There are many topics that I think are worth discussion but present a plethora of issues in discussing them properly. These issues are either timeless or very timely in their form, but in either case discussing them threatens unrestrained passionate responses in return, and dramatic conflict and stances as a result, with the attempted points of discussion cast aside in the process.
However, one thing I think is important is identifying these potential hot-button issues from the get-go, so that they can be addressed respectfully and considerately in the best means and format possible for each group addressing them. This is a complex matter in its own right, because what exactly constitutes “right” for all involved can vary greatly. The selection of objective criteria can, in some ways, devolve into a subjective process that undermines the objective intent of those criteria in the first place.
What I am going to discuss in this post is intended as brainstorming and not as authoritative answers to particular variables. Any answers you want should be created by you, for your use, in your particular situation.
Diversity, in my opinion, is a wonderful and natural thing. It’s multilateral respect for and acceptance of difference. It is also, for what it is, not the innate way of things currently. Diversity can help to counter factionalism, the “us vs. them” mindset all too common throughout existence, and which has been based upon serious and ludicrous factors.
Our fictional creations reflect the issues of our real world, and including diversity in fictional works has been a bit of a controversial issue. In many cases, those who’ve endured the negatives of factionalism through one or many of the multiple -isms of life can see echoes of those harms in the fantastic creations of others. The Otherization of certain groups echoes the historical or contemporary experiences of their own group or other groups.
The tricky element regarding role-playing games is that it is a communal activity—it involves multiple individuals, rather than just a single player or consumer interacting with a product by a creator or author. Some participants may immerse themselves in the game and “take it seriously” while others just mess around to have fun or let off stress, though that could inadvertently stress or annoy others in the process. This is something that needs to be addressed ahead of time, so that everyone involved can have fun, and not just a few at the expense of others.
I mention this because such attitudes and expectations of what a game or setting “is” or “is supposed to be like” can impact enjoyment just as much as whether someone is “taking the game too seriously” or not. If a player’s character treats all orcs as evil, but such belief is not valid in the game and setting presented, then where is the fault? Is it the player in question, who acted on an assumption? Is it the game master who didn’t clarify that such assumptions weren’t accurate for the game being run? Is it both of them?
Consider the myriad elements of identity possible for human beings of Earth to have, and how those things may be accepted or rejected by various societies for various reasons: appearance; belief; culture; ability; language; handedness; desire; status; caste; interest; region; etc. Now, multiply that level of complexity by the number of non-human beings that could exist in a fantastic setting. It gets to be a bit overwhelming and mind-boggling, to say the least.
But, also consider the factors present in that setting that are not present in our setting at all: magic, for example in a fantasy setting, or gene-editing, splicing and cloning in a science-fiction one. Then, ask yourself a serious question, with a relevant follow-up question:
If one could, would one use the unique resources available in that make-believe world to fulfill a deeply-held desire that individual may have? If not, then why not?
So, let us imagine that, in a fantasy world, an individual born male wishes to become female. And, within said fantasy world, there are magics that can fulfill that wish. Would the individual in question take that option? Let’s assume there’s no Faustian bargain attached to it or anything of the like—the offer/opportunity is there, and needs only be taken. What happens next?
In a similar vein, in a science-fiction/science-fantasy world, an individual who is quadroplegic desires to be able to join in activities like anyone else. How does the individual do this? Does the individual obtain unique devices and equipment to be capable of some of the demands while in their original body? Or, does the individual pursue other options possible with the advanced technology of that setting, such as transplanting their brain into a cybernetic body or a cloned body, or using remote-controlled systems to participate while staying safely away from danger, and the like? Once again, what happens next?
If either character accepts the offer and changes to their desired new form, who’s to know their past in the first place, unless they themselves disclose it to another? Yet, if either character rejects the offer and remains in their current form, yet still have their desires, then consider why the character made that choice. Are those individuals trying to prove something to others or themselves? Is there a reason why they chose not to pursue that option?
The reason why I pose these questions in this light is because we have to regard how the world at large may or may not consider those who do not conform to what that majority of others considers as “average” or “acceptable.” With the science-fiction example cited above, why would there need to be accessibility options for people when there are means to provide or restore fully-functional ability to those individuals in the first place?
This is one of the most difficult things that anyone can face: enabled and enforced conformity. A means for everyone to “fit in” and be provided for in a standard way, with no need whatsoever to modify or accommodate those who are different from what a society at large considers “standard” or “average.” Some individuals may understand why accommodation is important for some individuals while others may not. Some individuals with particular aspects may desire to change in order to “conform,” while others may accept who they are and ask that things change to “conform” to them rather than them changing themselves to “conform” to things.
I bring this up because I can, in my own way, understand the difficulties of not being considered, much less being regarded as the one to change in order to fit in rather than making changes to make things easier for me to participate in. My personal example is rather minor in the grand view of things, but it has affected me throughout my life and affected what I got involved in or invested my time in.
I am left-handed. If you think it’s not a big deal, then I challenge you to use your non-dominant hand only for a week straight, using ergonomic devices that are ill-suited to that orientation. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is using safety scissors as a kid that failed to cut paper properly since the blades were pushed apart rather than pushed together by the very action of using them to cut. Or handwriting or drawing pages of material with constant smears or stains of ink or graphite covering the bottom of my hand because the left-to-right writing method winds up dragging my hand across the freshly-marked page constantly.
Since there’s only 10% or so of the population that is left-handed, I face cost increases for trying to find items ergonomically designed for me, whether it’s scissors or electric guitars. While typing on a QWERTY keyboard is easy for me, an “ergonomic” one isn’t with my typing style, and playing piano is a thwarted interest because the very hand I’d be more likely to instinctively use to play free notes is instead relegated to playing chords while my clumsy non-dominant hand tries to hastily and accurately hit a flurry of notes while trying to stay in time.
Being a left-handed person in a right-handed world has been quite an experience for me. Regardless of any other attributes I have that could make me feel like an outsider, being left-handed has been a big one for me. In many cases, I have been made to feel by others that my left-handedness was a handicap to overcome instead of just a different sort of normal. Even looking at language, customs, and beliefs, my sinister trait makes me seem gauche in comparison with the right way to do things.
I remember how it felt to see someone who represented me, and it was rewarding. Oftentimes left-handedness was associated with evil, and actually having a left-handed hero made it easier for me to see myself in such a role. Whether it was having an action figure who could hold their main accessory in their left hand, or having a hero regularly depicted as left-handed, it made a world of difference to me.
So, I get it. And, on a related note, going back to the “would you change if you could” scenarios I posted above: I would not change via magic or super-science to become right-handed. I may consider ambidexterity, but I would still see myself as and be left-hand dominant. It’s the one part of my identity that I really feel the strongest about. I dislike the negative-left language bias in English as in other languages, and I actively try to avoid it the best I can, though it can be hard at times.
(Even when I try to use “correct” instead of “right” as a response, I’m still using a word that, at its roots, essentially means “right” direction-wise. Very frustrating, to say the least.)
However, I am aware that what is best suited for me and my preferences isn’t what best works for many more people other than me. I am aware that I do have to adapt to fit in or keep pace, even though I may feel at times that it’s unfair that I have to. That is the greatest challenge in any of this: to respect every individual, whether they conform to a particular set of “majority” traits or not.
I bring this particular can of worms up because diversity in gaming has been a hot-button politicized topic as of late, and gets latched onto like any other human endeavor or creation into the abysmal and toxic culture wars. Diversity isn’t a bad thing, but we don’t deal with the topic well or respectfully. We tend to consider our own stances and vilify any opposition to it, which only perpetuates the cycle of culture wars.
In role-playing games, there can be a myriad number of stories that can be told. However, in many instances, the memorable ones involve solving some sort of problem or overcoming some sort of challenge or threat. Adversity lies at the heart of the game, and whether mild or severe, overcoming said adversity is the goal of the game. With role-playing games, it’s a collaborative rather than competitive effort, so everyone contributes in some form or fashion.
However, part of this massive narrative can derive elements from many real-world incidents or concepts. Though the intent to use or refer to an element may serve as a quick and easy shorthand to communicate a concept with the participants, those elements could still have a harmful aspect that can’t be ignored. For example, Romani stereotypes have frequently been used in the media of the past, and efforts to remove where those appeared is made out of an earnest effort to stop using harmful stereotypes. While some may see this as an erasure of past attitudes and viewpoints that are no longer acceptable, we need to be mindful that these elements are being used in a revisited item that intends to get contemporary participants, rather than be ignored and lost to time with all of its original features intact.
So, how could this element be addressed?
Simply put, I think one way to do so is to inform all involved: the players, usually. Let them know what the game is and isn’t like. Provide a sense of general expectations that are or aren’t accurate: mining dwarves, forest-dwelling elves, militant hobgoblins, etc. Having a clear sense of what is and isn’t typical can help make game play flow smoothly, rather than having chaos ensuing due to personal incorrect assumptions.
If players show hesitancy or express resistance to this, then remind them how they might feel if they were playing a Star Trek campaign using assumptions valid during the Original Series era, except that the game being played is set during the Next Generation era. Or, how they would feel if they were playing a game set in the Eberron setting but players acted like it was like Krynn of the Dragonlance setting. In essence, wouldn’t they prefer to fit in with the setting of the game and the play, rather than intentionally clash and contrast with it and cause disruption? (If they want to cause disruption, then that’s a whole other issue, which I may address in another post. Or not.)
I also bring this topic up because, as I have seen and encountered in the past, sometimes players wish to adopt a role that is different from themselves, but not different from what is possible in reality. In some instances, it’s a male player playing a female character (or vice-versa), or a player adopting a different orientation than their personal one, or even having limitations or issues as a part of their character (such as limited ability or mental health issues). While I can understand the drive to experiment and try to take on the experience of others different from oneself, I am often very nervous about perpetuating stereotypes in such portrayals, or even trivializing a real struggle that people endure. This is not that different from issues regarding actors in respect to the roles they are playing (or should not be playing).
Part of the problem is that such adoption of other identities by individuals (often members of a majority group) has been done in the past by some as a means to mock or reinforce stereotypes espoused by some from said majority group, just as much as some may have adopted that role to provide an “earnest” depiction of those individuals. It can often rest on the razor’s edge of respect and mockery, or humor and derision, and be both and neither all at once, which makes it so infuriatingly annoying to us human beings who prefer simple, instinctive, often binary categorization of ideas and concepts. The removal of the Community episode “Dungeons & Dragons” because of Señor Chang’s drow/dark elf cosplay highlights this well.
A key thing that one should consider is what is your intent on playing someone different than yourself, and if there is anything that you might consider to be “naturally” a part of that character’s behavior that could come into question. Such reflection could serve to prevent instances occurring at the game table, especially with a new group whose expectations and viewpoints you are not aware of.
I think one problematic issue with player behavior in this regard is the failure to regard other individuals’ viewpoints. The defense of “well, I didn’t think it was offensive,” speaks to a lack of awareness of the speaker. Even “I didn’t mean to be offensive” is a problematic statement because it reinforces a lack of forethought about the age-old problem of intent versus effect. If intent was always clearly understood and never misconstrued, then the effect of that behavior would always yield the same expected reactions and behavior. But, as anyone who’s gotten into an argument over a misread text or misunderstood discussion can verify, what the effect of a message is compared to what the intent of the message was are two different things.
And getting down to the blame game of “not getting the message” is never helpful–step back, consider what occurred, note how it can be avoided next time, and move on. Obsessing about a miscommunication isn’t helpful, if it’s an innocent miscommunication. If it is something greater, then by all means address it to correct it, and not go ballistic in an effort to punish a transgression—if anything, it serves to alienate, chill expression, or even reinforce the very thing that you’re trying to stop in the first place.
Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, a pending release from Wizards of the Coast, will add to diversity, showcasing the possibilities of Dungeons & Dragons through a lens not often utilized in past editions of the game (at least through an official publication, of course). While the tropes and trappings of a fantastical pseudo-Europe are common for fantasy, as exemplified by Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Dungeons and Dragons, Warcraft and other prominent works, it is most certainly not the only possibilities viable. I’ve already pre-ordered a copy of the work, and I’m very interested to see what it adds to the game.
And that’s the thing—this is all about adding things. The more the merrier, I’d say.