Curse of Strahd: correctly labels Strahd an abuser, yet troublingly racist

Several months ago, I got an email from a reader – Daniel – who asked me if I would be willing to take a look at the republished Curse of Strahd for D&D 5th Edition, because he was concerned about how Curse of Strahd depicted the Vistani – who are a thinly veiled analog of the Romani people.

Daniel’s concerns were namely that:

  1. The Vistani were depicted according to current and historical negative stereotypes about the Roma people. They are shown as drunks and thieves, charlatans and cheats, and child stealers.
  2. The Vistani are depicted as having fortune-telling ability and can cast curses and the evil eye.
  3. With one exception, all of the Vistani characters in the book are either neutral or evil, while many (though certainly not all) of the non-Vistani villagers in the book are either good or lawful good. Furthermore, a large proportion of them have the keyword “bandit” as their creature type.
  4. As the Roma are one of the most abused and persecuted minorities in Europe, a perpetuation of such stereotypes might still be harmful.

Those all sounded like really compelling reasons to want to look at Curse of Strahd – especially since something that I have always felt very strongly about is the fact that mindless replication of harmful stereotypes is in itself harmful. Unfortunately, between one thing and another, I ended up flagging Daniel’s email as something to look into, and then didn’t get around to actually getting my hands on a copy until a few weeks ago.

Originally, I was just going to scan through for mentions of the Vistani. But things kept catching my eye and making me go, “really?” – to the point that I ended up reading through the book twice and taking notes. And. Man. It turns out that I had so much material it will have to be split into two posts. Because despite the fact that the foreword was actually quite encouraging in that it called out Strahd, and the historical person of Lord Byron – whom characters like Dracula and Strahd are heavily modeled on, are nothing more than serial abusers, Curse of Strahd is incredibly problematic when it comes to gender and mental illness. Additionally, its problems with racism go deeper than just the Vistani.

So! Since the Vistani and concern over racist tropes is what got me started looking into Curse of Strahd in the first place, I’ll handle that today and come back to gender and mental illness next time.

Before I go any further: an important note

It’s important to note that the Romani, or Roma, are often commonly referred to as “gypsies”. However, the term “gypsy” is an ethnic slur, and as such I have taken pains to use Romani or Roma when referring to real actual people – past or present, or Vistani – when referring to fictional characters in Curse of Strahd.

That said, there are a few places where I will reference supporting material that uses the term “gypsy”. This is for two reasons:

“gypsies” are a common literary trope in Gothic fiction (and British literature as a whole) and

It’s impossible to talk about the visual stereotyping of fictionalized Romani/Vistani characters without linking to material that uses the word “gypsy”, because the stereotypical “gypsy” costume is a fictional construct that doesn’t actually exist. Linking to resources that depict traditional dress of Roma people would be misleading, because traditional Roma dress does not look like the stereotypical “gypsy” costume. So I want to make very clear that I don’t in any way endorse the use of the word “gypsy”, or its commonly used derivative “gypped”. (Yes, saying you got “gypped” is racist.)

End note.

Problem the first: the Vistani

The first dodge that will inevitably be used to claim that the Vistani are not problematic is the fact that they’ve been renamed. However, this argument is cheap sophistry, because any person who reads through the material will recognize the Vistani as being Romani.

First, the descriptions of their clothing and the artwork in the book depict the Vistani in stereotypical “gypsy costume”:

vistani

And no, this piece isn’t an isolated example. Compare the Google Image search results for “gypsy” and for Vistani, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Everything about how the Vistani are depicted in artwork heavily references stereotypical depictions of “gypsies”. Further, if the authors of the book didn’t want the Vistani to be read as being Romani, they shouldn’t have used an actual Romani word to refer to the Vistani wagons. Vistani wagons are called vardos, which is the real life Roma word for traditional Romani wagons. Additionally, descriptions of the Vistani vardos adhere closely to the real-life Romani vardos.

In other words, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Any reasonable person would recognize the people being referenced by the fictional Vistani as Romani. WHICH IS A PROBLEM, given that the Vistani in Curse of Strahd adhere closely to just about every negative stereotype ever used to persecute actual Romani people. Such as:

The Vistani are criminals who menace good honest society:

  • Adventure hook – Mysterious Visitors, p19-20: “[the duchess] voices her concern about a band of wayward travelers camped outside the town’s walls. They seemed harmless at first, but Morwen has received reports that they have begun harassing townsfolk and other visitors as they come and go, demanding money and wine, and threatening to put hexes on anyone who doesn’t pay up
  • Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness … they are searching for graves to plunder or hunting small game.”
  • Vallaki Lore – p96: “There’s a Vistani camp in the woods soutwest of the town. The Vistani there aren’t very friendly. Vistani aren’t welcome in Vallaki.”
  • Lady Wachter’s Wish, p124: Lady Wachter has a letter delivered to the Vistani camp “that asks the Vistani to dispose of the characters once they have left town. The Vistani burn the letter after reading it, as per Lady Wachter’s request”.
  • The keywords used for Vistani NPCs are almost universally villainous keywords. There is one mage, one group of commoners, the chaotic neutral fortune teller Madam Eva, and Ezmerelda D’Avenir – who is a chaotic good vampire hunter. Aside from those exceptions, all Vistani are either assassins, bandits, bandit captains, or thugs.

The Vistani are all drunks:

  • Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: “These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness without much concern for their well-being, smoking pipes, drinking from wine skins, and telling ghost stories.”
  • Tser Pool Encampment, p36: “Twelve Vistani … are standing and sitting around the fire, telling stories and guzzling wine. They are intoxicated and have disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.”
  • Vistani Camp, p119: “Even at this distance, you can smell the odors of wine and horses that emanate from this central area.”
  • Vistani Camp, p119: “the Vistani have exhausted their supply of wine and are eager to obtain more”
  • Vistani Tent, p121: “Luvash is so drunk that he has disadvantage on his attack rolls and ability checks … in addition to Luvash … there are six intoxicated Vistani … lying unconscious in the tent.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “Luvash is unhappy because his seven-year-old daughter, Arabelle, has vanished. She’s been gone for a little more than a day. Because everyone in the camp was drunk and Arrigal was away, no one remembers hearing or seeing anything strange.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “he agrees to do business with them if they accomplish one of two tasks: either find his missing daughter, or procure six barrels of wine and bring them to the camp”
  • Luvash’s Wagon, p122: “Luvash’s wagon is a mess inside. Empty wineskins, dirty clothes, and mangy furs are strewn about.”
  • Wagon of Sleeping Vistani, p122: “Each of these wagons contains 1d4 intoxicated and unconscious Vistani”

What’s notable here is that the Vistani are such drunken degenerates, that a little girl went missing from their camp for AN ENTIRE DAY and nobody noticed because they were too drunk. And when you treat with her father, Luvash, you can gain his trust either by bringing back his daughter, or by bringing him SIX MORE BARRELS OF WINE. You know, because one is as good as the other to a no good drunken Vistani, right?

The Vistani are untrustworthy liars:

  • Adventure hook – Plea for Help, p19: “The letter, which seems to have been written by the buromaster, was actually penned by Strahd. … The letter is bait to lure the adventurers to Barovia.”
  • The Vistani lie about their allegiance to Strahd: page 19, page 27
  • The Vistani lie about having potions that will allow characters to travel safely through the mists: page 19, page 27, page 122

The Vistani steal children

  • Rudolph Van Richten’s son, Erasmus, was stolen from him by Vistani, who sold him to Strahd: page 230, page 238

(There’s only one instance of this in the text, but given that this is one of the most serious and pernicious stereotypes against modern Roma it’s worth calling out as a distinct stereotype.)

The Vistani are cheats, gamblers, and thieves:

  • Strahd’s Vistani Servants, p27: “They readily tell adventurers that they have a potion that protects them from the deadly fog that surrounds Barovia. Although this is a lie, they attempt to sell their fake potion for as much money as they can get.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “For a hefty price, he offers to sell the characters potions that allow safe passage through the deadly fog … The potions don’t work, of course.”
  • Wagon of Gambling Vistani, p123: “the Vistani are playing a dice game for wine and favors, since they have no money”
  • Tower, Fourth Floor, p171: “…a human Vistana named Yan. … Yan reveals that he was banished from his clan for stealing.”

The Vistani have mystical powers to lay curses, tell fortunes, and use the evil eye

  • There are literal actual mechanics for cursing and the evil eye on page 28
  • Madam Eva, the Vistani fortune teller, whose fortunes come true: page 21, page 37, page 44, page 233-234

And. You know. So what? Who cares? This is just a roleplaying game, right?

EXCEPT. 250,000 Roma people were executed during the Holocaust because of racist views about the Roma. Today, Neo-Nazis harass Roma people here in Canada, partly because Canada has been accepting larger numbers of Hungarian Roma refugees and asylum-seekers as anti-Roma persecution in Hungary continues to escalate. Also, French authorities removed a five-year old blonde girl from the care of her Romani caregivers – who were raising the girl with the permission of her Bulgarian birth mother – because she “didn’t look Roma”; despite proof that the girl hadn’t been abducted, she will NOT go back to her adoptive Romani parents.

When the stereotypes of Roma people as murderous criminals, child-stealers, no-good gamblers and drunks, and a general menace to good and honest society are the reason why European Romani face tremendous persecution and violence, mindlessly replicating those stereotypes is just gross and irresponsible.

Problem the second: Miscegenation!

(Miscegenation is an ugly term referring to “the mixing of the races” through breeding.)

In Chapter 8, which details the village of Krezk, one of the key locations is the Abbey of Saint Markovia – which has become an insane asylum for mongrelfolk – humanoid creatures with random animal features who are all incurably insane.

dca9mongrelfolk

Which. Okay, we’ll skip over the grossness of “lock up the mentally ill and throw away the key” until next time and just focus on the mongrelfolk for now, starting with the name. Because “mongrel”? Is a racial slur meaning someone with a mixed-race background, with a pretty disgusting history:

“…in the ugly history of racism, “mongrel” has been used to demean couples of different ethnicities and children of mixed race.

This last sense of mongrel invokes another nasty word, miscegenation, which is a derogatory term for couples of mixed race who marry and have kids. In many states anti-miscegenation laws made it a crime for two people of different races to have a relationship or engage in intimate activities. The Supreme Court found these laws to be unconstitutional in 1967.” —source: blog.dictionary.com

You have a literal mixed race with random animal traits, which are referred to as deformities. Most mongrelfolk can’t speak Common, or they speak fragmented Common “mixed with various animal cries and nonsense”, and “aren’t sophisticated enough” to use the animal sounds they produce as communication. And where it gets extra gross, almost all children of a mixed mongrelfolk/human union will be mongrelfolk: “about one child in every hundred is born looking like its non-mongrelfolk parent”.

So why is all of that so terrible? Let’s break it down.

First: the mongrelfolk are inherently inferior subspecies of humanoid. Their nature as a mixed race adheres to the historical panic over miscegenation, which stems from the idea that the superior humans are those who are racially pure. (And, you know, white.) The fact that they are called “mongrels” is what ties the backstory of the mongrelfolk to deeply ugly historical anti-Black racism in the United States.

Second: The fact that mongrelfolk can’t speak Common intelligibly and lack sense enough to use the sounds they can make as communication with one another is mirrored by deeply racist anti-Black stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of Black people. These stereotypes were used to justify the existence of slavery in the United States (and elsewhere) prior to the Civil War. More important, these stereotypes still persist today. No less a personage than James Watson (of Watson and Crick fame, who stole Rosalind Franklin’s data and with it the Nobel prize she should have won for discovering the structure of DNA) said in 2007 that Africans are less intelligent than Westerners.

Third: the fact that 99% of babies born to mongrelfolk/human couples are mongrelfolk has a historical analog in the One Drop Rule, which held that only one Black ancestor, no matter how far back in your family tree, was required to make someone Black. This rule was made into law across the American South during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and was part of the DNA of Jim Crow Segregation laws. This by itself might not be so bad, but together with the previously mentioned mirrors to anti-Black racist stereotypes might just make the mongrelfolk the most racist thing I have ever seen in a roleplaying game. (It’s hard to say – I’ve been doing this for several years and there are a lot of examples to choose from.)

So. You know. Slow clap?

And that’s about enough for today.

Next time I’ll tackle CoS’s problems with gender, mental illness, and use of “edgy” tropes.

Overwatch delivers diversity alongside racist stereotypes, still does better than rest of AAA gaming [LONG]

Overwatch, the hit new shooter/MOBA released by Blizzard has been taking the internet by storm lately. (That is, until the internet collectively lost its damn mind over Pokemon Go this past week[1].) As of mid-June, they had already accumulated more than 10 million active players, no mean feat considering that it was released less than two months ago.

Since the beginning of its development, one of the major talking points that has been emphasized in press pieces is that Blizzard was trying to design with an eye to diversity. Like the piece on Kotaku proclaiming that Blizzard wanted to “do women better”, which showed Widowmaker displaying a whole lot of ass cleavage:

Meanwhile over on Polygon, there was a piece with the headline: “Blizzard wants its diverse fans to feel ‘equally represented’ by Overwatch’s heroes“. Which, by the way, only featured quotes from a press conference given by Blizzard, and which completely failed to mention any of Blizzard’s previous problems with representation in their games to date. (*cough* Hearthstone *cough* Worldofwarcraft *cough*)

I’ve written about Overwatch before. (In fact, people talking trash about my Overwatch posts are still a reliable source of occasional traffic spikes from Reddit, which is a bit surprising two years later.) And the game’s recent release, along with the fact that it seems diversity is still being used as a talking point to promote the game – as evidenced by this piece published just 3 days in advance of the release, made me think that it would probably be worthwhile taking a second look at Overwatch to see how it’s shaped up.

Overwatch Characters and Gender

The last time I wrote about Overwatch, 6 out of the (then) 14 characters that had been announced were female, however, 1 character – Bastion – was genderless. If you don’t count Bastion, that made for a roster that was 46% female – not too shabby. At the game’s release, it featured 8 female characters out of 21 characters that have a gender – which was only 40%. However, as of yesterday, a new female character was announced – Ana – which brings the ratio up to 9 out of 21 gendered characters, or 42%.

icons-gender

So, you know. It’s not fifty-fifty, which is disappointing from a game that says it wanted to “do women better”. How hard would it have been to make one of the weirdo characters, like Winston or Zenyatta, female? And sure, 42% is still a damn site better than almost every game I’ve ever bothered to review numbers for on this blog. But I tend to think that to “do women better”, you should at the very least reflect their levels of representation in the actual world. And we won’t even talk about how there are ugly or weird looking male characters, but all of the female characters except for one are in their mid-20s and have flawless skin – except for Ana. And even then, the only concession to her age is white hair and maaayyybbbbe a hint of an eye wrinkle.

It’s worth noting that all of that completely ignores the issue of queer and nonbinary gender identities. Since the canon doesn’t say otherwise, it has to be assumed that all 21 of the gendered heroes are cisgender, which is – again – disappointing from a game that seems to be trying to sell itself, at least in part, on the diversity of its character’s designs and backgrounds.

But overall, those turned out to be minor irritants compared to the embarrassing levels of racism (with a sprinkling of ableism) in the hero backstories and alternate character designs. Hooray!

Character Backstories

Lucio

So out of a lineup of 22 characters, you have exactly 1 black person – Lucio. And YES I get that there are other characters who are visible minorities – Symmetra, Pharah, Hanzo, etc. But what about McCree and Soldier 76, who are both from the United States? Or Tracer, who is from the UK? Or Widowmaker, who is from France? Or Mercy, who is from Switzerland? All of these are countries with diverse populations! Black people live in all of these countries! Coding all of the Western first world nations as white is problematic as hell. (And no, Widowmaker does not count as a PoC because she’s blue.)

So with all of that in mind, it is doubly problematic that Lucio – the only black guy – is a black guy from the slums. And sure, he’s from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. And sure he was “fighting the man”. But the core concept was “black DJ from the slums who stole things”. And when your go-to backstory for the only black guy is “poor thief”, that is super fucking problematic. The stereotype of black people as thieves and criminals is the reason why real actual black people get profiled by police and followed in shops and stores. And the fact that the video games industry is more than 87% white makes all of this even more problematic.

So. You know. What the actual fuck, Blizzard?

Reaper

Similarly, Gabriel Reyes AKA Reaper is the only Latino in the game (you know, despite the fact that it actually would have made more sense to make McCree Latino instead of making him white). And what’s his backstory? Well, according to the Overwatch wiki:

Reaper admits to being a high-functioning psychopath, having a passion for murder and vengeance and is willing to kill even without a solid motivation. —Overwatch Wiki

And this is shitty for pretty much exactly the same reasons that making Lucio a black thief from the slums is shitty. When news coverage of Latin@s is 1% of total coverage, despite the fact that they make up 13% of the US population? And 66% of that coverage is about Latinos as criminals? Making THE ONLY LATINO in your game an actual fucking psychopathic murderer is shitty and racist.

Symmetra

Symmetra’s backstory and concept doesn’t read as racist to me, although I’ll admit to not being conversant enough with those particular stereotypes to be able to spot something that’s not completely obvious. However, where her backstory does fall down is a WHOLE LOT OF FUCKING ABLEISM. And sure, it’s obvious that it’s at least well-meaning ableism? But there is a lot of hinky mental health and neurotypical stereotyping going on. Again, according to the Overwatch Wiki:

Symmetra may be on the autism spectrum as implied in A Better World[1]. In it, she says it used to “bother her” when people would ask where she fit on the spectrum; further, she appears to have what could be described as obsessive-compulsive disorder, namely her preoccupation with “perfection”, such as when she can’t resist fixing a crooked picture or how she notices the perfection of a child’s face. Traits common to OCD are also associated with autism.[2] —Overwatch Wiki

For fuck’s sake.

First, if you want to have a character who is on the autism spectrum, EITHER DO IT OR DON’T. Don’t say well she miiiiiiight be, but then maaaaaybe not. Because what the fuck is wrong with having a heroic character who is autistic? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Second, fixing crooked frames or noticing a perfect face isn’t OCD – unless you spend your entire day checking and re-checking and re-checking every picture frame to make sure it’s straight, or obsessively scanning people’s faces looking for flaws, to the detriment of actually getting anything done. OCD is an anxiety spectrum disorder, emphasis on the disorder. If it doesn’t interfere with your daily life and ability to function, then it’s not OCD. Being particular about how things are placed or wanting things to be just so? That’s not fucking OCD, and it’s really shitty trivializing OCD that way.

Character Designs: Racist Tropes and Culture as Costume

Mercy

So I’ve written before about how it’s really problematic making the character who is coded as “angel” blonde. But you know what’s even shittier? Making your angel character blonde, then having an alternate skin named “Devil” and giving that skin black hair.

Not following why that’s problematic? Well, allow me to quote myself:

Here’s another one I wish I didn’t see as often as I did. If you’re writing a race that has inborn magic powers, immortality, supernatural sexiness, preternatural senses, or is otherwise superior to normal boring humans, DON’T have the defining trait of that race be a real world racial trait.

Wait. No. I’m going to be more explicit.

DON’T MAKE THEM BLONDE. Because that is some creepy white supremacy shit right there – ESPECIALLY when combined with the Evil Darkies [aka: the trope of making evil races have dark skin] mentioned above.

That’s not to say you can’t have superhumans! … you can keep 100% of your magical superhumans and still have them not suck. Case in point, World of Warcraft. The good elves are purple and the bad elves are blonde. (Granted, there’s still an awwwwwful lot of fail of just about all types in WoW. But this is, at least, one small thing that they did manage to get right.)

When you tie the idea of “good” to traits that are White and “evil” to traits that are Not-White, THAT IS RACIST.

Mercy-angel-devil

The irony is that Mercy’s other alternate skins depict her as a Valkyrie, which honestly I like about a million times better than either her default skin or her “Devil” skin. Boobplate aside, they did a great job of translating the character concept into a design appropriate to the character’s cultural background.

Zenyatta, Roadhog, and Pharah

Zenyatta is a bit of a tricky case in that he is a robot (who is gendered as male) monk who is never explicitly called out as being a Buddhist monk. But his backstory says he wanders the Himalayas, and the Saffron robes as well as descriptions of Zenyatta’s approach to philosophy make it pretty clear that he is supposed to be a Tibetan Buddhist (robot) monk. And, you know what, cool. There could be some cool elements about robots deciding to investigate humanity and ending up identifying as a particular gender and culture.

What is definitely uncool is tying Zenyatta strongly (if implicitly) to one culture, and then using other cultural costumes as alternate looks:

Zenyatta

Look. This is a theme that I’m going to come back to for the next few designs, but I would think that after the stink that gets raised on the internet and social media every October, people would start getting the hint that using cultural attire or cultural dress for the sake of looking “cool” is not okay. Culture is not costume.

This gets even more problematic when Native and Aboriginal cultures are the ones being used as costume, because there is a global history of white people oppressing Native and Aboriginal peoples and then appropriating their culture.

Take Roadhog, whose has two alternate skins that show him in Maori dress:

Roadhog-Maori

And. Man. Here’s where I admit that things get real fuzzy and hard to tease out. Because while it’s not commented on officially, it’s possible that Mako is of Maori descent:

“It is highly likely that Roadhog is of New Zealand Maori heritage due to his real name (Mako) and alternate skin titled “Toa” which is the Maori word for “Warrior”.” – Overwatch Wiki

And honestly, I keep going back and forth on whether this is problematic or not. Roadhog’s pale skin reads more “white” than “Maori” to me. But then, the long struggle of Metis and non-status Native Canadians to be recognized as “legitimately Native”, makes me feel like that might not be a valid criticism. Except, Roadhog is said to come from the Outback of Australia – and the Aborigine people of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand are two different peoples – or at least as far as I’m aware.

So. I think for me the tipping point, the deciding factor of “is this okay?” is the fact that there are so many other examples of stereotyped depictions and appropriative costumes. This isn’t a singular misstep in a game that otherwise did its homework and tried to be respectful. Because if it was, you wouldn’t have something like Pharah and her alternate skins:

Farah

Pharah is explicitly, canonically Egyptian. And yet two of her alternate skins are explicitly North American Native – titled “Raindancer” and “Thunderbird”. And that is just such an obvious, straight-forward case of “what do we do for a cool alternate look for Pharah?” “I dunno, make her Native?” that I just can’t even.

Symmetra

And here’s the last example, the reason why I’m really not inclined to give the Blizzard development team a lot of slack on the question of “did they mean to be offensive” or not. Symmetra, who comes from India, has two alternate skins – which cost a lot of credits to unlock – that depict her as the Hindu goddess Kali:

Symmetra-goddess

It’s hard to overstate how gallingly tasteless and appalling this is. Hinduism isn’t like the worship of the ancient Egyptian gods. While using Ra as a skin for an implicitly Tibetan character is tasteless, it’s nowhere near on the same level of awful, because you’re talking about a dead religion. There are somewhere around 1 billion Hindu people on the planet, which makes this roughly equivalent to having a male character who can “level up” into Jesus. And obviously, game developers would never consider making Actual Fucking Jesus an unlockable skin, because that would be disrespectful. But because Hindus are mostly brown people, that makes having Actual Fucking Kali – who is a god that real actual people actually worship right now – somehow okay? No. Just. NO.

Conclusion: Overwatch has problems, but it’s still better than the rest of AAA gaming

As horrible as all this stuff is, Blizzard at least gets the absolute minimum of points for trying. Which is something that the rest of the AAA game industry is emphatically not doing, as evidenced by yet another year of Scowly McWhiteGuy being mostly the only thing on offer at E3.

SO. MANY. WHITE GUYS.

So. You know. Reluctant kudos for trying? But “slightly less racist than the rest of the AAA game industry” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement that Blizzard should be proud of.

[1] I am unspeakably bitter that Pokemon Go has yet to be released in Canada

White People: please stop crowdfunding super racist games. It’s embarrassing. [CW]

[Content warning: This post contains, among many other things discussion of anti-Native ethnic slurs.]

So there’s thing that happens semi-regularly to me in my G+ circles; someone links to a game that is being crowdfunded (usually on KickStarter) that is cringe-inducingly racist, and there’s a discussion thread where people say things like – shit, this is so bad. How is this this bad? But a lot of the time, these discussions happen in more private circles, since nobody wants to risk accidentally giving exposure to a terrible thing that shouldn’t exist. And I avoid writing about it here for the same reason, and then it sort of slips away and I forget to write about the issue again until yet another cringe-inducingly racist game KickStarter pops up in my feed, and the cycle starts all over again.

So. Enough is enough.

White game creators, it’s time to have a talk – white person to white person – because seriously. This has to stop. You’re killing me over here.

Before we start: Ground rules

Quite a while ago, I wrote a very basic set of rules that you should look to follow in order to create inclusive games.

Last year, I wrote about the basic rules you should follow when looking to write inclusive games. But for the purposes of this post, we’re just going to concentrate on the lowest-hanging of the low-hanging fruit – rules #1 and 2:

  1. Cultural appropriation is bad
  2. Don’t erase marginalized groups
  3. Don’t combine #1 and #2

Of course, there’s more to it than that. A LOT more. As in, 10,000 words more. If you want to read my entire series on writing inclusive games and how to avoid offensive stereotypes, you can find it here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part3. But for the purposes of this post, that’s what we’re going to focus on, with some examples of what this shit looks like in the wild, since I went to the trouble of digging up some examples of things that a) have already funded or b) won’t actually fund. That way I’ll be able to illustrate what I’m talking about instead of attempting to talk in generalities.

Depressingly, I will note that all of the examples that I dug up for this post center on anti-Native racism. The game that prompted me to write this post was racist against a different group of people entirely, but sadly it seems even easier to find games that are racist about Native and Aboriginal peoples on KickStarter than any other group. (At least anecdotally speaking.)

Also: yes this shit does actually fund sometimes

Thankfully, most of the examples that I have to talk about are things that people emphatically did not vote with their dollar to see produced. Unfortunately, games based on racist tropes and stereotypes do still find audiences, and they do still fund. Case in point:

Going NativeI’ve written about Going Native on this blog before, so I’ll just quote myself rather than attempt to rehash something I already stated well and succinctly:

Not too long ago there was a game that successfully funded on Kickstarter called “Going Native: Warpath”. (Really, even just the title should be a giant red flag.) Going Native: Warpath is a minis war game in which players have armies that are based on real-life native and aboriginal cultures which has been written and developed by (of course) a white dude.

Because nothing says “sorry for that one time we committed genocide against your people and then forced the survivors into institutionalized poverty” like casual cultural appropriation. Bonus points for managing to convey the added baggage of “well killing your people wasn’t as bad as it could have been since you were already doing it to yourselves”.

So let this be a cautionary tale. Just because I’m intentionally picking examples that will not be getting their target funding doesn’t mean that KickStarters for racist games aren’t still a huge damn problem.

Now: Down to the nitty gritty

I have three examples to discuss, which I will cover in order of least offensive to dear god what the actual shit how did you spend this much time creating a KickStarter without ever once critically examining what you wanted to KickStart?

The first is a game called Indigenous, whose tagline is: “In an uncharted jungle you have to hunt animals, build shelters, collect ingredients and fight other tribes to ensure your survival.”

Okay. A bit dodgy, but possibly not so bad right? However, here’s the very first sentence in their campaign description:

“With this game we try to achieve something realistic and entertaining enough, to let you immerse into the rough land of primitive indigenous people.”

[headdesk]

PRIMITIVE. INDIGENOUS. PEOPLE.

indigenous_comp

Now I will at least give these developers credit: they did at least describe them as people – something the next two games certainly can’t lay claim to. But, given that this is a game being KickStarted by a team from Germany which is composed of (as much as I was able to discern) decidedly white-appearing folk… the execution is tone-deaf at best, and really gross even if you’re attempting to look at this charitably (which I don’t really think this game deserves). Thankfully, as they are currently sitting at 1.4% funded with about a week to go, there’s no real danger of this KickStarter succeeding.

Of course, clueless and tone deaf is at least still better than games that intentionally fail at not being offensive. Like Deadskins: a game that managed to actually gain $6000 in pledges, despite incorporating an actual goddamn ethnic slur in the name of their game[1]:

download

And again, unsurprisingly, the KickStarter was created by a decidedly white-appearing dude[2]. Because this shit is so predictable you can practically set a watch by it.

Unlike Indigenous, Deadskins also was Greenlit by the Steam community, proving once again that Steam is depressing and will Greenlight just about anything. (Hell, if it’s REALLY depressing, Valve founder Gabe Newell will apologize for people trying to censor your project if it gets too much blowback.)

And honestly, it’s hard to know where to even begin in explaining just why this game is so awful. I mean, look at this screenshot:

deadskins-screens

So… Let’s start with the fact that this whole damn game is a pastiche of offensive tropes and stereotypes. Deadskins combines Romero-type Hollywood zombie antics with awful stereotypes about natives in that awful way that a lot of game creators do when they want to cherry pick the most “awesome” elements of a real world (usually) non-white culture for their game. For instance, the zombies in Deadskins actually defeat their enemies by scalping them. Also, the above screen shot is an example of a zombie spirit animal. That you can ride. You know. Just because.

There’s also the fact that all of this undead Native crap is a super casual perpetuation of the Vanishing Native myth – the idea that that Native peoples are disappearing and that their total disappearance is a foregone conclusion. Which is fucking horrific, because. You know. We (ie white people) enacted genocide against them so that we could take their land and resouces. Not to mention that the Vanishing Native myth is still causing very real harm today.

And I don’t care HOW sheltered you are, after the continued, persistent, ongoing controversy over the Washington R*dskins’ team name, even the most dedicated of non-sportsball-fans should be aware of the fact that the term “redskin” is an offensive ethnic slur[3].

And yet, as awful as Deadskins is, it still doesn’t manage to beat out the campaign for a game called Tap N’ Trap, OF COURSE BY WHITE MEN, which manages to combine cluelessness, horrible racism, and casual dehumanization quite catastrophically:

Tap N Trap

Yeah, I knew it was going to be bad when it started with “help ABORIGINALS”. Not help aboriginal PEOPLE. Help ABORIGINALS[4]. Worse, they mix terms and portrayals pretty freely. (Because, you know, why bother with research or any of that when you can just combine a lot of primitive looking shit from different cultures, right? Who cares as long as it ends up looking cool?) In the description of their campaign, they refer to the non-white characters as “aboriginals”. But in the captions for their character designs, they’re referred to as “Natives”.

Which. You know. Okay. In Canada the terms are used somewhat interchangeably, so maybe I could give that a pass if it weren’t for the character designs:

Tap-N-Trap-chars

The description makes it sound like they’re talking about Native or Aboriginal peoples, but the skin tones and character designs – especially the masks – visually reference a pastiche of African cultures. Which. Uh. At the risk of stating the obvious, Native people and African people aren’t even from the same continent. They’re entirely separate ethnic groups with completely different languages, cultures, and traditions.

The nail in the coffin? The magical power-up item for your “Natives” is a GODDAMN WATERMELON:

watermelon

BRB SETTING EVERYTHING ON FIRE. (If you’re not familiar with the history of why watermelon imagery associated with black people is seriously not fucking okay, especially when it’s being created by white people, then just follow this link to this Google Image search. Just be warned, it’s so racist it’s probably NSFW.)

Honestly, this is the sort of “ironically” awful games that I could see being published by a certain Edgy Game Designer. But the game creators actually seem pretty earnest about using this game as a springboard for social change. Unfortunately, the cause that they are espousing isn’t anything like, say, (to name a few Canada-specific issues affecting Native populations) the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women, or the lack of access on reserves to adequate housing and education, or hell even the lack of access on reserves to clean drinking water. No. The cause that they want to espouse is environmentalism and disappearing endangered species.

So all of that horrible racist shit. The conflating nonwhite cultures that have nothing to do with one another, the casual dehumanization, the perpetuation of fucking horrible racist stereotypes… all of that shit is just the creators using PoC as PROPS to talk about what really matters. ANIMALS.

Which is why Tap N’ Trap wins the award for THE MOST RACIST SHIT I HAVE SEEN ON KICKSTARTER, yes even worse than Deadskins. Because congratulations, when you perpetuate harmful racist bullshit while simultaneously prioritizing animals over actual goddamn people, that makes you a shitty human being.

White people: It’s time to get our act together

Look, white people. I say this as a white person who writes games about non-white people[6]. I get it! It’s hard! Writing games about non-white people is hard! It takes a lot of time, effort, and research. It also requires talking to people who come from the group of people that you are writing about. And most importantly, it involves being willing to dismantle your own bullshit and a willingness to look for where you fucked up (because I promise you, you will always fuck up somewhere). All of which requires the willingness to be uncomfortable, and to sit with that discomfort. And all of that is HARD. And uncomfortable, and unfun. And isn’t making games supposed to be about having fun?

But we aren’t not even talking about making games that are truly inclusive and promote diversity here, because frankly we suck at that, white people. (Yes, including myself in that. There are things that I could do better.) So, babysteps. Let’s just work on not crowdfunding shit entirely based on horribly racist stereotypes, okay? Please?

[1] Although it’s worth noting that the actual percentage of funding is almost the same as Indigenous, given that goal was a ludicrous $365,000.

[2] That’s not to say people who aren’t white men don’t make racist games. But the ones that I’ve seen that get as far as KickStarter tend to have been created by white men.

[3] If you’re interested in reading more, the Wikipedia entry on the team name controversy actually provides a pretty good starting point as to why the term is problematic and its history, even if it is a bit too focused on remaining “balanced” for my liking.

[4] Given how fucking common it is for native populations to be portrayed in ways that dehumanize them, it’s important to always refer to native people in ways that emphasize their humanity. Native people, not Natives. Aboriginal people, not Aboriginals. It’s the same reason why we say “transgender people” instead of “transgenders”, frex[5].

[5] Although I have heard people say “transgenders” as a noun and seriously. Just. Don’t.

[6] Because seriously, if there’s one thing that gaming DOESN’T need, it’s more games about white people.

Smite: sexist, racist, and culturally appropriating [LONG]

[ETA: I’ve revised my comments with regards to the Greek deities and whiteness, which weren’t clear enough, but you should also read the comments.]

I try not to pay attention to MMOs anymore, because the vast majority of them are steaming dung piles of bullshit sexism. However, Smite is a game that kept coming up on my radar for various reasons. When it first came out, my brother emailed me a few pieces of promo art of the female characters. More recently, a few friends over on G+ that have been talking about playing Smite. So when Smite made a few headlines last week for its decision to include Hindu gods as playable characters, I figured that it would be worth taking a closer look since that was the third time in a relatively short period of time that it caught my attention.

As it turns out, I wound up having a lot of stuff to say. So let’s just jump right on in!

Getting ready to rumble

What exactly is Smite? Smite is a MOBA – a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, a genre made popular by games like Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA2) and League of Legends. Smite, like other MOBAs, has a pre-set roster of characters that you can choose to play as that have set abilities. If you wish, you can pay extra to unlock special characters or alternate skins. And Smite has a lot of playable characters – sixty-six in total.

Those of you who have been reading my blog long enough to be familiar with my numbers posts will know that I generally tend to stick to the same set of criteria when evaluating character designs in video games; typically I will compare the numbers of figures that are shown with: 1) active poses versus neutral poses and 2) fully clothed versus suggestively attired by gender in order to demonstrate the consistent under-representation, objectification, and sexualization of female characters.

However, this time around going to all that effort really felt like a tremendous waste of time. Such an approach might be worthwhile when I’m writing about Magic and how, despite recent improvements in art direction, their art is still very sexist. But when I’m looking at a game like Smite, which is just as blatant in it’s bullshit sexism as League of Legends, it just feels like a giant fucking waste of time.

I mean, look. This is Aphrodite:

aphrodite

Ridiculous, right? Even more so when you consider that she’s not even the least clothed Smite character. So let’s just take it as a given that the female character designs are definitely objectifying and sexist and not waste time beating a dead horse[1]. Especially as there were a lot of characters to look at and other issues of representation that I wanted write about regarding problematic racist tropes.

Criteria examined and overall summary

[Note: When looking at characters, I looked at the default designs and descriptions as shown on Gamepedia’s Smite Wiki. If I get anything wrong here, I blame Gamepedia.]

In the end, the criteria I decided to examine were:

Number of figures by gender: simply the number of female figures and the number of male figures

Whether a character was whitewashed: I considered a character to be whitewashed if they came from a nonwhite culture but were explicitly depicted as white. I did not count a character as whitewashed if they were an animal or other nonhuman, had animal features, or had nonhuman skin tones (there are several characters that are either blue or purple). While some of them seemed like edge cases that could count as whitewashing, for the most part it seemed too ambiguous to make a definite argument one way or another.

Deity alignment: This was taken from the character descriptions on the wiki rather than the artwork; each character had a blurb a few paragraphs long about their backstory. I read each and assigned each deity as either Good, Neutral, or Evil. (A lot of the Greek gods wound up as Neutral, just because they capricious assholes even if they are gods of nominally good things.)

Character Damage Type: Again, as defined on the Smite wiki, I was curious to see if there would be an imbalance of Ranged characters versus Melee characters, since that’s a pretty common area of imbalance in many other video games.

After going through all 66 characters and taking tally, here’s what I came up with:

overall

In some ways, the numbers were a bit surprising even while they were also completely predictable. Female characters account for 30% of all playable characters. However, while they were clearly more sexualized and objectified, they weren’t any more likely to be whitewashed or to be pigeon-holed as a ranged character. There is an interesting difference when it comes to alignment, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Bullshit sexism

As previously stated, I don’t intend to waste words proving that Smite’s character designs are sexist and bullshit, because they just are. Many of the female promo art pieces feature broken spines, anti-gravity sphere boobs, and painted on clothing. Almost none of the female characters have clothes that would actually function to preserve modesty in any meaningful way in the real world. So regarding the female character design, I’m just going to issue a blanket: THEY’RE BULLSHIT and move on with my life.

Instead, let’s talk about how Smite is another perfect example of the interesting/pretty binary, which I’ve talked about before:

Notice how the male human gets to have actual facial expressions that convey emotions? While the female character renders all have the same vapid expression but with different hairstyles. Because men get to DO THINGS and EXPRESS THEMSELVES but women get to BE PRETTY.

When looking at the different character types, there is such a huge variety when it comes to male characters! Male deities can be humans, humanoids, demi-humans, robots, giant flying serpents, or even giant-ass rock-creatures. Whereas the female deities? Well they get boobs. And sometimes funny hats.

Case in point, look at what happens when you compare male animal and demi-human deities with female animal and demi-human deities:

animal dudes Animal ladies

(TOP LEFT: Anhur, TOP MIDDLE: Anubis, TOP RIGHT: Fenrir, BOTTOM LEFT: Arachne, BOTTOM MIDDLE: Medusa, BOTTOM RIGHT: Bastet)

The male deities are all very appealing avatar images. They give a strong sense of the culture that they come from, while also appearing strong and heroic. Whereas the female deities? The most important part of their designs are their tits, and making sure that they are clearly visible to the viewer. Giant spider thing? TITS. Man-eating snake thing? ‘DEM BOOBS THO. It really goes a long way toward illustrating[2] the priorities of the design team.

Now the interesting thing about Smite is that is that it also manages to throw in some “benevolent” sexism along with all of the bullshit objectification. Remember how I said there was a weird gender imbalance when it came to deity alignment? Well it turns out that out of 19 evil deities, only one is female:

female alignment

male alignment

Now, you may be saying to yourself – but wundergeek, I don’t get it. What’s the problem? The problem is that the stereotype of women are more wholesome and more nurturing is benevolent sexism, which is still sexism. It’s like the boss I had once who told me he only hired women to work in the office because we were more nurturing and community-minded. I found his comment terribly offensive, but didn’t say anything because I happened to desperately need the job at the time.

However, even if it is a stereotype I will admit that this actually ran counter to what I expected. Given that the female characters in Smite were so grossly oversexualized, I had expected the evil deities to skew female – you know, because sexy women are always evil. Since, you know, [mumblemumble]femme fatale[mumblereasons].

So at least if the female characters are horribly stereotyped, at least we have a mix of regressive stereotypes. Yay diversity!

Racist whitewashing

Something that’s honestly more important than the frankly not-all-that-exceptional-for-video-games level of sexism in Smite is the fact that there is an UNBELIEVABLE LEVEL OF WHITEWASHING. Literally EVERY PANTHEON except the Norse deities is whitewashed, with the worst example being the Greek pantheon – who are shown almost universally as blondes or gingers:

greek-whitewashed
(LEFT: Aphrodite, MIDDLE LEFT: Scylla, MIDDLE RIGHT: Apollo, RIGHT: Athena)

[sigh] Uh, video game industry dudes? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but Greeks are NOT ACTUALLY WHITE ACTUALLY PRETTY BROWN. Take for example, Tonia Sotiropoulou – who played the Bond Girl[3] in Skyfall. I realize this is an embarrassingly common trope in video games (I’m looking at you Soul Calibur!) but this is pretty fucking awful.

However, EVEN WORSE than the Greek deities are the Chinese deities:

Chinese whitewashed
LEFT: Chang’e, MIDDLE LEFT: He Bo, MIDDLE RIGHT: Hou Yi, RIGHT: Ne Zha

WHY DO NONE OF THEM LOOK ASIAN? Seriously, the only one who maybe looks even sorta-kinda Asian is Chang’e, and even then she still looks Katy Perry doing her best Asian drag. All of them have round eyes and decidedly European features.

And I already know what some people might be saying; OMG it’s just the style, the art is anime-influenced, the art is heavily stylized, blah blah blah. So let’s take a second and zoom in on two of the character portraits for these supposedly Chinese deities, shall we?

HouYi-NeZha
LEFT: Hou Yi, RIGHT: Ne Zha

Looking closely at the faces, you can see that it’s not just the eyes – although those are a big part of why they look decidedly un-Chinese. Their eyes are round, with visible lids, and are un-slanted. But more than that, the features and facial structure overall conveys the impression of whiteness. And given that I see this mistake repeated again and again across all of the character designs, I have to think that this mistake is more than just accidental.

The Chinese deities do not look Chinese. The Greek deities do not look Greek. The Hindu deities do not look South Asian. It’s obvious that effort was put into ensuring that the costume design would be recognizably adherent to the culture that was being referenced, but when it came to the actual faces of the gods being portrayed? The artist doing the designs obviously didn’t bother looking up references for non-white faces, because EVERY. SINGLE. DEITY. has white features. ALL of the deities that are even slightly human have indisputably white features, which is frankly, inexcusable.

About the only positive thing that can be said with regard to Smite’s frankly terribly racist character designs is that, contrary to my first impression, heroic gods weren’t more likely to be whitewashed than evil ones. So. yay? At least we’re engaging in equal opportunity racism and whitewashing here.

Culturally Appropriating

And here we come to the bit that inspired me to write about Smite in the first place. Apparently the publishers of Smite have decided to add Hindu deities as a faction – a decision which breaks with their use of only dead religions for all of their other factions. (ETA: It’s been pointed out to me that Norse paganism is not actually a dead religion, even if it is widely perceived to be. I apologize.) Unsurprisingly, given that Hinduism is a religion that is alive and well in the world today, there was pushback against this decision, arguing that if Hinduism was fair game that figures from other modern religion – like Jesus or Moses should be permissible.

However, Smite’s publishers would like us all to know that they are definitely not going to use Christian, Jewish, or Islamic figures in their game. But don’t worry – Hindu deities are still a-okay!

250px-T_Ram_Default_Card
Rama – one of the chief avatars of Vishnu

…which is, frankly, pretty bullshit. Especially when you look at the list of Hindu deities that are included, like Rama – one of the chief avatars of Vishnu and one of the most widely venerated figures in Hinduism today. And Hinduism is not a small religion! With approximately 1 billion adherents, Hindus account for approximately 1 in 7 humans on the planet – which makes the decision of Smite developers to use religious figures of central importance to a large and vibrant modern religion all the more shocking.

Because it’s obvious that when faced with the question of “where to draw the line” that the developers of Smite were clear on the fact that they weren’t willing to do anything that might offend any adherents of the Abrahamic traditions, many of whom are white or can pass for white[4]. But Hinduism? Well Hinduism is for INDIANS who are just so, you know, EXOTIC.

…which is just more creepy, culturally appropriating bullshit.

But really, given how generally awful Smite is, I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising.

[1] Fair warning. Any comments attempting to argue that Smite’s character designs aren’t sexist are going to be straight-up trashed. I don’t have time for bullshit of that magnitude.

[2] See what I did there?

[3] I have a whole ‘nother rant about Bond Girls and how fucking sexist they are, and how it’s particularly awful that in Skyfall the Bond Girl literally has sex with Bond and then has maybe 3 or 4 more lines of dialogue before dying.

[4] I realize that I am arguing something problematic here. There is a perception that Christianity is equated with whiteness, despite the fact that there are large and vibrant faith communities in South America and Africa and other areas of the world that are decidedly nonwhite. And given the overlap of traditions between the Abrahamic faiths, there tends to be a certain level of automatic goodwill extended to Judaism and Islam. However, I recognize the racial diversity of the communities that practice these faiths and certainly am not arguing that they are worth protecting because of their whiteness or proximity to whiteness.

 

Friday Freebie: Roll for linkage

Before I get started with the linkage, a note.

I want to apologize for the recent lack of posting, excepting these linkages. I’ve been struggling to deal with a toxic meatspace situation that is infecting my “real” life with unpleasant drama. I hate drama. I don’t deal with it well at all and it’s left me too drained to do any serious blogging once my job and parenting obligations are dealt with. I’m hopeful that the drama situation will resolve itself soon, but in the mean time, I’ll work to get a “real” post up this weekend and make sure to get another one up before the end of the month.

Thanks for bearing with me, folks. Sorry that I tend to hermit when stressed. Thankfully, the internet has been super interesting this week!


Take that, trolls! Apparently I’m not angry, I’m logical! Booyah!

Thanks to the magic of fMRI, scientists have discovered that “justice sensitivity” operates in the part of the brain tied to logic and rationality, not emotion. Cool.

STEM Women on Google + just put up this fantasic piece (on Google+, naturally) about what you can do if you find that you’re going to be attending Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting. This is particularly relevant as we enter convention season – I know I certainly get tired of mostly male panels.

Ettin Productions just put up this masterpiece of satire on DTRPG: A custom Dungeon World playbook for The Edgy Designer:

You are the last of your kind: a real gamer in a hobby that has been taken over by socialists, feminists, liberals, ethnic minorities and pearlclutching fishwives. You’re fighting back now, and you are not alone. You have a multitude of fans just like you, always willing to soothe your ego when people destroy your life by saying mean words at you, or harrass your targets whenever you wish to avoid the flak—after all, it’s just words on the internet, you know?

The Edgy Designer is an edgy, light-hearted satire playbook for the Dungeon World roleplaying game which lets you fulfil your dreams of being an iconoclast game designer constantly hounded by censors and social justice warriors.

Amazing. Absolutely amazing.  (And accurate.)

Mo Holkar wrote a fantastic piece about Orientalism and Exoticism in games and how even positive stereotyping can wind up being harmful. He also cites one of my favorite tabletop games, Meguey Baker’s 1001 Nights, which is an added bonus.

This piece at Polygon is long, but it’s worth reading. It looks at the incredibly problematic idea of placing “fun” and “social justice” at opposite ends of a spectrum (ie either something is fun or it is socially progressive) and how depressingly common that is in the game industry.

Bankuei knocks it out of the park over on his blog talking about the power of fantasy and the need to consider existing power narratives when creating fantasy settings. That shouldn’t surprise you, though, because Bankuei is awesome.

Lastly, some self-pimpage – albeit on-topic self-pimpage.

I was lucky enough to write several thousand words for the revised edition of Dark Ages: Vampire that is currently in development. The project has been much-delayed, but development has re-started and some of my stuff, the revised Road of Heaven, has been posted on the Onyx Path site as a preview!

It’s an early draft with some naming inconsistencies – it has yet to have an editing pass – but I post it here as an example of how to subvert dominant cultural narratives when writing game material. Further, it’s an example that portraying diversity actually makes your setting more interesting, not less.

Anti-Offensiveness Master Class: Stop Fucking Up Asia(ns) [Part 4]

Okay, folks! I’d been thinking of ways to wrap up this series of posts on how not to fail at making inclusive works, and then coincidentally happened to see a bunch of things cross my social media streams that managed to fail a lot at portraying Asian cultures. I mean, A LOT. And honestly, when you look at all of the RPG products out there that fail at real-life cultures, it’s most probable that the culture a given specific RPG product will fail at is an Asian culture.
And. Guys. GUYS. Seriously, I’ve been seeing SO. MUCH. ASIA FAIL lately. SO. SO MUCH.

Now I could write an entire post on my own and probably not get anything wrong. But this is the sort of the thing that seemed to call for a “guest lecturer”, as it were. So I thought I’d let Chris Chinn start us off (image insertions are purely mine), and then I’d highlight a few especially egregious examples.


1. First off, can you introduce yourself for the benefit of my newer readers and patrons?
 
Hi, I’m Chris Chinn, a long time blogger and game critic.  Most of my writing can be found at Deeper in the Game.  At this point, I’m probably best known for writing The Same Page Tool, a tool help gamers coordinate what kind of game they want to play.
2. What are the things you most commonly see games get wrong with regards to portraying Asian people and culture? What the fail that you hate seeing most?
The big thing to realize is that printed game materials – books, settings, etc. are media.  They usually get the exact same things wrong that other white produced media does in terms of racist tropes, except that roleplaying games seem to consistently be much further behind other media.
So the usual things we see wrong in rpgs are:
– Fetishization of East Asia (light skin, etc.) usually while making South Asia disappear (ignoring darker east asians, etc.)
– Monolithic cultures
– Weird projections of ultra conservative Confucianism as either an ideal to uphold or a sign of the complete alien dysfunction of a whole culture
– Hyper sexualized women, often “demure, submissive” etc.
– Projection of sexism as being worse than European cultures
– Terrible mishmash or less-than-back-of-coffee-book understanding of major religions
What’s probably the most frustrating is that I’m not asking for historical realism, just not racist stereotypes.  The fact that this is particularly hard to find…. says a lot about how far rpg culture still needs to go.
 
3. What game, not counting Oriental Adventures[1], do you think fails the most at being awful toward Asian people and culture?
It’s pretty hard to say WHICH particular thing is the worst.   I know Wolsung’s horrid Yellow Peril imagery is fairly ugly, though Glorantha’s fake-China where the culture is built on monolithic obedience is also pretty messed up.
plate13final_800x633_72dpi_50pc
Art from an official Glorantha supplement. Ugh ugh ugh.
Glorantha
AUTOCRATIC ORIENTAL SOCIETY? Shit. I’m embarrassed just reading that.
I dunno, I mean, if it’s a toss up between things that look like 1800s propaganda that gave us the Chinese lynchings in California or the stuff that gets spewed by modern day xenophobes who are joining militias and stockpiling guns, I feel like it’s kind of the same thread of ugly?
 
4. What are the top three things you would say to white people who want to write game material that portrays a culture that isn’t theirs?
If you want to make a game about something you haven’t grown up with?  I strongly suggest getting to know about the culture a bit by interacting with those actual people and imbibing a lot of the media they create for themselves.
It kind of says a lot about folks who are looking to make media talking ABOUT a group, but unwilling to hear that groups’ views or ideas.
Wow, good stuff. Thanks, Chris!

Specific Examples: Less Recent

Because I think we could all benefit from some examples of Shit Not To Do, here is a TOTALLY NOT EXHAUSTIVE list of shit you should strive to NOT emulate[1].

1. Oriental Adventures is REALLY THE WORST

These are all images that I pulled from different Oriental Adventures titles. YES IT WAS A SERIES.

But wait! The shitty racist stereotypes weren’t just in the art! Nooooo. There was shitty racist stereotypes written into the rules! For instance, the first illustration there, the yellow-peril-wizard there, was for a class called the Wu Jen. Well, as this conversion of the Wu Jen for use with later editions of D&D shows, the Oriental Adventurers were just a vortex of shitty, shitty racism:

Certain taboos must be abided by in order for the Wu Jen to sustain his magic. Examples include:
  • Cannot bathe
  • Must bathe frequently (at least every other day)
  • Cannot sit facing a certain direction
  • Cannot touch a dead body
  • Cannot wear shoes
  • Cannot drink alcohol

The DM and player should feel free to create their own taboos, as long as they are as restrictive as the examples above. Taboos should relate to purity or cleansing of the body.

Seriously. SERIOUSLY???

2. Steampunk Musha: Victoriental Adventures

Oh god. So OF COURSE this was a KickStarted project and OF COURSE it raised more than 400% of its goal. The worst part is that clearly the creator thought that he was being SO CLEVER.

“Let’s see. I like Oriental Adventures. What would make that better? Steampunk? Sure. Everybody loves Steampunk, right? But what would I call it? Steam Oriental Adventures? Oriental Adventures Steampunk? OH WAIT.”

Also. Here’s some of the art.

c5f0dfe66cd54983a1c7d6041ef2b20a_large
Who thought this was acceptable? WHO??
19b38d48102b445e2382f4f9826e2193_large
Oh god it’s an orc-thing only instead of GREEN we’ll make him YELLOW because his EYES ARE SLANTY. GET IT???

3. STOP USING STEAMPUNK. STOP IT.

I talked about Into the Far West in the first part of this series of posts. But here’s some art to reinforce how bad it is.

fw_wp2 Mod 750
Wut? You mean the men get clothes and the woman doesn’t because she is SEXAY AND ASIAN? That’s not awful at all!

4. India

For this point, I’m going to be a bit vaguer because I’ve actually seen these offenses in multiple recent works, some of which have current crowdfunding efforts or sites that I don’t want to direct traffic to. So forgive me while I quote myself while simultaneously remaining intentionally vague:

1. Don’t use symbols with religious or spiritual meaning to another culture – it belittles the meaning behind the symbol and dilutes the importance of the symbol

2. Don’t reinforce negative stereotypes. That just adds to the toxic background radiation that forms the dominant view of minorities

3. Be mindful of your place in a system where white artists routinely profit off of performances of cultures that aren’t their own. See Katy Pary’s geisha performance, or Miley Cyrus using black culture like a costume.

Coming back to number 1 – religious and spiritually significant symbols. The use of Vishnu, Shiva, and Bodhisattvas – these are all things that are part of living religions currently being practiced in India. Add in stereotypical “monsters” like cannibal sorcerers, which play right into #2 and reinforce a whole host of ugly stereotypes about “savage” Indian mysticism and thugee cults and the like. And then for good fun, maybe you could add in some Untouchables, and maybe give them some magic powers. Because what could be wrong with saying that a group of real-life people who face real-life oppression get oppression superpowers so in fact their oppression is actually good for them?

There are a lot, a lot, A LOT of white[3] authors who publish lazy pastiches of “awesome” stereotypes of foreign cultures because they think it’s “awesome” and they can make a quick buck. And what we NEED more of in gaming is inclusive settings that manage to portray non-European cultures as complex and HUMAN, not just as a collection of stereotypes

Actually, you know what? If you’re writing a game setting based in India, it probably would be best to avoid mentioning Indian religion at all.

5. Anything that uses the word exotic.

Exoticization of foreign cultures, especially Asian cultures, has a long and troubled past in gaming. Exotic is not a compliment. Period. Full stop. End of sentence. Have you used it anywhere in your game material? Well go remove it. And then go remove all the synonyms. And then go remove all of the sections that read as OOOOO EXOTIC. That shit is toxic. Cut it out.

[1] Seriously, I could write an entirely separate blog about the fucked up ways in which Asia and Asians are portrayed in games

[2] Because HEAVEN FORBID that shit piles like Oriental Adventures remain unconverted for use with later editions of D&D. THAT JUST WOULDN’T DO.

[3] You heard me. WHITE.

Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes In Your Work: Race Edition [Part 3][Many images]

This post is part 3 in a series of posts looking at how not to fail at writing inclusive settings. Part 1 sets out general guidelines of how not to fail. Part 2 expands on terrible stereotypes centered around gender and sexuality.

As mentioned in my previous post, I had a lot of help putting the outline of this series together. Thanks again to: Monica Speca, Arlene Medder, Laura Hamilton, Kira Magrann, Josh Roby, Claudia Cangini, Elin Dalstal, Jason Morningstar, Ben Lehman, Alexis Siemon, and Chris Chinn. Also worth noting that TV Tropes was used heavily as a resource when assembling the outline for these posts.]


 

Monolithic POC[1]

So much of the awful racism that you see in games comes back to this. White people do not have a monopoly on individuality. Humans are complicated and messy and weird, no matter what race you are born into. But all too often, games are incredibly reductive in their handling of race. All orcs are ugly savages. All elves are graceful nature-lovers. Are dwarves are socially inept and greedy.

But wundergeek! You’re talking about fantasy! And everyone knows that orcs and dwarves and elves aren’t real. So what’s the harm?

The harm is that it can tend to reinforce patterns of thinking that dehumanize people of color. When all of your gaming campaigns turn out to be White People’s Murder Adventures In the Land of the Evil Darkies, that’s not exactly contributing to a healthy outlook on race and racial diversity.

Of course, in addition to being just plain harmful, the sheer lack of exceptions when it comes to fantasy races is also astoundingly lazy writing. If you’re relying on tired storytelling techniques that paint all members of Group X as being the same, the stories that you will find yourself limited to will involve cardboard cutouts instead of living, breathing characters. As such, your story will be less compelling.

Subfail: This group of POC is 100% EVIL (ie the Drow)

But wundergeek! They aren’t ALL evil! What about Drizzt[2]? HUH?!?!?? He’s a Drow and he’s totally not evil!

One exception does not automatically make your group diverse.

Quite often, a character like Drizzt serves as the exception that proves the rule. Because you are getting an “insider’s perspective”, the reader is given to understand that all of those nasty Drow/orcs/trolls/whatever really are super evil. And it’s totally okay! It’s not like it’s stereotyping, because the Reformed Outcast of an Evil Race is telling us that it’s not. And why is he an outcast? Because he’s good and noble and valorous and compassionate, unlike all those other members of his Evil Race.

Look. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have analogues of non-white cultures in your fantasy settings. In fact, I’d say that it’s something fantasy needs more of! But have those analogs be groups of real people, with good people and bad people and lazy people and everything in between.

Monochromatic “casting”

You see it in television all the time – shows that feature exclusively white main characters, with minority characters being limited to incidental, minor, or supporting roles. The same thing happens quite often in games. Take, for example, Dungeons and Dragons. While the 4th Edition books have made small strides – they are demonstrably more diverse than previous editions – the heroes depicted are overwhelmingly white.

Obviously, this is shitty for all the same reasons that having your cast be all-male is. It devalues the importance of stories that reflect non-white characters and plays into cultural narratives of the inferiority of non-whites.[4]

As the gaming audience grows more diverse (and consequently less white and male), game companies have grown (begrudgingly, sometimes) more aware of the need to at least pay lip service to diversity with the characters in their games. Unfortunately, much of the time the diversity is just that – lip service – with token minority characters included so that developers can say that their characters aren’t exclusively white.

Even worse is when you have developers who treat LGBT minorities as checking two diversity boxes. If your attitude toward diversity can be described as – “I’ll include a gay latina! Then all of my diversity boxes are checked and the rest of my characters can be straight white dudes! Diversity win!”

…then fuck you.

Mighty Whitey

Please, for the love of god, if you are writing a game scenario, please do not have it revolve around having a white character (or a character who reads as white, or is an obvious analog for whiteness) save a group of backwards non-white characters (or characters who read as non-white, or who are obvious analogs of non-whiteness). The “white man swoops in to save the poor benighted non-whites from all their problems” story is one that has been repeated quite often in our culture and is, frankly, offensive.

[taken from Feminist Disney, here.]

Let me frame it in terms of personal experience. Quite often when I talk about feminism with regards to gaming, I am informed by thoughtless dudebros that I am doing feminism wrong, and that clearly all of my problems with sexism in gaming would be solved! if I only were to do [X], where [X] = write my own games, draw my own art, stop talking about sexism, choose not to be offended, don’t seek out offensive material, etc etc etc. And you know what? It PISSES. ME. OFF.

Do you really think, random dude-type person, that you know my lived experience better than I do? That you understand the experience of sexism so well that you can tell me how to solve sexism in my daily life? Let me assure you, Mr. Dudebro, that anything you can spout off of the top of your head, I have already thought of. And this solution that you want to share with me out of the generousness of your heart is not helpful.

Yeah, that’s how that kind of story can come off to people who aren’t white dude gamers. Except WORSE! Because that neglects the fact that the narrative of “white dude saves non-whites from all their problems” completely ignores the crucial fact that we live in a society that has been institutionally designed to facilitate the economic success of whites and to prevent the economic success of non-whites. So when you write stories that revolve around thinly-veiled analogs of “white dude saves non-whites from all their problems”, you’re erasing the fact that many of the problems faced by real-world minorities were originally caused by white people, and are still perpetuated by white people. Which is a dick move[5].

Too Brown/Not Too Brown (ie Using Real World Racial Traits to Differentiate Your Fantasy Races)

The typical handling of fantasy races is shitty in a lot of ways, but one of the most cringe-inducing is the seemingly-requisite description of racial characteristics. A lot of the descriptions hinge on the stereotype of black features as being “coarse” and “ugly” while white European features are “fine” and “pretty”. So when you have evil races that are dark-skinned and ugly, their features are described as “coarse” and “harsh” and “brutish”. Contrast this with “pretty” evil races like the Drow** who are described as being beautiful with dark skin and “fine” features. Because even in a universe with magic and dragons, the only standard of beauty that matters is a European standard of beauty. FUUUUUUUUCK.


(I know this might seem monotonous to keep picking on the Drow, but it would be pretty much impossible to write anything that would be a bigger shitpile of privilege, entitlement, and awful sexist and racist stereotypes than the Drow. …please don’t take that as a challenge.)

Try letting your art do the heavy lifting of description for you. And if you must write something descriptive, avoid language that falls into the aforementioned stereotypes.

Even better – you know what would be awesome? Write your racial descriptions from the point of view of a member of that race, not from the point of view of some omniscient European observer. Have a troll describe what is beautiful to trolls. Have an orc describe what is beautiful to orcs. That would be awesome.

So basically, if you’re going to write a fantasy race and have what differentiates them from other races be a characteristic that is usually ascribed to an ethnically distinct group of people in real life? DON’T DO THAT.

Sub-Fail: Superior Species with Real World Racial Traits

Here’s another one I wish I didn’t see as often as I did. If you’re writing a race that has inborn magic powers, immortality, supernatural sexiness, preternatural senses, or is otherwise superior to normal boring humans, DON’T have the defining trait of that race be a real world racial trait.

Wait. No. I’m going to be more explicit.

DON’T MAKE THEM BLONDE. Because that is some creepy white supremacy shit right there – ESPECIALLY when combined with the Evil Darkies mentioned above.

That’s not to say you can’t have superhumans! Because, shit. Superhumans are the best! There’s a reason I’ve played an elf in nearly 100% of the D&D games I’ve ever played, because why would I be a boring-ass human when I could be a goddamn elf? However, you can keep 100% of your magical superhumans and still have them not suck. Case in point, World of Warcraft:

Granted, there’s still an awwwwwful lot of fail of just about all types in WoW. But this is, at least, one small thing that they did manage to get right.

Subfail: Evil halfbreeds (Miscegenation! OH NO!)

You know what’s also terrible? Always having mixed-race characters be evil, even when those races are made up. I’M LOOKING AT YOU SEYMOUR GUADO. That’s some seriously messed up racial purity nonsense, okay? So don’t do that.

Misogyinist/Other-ist Furriners

So, at the risk of stating the obvious – the society we live in is pretty sexist.

I KNOW, RIGHT??

And yet something that a lot of game writers love to seem to do (that is, when they’re not applying SEXISM BECAUSE HISTORY to eveeerrryyyythinnnngggg) is to have the good and just and awesome white society that is egalitarian and not at all oppressive that clashes with a society of evil darkies that totally hate women because they are unenlightened savages.

And. Um. Yuck.

Firstly,  this has some pretty horrifying white supremacy implications – you’re pretty much saying that non-white cultures can’t treat their people properly because they’re either less evolved or less human, which should be gross for reasons that are self-evident if you have even the smallest modicum of human decency. But second – and here’s where I know that I’ve turned into a parent – people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Look. Society sucks for everyone. EVERYONE. But you know what sucks more? When artists create work that only perpetuates the ugly stereotype that people of color come from cultures that are morally and intellectually bankrupt. That not only erases all of the harm that white people have done to create and perpetuate systematic oppression against people of color, it adds a healthy dose of “well you deserved it anyway”, which is a nice bit of shit icing on that particular turd cake.

Exoticisation

Look, I’m going to be short and to the point here because Tassja of Irresistible Revolution covered this better than I ever could. EXOTIC IS NOT A COMPLIMENT.

Are you writing about a POC culture (or a culture that reads as POC, or a culture that is an obvious analogue for POC) in a way that makes them “exotic”? Well don’t. It’s a shitty thing to do. Exotifying a culture takes away it’s humanity. If you want to write about a culture that is not your own, write about that culture as a group of people with merits and flaws and traditions and weird hangups. Write about a group of PEOPLE. Not a bunch of brightly colored cardboard cutouts.

Subfail: Sexy “Gypsies”

The Roma are a real-life group of people who still face real-life oppression today. Do a little Googling and you’ll dig up more than you ever wanted to read about the horrific treatment of the Roma by EU countries, particularly France and Hungary.

When the only “gypsies” that appear in games are SEXY “gypsies”, that only dehumanizes real-life Roma and erases the violence that Roma face on a daily basis. Also? It’s a tired fucking stereotype, so don’t use it.

Subfail: Hordes

A lot of fantasy fiction has hordes as the generic force that must be opposed – an implacable IMPOSSIBLY LARGE army that’s, you know, evil and stuff because they’re foreign and they’re an army. The thing is, a lot of how these fantasy hordes get written about is pretty much the same way that people write about the Mongol hordes.

Now let’s face it, the Mongols were pretty much the bad-assestest of all invading armies from history, so they do make a pretty good historical model for an antagonistic invading force. And they also make great villains! What with their lack of bathing and overcoming enemies through sheer force of numbers and their rampant misogyny… oh. Wait. No. That’s not the mongols, that’s racist stereotyping.

Guys, the Mongols were actual super, super awesome. As in were ruled by badass lady Mongols, invented an efficient postal system, were masters of tactics, and created a Pax Mongolica. Yeah, that’s right. And that’s just a few of the awesome-tastic things they did. So if you’re going to have an antagonistic invading horde, why not have it be an army of foreigners who are just better than you. Better tactics, better technology, better society – more tolerant and progressive. And then have a campaign about trying to repel that force while some of your own people say, wait we like those guys better. That would be pretty damn sweet, now that I think about it.

But please, no more cardboard cutout unwashed barbarian raping hordes please.

Subfail: The Noble Savage

Are you writing a game with a group of primitive Natives who have a simple-but-beautiful culture and a connection to nature and they are beautiful and irresistible despite their primitive nature? Congratulations, you’ve just written a group of noble savages, which is really, really terrible. Bonus points for being screwed up if their connection to nature gives them magic powers (TENRA BANSHO ZERO) because now you’ve just given them oppression superpowers. (It’s totes okay that we oppressed you because you got superpowers out of the deal so shut up.)

Look, the myth of the noble savage is exactly how the stories of real-life Native peoples are subverted and/or erased. It’s a way of saying it’s okay that we destroyed their culture and committed genocide, because, you know, they’re a bunch of damn savages. And the noble part? That might have been something that originated from a sense of guilt about the horrible stuff we did to native peoples. But more probably it came about as a result of companies commodifying the image of the “Indian brave” as a brand to be sold. And it’s hard to sell something if it’s not seen as laudable in some way.

If you want to have a group of Native people or a group that reads as an analogue for Native peoples, cool! But find a way to turn the trope on its head. PLEASE.

[1] People Of Color

[2] Drizzt is a Drow ranger from Forgotten Realms who turns against his people because he doesn’t want to murder a beautiful white girl. …no, really. I wish I was making that up. (And then he winds up murdering her anyway later. Only it’s okay because he really didn’t want to, and he feels really bad about it.[3]

[3] Furthermore (just to pile a little hate on Drizzt), it’s worth noting that Drizzt is a man who comes from an Evil Matriarchy. Because obviously the Evil Evil Wimminz in power aren’t capable of reforming because they are wimminz. (Yes I just footnoted a footnote. Shut up.)

[4] Think I’m exaggerating? Listen to any Republican talk about crime and watch them immediately start using racially coded language. OH YEAH I JUST WENT THERE.

[5]