Monday, 27 December 2010

from earthsea to asgard

Some responses to Othello in the 41st Millennium courtesy of Lord Gwydion and 5 Stone Games deserve consideration.  There are reasons offered by commenters as to why there is a dearth of people of colour in game publications and maybe as a result, around the gaming table.  Is it surprising when entire worlds are portrayed where people of a particular ethnicity don't appear to exist? 

Some blame a dearth of source materials.  Even in the day of Holmes the Physician - examples of fantasy and SF fiction where protagonists and characters aren't white existed.  For example the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin.   Which makes the TV version of Earthsea by Sci-Fi with it's white protagonist jarring.  And when Le Guin says this thirty-six years later, you have to ask what's up with the status quo.
"I have received letters that broke my heart, from adolescents of color in this country and in England, telling me that when they realized that Ged and the other Archipelagans in the Earthsea books are not white people, they felt included in the world of literary and movie fantasy for the first time."
-- speech to BookExpo America children's literature breakfast (2004).
The quote is from Pam Noles' essay Shame, a poignant study of why representation matters.  Yet arguments persist that tabletop RPGs are a Caucasian thing, a view ignoring the existence of Japanese RPGs, industry figures like Louis J. Porter and fans.  These arguments support a primary demographic of... Comic Book Guy.  Fortunately there is more in heaven and earth than dreamed of in that philosophy!

It's been argued versimilitude is a problem as characters of colour can't use the equipment of their Western peers and may need historically accurate costumes leading to racism and stereotyping.   For a moment, let's indulge the quixotism in championing historical fidelity for games with dragons, wands of fireballs and Cthulhu.  Why wouldn't a warrior with access to plate mail use it? Plate mail was found from Spain to Japan.

Even with concerns over other cultures using European arms and armour, positive examples exist.  The 12th century Moorish warriors of al-Andalus used Frankish crossbows and wore mail like Christian neighbours while using better-quality cuirasses in place of heavy breastplate.  Fears of appearing racist seem unfounded when it comes to this issue.

Rather, be concerned when white separatists calling for a boycott of the Thor movie over Idris Elba playing Heimdall claim support from irate comic book guys.  Presumably Tadanobu Asano as Hogun The Grim and Natalie Portman as Jane Foster isn't a problem?  Never mind Marvel's Asgard differing from the home of the Aesir.  Or the Viking propensity for assimilating into foreign cultures (e.g. Normans, Rus, Varangians)...

Greyhawk, Golarion and the Forgotten Realms acknowledge the appeal of world cultures with places like Ket, the Minkai Empire and Rashemen.  The presence of games like Legend of the Five Rings and Nyambe prove settings outside medieval pseudo-Europe are commercially viable.  So is the question merely one of accessibility?  Of opening the eyes of the audience to an unfamiliar world?

Writing a different culture is not without risks.  There is a fear of appropriation in portraying a different culture.  Of using masks rather than getting under the skin.  Adequate research, hard work and a dash of empathy are needed.  Such endeavours need work and risk crashing and burning.  However, this is the strength of tabletop RPGs, the ability to try and imagine another person's life while having fun doing so.  What better challenge?


  1. Nice, bit of reporting here. And I must be living in a the way out since I hadn't even heard of the controversy surrounding the Thor movie. As long as its good that's all I care. Great stuff Satyre and have a great New Year.

  2. Happy New Year Tim!

    The Thor controversy first kicked off last April but made a recent resurgence. Kenneth Branagh's directing so it's got some promise, won't know till we get there though.

  3. Didn't know Kenneth Branagh was directing. Now the movie has got more of my interest.

  4. Thanks for the kind mention of my blog!

    Let me add something about the Thor movie controversy, 1stly the opinion of White Separatists matter not one whit to most gamers I've met, myself obviously included.

    That being said, Norse assimilation isn't quite as dramatic as you make it to be. The cultures you mention were fundamentally European in many ways and quite similar. In fact when the Vikings met rather different cultures such as the first nations of Greenland and North American, they were met with derision and often outright hostility being called Skraelings "wretches" which is probably as abrasive a slur as any we here today. The Vikings were hardly models of multiculturalism in the broader sense.

    As for the casting choice, its as jarring as the Earthsea casting but hey comic cooks and I don't care enough for it to effect me.

    If writers of fiction or games wish to reach out for the broader world, they should feel free too. It can be good for the bottom line and broaden the audience which would be a good thing for everyone.

    That being said, they should not feel obligated to either . Most of the buyers are in fact White (at least in the US) and steeped in the cultural expectations of that culture. Even many of the non White readers are part of the White culture

    Not every work needs need an Azeem (the Moor from Costner's Robin Hood) ,and unless ethnicity or sexual preference matter in a story (as the non Whiteness of Ged does) focusing on these just to be PC smacks of tokenism of the worst sort and is an insult to the reader.


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