Today I want to talk about a thorny problem: race in gaming and how baked in racism is to fantasy and sci-fi. Specifically, I want to pass on my tips on how to avoid perpetuating it when you make your own world, or modify an existing world. I know this makes a lot of (white) people uncomfortable and that includes me, but hopefully you stick around anyways because this stuff is important.
Let me start by saying that I’m a heterosexual white cismale and so I have no real claim to this subject. Everything I’ve learned has been from people of color taking the time and energy to explain their point of view and outline how to be a better ally. I don’t want to take this conversation away from those experts and I’ll be the first to backtrack if someone takes issue with my attempts, but I also don’t want to leave this exhausting work entirely up to those advocates.
Consider this article to be baby steps into a more representative worldbuilding experience, but it should be accompanied by reading and listening more widely if you really want to change the conversation. With that said, I picked out these six tips to be immediate and clear things that you can do to change how you approach fantasy and sci-fi settings.
Alright, so what exactly are we talking about here? The first issue I want to make sure we’re covering is whitewashing in fantasy and sci-fi. This means choosing, consciously or unconsciously, to have a setting be based around and populated by white people to the exclusion of people of color. I don’t really want to get into whether whitewashing of fantasy settings is real, both because other people have done it much better than me (for example Whats and Whys of Whitewashing, Whitewashing Prevention Methods, and Asians Represent episode “How to make your own Asian-inspired D&D campaign setting”) and because if you aren’t on board with the idea then I don’t think one more blog post is going to change your mind. It really affects real people and you can accept that or not. Here’s a neat summation from a longer article to set the stage of why you want to think about this.
Whitewashing can also be the creation of entire worlds where people of color simply don’t exist. Science fiction and fantasy are particularly guilty of this, and there is no clearer example than “The Lord Of The Rings” (both the incredibly-white books and the just-as-white movies)… Famously guilty of this is the “Star Wars” franchise, which shows its Asian influence everywhere yet had no major Asian characters until 2016.– Whats and Whys of Whitewashing
Another problem is using racially codedportrayals that perpetuate racial stereotypes even when those races aren’t in the setting. Think of the Japanese-caricatured Neimoidians and Jamaican-ish Gungans in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace; neither of these were specifically equated to any real world cultures but it’s easy to see what was used to make them and it’s certainly not a flattering portrayal. Again, there are better sources than this blog to learn about this (for example this Wired article, this blog post with stronger language, and this mod post) and I’m not really going to convince you if you don’t want to see it. Again, actual living people see themselves in characters that are steeped in offensive stereotypes so you can believe those people or call them liars.
Anyways, let’s leave the discussion to the experts and instead move on to some actionable tips that you can take today.
1. Don’t Have Nations of Only One People
Firstly, and probably most profoundly, don’t have nations of only one sort of people. This is so hard-coded into fantasy settings thanks to authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs that it’s difficult to get away from. The idea of an “elven kingdom” or “the realm of the dwarves” is familiar enough that it slides right past when you’re reading a new setting, and yet what area in the real world has just one kind of people? What is “one kind of people” anyways?
When there’s a nation of all one sort of folk (elves, dwarves, dragonborn, etc) then it’s really furthering the idea that areas are homogenous and home to one people who “belong.” In reality, this sort of thing leads to pretty heinous stuff where people say they’re “losing” their country to people who look different than they do or they say they should “go back to” someplace they think is where that person “belongs.”
Instead of taking the Middle-earth approach, have a mix of ancestries in every corner of your world. Even if there’s a place that’s majority elves or majority dwarves, include plenty of NPCs who aren’t that ancestry to show movement and mixing in your world. Better yet, have nations and cultures that are imagined entirely differently from ancestry to show that biology doesn’t determine character. Some D&D (and other) settings do this well like Eberron or parts of The Forgotten Realms. The Dalelands of Faerun, for instance, are pretty thoroughly British-esque and have a human-default feel though there are all sorts of different folk living there. On the other hand, both of these settings also have multiple examples of homogenous nations and so an elf from Waterdeep might still seem like an outsider who is “visiting” from one of the elven “homelands.” If you’re playing in an established setting, change this to be better.
Secondarily, watch out for white coding in your countries. If you have one country that has advanced technology, has explored around the world, and whose language is “the default trade language” then you’re really just describing Europeans (and probably the English specifically) and you should rethink the whole thing.
2. Don’t Tie Languages to Species
This is somewhat a continuation of the tip above, but so many settings have infuriatingly messed up languages. There might be multiple different human languages (or just Common, which is problematic in a different way) and then there’s Elven, Dwarven, Goblin, etc. Again, this is right out of Lord of the Rings but, also again, it is not at all how the actual world works. Making your world this way is the equivalent to saying something is written “in Tunisian” when you mean Arabic.
Language should be regional or cultural, and there’s so much potential for saying cool things with it. Using a different language (especially a city or region name that’s different from the setting-default) can be a political, cultural, or personal act instead of “I know some elves.” Worse, no actual humans are born speaking a specific language but many face bias and racist attitudes that assume they do (check out this article “Why you shouldn’t assume I speak Chinese” for an example). So when you have elves across the Forgotten Realms who all speak Elven automatically you aren’t establishing “cultural ties.” What you’re really establishing is making those people into exotic cutouts with their own “weird language.”
Instead, language is associated with a nation or (better yet) a region. The elves in a given city might speak the majority language of the area (because they were born there) or they might primarily speak a different language from another area. Living in Waterdeep but speaking Chauntean, for example, tells you a lot of stuff about that elf and invites questions about their past or their family’s ties and differences. If they primarily speak “Elven” that just tells you they’re an elf… which you already knew and so it give you nothing in addition to being rooted in racism.
3. Have Ethnicities for Folk Besides Humans
Related to language and peoples, my biggest annoyance with fantasy world is that very few have different populations for any group besides humans. Tolkien actually does do this very well and has various elven ethnicities that are different from each other (though generally just in language) and some fantasy settings like Eberron or Ptolus follow suit for their elven populations. And yet even those same settings also follow Tolkien’s suit with their non-elven populations to make them all uniform, except for humans who have lots of variations and cultures (sometimes even written into the game description of humans).
So mix this up by providing ethnicities for non-human groups as well as the humans. There should be some elves who are light-skinned and have a culture of metal artistry and other elves with dark skin and a tradition of spicy foods. There should be some dragonborn who live in cold, mountainous areas and other dragonborn who are (fairly or unfairly) assumed to all be expert sailors. You might have three small areas in three different parts of the world each with a quiet and humble halfling population, but very different foods, clothing, appearances, and music in each.
Just as importantly, those various ethnicities should be found throughout the world. This goes back to point number one (don’t they all?) not to have homogenous lands. When you have a city that’s mostly human and dragonborn, mix in a healthy dose of other folk like dragonborn. But vary those dragonborn as well to make things even more interesting. In this city there are two different dragonborn-owned shops but one is an Assenjai dragonborn with the characteristic larger horns and layered clothing and the other is a Jueltenni dragonborn with burnished scale highlights and flowing attire. See the difference? You probably read “two dragonborn” and either thought “neat” or thought nothing. But now in the space of six tiny details you are enticed with questions about the world and an appreciation that these two might both be dragonborn but you shouldn’t assume they’re the same.
4. Don’t Conflate Culture and Race
This is a big one. How many settings have you read that say things like “elves tend to live in small communities” or “dwarves have a clan-based society.” It’s a part of fantasy that’s so widespread that it’s practically invisible but it perpetuates biases that come out in the real world like “in Asian culture you bow to show respect.” Either “dwarf” is a people with various physical commonalities or it’s a culture with various societal commonalities. It literally can’t be both, even if the dwarven population of your world is so small and insular that the two are in fact a direct overlap.
In your setting, think about the different ancestries in the world in addition to the different cultures. Sometimes these cultures will be a mostly homogenous subgroup of a particular ancestry (like various dwarven cultures) and sometimes they will be independent of ancestries (like the culture of a river delta area shared by the humans, halflings, and lizardfolk who live there). This gives you much more freedom to invent in your setting: if you decide that “elves do this” early on you’re stuck, but “this culture does this” means you can feely make up other ones. It also gives your players freedom since they can choose to be from that area to participate in that cultural invention or they can opt out without being constrained in their other choices.
Another part of this is to have cultural shifts across regions to show that your world is not locked in place. Populations travel, people immigrate, and diasporas happen. If you have two countries in your world with different traditional cultures, it’s not like everything suddenly changes on the other side of the border. As you move from one to the other you should see more influences of the unfamiliar culture start to enter and then at some point they are fairly evenly mixed with languages, cuisine, clothing, etc all melded together.
Or not! Maybe there’s an area where two populations with a very tough history meet each other. There are many borders in the real world that have seen wars and culture-clashes so that there actually is a stark difference right at the border. The thing is, when you want to have a stark change in culture it only makes an impact if your other regions are more like real life. You can say that this area is heavily divided but the rest of the table is only likely to notice if they’re more used to a fluid shift of culture.
5. Steal from the Real World Only With Context
It’s important to remember that you don’t have to make everything up yourself. When you’re making a new setting for a game (or changing an existing setting to make it less problematic) you can steal things from other people’s work and you can even take things from real life. However, it’s important to be respectful and intentional in how you do that (for example, read Portraying African Cultures or listen to the Asian’s Represent episode “Anything BUT Samurai”) and part of that is including the context of what you’re adding.
For example, maybe you like the idea of a part of your setting world using kayaks out on the water in which case you should think about why. The history of kayaks in the real world has lots of interesting details, including that they were maneuverable and a way for a single (traditionally male) hunter to operate exclusively on the water to provide for his family. If the region you’ve selected is a big port city that has large sailing ships with masts and plenty of roads connecting it to inland regions, why in the world would they have kayaks paddling between those big ships? If you’re answer is “Well, they used to be more remote and this is a way for the ‘old culture’ to continue into the modern era,” then great and that’s some interesting depth! If your answer is “I don’t know, I thought it would be cool,” that’s not great.
Similar things come up when dwarves are associated with Viking-style axes despite also having lots of wealth and plenty of access to metals, the main obstacles that led Norse warriors to favor axes. I imagine they were associated with axes because they look sort of Viking-ish and come from Norse legend but the continuation of this cliché without any analysis is just lumping an exotic group into one category with little reasoning, the sort of habit that has terrible consequences in real life. Maybe you decide this association isn’t part of your world, but if you like it maybe it was born out of a very early stereotype. The first group from this culture (bonus if it’s not just dwarves, as discussed earlier) encountered by outsiders might have been subsistence hunters with few mineral sources, hence the axes. Now a century later you’re not any more likely to find an axe on these folk than any other folk, but the external stereotype has stuck. Of course, you actually have to follow through on this.
You might be saying “this is a lot of work, I just want to include what I like!” Well, I get you since I’m also often strapped for time. Another way to say that, though, is “I have a preconception of something and it’s not worth it to me to put some effort in.” If you can’t include something right you should just not do it.
6. Mix and Match To Avoid One Association
Ironically, J.R.R. Tolkien is a good source of advice for this in his response to people referring to his work as an allegory. “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations,” he wrote. “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” Basically, if you are saying “this group is this real-world group only magical or orcs or something” then you’re telling people what to think about them. When you do that, you’re also instructing them to include some bias that they brought to the table with them. Don’t create a one-to-one association in your setting since it sets up a powerful inertia that challenges actual invention.
An example that often drives me up the wall is 7th Sea. I love that in this world there are places like Montaigne which is clearly riffing off of real-world France but because it’s not actually France and not actually our world we can freely invent and it’s fine to make things up to suit a story. If this were really France and you wanted to make up a dance or a dish then you’re just inventing parts of real people’s culture. You don’t have to be an expert or a native of Montaigne to avoid stepping on toes because there are no Montaignes!
At the same time, all the Montaigne words are actual French words, the cuisine and clothing and names are all French, and it’s all just France with the numbers filed off. If you really want to give people freedom then you should have a pseudo-France called Montaigne with French words sprinkled in, a court set up like Spanish courts, and a colonial history that’s much more like the Dutch than the French. It’s already been changed so you can feel freer to change anything else you like. In practice, my 7th Sea is probably very different from other people’s since I do just this with inspirations from around the real world that get folded into the stand-in nations of stand-in Europe to make it clear that this is a fictional world that can be what we like.
This swelled into kind of a big post, but I stand by it. It’s an important topic and I hope people take it to heart. The bottom line is this: don’t do things just because that’s how things are done. The history of literature and fiction carries all the biases and racism of the societies that produce them. If you’re constructing a fantasy setting in the same style as a setting from the 1930s then you are promoting the same worldview as Europeans in the 1930s. I don’t want to spoil too much, but that worldview wasn’t great.
Put some thought into your setting, your world is worth it! This goes double for published settings that you want to improve. Despite recent news, Ed Greenwood is not going to kick down your door if you decide that your Calimshan is more complex than Arabian-Nights-with-Elves. You can change it and you should! This stuff will not go unnoticed and it will not be wasted time, I promise.