Identity should always be part of the gameplay

This is sort of a tangential response to John Scalzi’s “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting. Good article; you should read it… and the comments. Yeah, I know, I usually say don’t read the comments. But I think they’re illuminating, if frustrating, in this case. If you’re not a straight white male, it’s a good idea to understand how even the most liberal of them think. If you are a straight white male, Scalzi’s talking to you; listen.

I’ve been playing the hell out of Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 on the Xbox 360 lately. This is partly because life’s been busy and killing electronic monsters and assholes is great stress relief. More than that, though, these are just incredibly good games. I’ve been something of a snob where it comes to RPGs in the past, preferring Japanese over Western-made RPGs because the Western ones usually sucked on the criteria I care most about: characterization and plot. I suspect Western eRPGs were originally made to emulate the fun of playing tabletop RPGs, within which nonlinearity, customization, and identification (“you are the character!”) are the main goal. In tabletop games, players are expected to provide most of the energy for plot and characterization themselves. Since 99% of the Western games I’ve played up ’til now have made it very clear I’m not the character — if I’m lucky, I might get to play as a white woman — the identification component has never been much of a draw for me. And as someone who spends her professional life churning out worldbuilding, plot, and characterization every day… well, I’d just rather sit back and let someone else do the heavy lifting when I’m trying to relax. Fortunately the DA games break the Western RPG mold in some really nice ways.

The “identification” component is still a problem in the DA games, because the best I could do for trying to assemble a character who looked like me was a sort of burnt-sienna-skinned woman with naturally straight hair. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t be black unless I somehow assumed that some kind of magic hair-straightening process existed, and every brown person used it. (I suppose it’s not a far stretch from dragons to sodium hydroxide. ::sigh::) Still, Bioware tried, which is more than most game companies have done, and they did it on more than a superficial level. I was thrilled to see that my DA2 character’s whole family turned brown along with her, and that there was one other playable character at the dark end of the spectrum*. There were also lots of characters of color in the background — not as many as I would’ve expected in DA2, which takes place in a port city; in our own world, port cities have historically been very heterogenous — but enough to have a real presence. That made it clear the dark skin option wasn’t just an afterthought.

I also liked the fact that I didn’t have to create a character like me, if I didn’t want to. I could be several flavors of white, which wouldn’t exactly be a novelty — but somehow it feels better when it’s a choice. I could be vaguely Asian or Middle Eastern; both of these options had the same limitations as the vaguely black model, but the option was there. I could be male or female. Better still, both games incorporated relationships with other characters as a game mechanic. I could be nice; I could be an asshole. I could pursue a romantic relationship or be “just friends” with everyone; I could have a completely non-sexual romance or burn up the bedrolls every time we hit camp. If I chose sex, I could settle down monogamously or jump every playable character in the game. (With frustrating exceptions. I can’t be the only one who thought Varrick was hot.** Le sigh.) And much has been made of how players can pursue these romances regardless of their own sexual orientation, or the other characters’ gender. Hell, that’s what ultimately made me give these games a try.

So at this point I’ve played as a vaguely black female rogue, a vaguely brown male mage, a vaguely black female elf warrior, and — in my most recent playthrough — a white guy. (Ah, what the hell.) I’ve romanced men as a woman, men as a man, and women as a woman; I’m currently debating whether I feel like making my white guy romance a woman, but since that would feel like every other game I’ve played ever I think I’ll stick to the men. Or maybe I’ll just skip the romances altogether this time around.

All these options have a real, meaningful impact on how the game’s story unfurls. Drive away a character by being carelessly rude, and a life-saving endgame option might not appear. Butter up the wrong woman and suddenly you’re embroiled in an interspecies war. And all along the way, other characters’ reactions to you are highly colored by what you are, not just your choices. Mages are second-class citizens in this world, so if you’re a mage, you can never become king/queen even after you save the world — and if you try, you might eventually be imprisoned or lynched. If you’re an elf — another maligned group — every merchant will assume you’re penniless; society ladies will clutch their pearls if you pass too near; and you’re doomed to a life of scorn and oppression no matter how much money and glory you accumulate. If you’re a refugee from a nation that was recently devastated by war, you can immigrate to a safer city… where you have no rights, everyone preys on you, and if you don’t do every dirty job you can find, you’ll starve or be sold to slavers. If you’re a man, serving in the priesthood is off-limits to you, though it’s clear this society is fundamentally patriarchial. If you’re a noble, you’re bound by a rigid set of social rules that you cannot violate without potentially losing everything.

So basically, the DA creators have had the sense to acknowledge that the non-optional demographics of a person’s background — her gender, her race, the class into which she was born, her sexual orientation — have as much of an impact on her life as her choices. Basically, privilege and oppression are built in as game mechanics. I can’t remember the last time I saw a game that so openly acknowledged the impact of privilege. Lots of games feature characters who have to deal with the consequences of being rich or poor, a privileged race or an oppressed one, but this is usually a linear, superficial thing. The title character in Nier, for example, is a poor single father who’s probably too old for the mercenary life (he looks about 50, but via the miracle of Japanese game traditions he’s probably only 30), but he keeps at it because otherwise his sick daughter will starve. His poverty is simply a motivation. No one refuses to hire him because they think poor people are lazy. He meets a well-dressed, well-groomed young man who lives in a mansion at one point, and the kid doesn’t snub him for being dirty and shirtless. (In fact the kid falls in love with him but that’s a digression.) His age and race and class don’t mean anything, even though in real life they would. So even though I love Nier — great music, fascinating and original world — I like the DA games better. Even in a fantasy world, realism has its place.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion in the SFF writing world about how to write “the other” — i.e., a character of a drastically different background from the writer’s own. It’s generally people of privileged backgrounds asking the question, because let’s face it: if you’re not a straight white able-bodied (etc.) male, you pretty much know how to write those guys already because that’s most of what’s out there. So right now I’m speaking to the white people. One technique that gets tossed around in these discussions is what I call the “Just Paint ‘Em Brown” technique: basically just write the non-white character the same as a white one, but mention somewhere in the text, briefly, that she’s not white. Lots of well-known SFF writers — Heinlein in Starship Troopers, Clarke in Childhood’s End, Card in Ender’s Game — have employed this technique. I’ve seen some books mention a character’s non-whiteness only as a belated “surprise” to the reader (near the end of the book in the Heinlein example). The idea, I guess, is that the reader will form impressions of the character sans racialized assumptions, and therefore still feel positively about the character even after he’s revealed to be one of “them.”

This technique is crap. For one thing, the reader does form racialized assumptions about the character; the assumption is just that he’s white. For another, the whole thing treats race as the punchline of a joke. A writer who does this doesn’t need to make any effort (e.g. researching history, meeting people, learning about social systems) to create verisimilitude between the character and the worldbuilding. The writer just writes the character as white, then “paints” him brown with a few words. Worse, this technique not only assumes but supports the reader’s racism. Characters of color are assumed to be so unacceptable to white readers that they cannot be named as such from the outset (even though in a visual medium or real life that’s practically the first thing most people would notice) without making the book unreadable. CoCs can be “tolerated”, though, if a) their race is treated like an afterthought, because b) they read like white people the rest of the time.

There’s nothing challenging about pulling this stunt. It’s lazy characterization on the writer’s part and lazy engagement on the reader’s part. A black person is not a white person painted brown, a woman is not a man with tits, and identity isn’t an afterthought or a trick. So why the hell do so many writers think this technique is a great idea?

(Rhetorical question. I know why.)

Better to do things the DA way: acknowledge the ways in which what we are affects what we can do — and how easy it is to do those things, and who we’ll get to do them with. Treat identity like something real, not a gimmick. Understand how the systems built around identity — many flavors of bigotry and privilege, socioeconomics, even science and history — impact every aspect of life from careers to relationships to survival, and don’t tiptoe around this reality. Your story will thank you for it. Your readers — all of them — will, too.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll get back to seducing Anders. I hate the guy, but what the hell; it’s just a game.

ETA for clarity. Wrote this pre-coffee, ya’ll.

* Although I had some issues with Isabela’s characterization. Woman who loves sex and does it lots, yay! Woman who does lots of sex being the only brown woman in the game? Argh, stereotype. (Still slept with her, tho’.)

** and the Arishok oh God I can’t believe I said that

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84 Responses »

  1. I don’t think I’ve expressed myself very well.

    I’m sorry for any misunderstandings or offense caused.

  2. Jonathon,

    Dude, what? You haven’t been offensive. I didn’t understand, true, but that’s why I asked for clarification. ::puzzled::

  3. Inspector,

    But I already explained that stuff written within non-Western, non-colonized, non-white milieu is exactly what you’re asking for, so I’m not sure what else to tell you. Some of it’s where you can’t see it unless you read a different language fluently, but some of it’s right here, being written by people who aren’t white. There’s also a small amount of stuff written by white writers that (IMO) successfully either decolonizes worldbuilding or is sans-colonial altogether. I just read a great fantasy by Martha Wells, for example: Wheel of the Infinite. Not a soul in that book was white; it mostly took place in a kind of fantasy version of the Angkor Wat in its heyday, with black and Asianesque characters. If there was a fantasy version of Europe in that world, it was irrelevant — too far away to matter, and the characters didn’t care anyway. Wells first published the book years ago with Eos — which promptly flipped and edited a gorgeous Donato Giancola composition to effectively whitewash the cover, and probably didn’t market it all that well since this was back in the days when the SFF field thought nobody would want to read about a black woman protagonist. But let me not get on my soapbox. Anyway, if you want to read more fiction that isn’t about white people, just read fiction that isn’t about white people. There’s plenty out there; it’s just not usually in the mainstream.

    Or are you asking for a list? There are many such lists out there, but you could try starting with the Carl Brandon Society‘s various recommended reading lists. Not all of those works contain all-PoC casts, but many do. The 50 books by PoC community might also be helpful, though I thought for awhile it was dying; looks like it’s still chugging along, tho’. And there seem to be thriving communities on Tumblr discussing these kinds of books, though I don’t really “get” Tumblr and can’t recommend any yet, alas. Maybe some other commenters can offer suggestions, if that’s what you’re looking for.

    I’m not sure I’d call Mieville’s Bas Lag an allegory for race relations, BTW. It doesn’t map to any real-world sociology I can think of; he’s created something sufficiently alien — and peopled it with a diversity of humans — so that it stands on its own.

  4. Inspector,

    This is obviously just a personal taste but I can’t remember a story that tried to be an explicit allegory that I’ve actually enjoyed. Not just about race, but about anything. There’s just always something about allegories that rubs me the wrong way. Of course, there is a matter of definitions here; I’m not sure the Bas-Lag novels are allegorical. I suppose if I’m being honest the definition of allegory I’m carrying around in my head is, “story-length metaphors so unsubtle as to be gratingly ineffective,” so perhaps I’m guilty of some circular logic here.

    I’m far from an expert on recent SFF, but a couple books I’ve read recently may fit your bill. One (two actually) is the Spiritwalker series, by Kate Elliott. There’s a ton of local power interactions but no dominant race in her fantasy world. Also the books are incredible for the way in which the characters inhabit the intersections of multiple interlocking identities, that are often in tension with each other.

    The other is Blue Remembered Earth, by Alastair Reynolds. It’s not a book about identity or race, as its focus is mostly on where, technologically, we’ll be in two hundred years or so. But it’s set in a world in which China, India, and a united Africa are the superpowers, with the protagonists members of a powerful African business family. It’s a good read if you like hard SF, and I especially appreciated the fact that Reynolds has Africa as a superpower without falling prey to, “and now the tables are turned and the white people are oppressed! Mwa ha ha ha!” It’s a multiracial society in which people interact with each other with varying degrees of friction.

  5. NK

    I just became kinda conscious that I was starting to speak FOR PoC, and you in particular, or heading that way, and I’ve really no right to.

    But maybe I’m just oversensitive to my own mis-steps.

    Blatantly turning the topic back to books, Tamora Pierce has written stuff that is a bit more diverse, though fair skinned characters still dominate. At least, there doesn’t seem any outright prejudice based on skin, only on border disputes.

  6. New commenter, gamer and fellow Brooklynite here who just discovered your books (and am enjoying them a lot!)

    Just wanted to add to this very interesting discussion that the upcoming Assassin’s Creed game for the Playstation Vita stars a female, biracial assassin (half French, half African) named Aveline, and is set in the U.S. Revolutionary War.
    She looks totally badass.

    http://kotaku.com/5928265/assassins-creeds-new-black-heroine-could-represent-a-new-kind-of-liberation?tag=assassins-creed

  7. I feel out of the loop since I haven’t played any of the games mentioned. Like you, I’m more about the JRPGs. I also like having control of multiple characters. That solo stuff isn’t my cup of tea. As for identity, after reading this, I’ll definitely pay closer attention to that when I worldbuild. The thought makes me tired though. Course that could be because it’s 2:39am.

  8. Have you played The Elder Scrolls or Fallout series? In both, at least the most recent games, you can really control your characters’ appearance. I found this particularly refreshing in Fallout 3, since its post apocalyptic Wash. DC., and in most post apocalyptic games its all white people. You should check them out.

  9. Multi-replying for brevity:

    April,

    I’ve heard good things about the Assassin’s Creed games, so they’re on my TBP pile. :)

    Tiffany,

    I still have a slight preference for JRPGs, mostly because of how readily they dump the whole stock medieval European fantasy setting and go somewhere completely off into the weeds — the afterlife, for example. But then, WRPGs are starting to range beyond the stock, too; I loved Bioshock and its sequel, though I’m not sure those count as RPGs. But note that in the Dragon Ages, you do control multiple characters. That part is D&D standard — you have to have a rogue to open treasure chests, you need a warrior for melee combat and an archer or mage for ranged stuff, all that. What makes this interesting is that your characters talk to each other — or snark at each other, if they don’t like each other much — and the conversations are both illuminating and hilarious. I think you’d like it.

    Kat,

    I haven’t, and they didn’t look very interesting to me, but DA was a pleasant surprise to me, so I’m willing to try something new. What’s your opinion of those games’ characterization and plot?

  10. Re: Elder Scrolls

    Eh, my experience playing Skyrim was not a positive one. Elder Scrolls games tend to be lauded because of their massive, open world design. But people who’ve played more than just Skyrim, and loved them, nonetheless acknowledged that my problems with them are true of the whole series. My problems being I didn’t really feel connected to any of the characters or storylines, the disjointed nature of the open world meant the narrative was pretty sketchy and you don’t really interact with any particular character for long so it was hard to get attached. Sure, you can make your character LOOK like anything but other than that I personally couldn’t project myself into the story using that character. Plenty of other people love those games but for me, Skyrim at least completely lacked any compelling narrative.

  11. This discussion about DA is definitely making me re-evaluate my post-WoW abandonment of all RPG’s. Before I commit for certain, since there’s no demo for Mac, can anyone out there who’s played comment on to what extent the game involves overcoming obstacles by a) cleverly using the skills and equipment you’ve gathered to interact with the environment in intelligent ways, vs. b) repeatedly pressing the same sequence of buttons after the writers have cleverly justified the need to kill x of creature y. I find that games that fall into (b) can only hold my interest for so long, regardless of how good the underlying story or characters may be.

  12. RE: Elder Scrolls

    I can immerse myself in the games, because they are a lot like a “choose your own adventure” book. I don’t like the linear quality of games like Assassins Creed, for example, because I get bored having to do the same things over and over. I like that in The Elder Scrolls games, the story isn’t written for you because there are so many options. There is a main quest, but there is so much to do on the side as well. I would start with Morrowind.

    Fallout is similar, but I found it more interesting to follow the main quest.

  13. Lyssabits, Kat,

    Yeah, Elder Scrolls, etc. is sounding exactly like the kind of WRPG I hate. Bad enough it’s yet another medieval European setting, but if it doesn’t have an established story of its own, then there really needs to be something special about the game’s characters to make me want to grind through that. But I’ll try it before I judge — since, after all, Dragon Age sounded like yet another medieval European yawner before I played it. If not for the whole furor over the same-sex options I wouldn’t have bothered.

  14. Eric,

    I would say the DAs are neither. There’s not much clever about the core gameplay; it’s standard D&D-esque “equip, level grind, improve stats, do it again” stuff. What makes it work is what the characters are doing around all this. Interacting with PCs and NPCs, making decisions that will have tremendous political and social impact, and dealing with the fallout of said decisions, is as much a part of the game as the hack-and-slash stuff. The hack-and-slash part is genuinely challenging; I mostly played on “normal” but there were a few battles that I had to shunt down to “casual” to handle, after umpteen tries — but then I tried a different team combo or equipped different tactics and it went much better. You can’t get through it by simple button mashing. And even if you could, that wouldn’t be the point.

  15. One thing to keep in mind is that Bioware is a company that has a lot of people from different ethnic groups and many of them have kept the memories of their various childhoods, plus their head office is fairly small so there isn’t that level of personal dilution you might find in larger companies.

    Lunch time at the nearby Buddy Cantonese restaurant, has a bunch of the programmers from the Bioware Edmonton branch come in and the HK identity (while not as dominant as it is in Vancouver) is pretty much stamped in there amongst a fair number of them. That’s one of the reasons why the Bioware game Jade Empires had an authentic feel to it, some of the guys who had their thumb in it grew up on the Chinatown video stores. The same guys also know what it’s like to get shoved around at times for being HK immigrants or CBC.

    But yeah the HKers are only one group within Bioware Edmonton, there’s the Indians and the Lebanese, the Polish and Ukranians etc. They bring their own perspectives.

    I hope I don’t make them so factionalist, just saying that the makers have backgrounds and reflecting viewpoints

  16. Michael,

    I’m glad that Bioware is willing to tap the life experiences of its developers to build identity into its games. What strikes me, though, is that most gaming companies are going to have a diverse staff, because computer science and engineering is diverse as a field (in a sense). Which tells me that it comes down to some lead designers choosing to challenge their writers and developers to include diverse characters in their games, and to make identity an integral aspect of the plot, and some (most) choosing not to.

    The other thing I notice is that there isn’t just one measure of diversity. I’ve been to a computational physics conference (which has a very similar demographic to programming) at which a room of 50 or so attendees contains people whose background is Chinese, Indian, Russian, German, Japanese, and Western European; but about 2 of the 50 were women, and none of the 50 were either from Africa or had African ancestry. A gaming company that only uses the backgrounds of it’s developers will still be missing out on parts of the population. Again, it comes down to the people near the top choosing to pursue characters that reflect the diversity of humanity, or choosing not to.

  17. I think reading through these comments gave me a headache. And I’m post-coffee!

  18. OK… not a gamer, but wading in anyway.

    About TNG and DS9-era Klingons (also in later shows): While I realize that the writers and staff were trying to “diversify” by casting black actors as Klingons, I think that kind of backfired, if only because the Klingons are (to my mind) an amalgam of *many* things that we white folk are scare of – they’re not even remotely like Americans, they wear body armor that looks like a slight redesign of Japanese samurai armor, they’ve got seemingly “inscrutable” ideas about honor, vengeance etc. (read: post-WWII anxieties about East Asian societies, Japan in particular); they’re brutish – even, in many instances, nearly bestial (see Jadzia and Worf’s sprains, strains, contusions and broken bones after they first hop in the sack)… I could go on.

    They are totally Other, and *not* in a good way.

    But then, the Ferengi are… ugly, greedy, have terrible taste in clothes, are super-repressive in their treatment of women and … their name (which means “foreigner” in a number of non-Western languages) always made me think that they were, in many ways, a mashup of anti-semitic and anti-Arab stereotypes of the worst kind.

    As for the writers – would characters like Kira and Seven of Nine be wearing those revealing catsuits if the writers were women? ; )

  19. DS9 redux: at least we did get Avery Brooks (my all-time fave ST captain) and his close, loving relationship with his son.

    I could listen to Avery Brooks all day – that gorgeous voice (would be so perfect for Shakespeare!) and he certainly was the handsomest of all the male ST captains (imo). I think I still have a crush on him, almost 20 years on.

    *

    About diverse worlds (including ours); well, yes. White people are actually in the minority in this world, so why should SF and fantasy be any different?

    Also, re. non-Western fantasy, there’s a whole genre of novels in China that preceded the wuxia films (like Hero and House of Flying Daggers) that include lots of fantasy elements (like sword fights in treetops). But I kinda doubt that any of them have been translated into English. [:sigh: I want to read some non-Western fantasy novels, but it’s even harder to find them than it is to find novels by non-Western writers that have been translated into English.]

  20. Strange, I’ve read the exact opposite in essays regarding social justice in fantasy before. Usually as a rebuttal to those who are themselves rebutting arguments that something is “problematic” with “yes, but it’s realistic – people are jerks”. That, like going to the bathroom, bigotry is an unpleasant and boring part of life that need not be described in detail.

    Of course, I’m more inclined to agree with you. It’s false equivalence – people don’t write about going to the bathroom not because it’s boring or unpleasant, but because it doesn’t add to the narrative, character development, or world-building. We assume it just happens off screen. But people don’t go off by themselves for a couple of minutes to discriminate. Ingrained biases are a huge part of character, setting, and story.

    Doesn’t mean it can’t be fantastical biases or ones that don’t reflect our own world. I mean, look at BSG: there’s not much in the way of outward racism or sexism, but there is a certain lack of religious tolerance and of course bigotry against artificial life. And it makes the world, story, and characters seem much more true to life.

  21. “the Klingons are (to my mind) an amalgam of *many* things that we white folk are scare of – they’re not even remotely like Americans”

    Okay, I’m probably nitpicking here, but white person =/= American, by a long shot. Or vice versa, for that matter.

  22. And sorry to double post, but the Ferengi always struck me as a parody of American entrepeneurial capitalists more than a Jewish or Arab stereotype. Didn’t Riker even refer to them as Yankee traders in the pilot?

    (This and my previous post @ numo, btw)

  23. Ari – Yep, you’re nitpicking, because I went on to talk about why I think Klingons are an amalgam of things that scare most white Americans.

    Not sure that the ST movie and newer TV shows’ “reboot” of Klingons did anyone any favors.

  24. I don’t think BJ was nitpicking at all. The words we use matter, and using “Americans” when you mean “white Americans” helps to create a mindset in which white is normal, and everyone else is an exception. I don’t see how saying that obviously we knew what you meant makes it any better.

  25. They are not even remotely like americans should read = typical americans or typical American cultural ideas. Or some such.

    I did not intend to mislead or imply that white people = americans, and wish I had worded my comment a bit differently, but I didn’t.

    And BJ, my apologies for addressing you as “Ari.” That also was not intentional.

    I do think that the reboot of the Klingons took place at a time when the US – the press, our society in general – felt very threatened by Japanese economic development and the way in which Japan seemed to be overtaking the US in so many financial/economic ways. There were many books published about this and I think that many of those books played on old fears from WWII. (Please keep in mind that this was all happening in the 80s-mid 90s, during the Reagan and 1st Bush administrations.) I had an uneasy feeling about many of the changes the ST writers and costume designers added to the “new” Klingons – the almost-samurai body armor, the “inscrutable” aspects of Klingon culture. In the latter case, I think that the extreme emphasis on personal and family honor is an american misinterpretation of many aspects of japanese culture – and similar things in other E. Asian cultures.

    The crews of the ST ships are almost entirely white, and most of them are American as well. In that sense, they are stand-ins for american society *and* the perceptions of the scriptwriters re. other cultures.

    it would have been interesting to have at least one script written from a Klingon character’s perspective, but that never happened.

    As for the Ferengi being drawn at least partly from ethnic, religious and racial stereotypes, well, I guess my age is showing… because I have seen that stuff in mainstream media, and from an early age. I think it’s difficult to miss the echoes of other – perhaps seemingly remote – times when they are part of one’s own life and experience.

    Be glad that you did not grow up surrounded by TV and films in which “the Japs” were commonly villainized and depicted in an extremely racist manner, as was the case with much post-WW II TV and film. It’s harder to point to post-WWII anti-semitic stereotypes in American media, thank God. but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t existed.

  26. Re. the derivation of the word “Ferengi,” I hate to cite Wikipedia, but there’s a lot of good info. in this ‘graph:

    “It is generally believed that the word farang [Thai for “foreigner”] originated with the Indo-Persian word farangi, meaning foreigner. This in turn comes from the word Frank via the Arabic word firinj?yah, which was used to refer to the Franks, a West Germanic tribe that became the biggest political power in Western Europe during the early Middle Ages and from which France derives its name. Due to the fact that the Frankish Empire ruled Western Europe for centuries, the word “Frank” became deeply associated, by the Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners, with Latins who professed the Roman Catholic faith. By another account the word comes through Arabic afranj, and there are quite a few articles about this. One of the most detailed treatments of the subject is by Rashid al-din Fazl Allâh.[9]

    In either case the original word was pronounced parangiar in Tamil, or pfirangi in Sanskrit and entered Khmer as barang and Malay as ferenggi.”

  27. … there’s also some unsubstantiated and poorly written material in that quote, but I was trying to find something that contained a lot of etymology in a short take, and that piece of text fit the bill.

  28. I’m in the process of creating an RPG video game right now, so I appreciate posts like this, especially from the perspective of a writer. As far as identity goes, part of the speculative aspect of my game is creating and exploring new kinds of identity. I would rather avoid “realism” when it means reproducing the same kinds of oppression we see in the real world, i.e. sexism, racism, ableism, etc.

    I do agree with you about making identity matter when it logically should matter. That’s one of the things I like about the Inheritance Trilogy: you have created new kinds of identity between gods, godlings, demons, and humans, and the characters all behave according to their differences (and similarities.)

    Having so many characters of color in important roles is probably just a bonus for a lot of people, but they have made me feel engaged with the story in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. If Deep Seed Games ever becomes big enough to hire a writer… we might have to talk!

  29. @numo: No worries, wording can be tricky.

    What made me jump was when you said “the Klingons are (to my mind) an amalgam of *many* things that we white folk are scare of – they’re not even remotely like Americans”, and my first thought was, as a non-American white person, often white Americans are the thing I’m scared of (or at least the subset who hold power).

    “They are not even remotely like americans should read = typical americans or typical American cultural ideas. Or some such.”

    Again, as a non-American, I have a different perspective than you about what ‘typical Americans’ look like. And from where I’m standing, the Ferengi do come across as a heavy handed caricature of American capitalists, or at least they did in their earlier appearances. I’m not saying this was how the writers intended them to be seen, or that my perspective is more correct than yours, but it was my initial reaction to them.

    “Be glad that you did not grow up surrounded by TV and films in which “the Japs” were commonly villainized and depicted in an extremely racist manner, as was the case with much post-WW II TV and film. It’s harder to point to post-WWII anti-semitic stereotypes in American media, thank God. but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t existed.”

    Was this aimed at me? If it was, I’m sure you just didn’t think, but you’ve made unfounded assumptions about my age and nationality. You don’t know when or where I grew up and what I was surrounded by. I’m aware of anti-semitic stereotypes, that just wasn’t my initial reaction to the Ferengi.

  30. “I do think that the reboot of the Klingons took place at a time when the US – the press, our society in general – felt very threatened by Japanese economic development and the way in which Japan seemed to be overtaking the US in so many financial/economic ways. There were many books published about this and I think that many of those books played on old fears from WWII. (Please keep in mind that this was all happening in the 80s-mid 90s, during the Reagan and 1st Bush administrations.) I had an uneasy feeling about many of the changes the ST writers and costume designers added to the “new” Klingons – the almost-samurai body armor, the “inscrutable” aspects of Klingon culture. In the latter case, I think that the extreme emphasis on personal and family honor is an american misinterpretation of many aspects of japanese culture – and similar things in other E. Asian cultures.”

    That’s interesting and I’ll def. have it in mind next time I rewatch

  31. BJ – no, nothing I wrote was “aimed at” you, or at anyone else, for that matter… I seem to be having a lot of difficulty at phrasing what I want to say without offending.

    “You” in that sentence is intended to be plural. I really did not intend to be confusing there… I was thinking of Americans re. seeing those stereotypes in the media when I was a child. (Keeping in mind that the Japanese were our enemies during WWII; that we occupied their country – and via that occupation, helped jumpstart their post-war economy – and then we freaked out because they began successfully making and marketing cars and electronics and all sorts of things that were not only innovative, but better – in pretty much all respects – than comparable US-made products.)

    BJ – I don’t know if English is your 2nd (or 3d, or…) language, but I *do* know that it can be hugely confusing to follow text-only commentary in another language – or even one’s mother tongue. So if I misled you via grammar or usage, my apologies! It’s all too easy to “go idiomatic” and confuse people by doing so.

  32. OK, well… gotta eat my words, to some degree.

    I just re-read (should have done that earlier!) and yes, I *did* make an unfounded assumption in that sentence.

    But I honestly did not mean to offend. Perhaps it would help to know whether you experienced media stereotypes of Japanese people (or something similar) when you were growing up?

    i do see how and why someone would see the Ferengi as you’ve mentioned; I agree re. the early episodes of DS9. There’s a lot to be said for the way in which the writers satirized many aspects of rapacious, unprincipled business practices – and practitioners – throughout the show. But it might have been more to the point if they had singled out *humans* who did such things, rather than putting it all on other humanoids.

  33. This is sort of a tangential response to John Scalzi’s “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting. Good article; you should read it… and the comments. Yeah, I know, I usually say don’t read the comments. But I think they’re illuminating, if frustrating, in this case. If you’re not a straight white male, it’s a good idea to understand how even the most liberal of them think. If you are a straight white male, Scalzi’s talking to you; listen.

    I agree how easy we are to read as I read your words above and I quickly asertained that you were a black person who thinks she has it harder then anyone who doesn’t look like her and therefore is wise beyond our years. And we need to be taught by you.

    Ummm, even pandering liberals who have let black people have a place in this racist society are only something you barely think higher of(but not highly) But since they do kiss your ass, then you think like to think that you have the High Insight to tell us that we need to listen to him.

    Have you ever done anything thats not Selfish?

    Liberals try it(to make them selves feel better) that is something I already know that you know. But many black people are as selfish as the KKK was before Johnson Destroyed there power in the 60’s.

    Hienlien did have a lot of points that are true. Things people like you(uh huh) need to know. Racist, Yes in ways but something Racist doe’s not always mean untrue.

    Have to Humble yourself if you want to be Holier then though.