“When we all sit down together and gather around the multi-cultural table, what do white people bring?
The answer is: The Table.”
– Tim Wise
Last month I was talking about a game of Misspent Youth that we played last year. In it, we all worked for a corporate fast food chain that was the Big Bad of the game and it was called Murdah Burger. They had entirely commodified hip-hop culture; had re-packaged it and were selling it right back to the people they had stolen it from. While telling Janaki about the game, she got really uncomfortable.
Instead of asking her what about the game’s premise made her uncomfortable or talking about the issues the game’s setting we specifically designed to bring up, I attempted to shut the conversation down.
“You weren’t there. The game was fine. It was awesome.”
Later, I apologized and checked myself and eventually we sussed it out together. But in the following essay, when I write about these techniques used to put off discussion and dialogue about race issues, I am not talking about some bogeyman under the bed, some mythical privileged person far away who we can all tut-tut. I am talking about many of us, myself very much included.
We tried to shoot a Sons of Kryos show about race and the new video format’s limitations did not allow for it to work, despite Jeff’s prodigious skill and Storn’s wonderful contributions. While hashing it out, I wrote an e-mail to them, just kind of get my thoughts in order.
It went a little something like this:
RPG’s are built on the fictions of Tolkien and Howard. These are works that are really messy, at best, in their depictions of race. The House of Gaming is built on shaky, shaky foundations. To make matters worse, our own country’s media has its own issues with depictions of people of color in film. This isn’t a pass for gaming, though and it isn’t an excuse for intellectual laziness.
If we can’t agree that it is kinda odd that many of our fantasy worlds have a nation of black-skinned immortal evil women who live underground in an empire run by slavery and ruled by a demon queen, than we are in trouble. I don’t care if St. Gary was just basing his Drow on the black elves of Norse Myth. This isn’t about what Gary Gygax meant or did not mean in creating the Drow. It is about what they have become, how they are depicted and have become a symbol all their own.
Fantasy worlds are metaphors, whether we are aiming for pure escapism or not. Metaphor is the blood of what we do. Metaphors use symbols and symbols are powerful. It isn’t that we should be careful, far from it. I think the metaphors and symbols should be a total mess. Make fantasy worlds that make you wince. But be willing to talk about it. Don’t shrug it off, don’t look away from the messes we make and be willing to own them. It doesn’t make you a bad person to have taken part in a messy metaphor, far from it. I would argue that it makes us very human. Just do not cop out.
Do not say that fantasy worlds “do not mean anything” or that it is “just fantasy.” This is weak sauce. It doesn’t matter what you meant or that your best friend is black and he loved your game. Do not run from a messy fantasy. Embrace it. Use it. Talk about it.
I am not saying you cannot play your Drow Ranger with two katana. Play that damned ranger! But don’t look away from the mess that ranger is built on and do not use the dozens of techniques people in privilege and power (y’know, those people…like ME) use to keep from ever having think critically about race and the fictions we use to play our games.