January 28, 2003
racism and roleplaying

A post on the elder scrolls message board (racism in morrowind) got me thinking about a topic I haven't visited in a while, racism in roleplaying games-on both pen & paper and computers.

the original post by Stop Crashing:

Why does the "black" reguard race have higher strength, agility and speed while the "British" Breton race have higher willpower, intelligence and generally a greater mental capacity? Put more thought into this next time developers!

Actually, Stop Crashing has a point--although it's not necessarily something to make signs and picket Bethesda about. RPGs and racism are intimately intertwined... as a matter of fact, racism is often a core mechanic of RPGs.

The first question is what is racism? Racism, or racialism is "the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race," (OED, 2nd Ed.) which should not be confused with bigotry ("a judgement formed before due examination or consideration; a premature or hasty judgement; a prejudgement." OED, 2nd Ed.).

If racism is defined as "the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race," then many RPGs are demonstrably racist... especially ones that use multiple types of humans (e.g. Bretons, Imperials, Redguard, Nords). I argue that the proper term for elves, dwarves and other non-humans is species and not race, but I suppose that in a fantasy milieu with multiple tool-using bipedal species the definition of racism could be altered to "the theory that distinctive humanoid characteristics and abilities are determined by race."

Why is this important? An easy, if somewhat intellectually shallow reaction to the above would be "so what? it's just a game! it's not real!" has a certain amount of validity, except that these games are a part of the life of many people who also belong to a culture that has unfortunatly been so intertwined with racist theories and attitudes that it can be difficult to distinguish how pervasive they are.

It is my personal belief that every small and otherwise harmless bit of racism keeps the larger uglier fires of bigotry and hated burning. Everytime it's ok to assert that "blacks dance better than whites" allows the ideological space for that harmless thought's ugly brother "whites are smarter, better and more valuable than blacks" to continue. Therefore it is important, if one is inclined to rid the world of bigotry that they make the small and suprisingly easy decision not to buy in to any racist theory.

And getting back to Stop Crashing's point... there is a long history of European belief that it is the European that is the intellectual superior of the world, and that the lesser (non-Europeans) are brutes. So to write a world where Bretons (the Brits -- and to answer an earlier criticism, the word Breton is related to British) and Imerials (Romans) are in control (and the British are the smarties) over darker peoples and viking brutes does smack of racism...


My question to SC would be...isn't it valid to remake the world under a veil, so that you can draw attention to issues of the real world without raising the emotional ire of your players? As far as I could tell, there were many oportunities to see slavery and prejudice in action...just in an alien setting. I guess my point is, that although the use of a characters "race" is unfortunate, I think you can depict a terrible world or terrible things without being a terrible author.

I've gone on long enough, I think.

-- Originally posted at: Elder Scrolls Forums

The question in the final analysis is whether or not the racism in the game is assumptive (inherent in the game mechanic, and therefore a product of racist ideology) or descriptive (a part of the game's universe, presented either sub- or objectively). In the end, Morrowind has both types... a moral subplot regarding the evils of slavery while supporting racist ideas in terms of character development (e.g. in the Morrowind universe, black people (Redguards) are faster and stronger than the intellectually superior white people (Bretons).

It would be a mistake to think that there are hooded robes in the closets at Bethesda Softworks of course, since the racism we are talking abuot is a much more subtle, hidden racism. But it's an issue that I think needs to be addressed by the RPG industry, probably sooner than later.

Posted by illovich at January 28, 2003 02:52 PM
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