Sunday, January 29, 2017

Some Thoughts on Racism in Fantasy

I haven't had this blog for very long, and I have a few posts up and a lot more queued that are not the most serious in terms of subject matter. On the whole, that's the vibe I want to go for here, because this blog is mine and I am typically not a very serious kind of person. That said, tonight during our gaming session I had some thoughts that I want to get down of a more serious nature.

So here's your warning. This might bum you out or make you feel neurotic. It's honestly going to be kind of a downer of a post, full of things that will make me look like a major party pooper. Tonight, that's okay. I'm not going to be mad at you if you skip this one. But it's my blog and I'll party poop on it if I want to, so without further ado...

Tonight's gaming session made me think a lot about fantastic racism. Like the trope page says, "fantastic" meaning "fantasy", not "awesome". And I'm focusing on the unfortunate implications of a species in D&D being always chaotic evil. Sorry for all the trope links, but it's really the quickest shorthand to getting to what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about orcs. I'm talking about goblins and trolls. I'm talking about drow and red dragons and kobolds. The things in D&D you don't have to feel bad about killing because they as a species are considered a blight upon the world and who cares if you kill them because "it was just an orc and it probably would have murdered a whole orphanage full of children later anyway".

Let me be clear here. I'm not talking about characters in the setting taking that attitude. That is going to happen. People (and in this case people are humans, elves, dwarves, and yes I also mean orcs and kobolds--anything that's sentient) are going to look down their noses at each other. We are always going to find an excuse to be haters. This is part of our condition as sentient beings. And even though it's a bad thing, in order to read like they are real, characters should be flawed.

What I'm talking about, though, is when the setting itself makes it out like they're right. When every time you come across orcs they're raping and pillaging, or dragons truly only exist to burn down villages and take their valuables. When you find a young lamia and the whole party can get behind putting a spear through it because it is actually only going to grow up to be a vicious monster. They all are.

That, I have a problem with.

On one hand, a lot of us play tabletop games because it's cathartic. We want to be able to cut loose like we can't in real life and kill things with no consequence and everybody loves a bad guy they can slaughter and not have to feel bad about it. Many of us play because we have tough real lives where we have to think too hard about shit and we play this game to get away from that.

It's just a game. It's just a story. It's just fiction.

Except it isn't. Think about your favorite book you've ever read. Maybe think about a few of them. You can't tell me you've never come away from it with a feeling like you have learned something about yourself or about the world. That book wasn't just a story to you. I'm willing to bet many of you have a campaign you can think of that was so much more to you than just a story.

Stories aren't just stories. They are how we learn about the way the world works, and how we experience lives that are not our own. They leave us feeling like we understand someone else so thoroughly that we could really be that person. Tabletops are the exact same way. We learn from an early age that the underdog wins, that cheaters never prosper and that a truly horrible person will get theirs in the end and for a long time we really truly believe these things even when they aren't true.

So when we get into a tabletop game and every example we see of an orc involves them raping and pillaging, isn't it reasonable to think that on some level that resonates too? If it's possible for elves to be lithe and graceful if a little bit aloof and self-important, and we can believe that out of real people--and this is where I'm about to get uncomfortable so bear with me--isn't it possible that orcs always being deeply horrible beings that can do no good might become something we could believe out of real people too?

Except people don't work that way. That comes with sentience. Agency and the ability to reason gives us a variety of lives and people within every group. Which is why it's so hard for me to believe that even if the Monster Manual says so, any species that's capable of reason could possibly actually be always a certain way.

And yet that's how we play it. To the point that we can burn down a hut full of orc kids and the party cheers like there was nothing at all depraved about it and then we pat ourselves on the back like this isn't desensitizing us at all.

We don't care because they aren't us. We don't care because they are so much not us that they're dangerous and it would have been irresponsible to leave them alive. And while I don't think it's necessarily wrong for a character to take this point of view--because again, characters are flawed and sometimes we do want to play them evil--I do think it's dangerous for the player, out of character, to view this as a positive thing and not a flaw.

If a character does it, that's one thing. If the world itself--not the characters in it, but the world they are in--treats them like they have done some virtuous thing in slaying a sentient being just for being a member of a certain species, there is something really wrong with that.

I don't like what that says about the real world. I don't like what that says about we the players who are reveling in it. If stories are important because of what we take away from them and we can overlook this and not be bothered by it even a little, I think that says something about us as human beings.

No, orcs aren't human. Neither are elves though, and we are perfectly comfortable playing them. In a game like D&D it's generally accepted that "people" are every sentient species, not just the humans. And yet we don't treat them all like people. Just the "pretty" ones.

Of course we're adults for the most part who are capable of separating something in a game from the real world, but this is just something I have a hard time believing in. It mars my suspension of disbelief, it breaks my immersion. It makes me uncomfortably aware of how little sentience means in terms of who gets the luxury of being considered a person.

I'll be honest, I very much prefer a villain who has earned the title. Give me a reason to want him dead that isn't 'he is green and standing in front of me'. Or don't, but show me that he's still a person after the deed has been done. If we're waylaid on the road by brigands typically we are going to slaughter every one of them, but they strike first. They give us a reason. There's some effort involved.

Making a species always chaotic evil is at best, lazy. At worst...well. I think it's pretty clear how I feel about that. And I could be wrong. It may just be me. Of course I don't mean to shake a pitchfork and rabble about the state of Fantasyland, because at the end of the day it really is just a game and this is and has always been a major part of it, but you know...so were half naked women until very recently.

It's just something that's been on my mind tonight.

What I Learned Today: Furtive also means clandestine or stealthy (along with surreptitious from the last blog I posted).

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