10 October 2015

Social Bias in Role Playing Games

As I get older, I learn more about how modern society tends to have implicit social biases. Not everyone in a society holds these biases, and those that do don't always have the same biases. These can take the form of racism, sexism, anti-immigrant attitudes, homophobia, transphobia, religious bigotry, political bigotry, and many other forms besides.

It may seem silly to be talking about this on a gaming blog, but I believe that games can help shape attitudes, as well as vice versa. I remember noticing many years ago that almost all of the characters that were created for games in which I played were Caucasian, and the majority of them were male. Even before I'd noticed that, it had occurred to me that I didn't always have to play a character of the same gender as myself. I've played many female characters; some of these I count amongst my most enjoyable gaming experiences. Michelle, the Silent Strider Theurge from Werewolf: The Apocalypse, was one such character; another was Sarah Storm, the cyberpunk piskie from Changeling: The Dreaming. I've also tried to break out of my own ethnicity as well; Michelle was of Egyptian descent, and I recall at least one character that I created who was African American (I never actually got to play that character, sadly).

Even as a GM, I can try to bring in under-represented minorities as NPCs. The session I ran last night involved a Native American NPC. The additional NPCs who will be making appearances later on in this story include a Kenyan, a Qechua, an Arabian, an African American, and a Japanese. One of these is also homosexual.

These are small details, and the players may well not even realise that they're there, but in my opinion, every little helps.

For that matter, I remember reading a short essay by Beth Kinderman on her old geocities page 'Revenge of the Gamer Chick' (which, thankfully, appears to have been archived). I found the paragraph regarding her Noghri Jedi character to be especially disheartening. The relevant portion of this paragraph is as follows:

I once participated in a Star Wars campaign where my character was a female, a Jedi, and a Noghri. The Noghri are a race of small, lizard-like beings that are not terribly attractive to humans to begin with, and to make it even worse, I took the flaw Albino. By all rights and purposes, this shouldn't have been much of a problem—the Noghri are rare enough that the average human in the Star Wars universe hasn't ever seen one, much less have the ability to apply a standard of beauty to them. But my poor little Noghri encountered more hostility from players and characters alike than any other character of mine—even Lupe the three-eyed werewolf! The other characters made fun of her appearance constantly (fellow Jedi included... way to roleplay their compassion for all life-forms, people), and she had a devil of a time getting any respect from NPCs. I wouldn't have had a problem with a little friendly ribbing if it weren't for the fact that one of the male players had actually taken Unattractive Appearance as a flaw for his human male PC, and never suffered a social stigma or had the slightest problem because of it. And after several sessions, I was even asked to make another character that would "fit in better with the rest of the PCs." (I refused.)

This worries me. I understand that this is supposed to be a game, and we're all supposed to be having fun. It's not really the place to be tackling serious social issues. But I firmly believe that these little details add up. If we can't try to make a difference in these little ways, what does that really say about us? Besides, having a minority character in the gaming group shouldn't detract from the ability of that group to complete their mission, or from the ability of the players to enjoy the game. So why not add a little variety to the party?

I, for one, will continue to push the envelope of what I can play. I will also encourage others to do the same. I hope that you will too. Until next week,

Game on!

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