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.
Like this post and want to read more like it? You can become the Gandalf to my Frodo over at Patreon.
One of the problems with writing “characters without race” is that players all have physical forms and generally have visually apparent races. There is something to be said for giving people races and cultural backgrounds that add to their character, but you’re going to have a hard time getting people to perform their perception of others as if they had a different race. It’s considerably harder than disguising your gender, and that can be very tough for some players.
It’s also very hard to get players (especially American players) to consciously play into racist thinking even if you write their characters to be bias. We tend to want to smooth everything over and make our characters less assholeish because we don’t want to see ourselves as bad people.
I’m very interested in exploring the issue from a constructed fantasy setting to see how much you can get others to be empathic when the “real world” serial numbers are rubbed off. Mind you I have done very little with this in the past (too busy with simpler ideas).
Other issues on this topic:
– playing in a historical setting, where more extreme racism is part of the setting (eg. I’ve played a middle ages jew). Even liberal 1920s characters can be outrageously racist (and xenophibic) by modern standards.
– playing in a setting based on existing fiction (eg. The uk had a conan based larp) which has bad racial sterotypes already written into the setting.
The ‘safer’ way to play on racism is to use fantasy races (dirty green skinned orcs!) But this can become too comic if not handled carefully. Drow can still be problematic here (‘because elves know that black skinned people are bad’). In one online rpg I played, when an elf saw a dark skinned human for the first time, they assumed that obviously it was a human version of a drow, and thus clearly evil.
Working on one right now, matter of fact.
It’s a very complex topic. I think there has been more than one panel on this at PreCon and/or NELCO, and from what I hear, they attract a large crowd and often run quite late. Which I think is a good sign — I think it means that people are aware of the importance of the issue and actively want to work on improving its role in LARP.
I think in many cases we do default to assuming the character is white (especially in LARPs with historical European settings, where the majority of people in power are white Christians.) In modern LARPs, in my experience, people assume the race of the character matches the race of the player (or religion, or sexuality.) I know I’ve done it.
The issue of race in fantasy LARPs becomes even murkier, because a lot of the races are made up, but often draw on real life groups for inspiration. One utterly bizarre failing of the LARP community, I’ve found, is that “gypsies” is often an available race or nationality to choose in a LARP, even though 1) there are real ethnic groups that get labeled with that word and 2) it’s an offensive term. There are many ways to improve the way we handle race in LARPs, but I definitely think that dropping the word “gypsy” from fantasy LARPs should be one of the first steps.
I don’t get it.
Who are the “We” and “Everyone” who wants to get this right?
It’s not me.
I agree that ignoring race completely (as I have done in my games) contributes to the status quo of whiteness being the norm. but as race is such a complicated (and sore) topic, the moment I include considerations of race in a game, I am no longer doing a game about the war in Irak, or 1970 hippies, but about race.
So yeah, games are not played in a vacuum, but accepting the context of the game is the only thing that lets you run it without that context obstructing what you are trying to tell.
To me, it’s a way of taking advantage of what people are oblivious to in the first place, and letting that represent that vacuum.
You could say then, that not treating race, thus contributing to preserving status quo is not OK, effectively saying all actions are political. And I get that. But as long as these topics are as raw and difficult, telling stories become extremely cumbersome, if you have to treat all issues at once (race, gender, sexuality, class, disabilities, religion etc.).
So I guess, what I am trying to say is that I see a very valid point of not making race (exchange freely for one of the above) a topic in your game as long as it is about something else.
I agree that we don’t want every game to focus exclusively on racial struggles (though it’d be nice to have, say, more than one or two that do!) But I also think that you can’t get out of dealing with race in the game. If you make the informed choice that in this particular game you’re upholding the racial status quo, then at least you’ve made that decision. It’d be a nice gesture to design the game in such a way that it permits players to deal with these complexities if they so choose.
I have some friends who are people of color who are very frustrated by the way they are constantly forced to play white characters that don’t speak to their lived experience, for example. Giving them and others the latitude to play on race if they so choose is a powerful political statement in itself that requires very little from the organizer.
And certainly, the historical silencing of people of color is part of most real life narratives deriving from history. My question is: how can you make a game about Iraq without addressing issues of race and cultural difference? You looked at these topics yourself in the White War. How can you make a game about the hippies that doesn’t deal with the fact that it was a predominantly white movement, with some overlap toward the racial justice movement in the same period?
My point is that “ignoring race completely” is part of white privilege. When you make a game that doesn’t deal with race, you’re making a game about white people. And it’s totally OK to do that. Just don’t mistake it for getting you out of the race issue.
My character defaults to me – e.g. white, male, of approximately my age and physical features. I will assume such unless told otherwise. However, “whiteness is a norm” can mean very different things in different countries – e.g. in Croatia it’s not typically a problem because even in Zagreb often weeks pass before I see a non-white person. Heck, I only have two in my extended circle of friends. We’re country that’s way over 99% white, and in such an environment someone from other race will attract looks and will be assumed to be a tourist.
I guess that our racial makeup in some way makes it easier for us (we don’t need to worry about reprecussions of inaccurate portrayal), while in other ways it makes it harder (we’re out of touch with other races and their issues since they’re rarely close to our cultural context). On the other hand, ethnic intolerance and discrimination is something that is an issue here. I’d say it’s a similar issue – one is originating from physical differences, another from the ethnic origins. This sort of stuff is more easily portrayed in larps by creating various in-character nationalities.
FairEscape: I agree, and I’m wanting to do some writing on the topic of fantasy races soon too. Peter Woodworth has a great topic here–http://peterwoodworth.com/2013/12/28/badass-larp-tricks-race-culture-larp/
Ivan: I agree that different places have different racial makeup and different racial issues. “White” is really a broad term that glosses over a lot. Leaving aside the issue of skin color, are their sectarian tensions in Croatia related to immigration or religion, for example? I’d also suggest that even though Croatia may not have to deal with issues of race in the same way that, say, New York does because there are simply not many people of color there, it may still have a problem with racism. Does being a person of color affect the lived experience of your friends, for example? Do they experience microaggression such as staring or face larger forms of discrimination? What does it mean to be treated like a tourist in your own home country?
I know very little about Croatia, so I don’t know the answer! I think a game about being treated like a tourist in your home country could be super-interesting, though.
(I have nothing to add, though. Wish I had.)
I’m just going to reiterate points that have been brought up at Intercon and NELCO panels on this stuff:
1) blackface/brownface/yellowface is racist and shitty. Don’t fucking do it. If you need to physically/visibly indicate that your character appears different from you use armbands/headbands/scarves/ribbons/etc. The end, full stop.
2) The first, last, and final authorities on portraying X characters in larp are actual X people IRL: whether X is trans, disabled, Latin@, female, whatever. If you run stuff enough, in enough distinct communities, and there are living X people on Earth today, anticipate that they will come into contact with your game.
3) General rules of dealing with difficult stuff in larp apply: communicate to people the kind of thing in your game before they’re in it. There are a lot of approaches that work some of the time. Consent and communication are important.
4) Do your research: a number of people seem to believe in stereotyped and white-washed versions of history, or seem to believe that including marginalized groups in stories is “less realistic” than including wizardry and dragons.
5) “Larp creates empathy” can backfire hard if you do what I think of as “recursive / re-enforced bigotry:” that is, don’t force Jewish larpers to play Jews and encounter your pseudo-historical high-fantasy antisemitic garbage. Don’t force anybody to play icky stereotypes of themselves. (If I’m side-eying you here, you’ve heard about it from me already.)
6) The degree to which including X characters means that you’re telling a story about X varies widely. There’s a paragraph in a character sheet in a game I wrote where a tween talks about fighting with her parents about her Bat Mitzvah. It’s part of the general pattern of “this character is rebellious, incidentally, that rebellion extends to her family’s organized religion,” the game is not about Judaism, and the things that are really central to the character’s relationships to others in game don’t necessarily have anything to do with faith. By contrast, The Last Seder has a whole lot to do with Jewishness and Jewish ritual (it is an actual Seder, after all) and so that identity is a lot more foregrounded.
I have no idea how it affects them. Since it’s an extended circle of friends, I didn’t have many chances to speak to them. One of them is studying and is here on an extended visit – the second guy lives here, but I’m not sure if he was born here or has simply lived here for a long time. I didn’t ask him because I considered it impolite to inquire – I just don’t know him well. He speaks in the perfect Zagreb accent though. There’s no way he could pull that off unless he was here for a while – so that’s enough for me to consider him a local.
Religion here is mostly connected to the nationalism, specifically the Roman Catholic church is connected to Croatian nationalism. Also, the Serbian Orthodox church is connected to Serbian nationalism, and the Islam is connected to the Bosnian nationalism. These are the big three around (though 90% of the population is Roman Catholic, at least on paper – at one point during the war in 90s it was socially unacceptable not to be) – enough to (in the minds of the most) put an equal sign between the two,
Serbians are not tolerated by some people due to the war. Roma people also face the typical issues as they face everywhere else in Europe, in practice there’s a typically racist view about them (although we consider them white, as well as a lot of other non-caucasian people).
Bosnians are the prime target of immigration intolerance, though they’re joined in that by some Albanians and janjevci (a group of ethnical Croats who lived in Kosovo since 14th century, but they started coming back to Croatia when the war started). Those three groups are also commonly discriminated on the basis they’re “less cultured” – however, in that they’re joined with some rural Croatian groups who get the similar treatment (comparable to rednecks in USA).
Hmm… I think some of it is a matter of how (and what we play). Lizzie, I’ve tried picturing how the “friends of colour” have been forced to play white characters, and my mind fails. Especially at a fantasy larp. If a black woman plays a woman at a larp (which I’ve experienced), she obviously plays a black woman, not a white one, unless the issue is addressed somehow.
If you’re playing a tabletop thing and the character description says “caucasian woman, age 33” and the player is dark of skin and age 22, I can easily understand the problem. But in larps that aren’t historical, I can’t really see how they’ve been forced to play white characters. Maybe there’s just something I’m missing.
I know that there’s a big problem with people of colour being stereotyped into gameplay situations because of said colour (one classic being a vampire larp with a group playing neo-nazis), and that’s a very real and problematic issue.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I need some more details before I agree with the statement “When you make a game that doesn’t deal with race, you’re making a game about white people.”. I’ve made lots of games for people of varying colour, but I don’t think I’ve ever made any of those either about race or for white people. :o)
Or in less advanced speak: If I make a larp about elven tribes and 90% of the elves in question are people of colour, I can’t really say how I’m making a larp about white people. I can see how I’m making one about elves, though. :o)
Ivan: Super super interesting.
Sparrow: I agree with much of what you said.
Claus: For the purposes of the above, let’s stick to games set in the real world and not fantasy settings, because I think the latter have some extenuating circumstances that make the issues a bit different and more complicated.
So here’s my understanding of what it is like for some of my friends, and I do hope that someone who has had this experience might drop in and leave a comment: their ethnicity is a deep part of who they are as a person, and brings up issues they’d like to deal with, the same as the way I might wish to deal with themes relevant to my own life in a game. But permitting a character in your game to have a different ethnicity isn’t as simple as changing the character’s skin color because there is a broader lived experience of racism that applies to this alteration. The frame of the game often does not allow for space to deal with some of these issues.
For example, in a play test of one of my new games, one player really wanted to play on a conflict of growing up in a racist society that had oppressed him–this is a perfectly interesting conflict, and one that fit fine with the game design, but wasn’t one of the pre-set options available to players when creating characters. So in order for him to play his own identity, he hacked the game, making his character a character of color facing this dilemma. To me, it exposed a gap in my assumptions about what constituted interesting conflicts in the game; in a way, the fact that I did not include such a conflict in this particular game was a symptom of my own blind spot. I thought his hack was a good one, because it brought discussion of problematic racial assumptions to the forefront of the narrative.
On top of this, sometimes gamers of color face out of game expectations about the sorts of characters that they will play, getting steered into more stereotypical roles or relegated to roles like villain, barbarian princess, etc.
I think perhaps we’re running into some mismatched assumptions here.
There are some games where people write their own characters or intentionally play themselves in a strange situation / a world with magic / etc. There are some games where people have pre-written characters with complex backstories and interwoven plots.
I was assuming that a good chunk of Lizzy’s advice was directed towards games where characters are pre-written. Because obviously if you’re writing your own character or playing yourself, you aren’t constrained by what the GM thinks of the race of your character. You are however constrained by the world the GM has created for you to play in. Are there specific races mentioned in the world info? are there magical races? and if so do people think or feel certain things about them based on the world description? For example “all elves are beautiful” would make it hard for me to play an elf because I don’t match my culture’s standard of “beautiful” very well.
It’s difficult for people to portray other races that have culturally accepted physical traits. Like I can’t really portray a black woman, because I’m very pale. I could portray a Jewish person because people can be Jewish both religiously and ethnically and I’m “close enough” to what most ethnically Jewish people look like for an American audience. Likewise a black woman wouldn’t have a problem playing a person who is Jewish religiously, but Americans will probably assume that she’s not ethnically Jewish.
Anyhow, all that aside, I think people might be confusing “how race in games affects people” with “I as a GM can think like another race”. Sorry, unless you grew up surrounded by another race, you probably can’t do the second one. And the solution to that is to talk to people of other races and include them in your game design process (even if it’s only to check with someone and make sure you aren’t creating something that will upset them).
I also want to point out that this stuff all applies to ethnic differences as well as “color of your skin” differences. Most countries include ethnic minorities and you can hurt them and exclude them in exactly the same ways. Just because you live somewhere that’s 99% white doesn’t mean this stuff is irrelevant to you. 😛
“Anyhow, all that aside, I think people might be confusing “how race in games affects people” with “I as a GM can think like another race”. Sorry, unless you grew up surrounded by another race, you probably can’t do the second one”
Races don’t have a particular way of thinking. Cultures do. I think some people are getting the two mixed up here.
If you are writing a fantasy larp then it’s trival to make a setting were ‘human skin tones have the same range as earth, but no special significance or implication of origin is attached to it.’ As Lizzie said, it’s probably useful to narrow the discussion to modern/historical settings.
To disagree with some other points:
“1) blackface/brownface/yellowface is racist and shitty. Don’t fucking do it. If you need to physically/visibly indicate that your character appears different from you use armbands/headbands/scarves/ribbons/etc. The end, full stop.”
Use headbands to represent your race would be laughed at in most european larps. Sorry, it looks rubbish.
“2) The first, last, and final authorities on portraying X characters in larp are actual X people IRL: whether X is trans, disabled, Latin@, female, whatever. If you run stuff enough, in enough distinct communities, and there are living X people on Earth today, anticipate that they will come into contact with your game.”
No, they are no authority at all. They aren’t even participants. If I decide to play a female character, real world females don’t get the authority to tell me to not to. That would severely limit artistic expression.
People have the right to take offense, but not to stop someone else’s freedom of artistic expression.
Are you saying that if I play Hamlet, a Dane has authority to tell me I’m doing it wrong?
As Lizzie said, sticking to larps based on Earth:
With some ethic backgrounds, it’s possible to focus on culture, rather than race. Some caucasians are ‘close enough’ to play a jew. If they give their characer a jewish name, that can work fine.
Cultural dress (especially in historical settings) can work fine. If someone is dressed as desert arab (and making a reasonable attempt at an accent) then people can see their character is an arab. The exact skintone is less important.
Now, that only goes so far. I (as someone from a mostly norman-saxon ethic background) couldn’t credibly play a ‘black’ character. I have ‘blacked up’ to play fantasy races on ocassion, but I personaly wouldn’t do that in a modern or historical setting; It would take a look of effort to take the skin tone done properly (I have seen it done at one larp).
If other people wanted to do it (again, I don’t mean comedy blackface, but a quality makeup job) then I’d be fine playing with them. In fact, if I’m going to play a historical racist character, I’d feel more comfortable knowing the ‘victim’ isn’t really of that race.
Nathan… there are two different levels here.
No one is saying you can’t try to portray a different race. We’re saying it’s hard for you to do so in a way that will give you the experience of someone who looks different than you.
And seriously, don’t put on blackface. It doesn’t make you look like a black person, it makes you look like a white person who’s an insensitive asshole. By all means I’m sure there’s some other way you can convey these things that wouldn’t be laughed at, but seriously _don’t wear blackface, just don’t do it_.
Being an authority on how you portray something doesn’t mean direct censorship. It means I as a white person can’t write a black character well without talking to black people. I simply don’t have the life experience to understand the lives they live. It doesn’t mean I can’t write a black character, but I need to do research and talk to people to get their perspective. It also doesn’t mean you can’t play someone of a different race or color. It means that when you do so you shouldn’t assume that your life experience and understanding of cultural stereotypes have prepared you for the role. :/
There are two layers in the “rights” people have. One, yes you have a right to artistic expression. Two, you have a responsibility to not be an asshole to people who are different than you through ignorance. They have a right to have their experiences and cultures treated as valid facets of humanity rather than being smashed down to harmful stereotypes.
And everyone has a right to complain about whatever they want (complaining is not censorship).
What Eva said.
My take is that anyone is welcome to play an (X) character however you wish, but I do hope that your internal moral compass would tell you to do your due diligence so that you do it in a way that does not strengthen stereotypical narratives.
I also think it’s a false dichotomy to pit artistic expression against offense. Narratives have the power to shape how we see the world. A racist film like Birth of a Nation had real implications for African American people living in the US. Poorly drawn female characters constantly portrayed as objects rather than subjects has consequences for women, not just when it comes to self-image, but because this can effect how we view the capability of women.
In the case of a white person portraying someone of another race, one’s action does not happen in a vacuum, but rather in a historical context in which white people have co-opted the narratives of people of color–often by creating art that includes white people in skin makeup–and used these to justify and support our own acts of oppression. More often than not, the resulting portrayals have been stereotypical and racist portrayals. Does this mean that there is no theoretical edge case in which black face might be used for good? Of course not. Spike Jonze’s Bamboozled might maybe be such a case. But the vast majority of the time, it’s done poorly. Add this to the already-problematic questions it raises about authenticity and who owns an experience, and to the volatile historical context, which is particularly volatile here in the US, and you’ve got a losing proposition. “Don’t do black face” is a pretty good rule of thumb, in my opinion, unless you are making a piece of art about how messed up black face is. And even then, be prepared to answer some really specific questions about why you’re doing what you’re doing.
So yes, it is anyone’s right to express themselves, even though these sorts of expression can do lasting harm to another group. This is where the internal moral compass comes in–surely none of us here want to do harm to another group, which is why we’d make a choice to strive to do a respectful job. It may also be worth saying that critique and criticism–or simply asking people to try to be polite when trespassing on others’ cultures–is not the same as censorship. And frankly, if the price of being white is that I can’t do ridiculously racist things in public without some blowback from critics, compared to say, institutional oppression and living a life of constant racial micro-aggressions, the former seems like small price to pay.
Slight aside, but I think this is relevant,
In a (low key mythic) middle ages larp I use to play (Gall Saga, run by Kevin Hassell, author of Vampire:Dark Ages, some of Ars Magic 3rd ed. CoC scenarios, and other games), we represented while playing down the gender issues as follows:
A woman could play a noblewoman, married to an off-screen NPC noble. The player character was there to ‘represent their husband,’ and effectively made all the decisions in their name (which the NPC would rubber stamp afterwards). This meant for all practical purposes the player character had the same agency and power, even if people could still play that they were notionally lower status than a male noble of the same rank. (and, far above a serf in rank in any case). (Women also got an extra merit point, to offset the social flaw in the context as well).
A female player did want to play a jewish merchant in that campaign, and the organiser wrote a plot around them arranging a shipment of clearly dodgy herbs. What was actually going on was a jew was plotting to poison the wells of York in revenge for the (historical) massacre of jews there in 1170 (a story based on a real life post-WW2 plot by a jew to poison the water in a german city) and this was their supply shipment. Various players got briefed with rumours aobut this obviously dodgy activity.
Being 20th century players, they decided it was obviously a red herring, and the deal went off without problems! They should have been thinking with their in-character racist heads on, but failed to do so.
“And seriously, don’t put on blackface.”
I said that myself. Blackface doesn’t look good (except perhaps for drow, and even then it’s pretty crude). I said quality make-up. (multi-tone, multi-layer). I also said that I wouldn’t do this personally, just that I’m fine with other people doing it.
“It means I as a white person can’t write a black character well without talking to black people. I simply don’t have the life experience to understand the lives they live. ”
How do you write orcs? What about centuries old vampires? Lots of people write and play those.
Are you saying it’s harder for me to play a black person who has grown up in the same city as me, went to the same school, etc. than it is to play a 2000 year old vampire that watched the fall of Rome?
“They have a right to have their experiences and cultures treated as valid facets of humanity rather than being smashed down to harmful stereotypes.”
I challenge your underlying premise of cultural validity.
I argue that not all cultures are ‘equal’ or ‘valid facets of humanity.’ Female genital mulitation of children is a practice in some cultures. I think that is wrong, and not ‘valid.’ Just because something is cultural doesn’t make it right.
In that case, how do you feel about the sweet home alabana ‘Redneck’ larp that was planned (but didn’t happen) last year? That was deliberately playing on a subcultural sterotype (as I understand it).
I had my doubts about it and the way, at a cursory glance, that it seemed to use stereotypes, but I don’t know enough about the larp to render an informed opinion one way or another. I can tell you that I was born in the south and that is where much of my extended family still lives. The stereotypes about that region of the country have been used to belittle some of my relatives in their professional ventures, and as with many Nordic representations of what America is like, I disagreed with some elements of the premise. Given the high endemic rates of poverty and the fact that the deepSouth has the highest rates of new HIV infection in the US, according to a brilliant documentary film one of my friends made, it seems unfair to use it as a punching bag. But of course, from what I can tell the game was intended as satire, and should be considered in that light, and as I mentioned initially, I do not know enough about it to make an informed critique.
Then again, there is a sardonic take on the redneck in the form of the ‘Mericans in the popular zombie boffer larp Dystopia Rising.
I’d pick out “in public” as a key prhase from your post Lizzie. While some larps are public, many occur on a private location. What a group of people say as fictional characters among themselves at a private location isn’t the concern of those not even present is it?
Suppose people want to larp out what it feels like being at a Ku Klux Klan meeting, in full costume, in private. Now, they going to be openly racist, and they are also tresspassing on someone else’s subculture. If they are doing it in private among consenting adults, I don’t think others should object.
Would knowing that your neighbors were hosting a private gathering for the KKK next door bother you? Would you feel obligated to talk to them about it, even though it was a private event to which you were not invited?
What if such events were creating a party-culture that made people of color feel uncomfortable about attending parties or speaking up about concerns around racism when they did so?
Don’t you think you might have gotten some interesting roleplay and costuming tips from interviewing actual Russians who had been part of the army in WWII–or just doing some historical research on the topic from documents? If the timeline was an alternate one, why was it so important that the villains be called “Nazis” and the players be called “Russians”?
I’d also like to cite the Motherland / Fatherland larps (I was at the second). We played russian soldiers in an alternate timeline fighting germans (played by re-enactors in full nazi uniforms). Are you saying we would have had to discuss the culture with real russians (or even real russians from that time period?) before playing those characters?
This discussion reminds of political story we’ve had here in the UK this week.
A politican (who is also a liberal muslim, from our centre-left party the liberal democrats) appeared on a discussion show where someone wore a T-shirt related to this web comic:
Two Muslims on the show said the wearer didn’t have the right to wear it (since it depicted the Prophet). The muslim politican said he had no issues with it, and later tweeted the image saying so. Muslim groups are now openly trying to wreck his career and have him deselected (and a few online posts have called for his beheading). The party are thefore going through discipline procedures on him for having caused offense.
“Don’t you think you might have gotten some interesting roleplay and costuming tips from interviewing actual Russians who had been part of the army in WWII–or just doing some historical research on the topic from documents?”
It was a nordic larp. The costume was provided.
I spent the prep time absorbing the material the organisers had directed. If they had said ‘read these wiki pages on the soviet army’ then sure, yes. In fact, we did have problems with certain players who didn’t know the setting history well enough.
“If the timeline was an alternate one, why was it so important that the villains be called “Nazis” and the players be called “Russians”?”
Because real history (even an alternate timeline) is richer and more interesting than a fictional setting. Also, it was based on the novel Fatherland.
More generally, yes, I’m all in favour of players doing research to play a role. I certainly have over the years. That might be all kind of activites, including speaking to people with particular experiences.
For reference, this is the story I was referred to:
Yes Nathan, I am in fact saying that it is harder for you to understand the character of a black person who grew up in the same city as you and went to the same school than it is for you to play a 2000 year old vampire.
You have life experiences with your city and with your school, but you have no visibility of how the experiences of a black person in a similar context lives or how their life differs from yours unless you listen to a black person. It will probably appall you how different their life is and the things that happen to them that don’t happen to you.
A 2000 year old vampire may be based on concepts or stories from history, but they are fundamentally not a character paralleling a real person, since people don’t live for more than about 100 years most of the time. A lot of this vampire is going to be creative fiction that doesn’t match what any human has ever experienced (in aggregate). The best you could probably do is get yourself a lot of historical research into people who lived in the places and times the vampire lived.
And seriously, I think even people practicing cultures we find abusive and abhorrent like genital mutilation are humans and deserve to be treated like humans. I’m not saying we have to like everyone’s culture, but if you’re putting it in your game you should damn well study it so you’re presenting their actual culture and beliefs and not a gross caricature of them.
(Have you ever talked to a victim of female genitals mutilation or read their accounts of what the mutilation did to them and their lives or how it was justified to them?)
A great post on a difficult topic.
Personally, as a cisgendered heteronormative male güero aged 18-49, I think the only thing I can say is that I want to encourage more diversity in larp, not just a player diversity, but also designer/larpwright/scholar diversity as well.
Out of curiosity, is anyone here a person of color? I’d like to hear some of their thoughts on the matter if possible; or if you are, please state as such. I have assumed that the comments are all by whites, as I either know most of you or you’ve stated your ethnic/racial background.
Thanks for reading, and I apologize for exhibiting my privileged status like a trenchcoat flasher hooked on Viagra.
Good post. Good thoughts to think for anyone who wants do deal with race in a game and not screw up horribly.
On wanting to get it right, I think the key is wanting to not get it wrong, rather than necessarily making everything about it. But then, if we consistently decide never to deal with it, we effectively fall back on the white default. Game by single game, this is not a problem as such, but as a larger tendency, it’s not pretty.
Freedom of expression, yeah. Sure you have the freedom to paint your face black and your lips thick and red. Others have the freedom to loudly judge you — these two freedoms go together. Sure, the freedom to express yourself isn’t the freedom to burn crosses on people’s lawns “for art”, just as the freedom to publicly respond is not the freedom to mount large, extended campaings of harrasment and intimidation.
A thing I’ve worked with a bit in game design in the past is the connection between race and class. I had a character of colour in one game who had some specific lower-class background, and race was indicated only by his name (Omar), which could indicate a lot of different non-white backgrounds. That made for some interesting play as the class material was interpreted in light of the name. Another thing I did with that game (My Girl’s Sparrow) was make another character a person of colour who could make sense as such, so as not to set up the sad, traditional trap of “…and over here, we have the Black Dude.”
Oh, and regarding race in fantasy games. It’s possible to screw this up very, very badly, if you subscribe to the “let’s see how many offensive racial stereotypes we can squeeze into the orcs” school of thought. Of course it’s also possible to do other, quite OK things with orcs and whatnot (I have a weakness for orcs as walking Id people who do and say the things others think but never act on, for instance).
There was some utterly epic thread on Story Games a year or two ago with some guy who asked cultural advice about real life Native Americans, and then it turned out he wanted it for his fantasy orcs who said hello to people by pissing on their feet and were in the process of getting slaughtered by settlers (i. e. player characters). And by epic, I mean sweet uncaring universe, urgh!
In Shakespeare’s time many puritans took offense at theatre acting, because actors ‘tried to replace the soul given them by God with one of their creation.’ Fortunately, Shakespeare, Marlowe and others carried on making art that people found offensive.
There’s a difference between offense and hurt.
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This article that has been going around recently, might also be of interest on this topic:
Nathan, I’m noticing a trend in all your examples. They’re either historic or they appear on the top 10 list of “most radicalized cultures in media”. It’s ok if you don’t want to take part in writing games that deal with race in a more interesting and nuanced way (not everyone needs to make this an important theme in their writing)… but could you please stop flailing around showing everyone how uncomfortable you are with taking this topic seriously?
This got me thinking a bit 🙂
I wholeheartedly agree, that more games dealing with race would be a very good thing.
I think there is a problem in this discussion related to very different ways of designing and participating in games.
I seem to remember, from a discussion with you, a notion that most US games are supposed to be open for everyone and that you are, by and large, supposed to be able to play (more or less) any story, you want as long as it is doesn’t screw up the game entirely.
This is not the case in Denmark and especially in the “Nordic” style games. I stopped counting how many times I told a potential player that maybe this wasn’t the game for them, or already signed up players, that the idea was fine but didn’t belong in the game.
So while I understand your point on silencing, and I agree, there is a problem there, I would propose that for various reasons, some topics do not belong in some (very strongly themed) games. On the level of the individual game, I have some difficulty seeing this as silencing.
So for this reason, I may not want a person of color using my game on whatever issue to treat/tackle/work with issues of racism If I am trying to tell something else with a game. Just as I may not want a woman using a game about whatever to treat traditional gender stereotypes and experienced misogyny, etc.
In line with the above, in the game about Iraq (The White War)* we made everything equal between genders (clothing, roles, power, jobs etc.) and made everyone bisexual. In order to simulate the different views on sexuality and gender between Danish soldiers and Iraqi locals, we made the local culture poly amorous as opposed to the highly monogamous culture of the soldiers. But as this was not a game about the extreme hostility of military systems towards homosexuals (or women), all characters had to comply with these guidelines, as bending them would blur the strong difference between the two cultures.
Similarly, we simulated racial differences by cultural ones, and got a lot of the same stuff going.
So we were aware of the issues, and made some deliberate choices to avoid stereotyping people from the middle east (too badly) and to get some of the racial and cultural issues in the game in a way, we felt our players could handle without it blowing out of proportions.
As for the hippie game, the was no civil rights movement in Denmark at that time (as far as I know), and as the game is focused on the Danish hippie movement, we are not planning on making race a topic.
But I think we will discuss it in the organizing group after this 🙂
Final point: The question of persons of color being forced to play stereotyped versions of themselves, or (white) people playing nazis assuming, it is OK for their characters to harass the charaters played by persons of color is something different for me. None of those examples are OK in my book. (but sadly, very much happening).
Anyway, I am listening and learning (if somewhat slowly) so thanks for bringing this very interesting topic up 🙂
*: I should probably mention, that the game was set in a historically inspired fictional world representing Danish soldiers and Iraqis by two scratch-built cultures. For mroe info, check out the book: http://rollespil.dk/images/ROLLE%7CSPIL/thewhitewar.pdf
Oh: Another reason for us Danes (and Nordics, I guess) to have different views on this is that immigration to scandinavia is fairly new in a historical context. My mom remembers the first time she saw a person of color around the age of ten. It was in the local newspaper, that he was coming to town…(!)
This means that the Danish society is still predominantly white by a very large margin, and the amount of persons of color amongst alrpers is preciously small.
So we haven’t been forced to deal with these issues until recently. Both on a societal level and in the larping community.
This is not an excuse for anything, just an explanation of context.
Ebbehoj: You got me thinking too.
I think the context of Denmark is important, and that it’s good to talk about all this stuff. I think having little national diversity probably means that the average white person in Denmark doesn’t come up against these issues as frequently as white folks in some of the more diverse epicenters of the US; and of course, people of color don’t get a choice about whether they want to deal with these issues, and face them every day.
I think your examples are sort of proving my point, which is that the structure of a game and its power to create the narrative also necessarily take a stance about the world. Sure, the White War might not have had gender struggle as a core plot point in the game, but when you created a community of legally equal bisexual people, you took a specific stance toward gender–and in many places in the world, it’d be a very controversial one–so your game is “about gender” in that sense; it created an imaginary community where bisexuality was normalized.
In the same way a larp can be “about race” without making racial struggles its center point, by virtue of the sometimes invisible underlying assumptions it makes about the way race of participants and characters functions. I think that’s really my point here. And it’s better to make that decision–whatever it is–knowingly and not because one simply isn’t aware that such a choice is being made.
I’d also say that in general, it’s fine to say to a potential player, “this isn’t the game for you if you want to X,” but that in the case of race this is somewhat problematic, because there are so few larps made that acknowledge racial struggles. It’s a bit like having a bunch of male executives tell a businesswoman back in the 1960s, “you don’t have to come golfing if you don’t want to.” It’s only a problem of access if all or most of the business deals go down on the golf course. That’s sort of the situation we have in larping right now–in general, I’d defend the right of organizers to turn away people who want to hack their larps, but when it comes to race, there’s so little diversity in terms of game themes that this mode is problematic.
And I’d say one of the clever things about the White War is that it used cultural differences as a proxy for racial differences. This method has its own limitations and sensitivities, but I think it’s a nice work-around to get at some of the core issues around why people make assumptions based on cultural background or apparent racial appearance.
Someone in reply to what someone said about larp vs. tabletop– I haven’t played D&D or any roleplaying tabletop game so I have no experience with that. As for larp, I haven’t ever felt like I was playing a “white” character, and when I envisioned my character I just always thought of her with brown skin, like me. The group I larp with doesn’t have a “historical” setting (in the sense that I would have to play a slave or something or we have racial discrimination), we just look at all the humans as the same. I think if you tried to include racial inequality into larp it’d just end up hella awkward (unless you did by race in terms of humans, fae, elves etc…that could make it interesting).
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The whole topic of “cultural appropriation” makes me feel like we are losing something. I have been told that children should not play Cowboys vs. Indians, and some people tell their kids they can’t play that and have to play robbers vs. police instead.
As children, some of the best games we played were Apaches versus Comanches, in the back yards. In those days, that was just normal.
Now, one would have to be worried. Am I allowed to play a Comanche? Will it hurt the feelings of a real Comanche? What about the Apaches? What if there is a Lakota kid?
The good thing about those games was, we could just freely try out different roles. I liked to be a Comanche more, but that had nothing to do with race, it was mainly because most others liked the Apaches better.
Nowadays, with the term “cultural appropriation” growing in importance, one would kind of be obliged to play just oneself. Among whites, only Cowboys vs. Cowboys.
Instead of opening up and crossing borders, we are erecting them. You are white – you can only play white folks. You are black – you can only play black folks. And if we are lucky enough to find real Comanches, only THEY can play the comanches. But we cannot fight them, because that would be racist.
So… Let’s all go inside and play Nintendo instead?
( *duck and run* )
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