Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Racial Traits in Games... is this racism?

"All Asians are good at math and know martial arts," is a racist statement. 

"All Gnomes are good at engineering and are intelligent," is a statement about Gnomes in World of Warcraft. Is it equally racist? 

I've been wrestling back and forth on this, and at first I thought it is racist but in a benign way... but then when I think of "What do I mean by benign?" I usually mean something like, "It's not meant to be offensive," but neither is the statement about Asian people. 

Does the fact that the first statement is false and the second statement is true determine whether or not these statements are racist? This might be an out for racial traits in games. 

If I say that all black people have dark skin, or safer still, have darker skin than white people, then this could just be an observation that holds true in all cases. In fact, it could be seen as an analytical truth (true by definition) if we define "white people" and "black people" in the right way. We could treat racial traits as a part of race in games in a similar way. A gnome's ability to engineer is just part of the definition of "Gnome" in World of Warcraft. 

However, this could still be seen as racist because it takes a more significant claim about people's inherent ability and makes it be a truth claim about an entire race. Isn't this exactly what racists do? They take generalizations (often ignorantly made) and claim they are true of all or most of that race. 

If this is racist, should racial traits be taken out of games?

I don't know. I'm still stuck on this. Your thoughts? 


Typhinius said...

I don't think it is racism...because it is merely a description of fact. Gnomes really are better than Dwarves at X. That's not to say a Dwarf can't do X, but the Gnome has an innate ability to be better at it. Since the developers define the world, the races are as they have been defined.

I don’t know if having the races be different in games promotes racism or not, but I don’t think the games themselves are racist. However, I can see some cause for concern in that having the separate "races" be different could by some extension be thought to promote racism in reality. The question there is whether or not defining the races as having different abilities promotes the idea that races in real life also are different.

Stargazer said...

In most fantasy roleplaying games including D&D race is used as a synonym for species. Race as used in racism is a completely different thing than race used in a D&D enviroment. So it's not racism.

Typhinius said...

Stargazer, I had the same basic thought initially, but in DnD (older versions at least, I haven't played 4E) the species could cross breed (half-orcs, half-elves), which is more suggestive of a race than a completely separate species. I think the argument that gaming is racist is stronger in a game like that than in say World of Warcraft where the species cannot interbreed.

Reverend Mike said...

There's a difference between real racism and the racial traits in D&D...the different races in D&D are different species of humanoid...much more different than the various races in our societies...

Thus, we distinguish these separate species by different traits, even though we all fall within the same group...

Now, when we start refusing kobolds service at our tavern just for being kobolds, that's racism...but if they're wanted serial killers, different story...

Jonathan said...

In centuries past - the word race was synonymous with species. RACISM is exactly the same as saying 'SPECIESISM'. That is to say that to be racist against African Americans or Asians implies that one inherently thinks of members of this group as a separate species/race. hence the word -RACISM- developed becuase people did not commonly use the word species unless they were scientists (i'm talking 18th century English here).

Now of course, this is one (of many) of the reasons why racism is so awful: becuase all the members of the 'race' in question are actually the same 'race' - that is, species - we're all human.

Now, for gaming - Gnomes ARE a different species. As are all the other 'races' in the game.

I've run a campaign where fantasy racism was a major component of several of the more totalitarian regions in my campaign world. Signs like "No Elves Allowed" or "Dwarves must leave their shoes outside" were everywhere in major cities. Honestly, my players thought it was annoying - so I put my soap box away (the party was made up of predominantly elves and dwarves).

I wonder how many other bloggers out there will feel the need to chime in on this post HOOK LINE AND SINKER. Your traffic will no doubt double today. /wink

Jack Phillips said...

stargazer and reverend mike have both brought up the idea that these are really separate species and not races per se.

I understand that we differentiate different races or species by the traits that they have that others lack, but when using certain kinds of traits: intelligence (gnomes again), which is a very abstract feature and a nominal, subjective kind of thing, and not a more objective fact like: has claws, or has eight legs, this at the least comes close, if not is, an issue of racism or specisism (if you prefer that term).

I guess my argument is:
"All Chinese are good at math" is equivalent to or strikingly similar too
"All gnomes are intelligent".

If the first is racist, then isn't the other one racist or specisist?

At least that's part of the issue. The other is, even if it is racist, does it matter? Do we need to drop racial traits from games for this reason?

Jack Phillips said...


sorry, we were posting at the same time so i didn't see your comment. I probably would have enjoyed your soap box game. I like issues like that in games and fantasy worlds.

also, i forgot this point, but:
if in games we had gender traits: men get additional strength just because they're men and women got bonuses to dexterity... just because they're women, wouldn't this be sexist?

It strikes me as it would, but then we could still ask: Is this then wrong to put into a game?

In cases of racism or sexism in game design this seems to be a quick way of giving characters starting stats to not burden players with too much customization possibilities. You have certain base stats - they needed something to base this on, so why not race? why not sex? - and from their you do a little customization to make your character statistically unique.

I guess a more robust customization could do away with such problems, or associate base stats with things other than race or gender - career - and build from there.

Ishmayl said...

Interesting post. I think it has less to do with one statement being "false," and the other being "true," than with one statement being "informed," and other being "uninformed."

If I were to say, "In the professional world of mathematical academia, there are more Asians than various other races; likewise, in the global arena of martial arts, there are more professional martial artists of Asian ethnicity than of other racial classifications," those statements could be (but may not be, I don't know, I didn't look it up) based on fact, and I don't think could be viewed as racist.

So when it's translated to a fantasy and/or fictional scenario, it's probably just best for you to decide which way you're going to look at it, either as the reader or the world designer. Will you look at it as a blanket statement of opinions, or will you look at it as a statistical consensus of various facts?

Nice article, BTW! :)

Reverend Mike said...

Racist statements are indeed racist...

Both "all Chinese are good at math" and "all gnomes are intelligent" are false statements...

Racism is prejudice encompassing an individual within a group rather than judging the individual as they are...

And yes, some races tend to be smarter than other, some taller, some stronger...races are what they are because they are different...but racism is only such when you judge an individual only by their ethnicity...

Reverend Mike said...

In D&D, as in real life, men and women are equals...the differences between the sexes are so miniscule, that they are hardly worth noting in character creation...mind you, there are trends that form between men and women in certain traits, but the average differences are often small and the range of measurement is generally great...

So long as equal fair treatment in interaction is applied, a given action or reaction is not racist or sexist...

Wickedmurph said...

I think that the unfortunate part of the "racial abilities" is that they didn't add the "racial disabilities" as well. You know, Dwarves are antisocial workaholics with hygene issues and alcohol dependancy problems, halflings are lousy little crooks with poor impulse control, dragonborn smell like snakes and have think they're better than you, eladrin are effeminate and don't even get me started on elves...

Of course making any blanket statement about a particular racial group isn't *necessarily* racist, unless it's a negative or pejorative statement. Otherwise, it's stereotyping, which is a bit different.

Now, the fact that the races (or species) in question don't exist makes allegations of say, pervasive anti-tieflingism in the city watch a bit of a non-issue, IMO

Zach L said...

The problem is that it's a good, recognizable shorthand for stat bonuses/penalties. Instead of saying "I'm a character with +2 STR, +2 CON, -2 WIS, darkvision, etc. etc. etc." you can just say "I'm a half-orc." Likewise for the whole gender thing.

This is why it's much more prevalent in video games as opposed to pen-and-paper games -- in video games, a lot of number-crunching occurs in the background, and to offer variety to gameplay they use the visual shorthands of different races/genders to simplify what the user has to deal with.

Also, as everyone else has said, it's fundamentally different in a lot of systems/games because the assumption is by definition true as stated in the stats. For instance, in World of Warcraft, gnomes really ARE better inventors -- they have +5 to their engineering skill!

Developers can get away with this because gnomes don't actually exist. Attributing stats to black people vs. white people would probably piss a LOT of people off, in addition to, well, being traditionally racist.

And that's the big thing -- gnomes, tauren, orcs, kobolds don't exist. We can arbitrarily define them in a Planet of Hats way without threat of upsetting any actual Gnomes. We can create these generalizations and implement them without fear of being racist because, well, there's no race to offend.

That doesn't mean it's not an issue you can't bring up in your games. of course.

Scott said...

It's not racism. It's diversity. :p

More seriously, to note an observable intrinsic racial trait is not racist. IF all gnomes really are intelligent, in that game world, then that's the way things are. It's no more racist than "all fish can breathe underwater."

On the other hand, if not all gnomes are intelligent, then you've got not a truth but a racial stereotype, and that could be racist.

Similarly, if all Chinese really were good at math, then it wouldn't be racist to note the fact. (Might still be impolitic, though.)

Vampir said...

There's one game that I've been reading (neither done reading nor played it yet) where you play 17th Century Polish Nobleman. The thing is, it has "racial" bonuses based on upbringing. This takes an influence and changes it into a mechanical advantage.

At the same time, you have to remember that "All Gnomes are intelligent" doesn't equal to "Intelligence +1 for Gnome". Rather, it would mean that a Gnome has has an Intelligence higher than everyone else, as it's an abstract characteristic.

Would it be racist if Chinesse were good at math because their school system is focused more on mathematics than other regions of the world? Probably yes, because not all Chinesse would have to give their best to pass. They certainly might have a better chance at being good at math than everyone else.

Some people are good at learning, others can analyse very quickly, it's never racist to say "John's family are quick learners". Maybe it's because it's a good trait. I for once am never offended by someone saying that the members of my family can't gain weight. It should be racist because it has the same logical form as "All Jews are crooks", All X such that Y.

In the end, it's something racists or not depends on the eye of the beholder.

Final example and I'll shut up.
My acquaintance has the tendency to say "It's because he's Polish" about me a lot. No matter what she says, I find it racist because I don't like being grouped like that (what can I say, I'm an individualist) but try to group me with some other group and say something good about it, and my feelings reverse... illogical, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I think when expressed as absolutes ("All Gnomes are smart."), it is indeed racism, although since Gnomes don't really exist, it's not a big deal. Just play the game!

However, when expressed as a cultural trait that happens to apply to a certain character: "Gnome culture tends to pride itself on inventiveness, and my character ascribes to that belief and tinkered a lot as a child, hence my +1 to INT" then it's a personal trait.

This can go the other way as well, using the standard "raised by X": "My Gnome was orphaned and raised by Dwarves, so he doesn't have the interest in tinkering (no +1 to INT) but instead has learned to navigate undergound much better (+1 to dungeoneering or whatever)."

I think the question becomes a little more prickly when applied to alignment. All Drow are evil? Hmm, that sounds pretty racist to me.

Anonymous said...

I think RPGs where a given race is objectively better on average than another (+2 to Int!) is a great topic for contemplation.

What do we mean by racism? It's popular to say "everyone's equal." But there's a lot of different races and people groups in the real world and there's some research to show that on average, some of them are stronger, or smarter, or whatever than others. In general the "open minded" thing to do is decry the research.

But what if in some case it's true? What if, after making a completely nonbiased IQ test or whatever, it turns out to be scientifically proven that e.g. blacks have on average 20 IQ points lower than whites. Does that then justify racism? Because the people that insist with no scientific basis that "that must never be so!" seem to think so.

In reality, the argument against racism has to be based on morality not science. Otherwise, the humans are justified in being racist against half-orcs and the races with Int bonuses are justified in being racist against humans. If one group being on average smarter or better in some given metric means they are innately *worth* more.

Anonymous said...

mxyzplk, completely unbiased IQ tests are impossible (with anything resembling current technology), because they always measure the test-taking skills of people taking the test.

Europeans and educated people, for example, have plenty of experience taking such tests, in general. Take a random tribal society with little contact to outer world (I hear some still exist near Amazon, though my information may be outdated) and they have never seen anything like such a test.

Who will do better?

There's also the problem of defining intelligence.

Any research that claims to have shown differences in intelligence between various "races" is, with great probability, bunk.

Ravyn said...

Creating the stats in such a way is not in and of itself racist, or at least I wouldn't consider it to be; having intrinsically different aptitudes (whether they actually use them or not) is a way to make sure there's a difference, and really, it'd be boring if everyone was functionally the same, particularly when you're dealing with different subspecies.

However, when you get IC, there's plenty of opportunity for racism. Assuming that all alchemists, or at least all good ones, are going to be gnomes, for instance--it's perfectly possible for a human to do better with a bit more effort. And though some people don't seem to realize it, statistically lower intelligence does not mean that if you put someone of that race in the same room as someone of another race, the first will automatically be dumber than the second. Forgetting that little fact (or the equivalents thereof) is, I think, half of racism right there.