Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ethnicity and Fantastic Worlds

Ethnic Breakdowns
So on my most recent trip to Borders armed with a 33% off coupon I picked up a copy of Maximum City-- a writer's look at modern Mumbai. I like books about cities, but usually prefer histories. While I've only just begun reading it I've been struck by the diversity and detail density of the various ethnic and cultural groupings the author tosses around. They have their own roles, perceptions and independent life. That hit me coming off of a morning of hearing about ethnic grouping tensions in Pakistan and elsewhere. I can recall the arguments back from my college days about the relative importance of ethnic identity-- and the thinking that such identities would end up minimized in a modern, interdependent world. That's certainly proven not to be the case-- with the reduction of the bi-polar world we've ended up with the concerns of smaller and smaller groups driving major issues.

But I suspect I'm also reacting to how casually the writer tosses around these ethnic/caste names and assessments. Perhaps there's a touch of white liberal guilt there-- but I flinch a little when I see those kinds of stereotypes stated so baldly. The author's was raised for a good deal of his life in the West, so that's probably deliberate. But the whole thing struck a familiar chord with me as well. I'd seen that kind of treatment of cultural groups as absolutes before-- in game sourcebooks. Since sourcebooks have to carry information quickly and easily for the readers, they often deal with ethnicity or nations as monolithic. You'll get a weasel word like “typically” but general they stick with a shorthand description and characteristics.

Ethnicity and Fantasy
Of course that got me thinking about how I treat ethnicity and cultural identity within my campaigns, especially in the fantasy campaigns. Ethnicity has two major components in this case: history and cultural behaviors. At least those are the two that the players will most likely have contact with. I'll admit that in my games, these layers often get only minimal treatment for a couple of reasons.

First, players have map and navigate an alien world when they enter into the game. As GMs it is our obligation to provide some easy signposts and markers for the players. So generally, ethnicity is equal to nationality. If a person is from a particular country, then if there are cultural traits of that country they're homogeneous for that country. Those traits provide an “Ur” template which can be measured against. Players have a name for the country/nation and can assign values to those more easily. Unless the game will be long-term in a particular place or if the players have spent a good deal of time within the campaign world, I don't want to slice the groups up into further pieces.

Second, and not too far from that point, is that not dividing those areas up is easier for me. Just as keeping things limited in scope-- based around easy archetypes and stereotypes-- helps the player grasp the setting, it also makes it easier for me to remember what's going on and to sell a particular idea quickly and easily. World buildings a little easier when I can keep things on a nation/country scale. One of the problems with dealing with ethnicities, from my point of view, is the question of detail creep. If one country has a diverse population with several different ethnic groups, then what about others? How do those play into the history of the continent or region? We start getting into questions of dress, accent, cultural modes. I may move to these considerations, but only as they really serve the plot-- and only with some hesitancy.

Overdoing It
There's also the question of highlighting real world problems-- racism, cultural bias, religious tolerance, and even immigration-- in the context of a game. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I don't want to shy away from dealing with interesting and difficult questions. On the other hand, I also don't want to be heavy-handed or preachy about these things. Fiction, especially speculative fiction, often uses analogues to stand in for other social questions. The problem I have is that these are often so constructed, so built to avoid the difficult dimensions of a problem or situation that they lose power. Plus there's the question of complexities of the fantastic situation-- I mean, for example there's a certain amount of biology is destiny implied in racial behaviors in a lot of fantastic fiction-- how do we deal with those. What are the limits of determinism there? The flip side of this lies in some expectations on the part of players. Black and White morality is inherent in a good deal of classic fantasy-- LoTR for example-- and players enjoy playing within those codes. Having the classically “evil” creatures turn out to be good or at least morally neutral-- done as a surprise and with emphasis can be done every once in a while. It should be constructed for a particular moment. Having it happen all of the time, that can be a problem.

I guess the main detail here is about the expectations of the audience. How much of what I do in terms of GMing is for my own satisfaction about the world and how much to serve the player likes and dislikes. I think that's a slightly different question than the one concerning actual play at the table. At the table, I think player interests and desires trump GM desires. But in terms of building the world and developing background, I think there's a greater level of parity in terms of what I create.

I do worry about various events and structural set ups in my games being taken as advocating a political position. I don't want to be a heavy-handed moralist. I've seen and read too much bad sci-fi and fantasy that hamfistedly takes a real world situation. I don't want to do that-- in either direction. I don't want to sell a particular positive or negative perspective, but I do think there's an inevitability to some of my perspective bleeding through. At the same time I have to recognize that there's a real complexity of class, social heritage, history and so on. A game can only marginally touch on that.

Actual Play Questions
Beyond the historical backdrop there's some question of the actual play at the table. I'm a GM who likes to do voices-- but my skills are fairly limited. So I'm always afraid when I try to do a particular ethnicity. More broadly, I'll admit I'm a little more self-conscious about it when I'm trying to carry off an impression of a hoodlum gangbanger. But I think I'm more ludicrous than offensive.

But the genre and popular senses of it do seem to promote a pretty narrow vision of ethnicity. I hunt various art sites, like Deviant Art and ConceptArt to find images to use at the table to represent NPCs. Finding non-Caucasian fantasy character is really tough. I can find Asian characters-- but more often than not they're either bishonen or dressed in strongly oriental garb. Try finding a black or Hispanic character and you're generally out of luck. I'm more likely to find a character with solid blue or red skin. The problem's not as bad with modern games-- but again, most illustrations of black or Hispanic characters tend to be “street” or gang related.

That's a problem where I've established a particular nationality as having non-white skin. For example, in my campaign I established long ago that the people of Atlantae had dark skin. But that often got forgotten-- and once fantasy images became readily available on the web, I started to make significant exceptions. I tried to establish that the highest of the nobility have the darkest skin, so lighter skinned Atlantaens would exist but be marginal. However that's a kind of apology. It wasn't until Guild Wars: Nightfall came out that I had access to a wide variety of non-Caucasian characters in interesting fantasy costumes.

Nature vs. Nurture
I think the question of Nature versus Nurture lies at the heart of this. Most classic fantasy fiction seems to suggest Nature as dominant. That always makes me a little leery because of the way eugenics and sociobiology have read those ideas. But Tolkien, the grandaddy of fantasy fiction, seemed to hold to that. I think the LoTR movies skirts that, but we have a world were Elves are inherently good, with the “blood” of High Men dividing humans, and so on. I think once PCs come into contact with that world the situation actually becomes more complicated and real.

But I'll point at another game setting which seems to me to have a problematic treatment of heritage as destiny: Werewolf: the Apocalypse. The other big two major World of Darkness books have the players as transformed or educated into a group. If you're bitten by a Vampire of a particular type, you carry on that type. If you're trained by a certain Mage line, you probably take on those philosophies. On the other hand, in Werewolf, you're born into a family. Your line, tribe and type really determine not only your abilities but how the other groups will treat you. You also have issues of in-breeding and the Metis. What always threw me about that is how a modern, liberal perception of equality works out in that society. Not that everyone is equal, but that there should be an equality of treatment. How does that philosophy react when smashed into the hierarchical and hereditary determinism of that society?

In the End
I've run around this topic quite a bit. A game is an escapist fantasy on the one hand, but on the other I don't want an entertainment which reinforces dangerous philosophies. It might be a shallow response, but I do think being able to acknowledge and reflect that these kinds of problems can arise is a kind of answer. I knew of a person who wouldn't let their children read things like Lord of the Rings because it presented a black and white view on good and evil. I think that's more than a little crazy. I do think we as GMs ought to be aware in our world building. On the one hand we want an easily communicable world, but on the other hand we don't want a simplistic world-view.


  1. Interesting article but maybe it's synonymous with the genres in general not RPGs. I've noticed this with SF/Fantasy literature in general. There are few examples of black major characters or African settings. There are a handful of western writers who have tried Asian settings; The Mistress of the Empire Trilogy (Feist and Wurts), (River of Gods) Ian McDonald and the Marid Audran series (George Alec Effinger), but they're in the minority.

  2. Agreed- as you point it out, it does seem to be a problem in the fantastic genre. And the gaming community, at least as I've seen it does seem to lean pretty heavily white, male.

    As I understand it, Ursula K. LeGuin has some real problems with the versions for TV and film of A Wizard of Earthsea because the various adapters ignored the fact that most of the characters didn't have white skin, especially the main character.

    I guess the question is how one can deal with this in a game without seeming pedantic, on a high horse or even ignoring history.

  3. In my fantasy campaign world I have created some countries with specific cultural stereotypes; feudal Japan, Chinese, Norse, Germanic (warhammer style), but no African, South American or Russian cultures. I needed to leave enough space for the Elves, Goblinoids and Undead.

    In my Justifiers games players are encouraged to ethnicise their character depending on which countries their animal part may come from. One player's PC was an antelope which became Dr. Okewelo voiced with a West African accent.

    Oddly my group currently has 2 S.African members, 1 Swede, 1 Chinese American.

  4. If I ever get to do my dream Roman fantasy campaign, I would have various nationalities outside the Empire be non-human. Steppe warriors wouldn't be horse riders, they'd be drink loving centaurs. Beyond India are the dog-headed men that Arab legend says Alexander the Great met. Etc.

    I think subtlety in a game is fractal. If you have more time and attention on a people, you can add more complexity. Every big European nation has regions that were once independent nation-states of their own, with a language incomprehensible on the other end of the land. Every region has its backwards, slow talking bumpkins and fast talking city slickers. But we only meet the foreigners who travel: their nobles and brave traders, their cosmopolitan types.

  5. @tonybrooo1: When I started running in my fantasy campaign many years ago, I borrowed heavily from Known World for D&D. A couple of those had some interesting ethnic approaches-- a strange mix of direct analogues to real world cultures and some others more hodge-podge. I've moved away from that over the years. I think, unfortunately, among the human nations of the continent the only three which I'm guessing don't seem like variations on western cultures are the two desert kingdoms and one more nomadic civilization (which is far enough on the fringes we haven't really had strong campaign contact with it in 12+ years).

    @Gene: That's an interesting approach. I do have an idea myself for a Rome game and I've been going through the various Roman RPG resources-- that's going to be a post here soon.

    I agree with your point about it being fractal. I think you can deal with ethnic and cultural issues-- but really only well if that is the focus of the campaign or story arc. I think otherwise it runs the risk of just being noise to the players.