Forbidden: Role-playing the -isms

There’s been a fair amount of discussion lately about sexism and racism in role-playing games. We populate worlds in our mind where chainmail bikini-clad barbarian babes battle people of a different colour for riches and glory, or so it seems if you take a simplistic and stereotypical view of the hobby. Yes, role-playing games are sexist and racist, but only if you want them to be.

Our fantasy exists because our reality shapes it. We see ourselves in our characters through a glass darkly, and they reflect something of our subconscious self. Deep inside we want to Control, Defend, Lead or Strike and that’s reflected by our choice of character class. Most of us are a bit of all four, and which class we choose depends in part on where our mood takes us. Role-playing lets us loosen the social screws a little and do things we wouldn’t normally be permitted to do in real life. Let’s face it – killing and looting is usually frowned upon in modern society, but in RPGs it’s a full time occupation.

It’s the same with racism & sexism. Yes they are wrong, but they exist in the real world and are an intrinsic part of our cultural history whether we like it or not. Our hobby lets us explore that in a way which isn’t going to get us locked up or beaten to a pulp. We can label entire races of people as being Evil; it’s up to us whether to accept that as the norm in our gameworld, or challenge it. A scenario involving a tribe of Goblins who are quite nice but just want to be left alone makes a welcome change to all that slaughter. This hobby lets us decide whether to accept the -isms of our own societies, or meet them head on.

I think the bikini-clad barbarian stereotype has worn a little thin. She’s wearing a bikini just the same as the Conan-esque male barbarian cuts his swathe wearing only a loincloth – what’s the problem? A female barbarian is an empowering figure and every bit the equal to any man. We live in a world where stick-thin-and-big-breasts is seen as “attractive” (here’s a hint: it isn’t. Give me curvy any day!), and the trope only carries that across. The fault isn’t with the fantasy world. It’s with the real one.

Talking of which, I’ve never understood how people can be offended by bare flesh. Underneath all these clothes we’re all naked, and we’d be a sorry mankind indeed if we didn’t find the naked form attractive. Beauty should be cherished, not criticised. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t cause earthquakes. It seems that if you showed a picture of a nude women slitting the throat of a man, more people would object to the nudity. Go figure.

Anyhow. Am I sexist? Probably. Racist? I dunno. My hobby lets me explore that.

And that’s a good thing, right?

18 Comments on “Forbidden: Role-playing the -isms”

  1. No, I think it’s violence and restriction of freedoms that cause Earthquakes. If you check Genesis, you find that Violence is the main cause of the Flood, not immorality and certainly not dressing up with the intention of getting or provoking some action.

    1. In anyway, the prevailing opinion is that nakedness and action go together, hand in hand. If you show nakedness, its inevitable that the action will follow in the minds of parents and upstanding moral people everywhere.

    2. And there I was thinking it was shifting tectonic plates which caused earthquakes. Silly me.

      There’s a time and a place for nakedness/nudity & so-called immodesty, and that’s defined by a society’s behavioural expectations, nothing more.

      1. Yeah, all the supposed causes of Earthquakes are silly! (grins). The Earth is a living system that reacts to everything that lives upon it. Science just explains how things happened, not why. Although all the reasons why that man dreams up range from the silly to the extremely serious. But all the dumb things we do still prove that we have a lot to learn. Don’t you think? :)

        And yes, I was trying to make the cleric look silly by providing a counter-argument.

  2. Thank you for this post. I’ve been thinking about saying something similar in the wake of reading a lot of discussion about sexism (esp.) and racism lately.

    Someone else, I can’t remember, made the point that it was important to remember that a lot of our issues with racism in the real world stem from the histories of those cultures, that if we’d not had the legacy of slave trading, the racism, while it might still exist would be no where near the level of cultural awareness it receives every day.

    I agree with this sentiment insofar as it represents one layer of the issue, but mostly with the idea of not projecting your real world hang-ups into your fantasy game. If you want to explore racism/sexism issues at the game table, go ahead, but don’t insist on it being a part of everyone’s table.

    ps — I love the point about Conan and his loincloth. Exactly. -Isms are about power relationships. The power that shapes the -isms in our culture has shifted, we do make progress. But the power relationships in our fantasies are an altogether different thing.

  3. Sounds good to me. Personally, I think that men who need their throats slit SHOULD have it done by nude women. Um, wait… let me rephrase…


  4. “…and we’d be a sorry mankind indeed if we did find the naked form attractive.”

    Perhaps you meant, “…if we did NOT find the naked form attractive.” ?

  5. Amen Greywulf. One of my characters in a campaign I’m play was a gay paladin. It was like his massive secret but when he ‘came out’ it caused no emotional upheavel becuase everbody in the group was okay with it. That attitude transferred to their characters. ironically, I’d have preferred him to have to struggle with it a bit more and maybe have to overcome some resistance to his class/sexuality choices. As it was it was a bit of an anti-climax for me as player.

        1. I don’t know. Having never played a gay character before, it was somthing new for me. I don’t know weather it’s about ‘novelty’ so much as about exploring the reality of the situation. Not many homesexuals have such an easy experiance and I think it is just an interesting observation that becuase these worlds are shaped by our imaginations (those of usually quite accpeting individuals) then the worlds are often more accepting of differance than reality and this sometimes lead to less than real roleplaying. However given that the paladin fought Gorillons last game, maybe I shouldnt’ be looking for realism.

          1. What I mean is, so many people have been discussing the gay paladin that I’m wondering if it has become a trope. Paladins who are gay are usually used to show that you can be gay and fight for righteousness. My question is: since so many people have talked about them, are they now no longer a novelty?

            The problem is, I don’t think it breaks stereotypes. Or the point is made to a lot of gamers who grew up in our Judeo Christian culture. I think it was great, though, x-humed, that you did it. However, I’m approaching this from another point of view . . . is the lesson being taught far too much?

  6. Well, that’s a really interesting question. I’ve never met anyone who’s ever even discussed it as an ‘archetype’ before so to our group it’s very new. But i can’t speak for a community of gamers on this issue. I think if I was to consider it as a trope, I’d perhaps suggest that it’s just a sub-set of the ‘noble minority’ trope that shows it’s head everwhere. A gay paladin is no different from a orcish paladin in that respect (Please can everybody take that comment in context or I’m in REAL trouble), they both are ‘non-standard’ heroes who are, in fact, like everybody else. I suppose if anything my experiance supports your veiwpoint that the concept itself is passe. So yes maybe it is a tired trope, but I think it’s only a twist on a trope that already exists.
    Now if you’re asking if the lesson is being slammed into the faces of those who would be offended by it, then that’s a whole other question. Christians and gamers aren’t groups that have had a easy history and I suppose that could cuase the trope to be over-used as an offensive weapon. But somtimes it just about people wanting to play what they want to play. ‘This character is gay’ should be the same as saying ‘this character is tall/small/male/female/white/black” within a context of creation. It’s facet of the character. It shouldn’t be the whole character.
    It is worth mentioning that I do know a gamer who is highly religous tot he extent that most of his characters are pacifists. He regards homesexuality as a sin. he not out there gay-bashing or anything but he just doesn’t think it’s right. In respect of his views, I would play that character at his game, rather than the one I play with Atheist metal heads? I don’t know. It might provide interesting roleplaying but it might also offend the player….. I’m rambling but the discussion is quite interesting. When is offense okay? Can we be offeneded as players and it be alright?
    That SO wasn’t your question. Damn, brain got away from me…

    1. Actually those were good points. However, you can’t walk through life without offending someone along the way. No one person can be upheld as the point of perfection by everyone all of the time. I’m LDS myself and I too, regard homosexuality as a sin.

      However, sometimes people can get offended even in a cooperative storytelling activity like Roleplaying. If a DM set his game in Ancient Israel where homosexuals are stoned if they are revealed, then it would be challenging to play a gay character in an environment like that. Especially a gay paladin. However, if a player, not you; were to do it just to be cool or to look to offend someone then that can be a problem.

  7. Love this discussion, folks! This is EXACTLY what I’m talking about – these are issues and elements we find in modern society which can be explored (should we want to) in our hobby of choice. Of course, sometimes a game is also just a game, but it’s good to know that RPGs provide an outlet for this kind of exploration.

    Many thanks for all the feedback!

  8. I’m in agreement. I’m loving the fact that I could go to war with Elton over his religous standpoint quite easily but we’re both human enough to realise that that would be useful to no-one. In my work I’m a performance artist and actor and I have a moment in a piece we made where I credit roleplaying for turning me from a social recluse into socially functioning person. It taught me to discuss and to fight to what an I believe in and to not be embarssed about being a gamer. (Heh).
    I think that games do give us that outlet to be anything or anyone. As a person in real life, I’m never going to be a homosexual, or a woman, or a rural guy who doesn’t get on with technology. But in taking on these roles, I’m able to understand more another type of motivation and in turn become more empthatic. I agree with Elton that these things can be done for shock value (‘I want to be unique!” factor) but that’s up to individual players/DMs/group.
    It’s great that we can do this. I just want to say if I don’t reply to anything you write it’s only becuase I might not be able to get to the internet for a week, not because I find your points any less stimulating for discussion., It’s given me as a person, player and character something to think about.

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