Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The treatment of women and minorities in D&D

I recently ran across a thread talking about the treatment of women and minorities in Dungeons & Dragons in Astrid’s Parlor on Wizards of the Coast’s new Community Website.  Once I began thinking about the subject, I realized that I had enough to say on the subject that it warranted a post.

Dungeons & Dragons has a very Eurocentric feel to it by default.  When they first created Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson drew heavily from European myths.  So the fact that the fantasy world feels like a fantastic version of medieval Europe should be no surprise.

As a result, how women and minorities are portrayed in D&D can be a pretty tricky subject.  I would argue that Wizards of the Coast, as well as TSR back in the day,  have tried a number of methods.  Considering what a touchy subject this can be though, I feel none of which work perfectly.

The first is what I will call the color-blind method.  For whatever reason, this tends to be used most concerning female and Black characters in D&D.  The duke might be Black or that the captain of the guard might be a woman. Real world social constraints that might have limited the advancement opportunities of these minorities are simply ignored in the fantasy setting.

A good example of the color-blind method in TV is BBC’s Robin Hood series. Occasionally, Black actors are cast in roles, like a noble or an abbess, which would traditionally go to Caucasians considering the setting of late twelfth-century England.

There are some advantages and disadvantages to this method.  One major advantage is that it avoids bad stereotypes (more on this later).  It also cuts down on player frustration over limits being placed on their characters.  After all, Dungeons & Dragons is a game and not a simulation.

The problem is that the color-blind method also eliminates the cultural identity of the minorities it is applied to.  If the duke is Black, but acts and is treated exactly like any other medieval duke, it can be argued that it is pointless to make him Black in the first place.  It can even be argued that it is harmful as it propagates the mindset that minorities are fine as long as they act exactly like Caucasians. 

The other method Wizards of the Coast uses is to create a “stand-in culture.”  Kara Tur and Zakhara in the Forgotten Realms are examples of stand-in cultures for Asia and the Middle East.  This has the advantage of preserving a distinct cultural identity for these minorities while still finding a way to fit them into the Dungeons & Dragons world.

The biggest pitfall with this method is that it is easy to fall into stereotypes.  After all, Asia or the Middle East are huge areas with complex histories and numerous distinct cultures.  There is no way that any game book can do these diverse cultures justice, so they tend to be painted with very broad strokes.

Wizards of the Coast is obviously aware that this is a fine line and is treading cautiously.  For example, they decided to eliminate the Ki power source, when they realized the only common thread between classes sharing the Ki power source was their Asian influence.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the decision to place the lost continent of Abeir over Maztica was at least partially motivated by the desire to remove a somewhat embarrassing mishmash of Mesoamerican myth from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting.

So what is the correct answer on how to handle minorities and women in Dungeons & Dragons?  I don’t have one.  For reasons I  can’t explain, I tend to favor the “color-blind” method with regard to women and the “cultural identity” method for different races and ethnicities.  I will admit to having used both methods in my own campaigns though, and I know that both methods are far from perfect.

So what do you think?


Nope said...

I've been following that thread as well, it's pretty interesting how many times it has nearly exploded only to be saved by a handful of people.

Although I want to contribute to the thread it's been more interesting just observing those involved.

Personally, I think that if you want to be represented, you're gonna have to represent. For instance, I'm from hawaii, and believe me when I say it was a culture shock the first time I visited the mainland(aka continental united states) a few years ago. I get that same feeling though sometimes when I watch a documentary or read an article or book about a foreign culture.

My point is that unless you've lived the experience, it's incredibly hard to portray what the experience is like. I wouldn't expect someone who never lived where I live for an extended period of time to be able to create an accurate setting that realistically depicts my surroundings and vice versa.

So my answer to anyone wondering why women and minorities are often ignored or stereotyped in the eurocentric D&D settings would be:

If it bothers you, then step up and represent.

Going on a sort of a tangent I'd actually like to see more unique cultures created in fantasy games. As it is the standard fantasy setting, even the ones that attempt to move away from the eurocentric cultures, rarely ever bring anything that isn't based off of a real life culture.

I'd like to see more unique fantasy cultures that do not feel at all based off of ones in real life.

Nope said...

hm, maybe I will begin to contribute to that thread, I'm pretty happy with what I wrote above.

Medraut said...

@kaeosdad - "it's pretty interesting how many times it has nearly exploded only to be saved by a handful of people."

It seems like that thread is always on the verge of going completely off the rails when someone brings it back by posting something interesting.

@kaeosdad - "My point is that unless you've lived the experience, it's incredibly hard to portray what the experience is like."

Very true. I am half-Mexican myself (both my grandparents on my father's side were born in Mexico). Even though culturally I am probably more Midwestern American than Latino, the bad stereotypes of Latinos often portrayed in popular culture never cease to amaze me.

@kaeosdad - "If it bothers you, then step up and represent."

This also is very true. I have had the pleasure of interacting with gamers from a lot of different backgrounds over the years, including a gay Japanese-American friend who was born and raised in Hawaii, which is really a minority within a minority within a minority!

I have found gaming with people of different backgrounds to be really eye-opening at times. It is one of the things that I like about gaming, that it is a common ground where very different people can interact.

Lurkinggherkin said...

I think that awareness is the key to this whole issue. I don't believe there is anything wrong with constructing a fantasy milieu in which prejudices and stereotyping exist as long as you are doing so with full awareness and deliberation. Real-life societies and people, particularly in the historical past, and even still into the present, exhibit these behaviours and acknowledging this can lend the game a realisitic and authentic feel as well as providing interesting roleplay opportunities for the player characters who, perhaps more enlightened than the average citizens, set out to challenge those prejudices and stereotypes.

I think that the place to challenge prejudice and stereotype in the construction of your fictional world is not to consciously set out to create some politically correct nirvana, but to watch out for manifestations of your own unconscious biases. Do the good guys always seem to be blond, and the bad guys always dark haired? Are the slave races on every world the party visits always the darker-skinned folks? Are the taverns always staffed entirely by gorgeous nymphomaniac women? Were these conscious choices to create a particular atmosphere in your game, or were they assumptions you made without thinking very much about them?

Lurkinggherkin said...

(I should add, that if someone consciously chose to implement some of the above biases in their game world, I think they would have a serious problem...)

Nope said...

wow, literally overnight the thread completely derailed and degenerated into complete bs.

@a hero: about culture exactly! Me, I'm philipino, japanese, chinese, german, spanish and a few more on top of that, but still I am where I am and I don't feel as though being descended from a particular culture makes me an expert.

I'm more likely to know about my surroundings than anything else, this includes the people around me and how we all live in this environment.

@Lurkin: agreed. I don't think it's completely wrong to put stereotypes in games, I do think it's wrong when it is done intentionally to offend though.

I can't delete this said...


"Do the good guys always seem to be blond, and the bad guys always dark haired? Are the slave races on every world the party visits always the darker-skinned folks? Are the taverns always staffed entirely by gorgeous nymphomaniac women?"

Some of the above draws on the various myths and fairy tales that made stories worth reading when I was a kid. Some of the above draws on world history, that while may seem like outdated concepts in the modern age, doesn't make it any less valid for basing your adventures upon. All of the above, with the exception of the blond vs dark hair, made for excellent Conan stories, and still do.

Stereotypes in my opinion only suck in a fantasy game when they make the game predictable, or lend nothing to the overall story. If you punch up a blond hero correctly, or a raven haired villian, the stereotype doesn't matter. If the slaves in your campaign happen to be from a less developed, but more exposed to the sun location, and happen to have dark skin, but interesting back stories, so be it, and if the nympho bar maid has a secret that you can woo out of her that furthers the story, more power to her..

Medraut said...

@Bob “Stereotypes in my opinion only suck in a fantasy game when they make the game predictable, or lend nothing to the overall story.”

I have found there is a fine line in any fiction between stereotypes, clichés, and tropes. I think it is fine to use certain tropes and even certain clichés to tell your story. I also think that when you use these literary devices that you have to be careful to avoid falling into bad stereotypes.

For example, Femme Fatales, Mati Haris, and Vamps are common tropes in fantasy fiction. I am not suggesting that you should excise these from your toolbox when designing an adventure. However, over reliance on these tropes can lead to all the female NPCs in a campaign falling into the whole virgin/whore stereotype, which is probably bad for the campaign in the long run, especially if you hope to have any female players.

I remember a Japanese-American gamer friend of mine in college who was continuously frustrated by the portrayal of Asians in popular media. He noted that they were all either martial arts experts, wacky scientist types, or (if female) demure sex kittens. Any one of these might be a (clichéd) character, but taking as a whole he found them frustrating.

Please note that I am not saying individual characters must always be presented in a “positive and empowering” light, just that they should be treated as characters. I could care less what the skin color or gender of my villain is as long they are interesting.

I suppose I will reiterate at this point that I don’t have any answers on how to “fix” this issue. My perfectly legitimate Femme Fatale may be someone else’s horribly demeaning stereotype. My wise old medicine man may be someone else’s Magical Negro.

Perhaps it is because there is no easy answer is why I found this discussion so interesting in the first place.