing more interested in this strange, new game with every roll…with every declaration of a hit with a sword…with every spell cast and every lock picked. It was apparent that, within the world of Dungeons and Dragons, you could simulate anything with the game mechanics. I had to learn more!
After the session was done, my friends and I spoke to Phillip – the one the players referred to as “the Dungeon Master” and “DM” – and asked if we could play. Phillip agreed to teach us to play, but said he would only teach us “Basic D & D”, as “Advanced D & D” would be beyond our level of understanding. I felt an urge to punch Phillip in his ruddy face, but I hid my feelings and agreed to learn the game from him, determined that I would surpass him and would one day be a “Dungeon Master” without peer. Phillip agreed to meet us after school and left with a wave, saying “See ya later, Orc Clan!” My friends chuckled in ignorance. I did not. I had noticed the brutally inflicted upon an orc horde as the table of guys played and calling us orcs resonated as racist with me. My friends dismissed my suspicions. “Calm down, Farrakhan,” one snickered. “Yeah, Nat Turner,” another quipped.
“Just keep your eyes and ears open.” I said.
We met Phillip at the school’s library. We sat down and began making our characters. I chose to be a Fighting Man, as did my friend, Johnnie. My friend, Solomon chose to be a Cleric and my friend Reggie decided he’d be the Magic-User.
“At lunch, you guys had cooler classes to play,” I said.
“Yeah,” Phillip replied smugly. “That’s because we play Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. This is Basic.”
“When can you teach us the advanced game?” Solomon asked.
“Never!” Phillip shouted. “I told you, the advanced game is beyond your orcish capacity!”
I slammed my fist on the table and growled. “Call another one of us an orc again and I’ll beat your ass!”
The librarian peeked up from her desk.
“Sorry, ma’am.” I said.
The librarian went back to reading Wuthering Heights and I turned back to Phillip. “We will learn Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and I will be a better DM than your racist ass!” I hissed, trying to be as quiet as possible while getting my point across.
My friends and I tore up those lame characters and “chi-town pimped-walked” off, leaving Phillip red-faced, sweaty and shaking.
“How we gonna afford those Advanced D & D books? Solomon sighed. “I looked at the prices. They are twenty bucks each!”
I knew that we needed the three core books – Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual – I knew we were all broke and I knew our parents would be hard-pressed to spend sixty dollars on a game, but I knew – somehow – we would prevail.
I went home extolling the greatness of the game. How mathematical probability was generated with dice and even percent could be generated. My mother and sisters listened as I enthusiastically described Dungeons and Dragons to them. My family has always been supportive of my passions and – true to form – a week later, I had all three books in my hands. I devoured them, committing the rules to memory and my friends and I began to play an adventure I wrote. They loved it and thus began my four decades journey as a player, Gamemaster, collector, and now, creator of role-playing games.
I realized that most of the role-playing games on the market back then – and today – were played by, created by and written for the “Phillips” of the world. Non-Caucasian people were not a concern of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson when they created Dungeons and Dragons, other than the striking similarity between orcs and the negative stereotypes of people of African descent and the Willie Lynchesque handling of “non-white” races.
First, let’s look at the magic users. While all the “white” races (yes, when we envision elves, dwarves, gnomes and even humans in Dungeons & Dragons, we see Caucasian people, don’t we?) have magicians, sorcerers and the like, orcish magic users are referred to as “witch doctors,” a derogatory term which is associated with traditional African healers and priests.
Now, let’s examine a quote from page 104 of the 1st edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The italicized emphasis is mine:
“Non-human troops, bugbears and humanoids, will be very difficult to handle. They will tend to fight amongst each other, fight with humans nearby – whether friendly or not, run from battle if they see troops on their own side retiring or retreating, and fall to looting at the first opportunity. Communications are also a great problem. If the master is strong and powerful and gives them cause to fear disobedience, it will be of some help in disciplining such troops. Likewise, if there are strong leaders within each body of such troops, threatening and driving them on, they will be more likely to obey. Weakness in leadership, or lack of officering (overseeing), will certainly cause these troops to become unruly and impossible to control”. Shaking your head yet? Let’s continue.
Here are descriptions of the Half-Orc, the progeny of an orc and a human parent (assumed to be from rape, as orcs are, without exception, evil, brutish things). Once again, the italicized emphasis is mine:
This one is from page 15 of the Players Handbook (1st Ed.). “Half-Orcs are boors. They are rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious. Because most are cowardly they tend to be bullies and cruel to the weak, but they will quickly knuckle under to the stronger. This does not mean that all half-orcs are horrid, only most of them. It neither means that they are necessarily stupid nor incapable. They will always seek to gain the upper hand and dominate those around them so as to be able to exercise their natural tendencies; half-orcs are greedy too. They can, of course, favor their human parent more than their orcish one.” Spoken like a true racist, but oh, it gets worse.
This is from the 3rd Edition, released in 2003: “The orc language has no alphabet and uses Dwarven script. Orc writing is found most often in graffiti. Half-orc characters receive a +2 modifier to strength and -2 modifiers to intelligence and charisma ability scores. Half-orcs prefer simple pleasures: feasting, singing, wrestling and wild dancing. They have no interest in refined pursuits such as high art and philosophy.” I know you are shaking your head now…and rightfully so!
This racism is further perpetuated visually – and quite viscerally – in film director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, based on the books by JRR Tolkien.
Peter Jackson’s 2002 film, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, opens with a scene of the Uruk-Hai (“Orcs”) running toward Isengaard with the hobbits Merry and Pippin. For those of you who have seen the film, you will remember that the Uruk-Hai are tall, black, and muscular with long coarse dreadlocks – an image that evokes stereotypical portrayals of black men. The racism was such in this film that at one point, Legolas the elf comments on how quickly the Uruk-Hai move. He says: “They run as if the very whips of their masters were behind them”.
Tolkien’s original language was actually much more neutral: “The Orcs have run before us, as if the very whips of Sauron were behind them”. This makes it apparent that Peter Jackson’s portrayal of the Uruk-Hai – and Legolas’ comment – was meant to hammer a metaphor into the viewer. For more on “Orcs” and how they represent people of African descent, please check out Racism in Role-Playing Games.
Recently, Naz Humphreys – a Brit of Pakistani heritage – stood in line for three hours in Hamilton, New Zealand, hoping to be hired as an extra in the new Hobbit movie. When she finally stood before the casting director, she was basically told that her skin was the wrong color.
Humphreys, who is fairly short (under five feet tall), thought she’d make the perfect extra. Instead, one of the casting crew for the film told her and others at the audition: “We are looking for light-skinned people. I’m not trying to be… whatever. It’s just the brief. You’ve got to look like a hobbit.”
Perhaps this is all Humphrey’s fault; after all, she obviously failed to read the casting call, which specified that applicants have “light skin tones”. Of course, this was not for a lead role or anything, it was for a position as an extra – as a hobbit running around some shire or another, or walking hand-in-hand with her (God forbid) “dark skin-toned” husband, or some other mundane act only noticed by your subconscious. But, how dare she start a Facebook group entitled Hire hobbits of all colours! Say no to Hobbit racism!. Facebook – in all their wisdom and righteousness – took that subversive group down.
Thank you, Facebook. I can only imagine the carnage that would have ensued had you not acted swiftly and decisively!
One Facebook group that Facebook – in all their wisdom and righteousness – did not take down provided the solution to all Humphrey’s tom-foolery: “For years J.R.R Tolkien has been called a Racist, because he created his books for mainly European children and created a mythology for English people. The Hobbits are based on White people, keep it that way and have some respect for Tolkien.”
See, problem solved.
Seriously, folks, it is absolutely ridiculous to have strict rules about depicting imaginary beings, in an imaginary world populated by…imaginary beings.
It is very important to remember, when creating any work of speculative fiction, that metaphor is powerful. Even though the world of your story may be extremely different from our “real” world, that story is being read by a reader, or watched by a fan, who dwells in the “real” world, so you must be aware of how race in your speculative fiction world might be interpreted through the lens of that reader or watcher.
Be aware of the metaphor you’re broadcasting if you make all of your evil people a certain complexion, and all your heroes a certain different complexion. Be aware of the metaphor in play if a rugged, ruddy-complexioned hero saves all the sepia-toned natives – a la Tarzan.
Earlier, I mentioned how we see the non-orc races of humans, dwarves, halflings (“hobbits”) and gnomes as “white”. Why? It is because the Caucasian image has been perpetuated as the face of fantasy – the characters…the settings…all very medieval…all very Anglo-Saxon, even if the hero is not “human”.
In nearly 100 illustrations that depict adventurers in the 1st Edition of the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide (both published in 1978), there are NO non-white adventurers. In the over 100 illustrations in the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide (both published in 1989), there are NO non-white adventurers. In 80 illustrations spread over the combined 980 pages of the 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, there is one (scantily clad) black woman and no black men. And finally, in the 4th Edition (2008), there is one black man. Thus, through four editions, over thirty eight years, and 1,691 pages, there is one non-Caucasian male and one non-Caucasian female!
The creative team that is producing Ki-Khanga™: The Sword & Soul Role-Playing Game say it is time for a long overdue change!
We are creating a unique table-top gaming experience that puts you in an alternate Africa, wherein magic still lives and wondrous and fearsome creatures still roam the savannah. Where Sumunguru and Sundiata Keita meet on the battlefield and you become Imaro, Changa, Mistress Oyabakin, or even King – yes, King, not Queen – Nzingha.
Co-Creator, Milton J. Davis and I released an anthology of stories, set in the world of Ki-Khanga, in mid-January, 2013. This book – chock full o’ amazing short stories – serves as a fundraiser to produce the game, which has been playtested extensively, streamlined and is currently in the final editing phase all across the United States and in several other countries. We will release the game at SOBSFic Con in 2016.
With over 2,000,000 people playing pen-and-paper role-playing games on a regular, monthly basis (based on 2000 market research – and the numbers are rapidly growing), it is estimated that 17% are non-white. We will increase those numbers and of those 17% already playing role-playing games, most will play Ki-Khanga™ and love it! Many of the 83% will become players of Ki-Khanga™ too.
How do I know? Let’s just say I have checked my Knowledge (RPG) skill against a DC of 10 and rolled a natural 20 (those who know, know…those who don’t, soon will)!