I’ve noticed that there’s this one thing that everyone wants to get right in a larp. Organizers and designers want to get it right so much—and the complementary fear of getting it wrong is so strong—that it seems that organizers rarely try to address it at all.
I’m talking about the thorny topics of race, race relations, and cultural appropriation. These issues crop up often in my gaming circles in the US and abroad, and yet remain confined to private discussions on social media because participants fear Internet blowback. With this series, I’m hoping to help open up some public space for discussion. I don’t have all the answers; I’m learning too, and I expect to get some things wrong in the process.
In this post, I’ll lay out some of the more obvious issues around the portrayal of real-life (as opposed to fantasy) race in larp. In follow-up posts, I’ll examine related topics in depth and aspire to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of race in gaming.
Why should we make larps about race?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: race is a big topic that affects all of our lives, whether by privileging us (statistically, for example, I’ll likely earn more than women and some men of color doing the same job) or oppressing us (some of my friends, for example, have told me how the racism they experience on a daily basis materially harms their well-being). In other words: race powerfully shapes our lives, and as such it’s a worthy topic of inquiry for a medium like larp.
I think larp is a very good playground for having discussions about race for a couple reasons:
- The space of the game is an alternate reality where things have less serious consequences. When we talk about these charged topics in real life, things get serious really fast. But in larps, it’s OK to make bad decisions and screw up—sometimes this can lead to a more interesting storyline (playing to lose). My point is that the stakes are typically lower in a game. And lowering the stakes and giving people latitude to screw up and learn from their mistakes around race seems like a good idea.
- Larp creates empathy. This is another way of agreeing with what Finnish academic Dr. Markus Montola calls the “first person audience” of larp. In larp, you live the story of another person for your own edification. In doing so, you empathize with another person. I think larp is a great tool for building connections. In terms of race, perhaps it could help people with privilege understand oppression that is largely invisible to them by dint of their status. Is this viewpoint inherently problematic because it prioritizes the understanding of the already-privileged? Yes.
- Stories matter. The narratives we experience—whether in written, visual, or enacted form—help shape our view of the world. Historically, in the US and elsewhere in the world, certain narratives have been silenced. You only need to turn on your television to see that most of the people portrayed are skinny upper/middle class white heteronormative people. This silencing denies the lived experience of people who don’t fit the mold. To see the media around you reflect your narrative is a powerful thing. For example, for me, watching sarcastic feminists on 30 Rock makes me feel “normal” or at least not so weird and alone in the world. To include diversity in one’s narrative—whatever the format—helps broaden the definition of “normal.”
Why do so few people make games about real-life issues of racism?
For starters, no one wants to be racist. I see two reasons for this:
- Racism oppresses people for arbitrary reasons (skin color) and arbitrary oppression is bad.
- “Racist” is now shorthand—in my circle, at least—for “bad ignorant person.” So part of why people don’t want to be racist is that they don’t want to be labeled as horrible people.
But being “not racist” isn’t easy, because all of us have been raised in cultures with racist power structures that tend to perpetuate themselves–if you don’t work against them, then the status quo lives on. The more privileged we are, the harder it is to see the small insidious ways that racism affects others’ lives. I wasn’t aware that asking to touch a black person’s hair is an offensive micro-aggression, for example, until I became friends with a black woman who wore her hair naturally in college. She complained about people constantly invading her space to touch her hair without permission. If we hadn’t been close (or if I hadn’t done some basic reading about it on the Internet), I could have been one of those white people: well-intentioned, thinking I’m giving a compliment—it’s so soft!—but really calling out deviation from the cultural norm of straight European hair, and disrespecting her right to decide who gets to be in her personal space.
Because what is and isn’t racist can be non-obvious—especially to people from the dominant class—to include race in one’s larp is to open oneself up to charges of racism. I am convinced this is inevitable because the issues are so complex. One person’s “edgy” is another person’s “oppressive and hurtful.”
There is no one tidy answer to the super-complex questions around racism and representation. If there were, we’d all be doing that thing. It’s complex, and there are many elements to take into account. To me, I think the most important thing is to try to conduct yourself in a way that is consistent with your internal moral compass. And hopefully your internal moral compass tells you to do things like “not strengthen racist narratives used to oppress others.”
What is problematic about making larps about race?
Pretty much the same stuff that’s problematic about any narrative: narratives don’t exist in a vacuum—they’re borne into a cultural context that already exists. And you can’t determine the cultural context—all you can do is try to be aware of it and how it interfaces with your work.
Let’s explore this a bit with an imaginary example.
Let’s say I want to make a larp about the Arapaho. This is problematic for two reasons: I’m white, and thus live a life full of white privilege in which the struggles of the Arapaho people are rendered largely invisible to me, unless I go out of my way to learn about them. This means that unless I do a considerable amount of research, I’m likely to misrepresent this experience in a larp. In misrepresenting this experience, I would make myself part of a longer racist tradition in which white people make assumptions about the life experiences of people of color. In all likelihood, the very fact that I am making assumptions may be invisible to me. If I misrepresent the Arapaho, I may be strengthening a racist narrative. We can take the recent Duck Dynasty kerfuffle as an extreme example; a white guy said that before the civil rights movement, black people “were happy; no one was singing the blues.” Just in case you were wondering, the period in which “no one was singing the blues” was the period in which the blues were invented. Also, black people were being beaten and killed at random by mobs.
I really liked what Jarune Uwujaren said about cultural appropriation over on EveryDayFeminism–that when you tread on someone else’s cultural territory, you are a guest. And just as you’d behave politely when sleeping at my house, so too should you be polite when engaging with another culture. This means not stealing the coolest stuff and divorcing it from the cultural context that produced it.
Even if I “get it right” or get close enough to getting it right, preferably by consulting with the community I am narrativizing and involving them at every possible stage, you have the players, who will approach this larp with their own experiences of race, and who may interpret the materials in such a way as to render them racist.
If most of my players are white, it’s also complicated for them to portray Arapaho—not just because they might not have a point of comparison to do it justice, but also because of cultural context. Historically, white people playing people of color has not ended well. The act of such a portrayal is inherently problematic, raising questions of authenticity and who has the right to define a narrative. Consider how angry larpers get when reading newspaper articles about larp! We fight all the time about who counts as a “larp expert” and bemoan films like Role Models that present views of the hobby we don’t find personally authentic. And that is just for the hobby we’ve chosen, not something as personal as race or cultural identity. One way around this, may be to engage with issues of racism by using a proxy mechanism, and letting something stand-in for race, like say whether a player’s earlobes are detached or not, or as in the case of the famous 1970s experiment with school children, and later with college students, their eye color.
If one of larp’s chief strengths is that it creates empathy, it is also possible for empathy to go too far. I have experienced this in a different way through my autobiographical game about the breast cancer genes, The Curse. Sometimes, players and organizers have insinuated that this scenario has a “right” and “wrong” conclusion—usually people who think there is a right answer think it means the removal of breasts and ovaries in both women characters, who should ideally decide not to have biological children. As a woman living with this condition, I vehemently disagree with this assessment—I think there is only “right for you” and “not right for you.” Still, that some participants feel that they have “figured it out” is notable, particularly given that I wrote the game, and I’m making a different choice for myself. I envision that the same thing could be true of games about race. You can’t truly mimic racism in a game, because a player can leave the game at any time, but it is impossible for people of color to opt out of the system that oppresses them. Playing a scenario can give you a window into another person’s experience, but it does not make you an expert.
Is there any way out of dealing with race in a larp?
No. Even if your larp doesn’t deal directly with issues of race, you still have to deal with racial representation because your narrative doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
At Fastaval 2013, a Danish designer concerned about racism asked me whether he could work around the problem by writing characters with no race. On one hand, writing characters without a specified race—like writing characters without a specific gender—seems at first like it might be a viable solution. After all, if I just say, “you are a hospital administrator,” a player could choose to portray a hispanic hospital administrator if desired. And perhaps the hospital administrator’s race isn’t important to the narrative at all, or perhaps this is a game about office relations, and we’re missing a chance to learn about micro-aggressions. However, because whiteness is the norm in US and Danish culture, and because white people are the predominant participants in the world of roleplaying, this effectively means that characters default to white. Because if they were Arapaho, you’d tell me in the character sheet, right?
Writing games where the characters all default to white creates a world in which white stories are the only ones being told, a problematic venture. On the other hand, writing games with characters from a wide range of backgrounds–especially when portrayed by white people–opens you to charges of racism and “getting it right.”
Basically, there’s no way out of engaging with race on some level in whatever roleplaying game you’re creating—your main avenue of control is in making a mindful choice.
A Note About This Series
I don’t have all the answers or all the analysis; my viewpoints are continually developing. I invite you to respectfully explore this material in the comments. I also invite suggestions for future posts on this topic. I’m interested in trying to develop a set of best practices for dealing with this material in larp (and already have a few ideas), exploring issues of cultural appropriation—what happens when you combine elements from cultures that are not your own, and the issues raised therein—as well as related issues like dealing with racist source material .
My opinions don’t come out of a vacuum—they come out of my cultural context as an American, countless conversations I’ve had with friends, and exposure as a student to various elements of race theory, intersectionality, and feminist theory. I’d guess that pretty much nothing here is original or ground-breaking—but at this point, I can’t disentangle the myriad influences by name–it’s all a mass of interlocking opinions. Suggestions for reading welcome.
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