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 I suspect Western eRPGs were originally made to emulate the fun of playing tabletop RPGs, within which nonlinearity, customization, and identification (“you are the character!”)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

84 thoughts on “Identity should always be part of the gameplay”

  1. I seem to remember the main character in Starship Troopers being named “Juan Rico” was revealed pretty early in the book – although he’s mostly referred to as “Johnny” throughout the text, with “Juan” used only a handful of times. Given that, I would think that assuming the character was white until near the end of the book would be a sign that the reader was projecting their own assumptions onto the characters rather than that the author had written a white character and “painted him brown” as an afterthought. Am I mis-remembering the details on this? I don’t have my copy handy – or a searchable electronic copy at all – so I can’t do my own fact-checking on this.

  2. Thank you for articulating what makes the Dragon Age games so good. The first time I played Dragon Age, I chose the Dalish Elf origin. I was shocked when I got out of the Dalish camp and found that most human NPCs all but spat on my character. I’ve been playing video games since I was a kid and had come to expect that race/gender/etc. were basically cosmetic in RPGs. Playing a game where that wasn’t the case was an absolute revelation.

    And you definitely weren’t the only one who thought Varric was hot!

  3. Andrew,

    It’s possible; I read Starship Troopers many, many years ago, and haven’t touched Heinlein at all since I read Farnham’s Freehold. It’s entirely possible the latter blotted out most of my memories of the former. Any Heinlein afficionados want to chime in here?


    Whew. Thought it was just me.

  4. A thought on the “Just Paint ‘Em Brown” technique from a novice writer…
    I actually do “paint ’em brown”, but often sideways since “white male” isn’t my default. I find this technique liberating as a part of the writing process, but certainly not effective as a final flourish in a story (which is what you seem to be addressing). I think it’s useful as a way to challenge my own groupings of identity characteristics after writing a first draft, and it provides a sturdy frame from which I can reverse engineer a character with depth and complexity from one who had my fingerprints all over her. Essentially, it makes me work harder and keeps me from falling into my own biases and traps.
    If I already know what the character does in the story, making those choices make sense from a different perspective becomes an interesting project. And, for me, it’s surprising how little justification is really needed, though certainly more than a few words about a person’s skin. I think “repainting” characters this way highlights how much of what a person experiences really is human and universal…that’s something I find very uplifting in the end.

  5. I know I don’t have a leg to stand on (youngish white male here), but while I agree that there is a social consequence to colour, I don’t think that projecting any real world social responses into games has much value unless that is what you feel like you want to address. I do wholeheartedly agree in general about the importance of social response in a milieu though.

    I think that the general problem with RPGs and genre fiction is that even the white males are often poorly written. An Eastern European white male has such different outlooks and expectations from an Alaskan that they can’t really be considered as ‘flavours’ so much as distinct types. Once even the vanilla characters have a hit of depth, I think that the issue of complexity and consequence you raise will begin to grow normally from that.

    I’ll say as well that it is always irritating when wRPGs stop you from being what you want to; I can sympathise with the slight persistent annoyance that is being black-ish or for me in particular jaundiced (Arabic-ish).

    Thanks for the article, it’s an interesting subject.

  6. Oh, you are not at all the only one who thought Varric was hot. (There’s a fan community for him on LiveJournal called dat_chest_hair, which amuses me far more than it probably ought.)

    One of the things I love intensely about Dragon Age is what you hit on in this post: that privilege and oppression are built into the game. Dragon Age 2, in particularly, really hits home the myriad ways the group-in-power can oppress the group not-in-power. The little references to Ser Alrik’s behaviour in particular, including the abuses he explicitly is said to heap upon mages, just made me feel nauseous.

    (I also love, as a general rule, the fact that voice is always the strongest part of every Bioware game I’ve played since they moved away from “D and D with graphics” – no two characters sound alike, even taking voice actors out of the equation, and it’s just done so very very well.)

    Something else I’ve noticed (about DA in particular, but to a lesser extent with the Mass Effect team too) is that when the team is called out on having not done well with something related to trans* issues, sexuality issues, gender, etc. – they apologize. And then they try to do better. I wish it wasn’t so astounding that they did, but it makes me want to support them even more because they do keep trying and usually manage to fail better the next time.

  7. Dragon breath is extremely caustic, so everyone with significant dragon-fighting experience has straight hair, even if they were born otherwise. :-)

  8. James,

    I know I don’t have a leg to stand on (youngish white male here), but while I agree that there is a social consequence to colour, I don’t think that projecting any real world social responses into games has much value unless that is what you feel like you want to address.

    Well, considering that I just spent over 1000 words describing what value it afforded to me, obviously I disagree with you. I think it makes games more interesting and more fun. I certainly would never have replayed the DA games this much otherwise.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “unless that is what you feel like you want to address”, but I sincerely hope you aren’t suggesting that realistic social behavior only belongs in fantasy when there’s a reason to include it. That smacks dangerously of arguments I’ve heard before against increasing the representation of marginalized groups in SFF and other media — the ol’ “only include [women/PoC/gay people/whatever] if it’s a story about [sexism/racism/homophobia/some other Very Special Episode subject matter]” schtick. I’ve railed against that enough in this blog that I don’t feel like hitting it again, but I hope you can see the flaw in that reasoning.

  9. Lassarina,

    I’m… a little afraid to go look at that LJ comm. But I’ll check it out. :)

    And yeah, like I said, the whole reason I decided to check out the DA games was because I heard about David Gaider’s awesome response to a homophobic commenter on the DA boards. I’ve been burned many times by RPGs that turned out to be offensive or just plain bad, but I figured any game with writers like that was worth a try. And I’m glad I did.

  10. Seth,

    Heh. If the game hadn’t been made in our world, that would be as good an explanation as any. :)

  11. I think the bias toward straight hair in computer games might be largely technical; it’s just easier to model a coherent mass of straight hair in a way that looks good. Modeling the physics of curly hair is computationally difficult. Pixar, for example, started out with software that made everything look like plastic, and on that basis it’s unsurprising that their first film was about toys; it’s only this year that they got around to making a film with a curly-haired protagonist. It required major technical advances, and that’s for batch-rendering, not a real-time game.

  12. Mark,

    Sorry, I don’t buy it. It cannot possibly be harder to design in dredlocks than it is to design in braids (they do have an option for braids in DA, but the braids end in dangly straight tips); it cannot be harder to do a short afro than it is to do a buzz cut; it cannot be harder to do tight curls than it is loose curls (the game has loose curls). And while these games are fantastic story-wise, they’re not exactly on the bleeding edge of computer animation; there’s not much movement to any of the hairstyles. For the most part every hairstyle is stiff as a plank, maybe with the lower half jiggling a little (stiffly) during animations. I see no reason why we can’t have plank-stiff curly as well as plank-stiff straight.

    For everyone — seriously, ya’ll, stop making excuses, joking or otherwise, for the lack of non-straight hair options. They’re not funny, and they’re not flying with me.

  13. Don’t want to be Captain Obvious, but computer games were evolved because of the need of the audience. That was the incentinve behind all the developments. So if somebody demands curly hairs, we surely cannot say, that it is impossible to design – we shall send then the designers back to their desks, until they can. It is their job to make a game more and more realistic after all.
    If the answer ‘it cannot be achieved’ would have ever satisfied the gamers, then we would have ended up with Pac-Man as the most realistic playable character.

  14. I think my point was badly made re: whether or not real social issues should be included. The point i was (ineptly) trying to get across is that there are times when a game or story is addressing, satirising or confronting real world issues that ordinary people face everyday. The attitudes match our own, the relative social positions of the groups involved match our reality and it is only the colour of the setting that changes. This is a specific situation and a game or story that goes down this route must have the internal flexibility to deal with this. If it was an intelligent game it would allow you to walk around the issues shown from several character viewpoints.

    The second option is less about accurately representing our current cultural and social milieu, but about confronting discriminatory, bigoted or simply outdated attitudes directly. The conflicts get turned on their heads, the Dalish are a good example of this, and by seeing old patterns with new eyes the gamer/reader can appreciate the weirdness of these behaviours and relate to them, understanding their own reactions. Now, I don’t think there would be anything wrong with basing this in Europe and having an all-white cast if that was the story that needed to be told. It should just also be as reasonable to base the same style of game in Mongolia, Massachusetts or Mars if need be.

    I know that there is incredible mileage in this topic for asking the whys and wherefores and I’m not trying to defend entrenched race-blind or socially naive game elements, the are just my thoughts on one aspect of the issue you raised.

  15. James,

    I think your point came across fine. I just don’t agree. :) I don’t think social realism belongs only in games attempting to address “issues”. I think realism improves all media, except in the case of cartoony stuff or parody. As far as I’m concerned, this is a matter of good writing. Worldbuilding which tries to pretend that prejudice doesn’t exist or that human beings wouldn’t find some way to dick over each other — constantly, systemically, often violently — doesn’t fly with me, because no human society has ever been like that. I’m not saying such a pleasant world should never be created or considered, but if the creator doesn’t bother to show that real thought went into designing this fantasy of societal perfection, then I’m likely to dismiss their efforts the same way I dismiss any other badly-researched, badly-thought-out worldbuilding.

    I would consider a game/story based in Europe with an all-white cast to be an example of weak worldbuilding, for example, because it would be glaringly obvious to me that its creator(s) didn’t bother learning any real history. Real medieval Europe was hella multicultural, and anyone who thinks otherwise clearly hasn’t read Shakespeare, or thought much about what all those Crusades and the Silk Road and the Moorish Conquest were all about. An all-white Europe might also suggest to me that the creator’s wishful thinking was rooted in common white supremacist fantasies, like the idea of a world from which all people of color have been excluded or forcibly ejected. It was white supremacist “historians” and “scientists” who first popularized the idea of a racially “pure” ancient Europe, after all; they did it to justify the slave trade, and these ideas have permeated Western thought and education for generations now. So while that kind of worldbuilding might have been done out of “social naivete”, as you suggest… more likely it’s just the usual bigotry. There’s no reason to assume otherwise.

  16. 800 comments on the Scalzi post now? And no doubt chock full of idiots trying to tell him how and why he’s wrong… That’s a cruel reading assignment, but at least you shared the pain. :)

    Haven’t played DA… Maybe I should.

    As for ‘paint them brown’… Trying to avoid that myself. I don’t want to be just another white author writing about white people, but just arbitrarily darkening skin tone without any further consideration seems cheap. I don’t want it to come across as ‘medieval Europe, but they’re brown’.

    Thank you for this post.

  17. It’s funny because when I played through DA ad a Dalish elf I was annoyed by how often it seemed like the NPCs would say something like, “Those dirty elves!” then notice me standing there and say, “Er, except you. You’re cool.” I wanted to be discriminated against MORE. Same with being a Mage in DA2, too often people would scream hysterically about apostates then turn and ask me to agree with them. Every so often a character would acknowledge that while I was an apostate I was tolerated because of my status but too often it felt like people assumed my staff and robes were fashion choices.

    Varric is the best. Anders was awesome in DA but I hated him in DA too. And Fenris may have the hottest voice actor in Bioware’s stable but I didn’t find him terribly appealing beyond that. I wanted Varric but I was, as I heard someone else remark, Hawke-blocked by the writers. ;) I didn’t like the romanceable girls either. I chose Isabella coz I couldn’t stand Merrill but I wanted to date Aveline. Sigh!

  18. In no particular order:

    1) I would like to point out that when I say all-white cast, I don’t mean an all WASP monocultural extravaganza.

    I’m part Lebanese. I’m also pale skinned, freckled and more than a little ginger (I prefer russet, it sounds cooler). Go figure.

    If you were to line up a cross section of Europeans you would run a gamut from Celts, Gaels, Fresians, Normans, Finns, Danes, Russ, Slavs, Gauls, Moors, and a hundred others. For the majority of these people they would fall into an immigration form as White, or White (Other). I personally prefer White (Other).

    So, while I’m happy to thank whatever powers that be that the people who write the immigration forms don’t write the fiction I read, I do take a bit of umbrage at the suggestion that all-white fiction is shallow.

    2) The point was not that prejudice doesn’t exist. I wasn’t advocating a ‘perfect world’ either.

    Many of the worst crimes/conflicts I’ve ever heard of have occurred between groups so similar as to be indistinguishable to those not versed in picking up subtle social cues. These events are things that can be incorporated and viewed through the lens of fiction.

    I think that we may be thinking on different scales though. When I say a story could be told that features a few similar looking groups, it’s because, on a small scale (town or city), it can. I don’t imagine a whole world of white, blonde haired, blue eyed clones. I don’t *want* one either.

    3) The argument about highlighting social issues was based around two mechanisms: mapping and juxtaposition.

    You can map a real situation onto your world and analyse it. You can do this for the effect of satire or confrontation or similar. The milieu will reflect your chosen real situation in number, type, situation and relationships of the ethnic/social groups involved. This is all good.

    If you juxtapose relationships between social groupings, or invert conventional beliefs about supremacy or dominance, you can also use these for satire and confrontation. The milieu may be whatever your mind can conjure and yet you will still be able to address and incorporate relevant social issues. For the sake of coarseness, in a world where the Mermen repeatedly ride the salty earholes of the pale, blonde landlocked humans you could still talk about issues to do with gender, race and identity.

    4) I still think you won’t agree with me. Salty earholes notwithstanding.

  19. Inspector Spacetime

    Okay, I’m convinced I need to play this game, flaws and all. Can I start with DA2, you think, or should I go back to the first one?

  20. Inspector :)

    I suppose you could start with 2. The worldbuilding will be easier to grasp, and past context will add more layers of meaning, if you’ve played the first one. (e.g., The story of DA2 starts in reaction to stuff that happened in DA1.) But they’re separate stories aside from that.

  21. Inspector Spacetime

    I suppose the question isn’t so much WHAT game I should start with, but WHEN game I should start with.

    I’ll go back to Origins. I’m not an extreme completionist, but I think I can do two.

  22. I do hope responding to this doesn’t make the discussion worse. My apologies to all if it does.


    > I do take a bit of umbrage at the suggestion that all-white fiction is shallow.
    It’s possible that, in a hypothetical world in which there was no racism, or at least it was a distant memory, that creating an all-white world could be a neutral choice, like creating an all-periwinkle world or a random mixture or whatever. But we don’t live in that world; we live in a society in which people have tried many, many times to pretend that white people are the only people who are actually people, who are worth telling stories about, who are worth marketing products to. So in that context, (which you can’t escape without moving to a different universe) all-white fiction is worse than shallow, it perpetuates racism. That’s not to say there aren’t any engaging, well-told stories with all-white casts, just that even the best of them promotes the privilege of one group to see themselves mirrored in fiction at the expense of the excluded groups.

    You also point out that there are many different ethnic groups under the label “white”. While this is true, it ignores the fact that they all share a certain privilege in American society; namely, you at least have the possibility of joining the majority. A white person can choose whether to claim the label “Irish-American”, for example, or just “American”. A person of colour is denied that choice.

    I’ll give an extreme example of this. I’ve lived in both Kitchener, Ontario, and Vancouver, BC. Kitchener was founded by German immigrants (it was called “Berlin” at one point.) When the world wars came, the residents denounced their connections with Germany, proudly claimed to be “Canadians”, and, by and large, were accepted as such. Since then they have partially reclaimed their German heritage, hosting the largest Octoberfest outside of Germany. In contrast, the small islands to the west of Vancouver hold ghost towns of what were once fishing villages settled by Japanese immigrants. Though they had been living in Canada for as many generations, when the second world war came they were forced into internment camps, their property was confiscated, and even after the end of the war they were relocated inland or, in some cases, deported to Japan – whether they spoke Japanese or not. The residents of Kitchener could choose what aspects of their culture they wanted to embrace, they could choose whether to identify with it or not. The residents of the BC fishing villages, because they were not white, would always be “Japanese-Canadian”, no matter how many generations they lived here or how perfect their English was. Having a culture to claim doesn’t remove the privilege that comes with being white, and projecting racial issues onto an all-white cast doesn’t move us forward in dealing with the racism in our society.

  23. I loved those games for similar reasons. I was very surprised when playing my elven, female mage I could give an “I will be your queen” speech towards the end of the game that basically gets shot down by everybody. You are also correct that Anders is awful. I was rather disappointed that he is the most viable gay romance in DA2 for a mage, since he is both whiney and a tool. (If you loved me, you would let me be a terrorist.) (I wanted Fenris, but, alas, he did not want me.)

    Though at the end of the day, pursuing a romantic relationship in DA is a trial if only for how awful the teeth are in that game. Talk about verisimilitude! Don’t want to be kissing those mouths.

  24. I really need to get that “Writing the Other” book… I’ve been wrestling with some of these issues in the novel I’m working on. It’s told from the point of view of a variety of characters, not just a single protagonist, and it was important to me that there be a fair bit of racial (and gender, sexual orientation, etc.) diversity, because it’s set in Toronto (where I live), which is a very diverse city. Trying to avoid cultural appropriation entirely by making all the protagonists white would be (a) unrealistic, and (b) cowardly.

    But I tend to be a fairly anxiety-prone person by nature, so I find myself constantly bouncing back and forth between worrying about whether, with the characters of colour, I may have done the “paint’em brown” thing, and worrying on the other hand about whether anything I write that does reflect their various cultures means I’m stereotyping. It can be kind of hard to find a balance sometimes. But mainly I’m trying to just make sure all the characters are interesting and have some depth to them, and – while trying to stay conscious of these issues – remember that if I start getting so anxious about them that it stops me from writing, I need to take a deep breath and remember that the fate of the universe does not depend on my attaining perfection in the first draft of a novel that may or may not ever end up actually getting published.

  25. I just want to point out that while, yes, the response that David Gaider gave to homophobes was awesome and wonderful his response to observations on race is nowhere near equal in progressiveness.

    Mr. Gaider does not believe that the brown people in his video game migrate. They just stay on their continent.

    Someone in charge of the Bioware forums also made the statement that the Qunari are islam and the borgs put together. So you were right to find things funky when it came to the Arishok and Isabela.

  26. “If you’re not a straight white male, it’s a good idea to understand how even the most liberal of them think.”

    yes generalizations and stereotypes are bad….. unless they are about white people :)

  27. Inspector, I liked both games and recommend both games. The order I played them in was Origins, 2, and then Awakening, but you’re supposed to play them as Origins, Awakening, and then 2. Which is probably why I hate Anders, because I got to see his bad side before his good side. But it’s up to you!

  28. James,

    1) You’re talking about ethnicity. I’m talking about race. And in particular I’m talking about race as it has been used for the past 400 years or so — as a weapon against some, and a helpmeet to others. The discussion of ethnicity is not irrelevant to that; who qualifies as “white” has indeed changed over time. What hasn’t changed, however, is the privilege that whiteness affords to those upon whom it is bestowed. One mechanism used to maintain that privilege is the exclusion of people of color from both actual communities (as Eric’s example notes) and from fictionalized depictions of ordinary life. Which is why I did not suggest that all-white fiction is shallow. I said that it was either naive or racist, or possibly both. There are many naive, racist novels that are considered high-quality, complex, in-depth fiction; they’re still naive and/or racist. Realism and quality are two very different measurements, though not mutually exclusive.

    2) We were not discussing a small town. We were discussing Europe.

    3) And your point is?

    4) I’ll agree with you if you make a point that I agree with. If you don’t, I won’t. What other arcane system of agreement/disagreement do you think I use?

  29. Eric, thanks for sharing that example. I hadn’t realized there were Japanese internments in Canada too.

  30. Lyanna,

    I very much recommend Writing the Other. Speaking of which, a friend mooched my copy ages ago; gotta get it back from him.

  31. Inspector Spacetime

    I’m trying to think of a novel/game/fictional world without some version of whiteness in it. It seems like a multicultural society doesn’t need to construct some analog of whiteness within itself, but there are few examples where it’s completely lacking. You either get whitewashed worlds, where authors forget about non-whites, or worlds that are conscious of racial othering, but very few that really seem able to push past it. It’s at the edge of our imaginative abilities, since whiteness is so pervasive.

    I’ve been re-watching Star Trek: TNG lately, and it certainly is a show that aggressively wants you to believe the Federation is a post-racial world, even transcending the cultural gaps between species that evolved thousands of light-years apart. But while it gets some points for diverse casting it never challenges that the Standard Federation Citizen is a liberal-human white person. It’s most painful with Worf and Troi, whenever they interact. She seems to be convinced that being a Klingon is a mild personality disorder, and spends every interaction trying to turn him into a human. For an empath, it seems all the more stunning that her mode of dealing with him is to gently inform him that his feelings are wrong.

  32. Aeea,

    Thanks for the link. I’m glad fans have asked about that; it was something I wondered about too. Also, had no idea the Rivaini were supposed to all be dark-skinned; I thought Isabela was just randomly brown. Kirkwall and Rivain are supposed to be seafaring societies; I expect the people of such societies to come in many colors, especially if skin-color-based racism doesn’t exist. So I didn’t question Isabela’s coloring at all.

    Re Gaider’s response: I haven’t yet met anyone progressive who didn’t have to work at staying progressive when it came to things they didn’t have direct experience with. And the plain fact of the matter is that the average fantasy reader, after spending his/her entire life reading all-white McEuropes, is going to need a thinkover or two before they stop defaulting to those concepts. Hell, it took me awhile and I’m black. Even now some subversions of the dominant paradigm take awhile to kick in for me: here’s when it first occurred to me that elves shouldn’t be all white. Not too long ago.

    So I’m willing to be forgiving, given that Bioware’s already done better than 99% of fantasy writers. And I’m willing to be hopeful; the fact that Gaider says Bioware’s willing to reconsider what they’re doing for future games suggests they are in thinkover mode, and will realize several ways in which Thedas can be made more realistic so that more gamers can enjoy it, while still retaining all its magic. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what comes of that.

  33. I’ll say this about Anders. For all that I hated him and couldn’t believe what an awful terrorist jackass he turned out to be.. I hated it the most I think because it made sense, for him, given his situation with Justice. So in that way I thought it was an interesting story choice. We all got to see how bad and dangerous it was for mages to be possessed by evil spirits from the Fade, I thought it was kinda great to see why even possession by “good” spirits could be just as bad. Wynne in the first game was an example of how it could go right but Anders shows us why it can be very, very bad. But without having a melty face and everything. Justice was kind of a prick in Awakenings, I could totally see him warping poor frivolous Anders into what he becomes in DA2.

  34. Inspector,

    There are plenty of depictions of worlds without whiteness. They just happen primarily in media created by people of color and (for the most part) marketed to people of color. African American Interest fiction is full of such worlds. There’s an SFF market in China that dwarfs anything in America, and I imagine most of its stories are about Chinese people — though since most of it’s in Chinese, I wouldn’t know. And of course there’s Japanese anime and manga, the vast majority of which — despite Westerners’ endless “why’s this stuff full of white people?” questioning — is about Japanese people. Most cultures center their stories on themselves.

    Except Western SFF. Which despite being written in societies that have been multiracial practically from their inception, has historically been by white people, aimed at white people, often making a deliberate effort to exclude any depiction of the nonwhite members of those societies. Fortunately we’re slowly beginning to change that.

    And yeah, Star Trek seems progressive ’til you think about it. DS9 was better but it was still written primarily by white guys, and it shows.

  35. John,

    Wow. If reading 800+ comments by several hundred people all voicing vastly disparate opinions on a single topic is generalizing in your book, and if reading that conversation in addition to y’know all the experiences PoC get by living in a straight-white-male-dominated society is stereotyping, then you really have no idea what those words mean, do you? But good on you for using them in a sentence.

  36. Lyssabits,

    Oh, I love Anders as a character. He’s an excellent examination of what can drive an ordinary person to terrorism — a sense of justice so extreme that it crosses the line into complete irrationality sounds about right. And it’s clear that he’s not wrong. If peace between mages and non-mages depends on the utter subjugation of either group — Kirkwall had become a kind of mirror of Minrathous by the end of the game, with mages not even having the right to their own bodies (brains, at least, since it’s clear being made Tranquil is a kind of magic lobotomy) — then it’s ultimately untenable and will not last. We’ve seen this in our own world again and again and again; no people will tolerate being treated like chattel forever. They’ll always fight back — and if they choose violent means to do so, then both oppressors and oppressed will end up living in fear.

    But as a love interest Anders is infuriating! Flirt with him and he flies into an angstfit, declaring melodramatically that “I’ll break your heart!” Sheesh, what an ego. Then you sleep with him once and he starts talking about shacking up? And if you turn him down he accuses you of using him? He’s clingy, he’s self-absorbed, he whines… he’s pretty much everything I loathe in a partner in real life. But again, it’s just a game, so I guess I can put up with him for one playthrough.

  37. With regards to ‘Writing the Other’, this might be handy:

    As to the discussion…

    One thing I’ve contemplated in my own writing is something inspired more than a little by the world of Eberron. According to the source material, the land of birth tends to matter more than racial background. I think the specific example was that a dwarf from, say, Sharn, will hold his personal identity as being more with Sharn than with another dwarf from the Mror Holds, even though that’s the dwarven homeland.

    So I ponder the idea of a world where there are several kingdoms/lands where the populace is a mixture of colours, possibly including white… and prejudice is more to do with which kingdom you come from (how you dress, the holidays you observe, how you drink your tea), than with what colour your skin is. Not sure how to make it work, or if it’s even realistic given the state of our world.

    Then again, it occurs to me that I don’t know if Eberron has human PoC. There’s drow, but I’m not sure they count… I mean, they’re not inherently evil like the usual strain, but they’re also not exactly centre stage of the main story.

    Oh, and the ‘generalising’ thing. It sorta sounds that way at first, basically saying all white people are racist. But you know what? It’s more of a survival strategy. Understanding that SOME white people are racist, badly so, and that even the most liberal can be stupid fucktards because they JUST DON’T KNOW because they’ve never experienced, never even THOUGHT about what it’s like to be anything other than white.

    So it’s instructional to expose yourself, even indirectly, to different viewpoints so you can learn to recognise who is dangerous, who isn’t, and who is a well-meaning dumbass that will do you more harm than good if they don’t run face-first into a clue-by-four some day.

    As the line goes in Everclear’s ‘Everything to Everyone’: The hand you hold is the hand that holds you down.

    And I should know, because I just so happen to be one of those well-meaning dumbasses who has all the best intentions in the world but doesn’t always know what the hell he’s talking about.

  38. Re:Anders

    Ah, I was speaking more to the general fanbase anger about Anders’ personality change from Awakenings than to his unsuitability as a mate. (He is a terrible, unsatisfying love-interest.) A lot of the anger I saw about Anders’ character was from two camps: people who felt his extreme personality change was sort of unrealistic and the homophobic male gamers who didn’t like that he’ll hit on you. (Though for the record, I never noticed him hitting on me, whether I was playing as a guy or a girl. Weird. I’m either terribly unobservant or particularly blind to flirting.)

    When it comes down to it, aren’t all of the love-interests in DA2 kind of terrible? Anders is a bi-polar, selfish nightmare. He loves you and wants to be with you but the whole time he’s trying to make himself do “the right thing” by not dragging you down with him. He knows he’s a bad guy who will only bring you pain. He’s just too weak to actually try to live without you. Fenris is no better. He’s justifiably angry about the way he was enslaved by the mages in power (his bitterness and hate is still hard to be around, justified or no) and has a number of issues relating to his memory loss.. so he sleeps with you and has a painful flashback to his past, so that means he has to LEAVE YOU for 3 years? It makes no sense at all! Isabella at least is honest about how leery she is of deep emotional connections, she only wants to use you for sex until the end when she slowly comes around, but it makes for a pretty unsatisfying romance. I can’t comment on Merrill very well because I never romanced her, (though your complaint about Anders wanting to move in after sleeping with you one time also applies to Merrill. She does the same thing) I found her so off-putting in general. A ditzy, nervous elf somehow arrogant enough to mess with forces beyond her control, no matter how many people she loves and respects tell her what a Bad Idea it is. I have a hard time taking the Rival path with people but I found it both easy and satisfying to do it with Merrill. ;)

    At the moment though I’m obsessed with Bioware’s SciFi offering, Mass Effect. As much as I loved Dragon Age (and I played through each game 2.5 times, so, A LOT), I find Mass Effect more engrossing. Not because the story or characters are any better per se, but I find the ability to play the same Shepard through 3 games very compelling. All your choices don’t always have as big en effect as you might want, but that’s forgiveable to me, that kind of game design is overly ambitious. And all the romanceable guys are way better! ;)

  39. DA2 is a dangerous subject—get me started and I can go on for thousands of words (and have!). I’ll try to keep it short.

    DA2 is my first and only-thus-far DA game, and it’s definitely self-contained enough to be played on its own. When I get my PC back from the shop (sob!) I’ll play them in release order so I can appreciate the callbacks.

    “Isabela” is a vaguely Hispanic name, but I had no idea the Rivaini were brown as a whole, either, nor that they were primarily seafarers. If we’re given more info about them in Isabela’s arc, I missed it because it was cut short in my DA2 game. (Getting to know the characters I neglected in my first playthrough is a good reason to go back to it!)

    Ghettoization and slavery are central parts of your elven companions’ stories in DA2, and their effects and aftereffects on their lives were handled in a way that also affected me as a player/Hawke. That said, at times the game does feel whitewashed; for example, as NK mentioned, how there’s exactly one brown guy running a market stall in a port city, not to mention that there are a lot of refugees and immigrants at this immediate point in Kirkwall’s history.

    As someone who’s got a fantasy story or two in her head begging to be told, this post has given me more things to think about. Thanks!

  40. Inspector Spacetime

    Good point, of course, about non-American audiences. I now really don’t have the experience to say anything general or specific, so I do want to ask the question without presumption. Is SFF in China or Japan out there lacking not only white people, but some analog of whiteness. I have no doubt about the former: it’s not inconceivable to avoid pale-skinned, blue-eyed, straight-haired people. But even in a fictional universe without whites, how do you avoid creating some kind of fantastic equivalent?

    A lot of authors turn humans into white people, turning all Klingons/elves/orcs/espers into Others, even if the humans are diverse or non-white themselves. Which is of course, frequently awesome, if you’re self-consciously telling a story about racial identity rather than just looking for a way to be racist without offending any specific Earth group. Or there’s stuff out there where humans are the others, and it’s a perspective on oppression that way.

    But what I’m trying to imagine here is a text with multiculturalism without Otherness; the diversity with out the sense that there’s one group that “doesn’t provide diversity,” but the rest do. Does that make sense?

    As to Star Trek (TNG, at least), I think it does at least show the potential limit of a sort of individual, rights-based, liberalism. Which is really called out around Data, which are always the best episodes. He gets to be a liberal rights-haver, because he’s a sentient being. Liberalism is probably on the whole a good thing, especially when it’s constantly in tension with conservatism and other right-wing movements over the past 200 years. Star Trek really never thought beyond it, and went ahead and created a liberal utopia while ignoring critical responses to it (for a while: DS9 and Voyager did seem to push back). Jean-Luc Picard is the ultimate white liberal superhero, pushing rights-based, universalist justice across the galaxy through legal proceedings instead of force. Which is more than a little bit awesome! I don’t want to crap all over it just because it was the 80s, and critical studies were still young and rare outside of academic circles. But the Federation’s diversity is really only skin-deep, about as literally as can be. None of them really like Worf, and while they let him do his thing, they’re always trying to talk him out of it — aided by the writers, who make Klingon culture as abrasive as possible. After that, the show has basically no alien characters to worry about anyway; the Vulcans could have provided some more subtlety.

  41. Jonathon,

    Maybe I’m pre-coffee again, but I didn’t understand half of what you said. What is Eberron? Is that the name of the world that the Thedas continent exists on? I’ve never seen the Mror Holds mentioned. And… drow? Are you talking about something completely different from Dragon Age?

    As for a world where there are several kingdoms/lands where the populace is a mixture of colours, possibly including white… and prejudice is more to do with which kingdom you come from (how you dress, the holidays you observe, how you drink your tea), than with what colour your skin is: Dude, that’s the way most of the world worked before racism was invented.

    I’m not sure who you’re speaking to or what you mean, about generalizing.

    And I thought Everclear was cheap liquor, but I’m guessing it’s either the name of a poet or some musician’s name? Also not sure why you mention that line about the hand you hold.

  42. nkjemisin: Eberron is the newest D&D work, which is a mixture between pulp noir and tolkienic fantasy, just like most of the D&D settings are a mixture of tolkienic fantasy and another genre:

    You got the core D&D races with a few twists, and other four races:
    – warrior golems (warforged) created for a great war, who got sentience, and now they are trying to fit into a society as ordinary people (i.e. innkeepers, scholars, etc.) which created them only to kill and die.
    – lycanthropes (shifters) who are prosecuted by the Church out of racism (no, they won’t infect you with their ‘curse’, and they can shapeshift at will into a half-human hybrid).
    – shapeshifters (changeling) who are distrusted.
    – and the kalashtars, who are best described as a bond of human and a psychical creature from the dream of planes.

    (And there are interesting subversions as well… here the orcs are druidic people, who protected once the world from demonic forces.)

    May be it is worth a try. Mror Holds are the land of the dwarves, BTW.

  43. Lyssabits,

    Yeah, none of the DA2 love interests is really someone I would touch with a ten-foot pole in real life. But I would so be all over Varric. He’s so even-keeled, wise yet snarky, compassionate, tasteful, creative… ::wistful sigh:: Granted, he does have an unnatural relationship with his crossbow, but by Dragon Age standards that’s just a minor quirk. :)

    Of the available options, I prefer Fenris. His neuroses are at least tolerable (to me), and understandable given what he’s been through. Merrill’s not my taste, either; she’s hilarious, but every time I start to like her, yeah, off-putting arrogance. I didn’t bother sleeping with Isabela more than once, so I didn’t realize she might eventually catch feelings. And apparently despite the flirt options available, Aveline never notices and there’s no real romance possibility with her. Ah, well.

  44. Varric was totally the one I would have gone for if they’d allowed it. I love how in the end if asked about the Mage and Templar debate he bitches about how both sides are crazy. ;) Fenris ultimately was who I went with. He had issues but they were less annoying than Anders’ issues. However 80% of his appeal was how mind-numbingly sexy Gideon Emery’s voice acting is. ;) Not unlike my reason for picking Morrigan in the first game. Morrigan was sort of a bitch, but I have a huge weakness for Claudia Black. I just love her. And I love Aveline, though she was depressingly oblivious to my advances. Sigh.

  45. Wonderful article!

    You might be interested to know there is fanfiction for Dragon Age 2 featuring Varric as a love interest. Some of it is rather good and in character. That is how I get my Varric cravings satisfied. There’s fanfiction(dot)net and ao3(dot)org for starters.

  46. NK

    Sorry about that, didn’t mean to be so completely incomprehensible. It was post-midnight when I wrote it…

    Ummmm, let see. Eberron’s been explained…

    As to the culture divide, I guess I need to research it, because the little history I know hasn’t spoken much towards diversity or tolerance…

    I was speaking more to John about generalising. Trying to explain my understanding of what you, NK, meant by “it’s a good idea to understand how even the most liberal of them think”. John seemed to think that was a generalisation about white people, and thus somehow hypocritical.

    As for Everclear, they’re a band, sort of grunge/pop, had a couple of good records back in the 90s… The line about the hand you hold was quoted as a reference to how even the most well-meaning ally can still be subconsciously racist without realising it. And that PoC need to be careful who they trust as an ally. At least… So I understand.

    The song isn’t about race at all though…

    I think I’ve dug a deep enough hole now. Time to stop.

  47. Inspector,

    Good point, of course, about non-American audiences.

    And non-white American audiences.

    I now really don’t have the experience to say anything general or specific, so I do want to ask the question without presumption. Is SFF in China or Japan out there lacking not only white people, but some analog of whiteness. I have no doubt about the former: it’s not inconceivable to avoid pale-skinned, blue-eyed, straight-haired people. But even in a fictional universe without whites, how do you avoid creating some kind of fantastic equivalent?

    a) I don’t read Chinese stuff at all except in very occasional translation, and I know no more than the average animanga fan about the Japanese SFF market (which is to say, almost nothing, especially about text-only work — but the folks at Haikasoru are trying to change that for us Anglophones). But that’s irrelevant. Why do you seem to feel that fictional universes have to contain white people or an equivalent? And what do you mean by equivalent? Whiteness is a construct, not a real thing; the whole concept of whiteness didn’t exist before the 1500s or so, and it was invented as a justification for colonialism and slavery. So do you mean that every fantasy should contain a conglomeration of wildly disparate tribes uniting under the banner of skin color in order to oppress people who look different? Or are you simply asking whether every fantasy contains some pale-skinned variant of humanity? Please clarify.

    A lot of authors turn humans into white people, turning all Klingons/elves/orcs/espers into Others, even if the humans are diverse or non-white themselves. Which is of course, frequently awesome, if you’re self-consciously telling a story about racial identity rather than just looking for a way to be racist without offending any specific Earth group. Or there’s stuff out there where humans are the others, and it’s a perspective on oppression that way.

    Personally I find such narratives frustrating, not awesome, for the same reasons you describe. Usually these stories are allegories for racism, but they perpetuate actual racism in the process. Too often when it’s “Humans vs Other” (or Humans as Other), the humans offered to represent the whole species are conspicuously white, curiously American, mostly male, etc. And the Others are often thinly-veiled brown people, or actual brown people, thus sending the message that human PoC might as well be aliens. The Stargate TV shows are a great example of this; they’re repeat offenders. Also there was that one extremely unfortunate Star Trek TNG episode (yeah, TNG kind of sucked on in-depth explorations) that still makes me cringe. There’s no need to use allegory to explore racial identity in science fiction, because we have actual people who can do that. Better to use aliens to explore the kind of stuff we haven’t encountered, and failed to deal with, in real life. In my opinion, anyway.

  48. The aspect of Klingons (and any other aliens, elves, or non-human species in general) that makes them particularly troubling to use in any analogies of racism is that Klingons are genetically different from humans. So Worf must struggle against his martial Klingon nature, and Torres must try to overcome the aggressive Klingon genes that give her heightened strength but can cloud her judgement. This follows so closely to the ideas that real-world scientists have proposed over the years regarded supposed genetic differences between races here on earth that any attempt to use Klingon/Human interactions as a metaphor for racism is, in my opinion, fatally crippled, regardless of the intentions of the writers.

    There’s obviously a lot of cool stories to be told around imagined societies in which there are more than one sentient species, but I think that to make them analogies to human race relations is to give credence to genetic difference theories that, unfortunately, are still held in many circles, even academic ones.

  49. Inspector Spacetime

    I’m sorry if that came off as “SFF has to be like this.” I meant something along the lines of “this is what’s coming to mind and I’m looking for counterexamples.” Because I want to read them, not because I’m daring them not to exist.

    I do mean whiteness as a construct here, rather than something intrinsic, connected to some ill-defined set of physical features. What I’m looking for as a multiracial/multicultural SFF society that either never experienced a racialized construction of power dynamics or fully overcame it – the latter being what Star Trek promises but fails to deliver. Race as a construct functions as an engine of oppression in our history, with a particular divide between the dominant group – those constructed as white – and the Othered groups. What I’m looking for are texts where constructions of race are not the result of those propagating racism. Obviously, this isn’t to say authors are doing that when race and racism are on the table, but because of the experiences in our history, racial divides even in fantasy worlds tend to fall into splits between the dominators and the oppressed. I’ve been referring to the former as possessing “whiteness,” meaning generally “racial identification with the dominant group.”

    I agree with the point on racial allegory in aliens – it reminds me of people who say things like “I don’t care if you’re white, black, or purple.” When a racial allegory gets too direct, it turns PoC into aliens. Do you watch Mad Men? Paul Kinsey presents a spec script for Star Trek where they visit a planet where the Cauc’ons force the Negrons to pick Kot’ton. Oh lord. By the way, the twist is that the Negrons have white skin.

    But I do think there’s some value of poking around the edges racial structures in allegory. China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels do some interesting work on a multicultural society, and I think he avoids Othering people of color. I think you can be helpfully general if unhelpfully specific. I’ll have to think about it more.

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

    I’m sorry for any misunderstandings or offense caused.

  51. Jonathon,

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

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

  55. 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.

  56. 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.

  57. 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.

  58. Multi-replying for brevity:


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


    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.


    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?

  59. 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.

  60. 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.

  61. 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.

  62. 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.

  63. 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.

  64. 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

  65. 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.

  66. 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? ; )

  67. 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.]

  68. 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.

  69. “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.

  70. 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)

  71. 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.

  72. 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.

  73. 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.

  74. 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.”

  75. … 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.

  76. 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!

  77. @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.

  78. “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

  79. 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.

  80. 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.

  81. Pingback: Linkspam – sadly not on holidays edition

  82. 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.

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