Monday Lab: Racist is as Racist Does

What does that phrase mean? I lifted it from the famous phrase about “stupid,” but movies and memes may have spoiled the original phrase’s meaning, so I’ll (probably) waste your time for a moment explaining myself.

The point is that it’s not what people call you or judge you, or conversely, what you think or say either. It’s about the actions: what’s done, what’s there, and how it turns out. I’m applying this to a specific context of potential racism in role-playing games: a broad array of options for player-characters.

I’ve already discussed the issue of calling such options “races” in the first place, in my introductory video for the entire topic of racism for this website (see Monday Lab: Halfbreed). In the lab, you’ll see us wince or struggle with its presence, and I ask that our discussion here not get distracted by it. It’s a big deal but it’s also seeing multiple examinations and meltdowns throughout the internet.

For the topic, meaning, games which provide many player-character options of this sort:

  • Is that entire concept intrinsically racist? With or without special distinguishing mechanics?
  • If it isn’t, or racist only insofar as the term “race is used,” then what racist (specifically supremacist) content is added or decreased by including humans among the options? Noting that “unmodified, baseline” is itself not as neutral as it might look initially.
  • Which games which feature such an array display striking supremacism toward one or another of its options, or toward those in-game groups which are not included in the options?

This playlist starts with a presentation by myself about three games, in order to highlight the third bullet point especially.

In the lab, I don’t think we drove hard enough into these questions, partly because I can get terribly distracted or diverted by someone mentioning certain titles, and because it was hard to establish what I wanted to talk about – games with a lot of options, not merely variations on the standard four or six. And I was mostly interested in the third bullet point, which we barely touched. But we managed to produce some moments of thought anyway.

Help us out! Please focus on games with a lot of options, not on single-group games (which are now much more common than they used to be, and very distracting to this topic), and let’s examine special supremacism as evidenced by game descriptions and features.




19 responses to “Monday Lab: Racist is as Racist Does”

  1. Steal Away Jordan

    Regarding the bulletted list, I hope you'll talk in one of these seminars about the one game where not only there are "races", but there are slaves too, and you roll a number of dice that is tied to your "worth" so a white master roll a lot of dice. I cite it because it's a good reminder that depicting is not the same as excusing, and because I remember that you liked a lot that game too…  🙂

    • That game will definitely fit

      That game will definitely fit into another of the focused topics I'd like to address, which is slavery as such within role-playing settings.

      But for this topic, given your experience across so many games, can you pick any of them with a very large number of player-character race/species/whatever options, and assess the degree of supremacy across them?

    • I don’t actually have a lot

      I don't actually have a lot of experience with games with a large number of those… Yes, I have a lot of YEARS of experience, but with very few games (mostly AD&D, then Runequest, but with the latter one I went to the "everybody from the same tribe/culture" path so the options remained on the manuals that only I did read. So… only one game, AD&D. After that, I didn't want to play another game like it, ever, so I didn't.

      Reading any game description where they listed things like "12 races! 20 classes!" was so much a turn-off, that it was enough to make me totally avoid any game…

  2. A Game I Love, A Game I Don’t

    I can think of two games off the top of my head that I feel fit the criteria. Let's talk World of Synnibarr first. Thelatest version (thatI could find) has a bewildering number of races in it, from Armored Praying-Mantis to the Bio Syntha Cyborg to many variations of humans. Plus there are elves and dwarves. Thirty races in all from what I could see. 

    Humans get nothing special, but neither do they get any sensities. That is, they have no special rules for stayling alive. Elves, as an example, have to eat mushrooms (10g every 120 hours) or they begin to lose their hearing. That is considered a mild sensitivity. Gnomes by contrast have a severe sensitivity; the need for leaves of the Earthroot Tree. If they do not eat a certain number every 120 hours, they begin to lose life points.

    The infamous BSC has two sensitivies and it may be toned from its 1st edition madness, but my recollection of playing the game (yes, I actually played Synnibarr) was that any limitations didn't really matter because they tore through everything.  The variation from weak to strong (to fetishistic) is wide and there are clearly better races to play. Where you notice a real issue however, is in the description of many human variant or near humans who have pale or golden skin and blue eyes. Red hair (of course) and blond hair as well.  And if you wish, as long as Fate (the gm) is okay with it, you can play a halfbreed; a combination of any two races. It should also be said, altough not racism, there are differences mechanically for males and females in the game. 


    I am (I think) on record everywhere in the internet as being a fan of Rolemaster. But, it has long suffered I think by being lazy in the race department. I looked over a couple editions, and want to discuss them a bit. There is a deep MERP (Middle Earth Role Playing) influence there, I think. It is most obvious in the 2nd edition RM division of humans in Great Men and Common Men. Great Men are taller than elves, big and strong, basically describing the Great Men as Numenorians or Superman in apperance. Also, they do not grow beards? (I feel attacked). While Common Men can be anything, though the "coal black hair" of the Great Men is rare in Common Men. Common Men grow beards and mustaches. In the same edition, Orcs are described as short and ugly, while Trolls cannot go out in the sunlight. 

    In the latest edition, and in the HARP RPG this is winnowed down to the basics, plus goblins, orcs, adn trolls in RM and Gryx, described as an ugly race, in HARP

    Once I get my tought together on Shadowrun (& Earthdawn), I will respond with those thoughts too. 

    • My apologies for the bad

      My apologies for the bad spelling. I should have edited it before hitting save. 

    • The question for me is

      The question for me is whether Synnibar takes the heat for openly doing some things which are found in plenty of other games which manage to mask it better, or which get a pass for this-or-that reason.

      You should explain the "BSC" in deep detail for purposes of the discussion, as your description kind of ended before it began. As I understand it: very distinctive sensitivities (two rather than one), and very, very effective in play.

      So … is that bad? Or more specifically, supremacist in the sense I was striving to address in the lab? It seems at least possibly more oriented toward the "fuck it, I'm playing a hard-luck bad-ass" trend that Jon and I are discussing in a comment below. What are your thoughts on that?

    • I do not think Synnibarr is

      I do not think Synnibarr is more guilty than some of the other games, except that the game is built on a foundation of philosophy (I am not sure religion is the proper term) and (weird) science. The races come off feeling more like fetishes than they do an actual evolution of the human race. And if your philosophy and weird science create some species that are clearly superior to others, that feels like it was done on purpose and feels more than a bit supremecist to me. 

      My play experience with Synnibarr was with its 2nd Edition I do believe, the 93 version. In there it explicitly states that the Bio-Syntha Cyborg is a mimic of humans. In that edition the BSC is a "class" but it is an example of a racial class as one cannot be a dwarf or elf or racoon AND be a BSC; it is a self contained race and class. To be a BSC requires rolling 3 natural 20s in character creation. They have their own radar and the artwork reminds me of Joachim (Judson Scott) from STII: Wrath of Khan, except for having a shiny chome body. In actual play the BSC was superior to any other character. But play consisted of three very stressful sessions. 

      In the 2013 version of the game (third edition), the BSC (and several of the other races that are really classes) is explicitly its own race. It retains its bazooka power. The sensitivites are a need for palladium every 120 hours or die and a susceptability to EMP. It costs 50 merits (out of 100) to "purchase" the race. This is the highest as far as I can tell of any of the races. 

      So I would not categorize the BSC as a "fuck it" hard luck race. The closes thing to a Gloranthan duck or any variation of goblin is the Talking Raccoon / Loter. Which is shown with a bazooka in the 2E artwork. But they are very angry. Maybe a shout out to the original Rocket Raccoon of comics (not the movie version, obviously). 

    • From your description,

      From your description, Synnibar seems to be blameless as far as the supremacism issue is concerned. It's hardly unique in leaning toward fair-skinned humanity, which, if biased or tin-eared, isn't the same as supremacist in the World Tree sense. We've been giving manga/anime games a free pass for that detail for a long time …

      I know the game has been the butt for snarky pile-on for decades, but I've never seen a dime of difference between its content and, for example, Rifts. Are you sure you're not just slinging stones at it because it's an acceptable target?

    • I think I can say no, but

      I think I can say no, but only because this opinion was initially formed from when I played it. This was before I personally spent any time conversing with people about games on the internet, especially games outside of the mainstream. In fact the few people who I spoke with prior to playing Synnibarr praised it. My group's attempt to grok it was authentic; we just came away with a very bad taste in our mouths. 

      But I always gave RIFTS a pass (as well as Palladium Fantasy). Likely because I did not bounce off of it in the same way I did Synnibarr. Or it could be that racism and chauvanism are an inherent element to RIFTS, the bad guys are definitely supremecist, and I never examined closely other elements in the game that might have made me consciously or unconsciously uncomfortable.  To be honest, even though I like RIFTS, I cannot say I have ever had satisfying long or short term play with it.

      If you asked me to play RIFTS, I absolutely would (with reservations not related to this topic) and if you asked me to play Synnibarr I would not do so for fun, though I would for the purposes of research. For me personally, I think this simply comes down to how much I liked one game over the other. 

  3. Two Additions and a Third

    This is a subject I've thought about a bit. In my opinion, genre is one of the deepest ways that ideas are codified into culture. Regarding the use of Tolkien races in gaming culture, I think it's something to live down. Tolkien's use of race in Lord of the Rings employs the weird medieval theological hierarchy and it's the role of race in the cosmic hierarchy that bothers me more than the worst caricatures of race in fiction. When I go to hell, I’d rather it be for the terrible things I’ve masturbated to than my skin color.

    But even putting that aside., If we take an honest look at the fantasy races in popular culture…

    Well, this is from the first video that comes up on youtube for me about playing a half-orc.

    You need to decide your origin story. Now the origin story here is how… did your parents… conceive. [sic] Was it an orcish mother to a human lover- or *slave*? Was it an orcish male to a human female? Was it a rape? Or was it absolute love? Was it forbidden love? Or was it mutual consent or not? That origin story is important- and please don’t do the ‘Oh- I dunno. I was raised on the steps of a church.’ That’s been done. You’re a half-orc. **Embrace** your half-orcishness. Seek out that question. How did your parents have sex?

    (I looked for “half-orc” because orc listed a lot of stuff associated with prior media (Peter Jackson’s films, World of Warcraft) and I skipped some tutorials.)

    The discussion hit upon many of the different kinds of racial presentations in RPGs. I’d like to add two examples that don’t fit into those listed and how I consider them valuable additions/alternatives.

    Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition (and 3.5 and pathfinder etc.)

    Wait, didn’t we already discuss DnD and the stat. mods? I’m not talking about the player races. I’m talking about playing the monster races. This isn’t some weird option from some far-flung rulebook. It’s in the dungeon master’s guide. Just after suggesting imposing Class/Race restrictions on page 171, it talks about using monsters from the monster manual including the basic Goblin, Kobalds, and Orcs, as well as Vampires, Mind Flayers, and Hill Giants.
    To play one of these strange races you have to give up levels, usually too many to be worth it. They also tend to screw over the game completely. Once, I allowed one of my players to choose “pixie”, one of the races listed. Its abilities of being totally invisible and flight, at the expense of having near zero hp. The character could fire arrows from above, dealing immense damage (automatic sneak attack) until I decided, by fiat, that some enemy had a way to kill the character.

    Though this screams “afterthought” in all caps, I like it a lot more than DnD’s standard conception of player races and enemy races. From this perspective, races are defined by their special abilities, their societies shaped by them. It moves races away from real-world racial analogues and into the realm of wish-fulfillment.

    But look how different this is. These monster races are considered as objectively superior by the game’s metric (mechanical effectiveness) so they have to add a metagame mechanic to curb it. Furthermore, there is no mention of alignment or class restriction for these monster races.

    The second example is also in this vein, but moves from wish-fulfillment to thoughtful.

    The Shadow of Yesterday

    Nixon’s game is inspired by both Howard and Tolkien. In the base game, there are four races (called species): Humans, Elves, Goblins, and Ratkin. Each species has special abilities, and keys. That is, they have special powers and objectives tied to each species’ terminal value. 

    The Shadow of Yesterday’s use of race is interesting in at least three aspects.

    (1) Each species is defined through its association with a particular value. Elves are creatures of pure ego, who elude death. Goblins are tied to hunger. Ratkin are tied to family. What about humans? Are they enlightened generalists? No. They’re special value is love, which is interpreted as being tied to ambition and war.

    The way that keys work is that characters gain XP from certain activities. An elf can take “Key of the Self” and gain XP whenever they ignore the request of another in order to fulfill their own goals.

    (2) tSoY doesn’t use Race + Class. It uses Species + Culture. Two species who share a culture may be assumed to have more in common than the same species in two different cultures. This is more compatible with our modern ideas of race.

    (3) A character’s species is somewhat fluid. Someone can change into different species though play. I haven’t had this happen in any of my games, and the book seems to assume “human as default” in this regard, but it’s still notable.

    In the next post, I'd like to address a third game, my own! Ron brings up the subject of class and how no RPG has ever quite tackled it. Well, I have tried very hard to tackle class in Living Alchemy. In fact, I tackled class and race in two recent 8 session campaigns. I'll talk about them a bit in my next post.

    • The species fluidity in The

      The species fluidity in The Shadow of Yesterday deserves a little close attention. The point is that goblins and elves are distorted humans. They aren't species, really, despite the term in the book.

      Each elf was literally once human, long before the period of play, and underwent a transformation based on pure solipsist schizophrenia to gain immortality. If they put themselves at risk for others, or if they reproduce, they begin to revert to humanity. In rules terms, this means the player chooses Buyoff for the Key of the Self, and then the character becomes fully human and mortal.

      Goblins are biologically a little more 'autonomous' as it were, although their pairing and processes are pretty weird, and their origins as a group are left unstated. However, similar to elves, if a player-character hits a mechanical point concerning two Keys (Affliction and Unrequited Love), and chooses certain options, the character becomes human and loses all the shape-changing and related abilities.

      The only literal "other species" in the game is Ratkin, who are what they are without any human transformation or association.

      I'm glad they're in the game, in a subtle way. Clinton definitely did not want "fantasy races" to be subhuman or superhuman, and he was explicitly interested in goblins and elves as thematic extremes of actual humanity. By removing them entirely from either fantasy-genre "race" or semi-realistic "species," he could focus directly upon that.

      He could have left it at that, but then again, to focus only on humans as "real" carries its own message that at least leans toward humanocentrism, or perhaps self-involvement to an egoistic degree. Therefore having the Ratkin around as a different species, playable in its own right, explicitly not human and not supposed to be or needing to be, keeps the setting as a whole from leaning that way.

      You mentioned at some point that you're familiar with Eero's version, The World of Near, and without making any general criticism, I'm restricting my point to the original version. Briefly (for those who don't know), the newer version includes giants and dwarves who can become human in similar ways to goblins and elves, and more species of beastkin in addition to the ratkin.

  4. A recent example

    Here's an example from a game I was just reading that has something along the lines of what Ron brought up about kobolds in Hahlmabrea.
    The game is The Blackest of Deaths, by Eric Bloat, published in 2018. It's subtitle/tagline is "Dire Old School Fantasy RPG". Overall, I find it by turns compelling and frustrating (often my feeling when reading games self-described as "old school"): it makes me want to play it, but there are enough holes to make it seem like it would take a bit of work to really make it go (I might argue that these games are very much in the line of the Fantasy Heartbreakers, but compared to many of the earlier Heartbreakers, they are not as fully worked-out or playtested, as the assumption is that any given DM is going to add enough of their own stuff to fill in any holes). Regarding the topic at hand, though: there are eight player character races — the expected Human, Elf, Dwarf, but then we also get Kobolds and Goblins, and then, even more exotically, Changelings, Half-Medusa, and Serpent Men.
    Humans are presented mechanically as the baseline option. There is no specific text about humans being more versatile or adaptable, though they are the only race without any restrictions on what class they can choose. You would only know this by reading through the classes; the text otherwise doesn't make a big deal about it. You do get this interesting bit from the Necromancer class: "Only Humans possess the dark side necessary to be a Necromancer." (So, alas, no Half-Medusa Necromancers, by the rules as written).
    Most of the other race options though come with substantial powers/benefits, especially the three "exotic" choices. The Half-Medusa are particularly badass, with the ability to turn living beings to stone (which is an instant kill if the target fails their save). (Interestingly, there is no attempt to mechanically balance these exotic races with the baseline Humans, who have no special abilities and, therefore, may seem like a weak choice from a mechanical effective POV, however, the implication in the Race descriptions is that the exotic races are feared by/hunted by humans, so that if you choose to play one, you are asking for the GM to send angry mobs with pitchforks against you.) The Kobolds are, perhaps surprisingly, pretty cool, too: they are tough and cunning, and have some bonuses based on their being distantly related to Dragons.
    The one exception are Goblins, whose racial abilities are quite negative: they have a fear of magic which leads to penalties to save versus magic; they have low light vision but unlike the other races with low light or dark vision, they also have aversion to bright light and are at a disadvantage when they do anything in sunlight; and their one "bonus", a +2 to the game's equivalent to Armor Class, is presented as part of their "Fearful Nature", "they are hyper-vigilant to dangers".
    There isn't a detailed setting (though there is implied setting in the descriptions of the Races, the Classes, and the Monster list), so it isn't really clear what you're supposed to do with the Goblins, or why anyone would necessarily want to play one. There is some sympathy in how they are presented (they are said to have "The Curse of the Unwanted", and note that they sometimes find hope by pursuing a noble end and "raising their blades in defense of the weak.") And I wonder if the reference to "hyper-vigilance" isn't in some ways a suggestion that the Goblins suffer from a kind of  PTSD due to how badly they have been treated by other Races. However, mechanically, they seem to be at a real disadvantage when they are put alongside the other choices. I wonder if the author is trying to set up the kind of situation where the looked-down-upon Goblin ends up rising to the occasion and turns into a hero? Or that maybe by making the Goblin at such a disadvantage, the only way someone would choose them is if they were drawn to that kind of thematic material (the triumph of the underdog)? However, given that the context of the game is "survive dungeons to find magical treasure" and survival is tied to various kinds of effectiveness (most of which the Goblins are deficient compared to other Races), I'm not sure how well it would support the choice to try to explore those themes through playing a Goblin.
    Having said all that, if I ever get a chance to play, I will probably play a Goblin.
    • This is really important! In

      This is really important! In games of this kind (tons of 'races' to choose from, widely varying mechanics and fictional circumstances), I see a big difference between the hard-luck, put-down group vs. the outright inferior one, meaning, like, racist 'inferior.'

      To take some way, way back examples: for the "good" version, look no further than the original Ducks in Glorantha, whose cultural identity was obvious at the time (see That duck, 'nuff said), and who more than any other nonhuman in the setting were instantly adopted as a player-character option. That's because they were screwed every which way. They were tough, cranky little bastards who hated everything about life and weren't going to go down without a squawk and drawing blood on someone, dammit.

      I think that happened a lot with playing goblins and whatnot, and it was certainly part of playing half-orcs as presented in 1978's AD&D. "This is about coping with adversity? Bring on your fucking adversity, I have my dagger and my ugly little face, and that's all I need." Legendary Lives provides the same thing in spades with its hobs, ratlings, and goblins, who are remarkably appealing play-options – if you're ready to face incredibly un-appealing circumstances and spit in their eye.

      My observation of this version is that the mechanics aren't terribly disadvantageous, and often at parity with the other 'race' options, although rarely if ever advantageous in any unique way.

      For the "bad" version, from right at the same time, look no further than The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth, which provides us with prootwaddles – who are in inimitable 1970s terminology, outright retarded. They're parodies of hobbits, basically – short, loud (hollering "Proot! Proooot!" at random), incompetent, and stupid. They're in play as far as I can tell solely for comedy relief including their probably so-hiliarious sadistic deaths.

      There aren't that many examples of this version, fortunately, and that's why I was a bit shocked to see it as late as the early 1990s in Hahlmabrea.


    • I don’t know if you’re

      I don't know if you're familiar with the interesting artifact ReichStar (Creative Encounters, 1990), which is straightforward future-SF after the Axis won WWII, "took over the world," and went on to the stars.

      To its credit, it's about playing the Resistance; playing Nazi loyalists isn't remotely an option, and the authors are pretty blunt that they have presented Evil in order to fight it, and as a cautionary tale. On the other hand it's really squicky to see the swastika on the spine of the book, and the cover imagery at least nods toward bad-ass fetishism.

      Anyway, to focus on the issue at hand, the default player option is human, and it's not clear that some of the colonized aliens are available for players to play until you get to their descriptions late in the book. They're clearly built for maximal thematic punch and imagery.

      • The X'Arthujahri follow an "endure and get along, we survive because we're little" philosophy, and the text explicitly presents verbal disagreement by Jewish characters who warn these aliens not to do that.
      • The Zakchi display emotions through their skin, and since being subjugated, they often feature a gray pattern on their wrists reflecting their dispirited and miserable state.

      It's not even a jump, being pretty much explicit, to play such characters as making highly player-driven, individualized choices about their situations. In retrospect, one might suggest ignoring human player-characters entirely, going all the way with human resistance having failed or been suborned, so that our squidly or froggy little aliens are the only ones still fighting in a meaningful way. Grim, but powerful.

  5. My best thoughts

    Life is being extra-lifey for me, but some quick notes:

    World Tree – More than anything else, I'm seeing authors focused on game needs/utility, and ignoring real-world implications entirely. Personally, I don't think that makes it any less disturbing. But assuming they're normal folks and not supremicist a-holes, I'd just tell the authors (and warn readers) "you shouldn't DO that!" (ignore racist implications to make having enemies, playing fights, killing and such easier).

    Talislanta – The Tweet version of Talislanta does embed each choice of that broad smorgasboard of archetypes in a particular region, with a particular fictional situation within that "race"/tribe/nation/empire and other "races"/tribes/nations/empires in the region, in a way that often DOES make the choice distinctive and meaningful. I'm not sure how much of that is in supplemental material vs. core book, though.

    One of my favorities is the Gao Din archetype, that isn't a "race" at all but rather a template applied to whatever you were before becoming a pirate.

    I mentioned in some earlier seminar the "Sub-men Rising" campaign, that I think is (pre-MtG/D&D) WOTC, Tweet, and the early-mid 90's directly wrestling with this RPG/"race" issue in a … productively-problematic? way.

    The "no elves" thing – I was reasonably active on the Talislanta mailing list back in the day, and there was much discussion of what "No elves" really meant. It may be very 1985-95 D&D fantasy RPG-focused, but the RPG supremacism of that day was Elven supremacisim, which depending on what (if anything) you read elves as coding (white? American? Young and popular and/or gloomy-cool goth-y?) is either disturbing or just an odd twist. But Talislanta is FILLED with elf-y options, just not (in theory) as THE "right" race to play. So "No elves" maybe really means "No elven supremacy", which … yay, no supremacy?

    Chivalry and Sorcery took on "authentic" medieval social class back in the day, but all I ever saw was "make sure you don't roll/play a peasant" back in the day (and I saw only a little bit of play). And maybe Ars Magica is a place to look?

    Gamma World is an interesting early case, with "pure strain humans", mutated humans, mutated animals/plants … The Knights of Genetic Purity were pure strain humans dedicated to wiping out mutated humans, which … ick. I don't remember if it was 100% clear that they were generally villians, but they were somehow NOT against mutated animals/plants, so you COULD still play a Knight in a "diverse" party. When I played Gamma World, I think we ignored them as PC options.

    My overall thoughts are … one of the core impulses behind having all these choices in RPGs seems to be "diversity is cool and fun" (even when – or perhaps particularly when – it's confrontational and problematic), and yet somehow it's really, really easy for that to get overwhelmed by various ickinesses of supremacy or "racial" essentialism and etc. I wonder if there's any point in seperating out how the mechanics embed what "race" means vs. what the setting material says … I suspect not, but maybe sometimes.

    • I think you nailed it, every

      I think you nailed it, every line, all the way through. Your final paragraph is exactly what I was trying to tease out with this Lab.

      Regarding Talislanta, I'm working only off the core book, and I don't own Sub-Men Rising, so I'm sure I'm missing the point of that design/publishing trajectory, at least. Given the people involved (Peter, Jonathan, etc) I have no doubt that they wanted to do something with these concepts.

    • Very interesting!

      Very interesting!

      Your last paragraph makes me think of something, and I bring up some anthropological litterature here. I hope I'm not off topic.

      It strikes me that in RPG books, most "cultures" or "races" (rebranding it "ancestries did not change this practice) are described in the same paradigm that colonial anthropoly described "indigenous" populations. I think there is two very interesting approach to cultural description that we can borrow from anthropology. I recommand two readings about that.  Let's review different ways of doing it:

      The essentialist one try to classify cultures and peoples by their practices (what kind of food they eat, what kind of religious practices, what kind of house architecture, etc), and was mainly used for administrative purpose (collecting taxes and resources), trying to fix those cultures to geographical boundaries.

      The other one is the obvious one, the "ethnic boundaries" paradigm from the canonic Frederick's Barth introduction. Barth has shown why the essentialist approach doesn't work when you ask people what culture they think they belong themselves. First, there is no sole "culture" and you can't study one "culture" or "ethnicity", because ethnicities only exist in relationship between ethnic groups. Geographically, don't think of a grid, think of mandalas of cultura practices. So you can find a pashtun who feels pashtun even if its house look like a "tajik" house. Ethnic groups has porous boundaries, which mean you can actually "change" ethnicity, generally through generational mobility. Social group define themselves according to the other social groups. Also, an ethnic group defines themselves as such through two processus : assignation and acquisition. Assignation is how another group designe yourself. In this paradigm, we call supremacism "hegemony", and we have in poly-ethnic society an hegemonic ethnic group who assign an identity to marginalized social groups. Generally, assigning an identity to another is in fact, endorsing its own identity in a inconscious mirror effect. Then you have a process of acquisition, this ethnic "takes" this assigned identity and makes something new. That's how you can explain most of the self-determine autochtonous movements who redefine themselve trough how they are called, in the first placed. In sweden for instance, the actual "Sami" people has long been assigned the "lapp" identity and struggles to be recognized as "sami". In this paradigm, ethnic groups distinguishes between each others by specific "system of values", expressed through divergent "diacritics signs" (specific food, etc.). In the essentialist approach, only the diacritic signs were classified. Two interesting papers are Frederick Barth's introduction to "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries" and "Pathan identity and its maintenance".

      Another interesting paradigm, which is controversial in anthropology (both for method and lack of data, but still interesting) but I think very useful for creating cultures in RPG is the "radical constructionnist" approach of James C Scott, specifically its "Ethnogenesis" chapter in "The art of not being govern" which I recommand as reading. Based on the historical study of "hill peoples" in south-east asia, the idea is that  ethnic groups are labels to evaluate a social group's relationship to a central "state" (or city-state, or empire). It's actually the opposite of the marxist hypothesis: people choose their mode of production based on their system of values.  Centralized administration around production of rice would lead to hierarchical societies, and people refusing this centralization/hierarchization would flee to the hills to keep a gathering/hunting mode of life, which is a way to keep "egalitarian" organization. I'm simplifying bluntly but the idea is that there is both an ecological foundation and an relationship towards state-building/making process in the social envinronnment. So here, the hegemony is the hegemony of a central state, who choose efficenciy in production, leading to private property of lands and the creation of an aristocracy who needs the development of writings to "fix" the narratives of their genealogy and endorse supremacy. "Egalitarian" hill peoples would actually not be less "advanced" because they have an oral history, but oral history would be a way to avoid this "fixed" aristocratic mythology. In this case, ethnic assignations to other groups would be a cultural designation of "the relationship of those groups with the central state", and the degree and nature of state-building in this specific group. There lots of other interesting things in this paper for fantasy culture creation in my opinion. For instance, the idea that most ethnic identities are plural, or in Scott's term, "amphibious". Which mean you have a portfolio of ethnic identity that you will deploy differently according to the specific situation you are in. You can see this processs daily when you meet stranger at different levels. I'm a belgian, born in the french region (Wallonia) and leaving in the capital (Brussels). When I meet somebody born in brussels, I'm a "Walloon", if I meet a flemish from Flandria, I'm a french-speaker, if I meet a french, I'm a belgian… Sometimes the discussions can shift levels: "so you're french, and I'm belgian, oh but you're breton.. we are more alike you and me than belgian and "other frenchs" aka non-breton", etc.

      I can't think of a game who treat and design their ethnic group in other ways than the essentialist paradigm, but maybe I'm wrong!  



    • PS: funny, I always saw the

      PS: funny, I always saw the elves in D&D as the vietnameses, and the orcs as the americans, as a metaphor of the vietnam war (I know, Tolkien wrote this before, but I'm only talking about what I understood when I discovered forgotten realms and warhammer), but that's really me and anedoctical.

    • Regarding your shorter

      Regarding your shorter comment, my perception of tournament style D&D play of the late 1970s, and which was recapitulated in far less formal form at thousands of tables, is that the party are American soldiers "clearing the hamlet" of so-called Viet Cong and villagers, the latter being of course Viet Cong too, just short, old, or female. I've written a lot about the youth culture of this period, specifically the military and wannabe-military kids who were into model-building, wargames, and then role-playing. In my region, by 1980, the political split betweeen hippie/almost-hippie RuneQuest and fatigues-wearing, torture-happy D&D was explicit.

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