The Seven-Sided Die

White privilege in fantasy fiction and gaming

Posted Tuesday July 08, 2008 at 06:39 PM

Being White, I have the dubious privilege to be able to ignore race in my roleplay gaming and my fantasy fiction. It's a dubious privilege because it's one that is impossible to ever fully decline. That's not to say "poor white me boo hoo"—rather, the only moral response is to decline the privilege at every opportunity. The pervasiveness of White privilege is such that I can never catch every instance, and when I do I won't always know what I can do to reject it. The key is staying aware of the taint that filters my culture, looking for the chance to resist, and learning more about the reality that is discarded by those filters.

On that last point, some edifying links.

Pam Noles' essay "shame" is the personal story of a young girl couldn't find herself in her beloved fantasy books, her elation at discovering that Ursula K. Le Guin's character Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea is brown, and the shameful Whitewashing of the book and its racial message in the Hollywood adaptation of the book.

bankuei over at Deeper in the Game writes about the perpetuation of the white assumption in fantasy gaming by publishers and players. He particularly notes the inanity of a genre that has room for elves, wizards, half-dragon vampires, and lighting–throwing god-child alchemists who can spontaneously grow wings, but doesn't have room for any colour of human except White.

Monte Cook takes on the twin themes of race and gender in D&D art. In a genre that is all about imagining a diverse palette of possibilities, it is particularly odd that every Strapping Young Swordslinger produced by publishers is as White as bleached cotton. (And male to boot.) Monte gives the example of Regdar (an iconic character in 3rd Edition D&D): he was shoe-horned into the books at the last minute by a marketing team who assumed their target audience was male and White and who feared alienating their "core" market of male White gamers if they didn't have a dominantly-raced and -gendered character for the game's launch. Of course, that's not how it was understood at the time, but that's how racism and sexism works: "it's not biased, that's just how the world is". That attitude keeps the world seeming that way. That the design team pushed strongly for diverse art that didn't include the ever present White Male Fighter is great, despite the sabotage.

And finally, keeping this bingo card handy when engaging with race issues is probably a good way to red-flag all the ways in which we've been conditioned to perpetuate and protect White privilege. There were more than a few squares to which my reaction was to say "but that's justified!", only to realise that it was a perfect example of how otherwise good-intentioned people like me participate in the maintenance of racial imbalance.

How do I apply this to my gaming? To be honest, I don't. I'm still trying to figure out how to disrupt the White assumption in my own gaming without it being a naïve effort that ends up backfiring. I've tried playing a brown-skinned man before, but I didn't know what to do with that character detail. Playing it up would have been as bad as Hollywood's magical negro. As it was, it just sat on the character sheet and there was never a moment in the game where it entered into the narrative as a "not a big deal" detail.

As a GM I'm responsible for portraying entire cultures and worlds, and it's hard to overturn the "everyone is white" default without either being ham-fisted about it or Orientalising a culture. One way of overturning the invisibility of Whiteness (part of how it establishes itself as the default) that I've considered is just to describe the skin colour of all my characters regardless of whether they are the invisible White or a marked Other. The problem there is how to describe White characters then: do I just say White? What about actual white skin that a moon elf has? The White race isn't even homogeneous, since it's a modern construction for political and power reasons: real White skin colours range from pale pink, to tan, to olive, to yellow, and more I'm sure I'm missing.

What do you think about portrayals of race in your shared fiction?

Comments (6)

Greg Stolze

Wednesday December 31, 2008 at 01:38 PM

This was something I bumped into designing REIGN, which was partially a response to the race coding that seemed to pop up a lot -- "Dwarves are ALWAYS serious and hardworking" "Elves are just better than you at everything plus more beautiful" and so on. But I didn't want to go the other direction and have no racism in a game about social clashes.

So the obvious inversion was to have the white people on the outside, as the oft-victimized minority. Another ploy was to include social mores that have reasons, and to try to emphasize that these are the community's IDEALS -- and that, as with our ideals of honesty and integrity and respect, they're rarely completely lived-up-to.

But one thing that I really considered is how racism is different absent a history of race-based slavery. So there's racial bias, sometimes with a basis in cultural fact. ("Ob-lobs are sex fiends!" -- well, actually, they have a culture that's incredibly permissive in most circumstances while being very strict in one other. Compare with "Ulds are sex fiends!" That's just a misperception caused by their low infant mortality. Or there's "Truils are sex fiends!" which is just a total fabrication based on projecting 'animalistic' impulsiveness to less technologically advanced outsiders who happen to eat human flesh.) But I try to portray that race bias as a matter of prejudice rather than hatred. Just because you think "Hm, a Pahar, so he's probably a verbose intellectual" doesn't mean you necessarily hate or fear him. You hate or fear him because he's on the other side of the battlefield.


Who didn't ask to be born into the oppressor class, and is squandering his white male privilege as fast as he can.


Wednesday January 07, 2009 at 12:24 AM

So my question to you is, "Is it a BAD thing that I play a presumably white male?"

The demographic plays out it's demographics. A bit of a play on words, but true nonetheless.

I have never once given a single thought to my character's race. I doubt my players have either, but I won't presume to speak for them.

How is Gamer culture at all connected to white priviledge? A white fantasy author writing a story about a black slave on a pirate ship would be panned roundly for his "patronizing portrayal" of a sensitive issue.

Maybe the problem is less about the prevalence of white male gamers, and the lack of non-white gamers in general. Being as it is a pretty voluntary thing - I'd put the ball squarely back in "their" court.

Oh, and ditto sexism.

Good post, BTW.

DonnytheDM’s last blog post:


Wednesday January 07, 2009 at 01:43 AM

There's nothing wrong with playing what games we do, or how. So long as everyone at the table is on the same page, our fantasies are our own. I'd say that goes doubly (or triply) for what's in our heads. It's only when we put stuff out there for the consumption of others that we bear responsibility for it. That's the case when we welcome a new player into a group or when a company publishes game materials.

You're right about demographics driving the demographics of gaming materials, but it's nothing so simple as a one-way cause-and-effect relationship. It's a feedback loop. Historically roleplaying has been White (and male, but I'm going for a simpler example), and historically the material has been driven by and served that White demographic. Anyone who's Black played because they loved it despite constant confrontation with the fact that the games are specifically aimed, due to those driving demographics, at White people. Of all the people of colour who've been exposed to roleplaying over the years, more are going to conclude that it's not for them, for no reason other than because of the demographics of the materials and gaming groups that use them.

Why? Maybe because they've seen fantasy of a particular style that happened to feature Black slaves and, seeing the games material emulating that style, don't want to deal with possibility that the DM's plot is going to feature "black slaves/savages" at some point. Maybe they want to play a Black character but don't want to deal with anyone at the table challenging that choice. Maybe they've just gotten the idea that it's a "White" hobby, and that they're not welcome. Maybe it's just that putting energy into a campaign with a new group means they might face the choice between putting up with that one racist jerk that nobody else minds or giving up a good game. (For more on "why", read the Pam Noles essay linked at the top. It's long, but lays this out really well.)

The point is that this is supposed to be an escape from all that crap, but for people unrepresented or badly represented in roleplaying products, it's just more of the same crap that they have to deal with in the rest of their life. If it's only coming from the books and not their fellow gamers, they're lucky. Heck, bankuei, one of the bloggers that inspired me to start writing, shut down his blog because (so I understand) he got tired of dealing with "fellow" gamers being racist trolls and making it more pain than pleasure to participate in the RPG blogging community.

So, demographics is a self-perpetuating thing. In my own games I want to start back at square one, as if my hobby didn't have a historical demographic that was disproportionately weighted to white guys.


Monday February 01, 2010 at 04:20 PM

Racial Bias in Role Play Gaming -- never thought of it because I have friends of several ethnic and racial backgrounds due to the fact I was a military brat and continued to game while in the military. Our assumption was always, if you were a black female gamer, you were a black female human character. If you played something else, nobody cared how you played your character as long as you followed the rules, were honest, and were having fun playing in character and not causing problems outside of the game. If you had outside issues, there were avenues to take care of that stuff within the military system or any other legal system. Nuff said.


Monday February 01, 2010 at 05:50 PM

What I hear you saying is you "never thought about it" and that you're not going to think about it ("Nuff said.") That seems to have been a wasted comment, then.

If you have any interest in learning why there might be reason to think more about race in roleplaying games, a good starting place is the very first link in the post. That's the one to Pam Noles essay on the deep effects of race portrayal on young fantasy fans who don't have the privilege of being able to think there's nothing to think about.

If you meant something else than "I don't care about it", do correct me.


Friday September 10, 2010 at 09:39 PM

Hey, I run a blog called Ars Marginal, and I remember reading some of your blog posts before. Would you mind if I put up some of your stuff there (full credit, of course) or linked to some of your posts as articles of interest?

Feel free to leave a comment on my blog (especially this post) either way.