Gaming is Life, and Life is Diverse

Greetings, gamer kin!

Today I share with you yet another gaming anecdote from my past, but they can’t all be sunshine and puppies (or even bunnies). This one is actually embarrassing and awkward to recount, but I think it’s also worth sharing, so I’m pulling the trigger. If you’re looking for a chuckle, or some new tool or tip for your GURPS games, you may want to give this one a pass — but I hope you don’t.

Anyway, as I crept about the Internet this morning at 3am, catching up on my daily RPG reading (thank goodness for browser tabs!)…

…I came across a link to an excellent post that really took me back to a game I GMed some years ago. I wish I could say it was so long ago that I could chalk up my missteps to just being a typically narcissistic and unaware “kid”… but not even close.

I was living with friends, a couple, and had GMed a few one-shot games for them and their non-gaming buddies to much success. I, of course, had the time of my life because, duh, I got to GM games! And for newbies! My roomies were able to recapture some of their own gaming nostalgia, and all of the non-gamers trying out a tabletop RPG for the first time loved it (and often asked when we could play again). Good times and fun games all around. So far, so good.

For Halloween of the second year of this, I scheduled a game for my roomies and a new couple they had been dear friends with for years, Maria and Yolanda. It was a horror game, naturally, a delve into a good old-fashioned haunted asylum, and the newcomers were super excited — Maria, especially, had wanted to try “Dungeons & Dragons” for a long time (it was GURPS, but she didn’t care), and nothing makes me happier than giving folks a memorable first introduction to this little hobby that’s meant so much to me.

I disappeared for a few weeks and reemerged with maps, adventure notes, handouts, pre-gen characters, all the usual goodies. The game night approached, I made sure everything was laid out just right, and once everyone arrived and chit-chatted a bit, we moved to the dining room table covered with the tools for our evening’s outing as I gave the typical rundown of what an RPG/GURPS is and how to play it. The front cover of each of the pre-gen characters had no stats or mechanics, just a name, brief background, and a large, color photo.

There were six characters for four players to choose from. Variety, right? When I invited everyone to pick one they thought looked fun, they all started excitedly poring over the characters trying to decide… except Maria. She spent a moment scanning over all the sheets on the table, looked confused, then asked me one of the most simple but reality-changing questions I’ve ever been asked.

“Mook, why are all the characters white?”

Yeah, Mook. Why are all the characters white?

It’s cringe-worthy, and is seared into my brain. Maria is racially Mexican with brown skin. Of the six characters, there were two women, two men, a girl, and a boy. I was aware of gender inequality, gaming-wise, pretty early thanks to one of my formative groups in high school. But now, staring down at those six pre-gen characters, I literally could not believe I had entirely failed to notice for weeks that every single one of them was white. Glaringly white. Like, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber white.

After an awkward pause, we all laughed about it, I apologized (probably too much), they picked the characters they wanted (and penciled in new genders and descriptions as needed), and we all had a fantastic adventure after the bumpy start. I’d honestly be shocked if Maria even remembers that part — on her list of “crap I just have to deal with all day, every day,” I imagine it was, sadly, an inconsequential blip.

But it bothered me, a lot. I had hurt her. Unintentionally, of course. But that fun, open, enthusiastic, and passionate-to-play woman had for weeks been looking forward to finally getting to play a game she really wanted to play, with people she really liked and considered friends, and even there she had to take a moment to yet again make room for herself in an artificially-created sea of white.

I’m an old, cis, white dude. There is no denying that in many ways, I am the “default” character for apathetic creators with no interest in moving beyond their blinders. I can’t even imagine how hurtful, disempowering, and ostracizing it must be to live your life when the overwhelming majority of mainstream heroes and role-models in movies, on TV, in books and comics and games don’t look or sound like you and your family. And in that moment, for that player in that game — I was that creator.

It was a shameful but important moment for me, a true chance to learn and grow. Because it wasn’t some abstract, hypothetical thought exercise about the lack of diversity in media. It was an eager new gamer looking for that same magic of creativity and imagination I’ve always treasured, and her having just one more roadblock put in her way because I didn’t take a half-second to really open my eyes and consider that the world outside my immediate four walls might be much more colorful.

Since that night, I’ve tried even harder to make my games more welcoming and more accepting of anyone who wants to join in. No, “He can cast spells that literally alter the nature of reality, but he can’t be a woman,” or “She can fly and throw cars, but she can’t have a girlfriend.” That is idiocy of the worst kind. A lot of my pre-gen characters these days have no name or gender assigned, because those choices make no mechanical difference and should be up to the player. The truth is, though, I feel like I still get it wrong more than I get it right.

But, I’m trying, and I hope you are too. RPGs are the purest form of escapist entertainment. We can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. Embrace that, and try to stay aware of any hurtful real-world biases that might creep subconsciously into your imaginary play time. Getting rid of them can only lead to more and better games for everyone.

Still sorry, Maria. But, sincerely, thank you for respecting me enough to call me on it. It made a huge difference.

 

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9 Comments

  1. This sort of thing is always fraught, but I’ll try to be delicate here, and I hope provide some useful feedback.

    First, I really don’t think you should beat yourself up about this. You say, in one sentence, that she probably doesn’t remember it and in the next, that you hurt her. I dunno about you, but I tend to remember it when people hurt me. If you really struck her to the core with your lack of a diverse cast of characters, she’d probably remember it. You portray it as you accidentally committing some grave wrong, but I would contend that you did no wrong. There is nothing “wrong” with an all-“white” cast, anymore than there’s anything wrong with an all-“Chinese” cast, which is typical of one of my wuxia games. You could argue that you missed an opportunity to do something better, however. I’ll leave that judgment up to you, but it seems to mesh with how you see it.

    When it comes to “Diversity,” however, I encourage you to step away from the current popular conception of it. Living here in Europe, I find a lot of the calls for “Diversity” to be very provincial: it seems focused on what an American would think of as diversity, but especially a Californian. If I may offer some counter examples of other forms of diversity important elsewhere, consider the importance of the representation of both the French and English language in Canada, the importance of regional dialects in British TV, or the importance of religious diversity in the Middle East (it’s a lot more than Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A LOT more). When people talk about diversity, they don’t bring up Slavs (very important, especially around the turn of the 20th century; arguably it trigged WW1), the people of the steppe, the specifics of peoples in Africa (who all get lumped into one or two categories), or Pacific islanders, and Indians tend to end up in a weird place to a lot of people who seek that American form of “Diversity.”

    This highlights the other problem with “Diversity:” how to define it. In principle, the idea behind diversity is that those who are not represented should be, but this creates a feedback loop. For example, we should represent African-Americans, but we actually do. We represent them a lot. There’s hardly a film or a TV show now that doesn’t have at least one. So maybe they need less representation than Eastern Asians, such as the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, but they actually have a lot of representation too; perhaps less in Hollywood, but anyone who has seen the juggernauts of anime or Asian cinema know that an East Asian doesn’t lack for representation in film of some kind. And we can go on and on, looking for less and less represented people until we reach the ultimate conclusion: that the individual is the ultimate minority.

    When you create a cast of white characters for an American audience, you have about a 60% chance of getting it right, more if the minority who is playing isn’t bothered by playing someone who doesn’t look like them. Similarly, most RPGers are male, cis, straight, etc. They’re the majority in America, so if you want to keep things simple, that’s your safest market. Of course, representing minorities is the whole point of “diversity.” But this also means that the farther you get from that majority, the less likely a player will identify with them, and it becomes “wasted work” (sort of, more on that in a bit). You could create a half-black, half-Polynesian queer former-Muslim, current-atheist immigrant to America, but the chances of one of your players identifying as that is super low. That doesn’t mean such a person doesn’t exist, and one of the cool things about RPGs is the customizability of them, so such a person could make exactly that character, but if you failed to pre-gen that character for them, you could hardly blame yourself, could you?

    So these are some of the problems with “diversity.” What I would encourage instead is curiosity. Your friend points out that all your characters were “white,” and you hadn’t realized this. Revelation: you could expand out. That’s not a black mark against you, but an invitation to explore new territory! Be curious about those places, and “diversity” will flow naturally. As I was working on the fashion designs for some of my Psi-Wars characters with a fashion designer, she praised the sort of people I was trying to design the fashion for, and linked me to a site that reminded her of my approach: http://theatlasofbeauty.com/ I recommend it if you’re looking for new visual ideas for female characters that come across the world and aren’t the samey-looking, mass-produced magazine-cover ideal of beauty that we’re currently inundated with. For further exploration, I suggest dives into Wikipedia, history, the local library and, if your wallet can handle it, a trip to another country. I’ve run games set in Japan and China, I’ve visited Turkey (and lived in England, the Netherlands and Okinawa), and I’m curious about Indian philosophy, the Mali empire, the Congo and the Great Lakes region of Africa, the “people of the Steppe” and their past and present, and the various flavors of Islam and its history (among many other things). Europe’s history is also much more interesting than people give it credit for, and doesn’t actually look that much like our Fantasy conception of it, making it worth a second look (even if it’s a quite well-trodden path in the Western world).

    The point here is that if you’ve studied Djinn mythology, or the coast of Zanzibar, or Advaita Vedanta, or the origins of the Turks or the Suomi, or the history of Jews in Ukraine, or the Venezuelan revolution (or the Haitian revolution), you won’t be blindsided by demands for diversity, and you’ll also find some amazing RPG settings you could be running. You also won’t be chasing after an ever-evolving definition of what is “diverse enough,” but setting your own trends. You needn’t apologize for not thinking about or knowing a particular culture, ethnicity or sub-culture (there’s always one you won’t be thinking about), but that doesn’t mean that, when presented with one, you can’t decide you’d like to explore it further.

    So is my experience anyway.

  2. I just finished making a character template for “Canadian” that was significantly different than “British” or “Danish” and I can only hope I didn’t make them awful stereotypes. They are relevant choices in the game because of how they determine your other character choices, and I wanted the choices to be more than a gating flag. It’s given me an appreciation for how very similar people can be culturally and even more-so across races within a culture. We should think on diversity of our players. We should appreciate the different experiences and perspectives they bring to the table. But ideally the answer to “Why are all the characters white” should be “Your character’s color can be anything you want. It doesn’t impact the game unless you want to play it that way.”

  3. OK. Question: what made the character “race”? Did you put in a specific name or description on the sheet that forced it, or even hinted it?

    My position on it, to get to the point: pregen characters should be nothing more than GURPS Templates: the skills needed to fill the role in the story. Name, sex and description should be left for the player.

    • “Question: what made the character ‘race’?…”

      It was a picture. (“The front cover of each of the pre-gen characters had no stats or mechanics, just a name, brief background, and a large, color photo”). I definitely didn’t write “…white as Justin Bieber…” in the description hehe.

  4. Thanks for the comments, folks. Some of them “feel” like they’re disagreeing, but since we’re all saying the same thing (“…my pre-gen characters these days have no name or gender assigned…”), I’m just going to assume we’re all more or less on the same page. ­čÖé

    • Back in the ’80s I played in a Western RPG. The GM had a homebrew system that was supposed to be generic, but that’s another story. He run this game at the request of his 13 year old son. We were up for it. It was time for a change.
      The game went to a screeching halt when the GM started using racial slurs while in-character. To the man’s credit, he was trying to be historically accurate. The players, all of them white, or nearly so (me), were shocked. I remembered being embarrassed. The game ended after that.

      • That would actually be a pretty neat addition to the game, *if* there was any opportunity for the PCs to say what they thought of that or get back at that character for it. But in a setting like that, there might not be much opportunity for that, since the racist character is the majority view, so he would just have to be allowed to carry on using those expressions without anything being done about it, which is not fun.
        Where it might be fun is in a modern/future setting or maybe a historical setting where there were specifically rebellions or something going on – where you would get the chance to introduce racist characters, or characters just unthinkingly using racist expressions because they were normal, and then other characters would get to darn well cut them down to size.

  5. Great post! I enjoy reading self-reflective anecdotes that show that the RPG community continues to make improvement when it comes to issues of identity. Thanks for sharing, Mook!

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