Privilege is a hell of a drug. Those of us who have it in droves can do a surprising amount of harm without ever intending to, and gaming is not only not an exception, it’s a regular offender.
Before we dive too deep into this, let me check my own: I’m a white, cis, abled, rich dude who grew up in the urban South. For the most part, I wind up gaming with other abled white men and women with a growing number of happy exceptions. Most of what follows is aimed at the GM I was only a few years ago, using awkward, mishandled shadow puppets of actual social problems and thinking it was a progressive way to game in hopes it gives someone else a head start on doing better.
Let’s start with the concept of “fantasy racism,” where comments like “that’s just like an elf” are often considered harmless, comical, or even good roleplaying. Rarely does an entire game go by without someone’s “race” coming into play, whether it’s tension between dwarves and elves, the way orcs or tieflings are treated, or the assumption (sometimes system-supported) that some “races” are just innately evil.
It’s a small credit that many GMs and players alike use fantasy racism as a way to highlight the error of and real struggles with actual racism, and that’s a noble enough intention, but that intention counts for nothing when the end result is privileged players patting themselves on the back for a job well done after punching the straw out of a bad caricature.
First there’s the issue that this form of “racism” is rarely actually dealing with race – a blend of culture, genetics and nationality – but with species (elves/orcs), clan affiliation (tremere/lasombra), or some other supernatural label (benders/non-benders, vampires/werewolves, mutants/inhumans, etc.).
That might seem like a harmless conversion – species to race – but it immediately validates a harmful real-world myth: that race is a simple matter of genetic heritage. With that comes the assumption that someone’s race is an objectively-quantifiable thing, something a blood test could verify or reveal. It also assumes all people with those genetics are one race, which can lead to the assumption that they are also monolithic in culture. Nothing could be further from the truth, and there’s a great deal of potential harm in supporting the assumption even in a game about planeswalking and dragonslaying.
Despite the name, fantasy racism is by no means limited to games like D&D and Pathfinder. Goblinization makes fantasy racism a core element of Shadowrun, as do the prejudices baked into Eclipse Phase with uplifts and synthetic morphs. Even modern settings, where parallels to actual racism would be a short walk, most games avoid them completely in favor of imperfect and oversimplified analogs that have all manner of harmful ideology baked in, even if the intent was to raise awareness and allow even privileged players to experience a muted form of prejudice via their characters.
That brings us to the second problem. Bringing faux racism or prejudice into a game where the players are not playing PCs they share privilege with can create the illusion both that they now understand prejudice and that racism is a problem that can be solved in the course of a campaign. There’s absolutely value in bringing prejudice into your game as a deeper experience for your players (provided your careful about your players’ triggers), but if you cannot make it legitimate, it’s best to leave it out rather than provide players a false sense of pride at their newfound state of “enlightment.”
That may sound overblown, but I promise you that in every discussion of prejudice surrounding gaming, there will always be That Gamer who tries to make comparisons between actual prejudice and “the shopkeeps always charged my half-orc more” as though they are equal in depth of understanding.
It’s been said by better minds than mine that one dip into the shallow end of even legitimate marginalization and prejudice is not remotely equivalent to the backbreaking experience of living under it since birth, and not being able to escape it when your short vacation from privilege is over.
The same applies to gaming. If you plan to bring topics like discrimination and marginalization into your game, basing them on actual real-world instances without transposing anything is often far, far better as both an opportunity for richer RP and an educational experience for at least some of your players than holding up drow matrons and their infamous misandry as some kind of clever commentary.
Similarly, do not make them easy problems to solve with loud, obvious sides and clearly-drawn lines. Do not make every in-game racist or sexist into a moustache-twirling villain wearing their prejudice on their sleeve. Instead, have well-meaning racists or otherwise decent people on both sides of the friend/foe line for the players – NPCs who don’t even realize how much their privilege is causing harm, or who are very much racist/sexist but make paradoxical exceptions for the PCs because “I know you’re not like them.” Prompt actual discussions in-character if the players confront the NPC and base them on commonly used arguments from people who can’t even imagine they could be doing harm. You won’t have far to look.
Deal in microaggressions. Prevent even allies of the same group as the PCs from being monolithic – give them differing and contradictory opinions. Introduce intersectionality and how it plays into prejudice and privilege across the broad matrix of groups to which any given person belongs. Rich elves with proper arcane training may have a wholly different opinion of the world and their “fellow elves” than a family of elven farmers whose naturally long lifespan is regularly put in jeopardy by the danger of the work they do and the frontier on which they did it.
And now to the most painful part, because it is both the element most often left out of discussions of privilege and because it is perhaps the most widely misrepresented by core system concepts in terrible and sometimes horrifying ways: disability.
Race gets transposed to species, but disability is presented under the guise of a one-to-one representation of actual mental and physical disabilities. Blindness and Deafness are core D&D spells and traits in White Wolf. ADHD and bipolar disorder play into game mechanics in Eclipse Phase. These concepts are everywhere, and they aren’t hidden under vague parallels like “orc” or “elf.”
Simplified versions of disabilities are often included as exclusively the “Flaws” side of a “Merits & Flaws” system – physical and mental disabilities often reward players additional build points or abilities in exchange for a system disadvantage or a strict roleplay requirement. Three guesses why filing all forms of disability under a heading like “Flaws” or “Disadvantages” might be hurtful to some of your players.
As a GM, you aren’t a system designer, so if you do find yourself with a system that includes this cookies-for-disabilities model of character design, especially if one of your players wishes to include one, speak with the player before the concept hits the table and be sure they genuinely understand what they’re about to be representing, and that it may impact the other players out of game as well as in. If they seem genuine, prep the other players at the table so that the concept can be handled without doing any immediate harm. Remember that you have no idea what disabilities the people around the table have, even if you’ve known them for years.
Also be careful as a GM with how a PC’s disability interacts with the world. If you feel the included system adjustment in the “flaw” is a poor reflection of the real disability (chances are good), ditch it in favor of creating genuine, number-less opportunities for the player to explore a realistic shift in experience due to the disability. While erasure is its own issue, in this case, if you don’t feel confident that you or your players can handle the subject without doing harm, leave it out.
Now, what does all this amount to other than a lot of brow-beating over “first, roll no harm?”
Put bluntly, educate yourself. Find out where your gaps in knowledge are and make sure you adjust your play (and, when needed, the play of your players) to create a safe gaming space and to prevent reinforcing or justifying bad habits away from the table. Question everything in the settings you have loved for years and make sure you haven’t been defaulting to the RP equivalent of blackface without knowing why that might be a problem.
Also remember that even if you don’t plan to make discrimination a major focus (or even a minor one) in your campaign, it is there anyway as the background radiation of our personal and cultural interactions. Remain aware that you, your players and the designers of the setting are bringing baggage to the table that may need to be checked before you can be confident you aren’t quietly doing harm whether you mean to or not.
You can’t just not try to do harm – you have to actively try to not do harm. And if your players complain about restrictions or corrections, or when you feel yourself start to fall back on “but this is supposed to be fun,” hold onto that thought, because that’s the whole reason this is so important.
It is supposed to be fun – and for a lot of people, it won’t be unless you do your job as a GM to keep out the things that will ruin that fun in a hurry. Keep gaming fun by educating yourself and checking your privilege. It will be more than worth it for the players who will finally get to enjoy the hobby without reservations.