Chelaxian Privilege and Zenjface: Ramblings on Ethnic Depictions in Pathfinder

I’m fairly new to tabletop roleplaying, in that I’ve only been playing steadily for about two years now, and those games have only been from Paizo’s Pathfinder. That might sound fairly experiened, but when sitting at the table with people who’ve been playing for over 20 years, it’s nothing. Especially not when there are actually a host of tabletop game systems out there, and even a decade of experience in only one kind of game would still be far from well-roudned. I played a couple one-shots of pure D&D back in high school, when I finally had enough of a social life to had friends who would teach me how to play.  (Yes, I was actually too socially awkward to be a gamer. It actually requires a lot of interpersonal skills!) But  even then, I never saw a campaign all the way through.  I may reach that milestone tonight, in fact. So I write this from a mixed experience.

I’m not a total neophyte who would need to be lured into playing a game somehow, by being presented with very familiar characters I could easily relate to.  Nor am I a long-playing devotee who’s intensely familiar with how everything works and why, even for Pathfinder.  I’ve never even been a GM, and I think it would make my brain seize up, liquefy, and pour down the back of my neck. But I’m learning to braid together the tendrils of Game Mechanics, Stats, Character Background, Class, and everything else that makes the game what it is, and makes your characters who they are. This makes Mordicai Knode’s call for diversity in D&D character art very interesting, and makes me wonder about my own experiences and assumptions.

I should also clarify — though I fear it will become incredibly evident by my writing — that I don’t have any scholarly background in sociology, ethnic studies, cultural studies, or anything similar.  This does make me hesitate about posting this at all — if I’m not really a D&D player, only a fairly inexperienced Pathfinder player, and I don’t have any background knowledge of ethnic studies, what the hell right do I have in writing this?

One could say that I don’t have a dog in this race, because: privilege, but I think that it’s worse to let my assumptions go unexplored and unchallenged because I think that the way other ethnicities and cultures are or are not depicted in the media “doesn’t have anything to do with me.”  Instead, I’d rather explore these concepts and the assumptions, the uncertainties, and the concerns that I have, AS someone who lacks much background, and AS someone in a position of privilege.   And also as someone who really doesn’t want to be an Other-ing jerknugget.  That said, it’s entirely possible that I end up saying something completely horrible or wrong somehow in my hamfisted naivete. All I can say is that I write only from and of my own experience, I acknowledge its limits (as best the limits themselves will allow me,) and I’d be glad to read other well-reasoned opinions on the matter from people who know what they’re talking about.  Or people who don’t know what they’re talking about any more than me, but just but have other ideas!

Also I’m just socially awkward in general, which helps absolutely nothing here.  Hnnnnng.

All that being said.

Though he tries to hedge against it, I think that Knode’s decision to literally consider the characters in terms of black and white is more than a little limiting. I don’t play AD&D, nor have I read the core rulebook, but I do wonder what the representation is like for other skin tones, and if there are perhaps a plethora of characters who appear Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American, Mediterranean, etc. To argue that entire book’s diversity can be quantified by how many black characters there are is not only oversimplifying but a little questionable as well. He argues that these are the “extremes” of skin tone, but the physiological indications of race are more than just melanin, and this doesn’t address other considerations of culture and ethnicity.

It’s easy to argue that, in a fantasy world that includes dragons, psionic mind flayers, gelatinous cubes, and a host of other strange and impossible creatures, distinctions within a race are presumed irrelevant. As Terry Pratchett wrote in Witches Abroad, one of the books in his prolific series of satirical fantasy novels, “Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because — what with trolls and dwarfs and so on — speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.” I’ve always presumed that to be the case in fantasy worlds, personally, though again I speak from a position of privilege and probably presume / fail to notice a lot of things.

However, Knode’s article did make me appreciate that the Pathfinder character guides have largely borne Pratchett’s sentiment out. The world of Golarion is populated by a multitude of cultures and all manner of sentient beings. Nothing, so far, has made me feel it would be surprising or unreasonable to play, or encounter, characters of different skin tones, nothing is written to codify racism or persecution between ethnicities (groups seem to struggle over resources and religion more than culture,) and even the other species of sentient playable characters don’t seem to have built-in prejudices.  The diversity just seems obvious, and it would be an incredibly poorly-built world, and poorly evocative art, if they didn’t reflect diversity. In this image showing the core classes, the Cleric, Monk, Sorcerer, Paladin, and to a degree the Ranger are not exactly Caucasian looking. That’s a hefty proportion.

The ten classes of Pathfinder: Wizard, Barbarian, Ranger, Cleric, Monk, Sorcerer, Bard, Fighter, Rogue, and Paladin.

The ten classes of Pathfinder: Wizard, Barbarian, Ranger, Cleric, Monk, Sorcerer, Bard, Fighter, Rogue, and Paladin.

When I think of my Human Ranger, I’ve always visualized and described him as looking “basically like the picture in the book, only Human height, not a Dwarf.”  (As one of the first characters I created, I wasn’t inclined to stray from the source material very much.) However, it wasn’t until I looked at this image that I realized the Ranger has a darker skin tone than many of the other characters, and one which might not just be due to suntan. It’s arguable that I’ve been playing a non-white character all along, without this difference making the slightest bit of difference on how I played the game.

Which may or may not be something to think about.

First, because I have a nasty habit of wanting everything I write to stand on its own, even for people unfamiliar with the source topic, I’m going to derail slightly and explain what race and ethnicity mean, in the context of gaming (and, again, in the specific context of Pathfinder,) while still assuming familiarity with the core rulebook and gameplay concepts. For those familiar with all that already, click here to skip ahead to the proper ponderings.

Race, in fantasy games, means something different than in real life. More than skin tone, and more than culture, other races are other sentient species entirely. Humans, Gnomes, Halflings, Orcs, Elves, Half-Orcs, Half-Elves, Dwarves, all have their own lineage, and while some can interbreed (as made obvious by the Half-Elves and Half-Orcs,) these various races are not Human. It’s central to the ethos of the game that all Humans are of the same basic ilk, though there are still differences due to ethnicities, countries, social class, and individual variation. On Golarion, as in the real world, no two people are alike. However, nothing about these ethnicities or cultures inherently affects gameplay or character possibilities. You could be a Chelaxian oracle, a Bonuwat cleric, a Kellid bard, etc. There are large and cosmopolitan cities, so that some characters may have the appearance of one race and the culture of others.

Even within an ethnicity, it’s generally made clear that there’s not always a single unifying culture. If you want to have a character with a deep background and family history and a sense of culture within the world, by all means you can — but the book is neither going to force a certain race and certain ethnicity into or out of certain character types, nor deny that different cultures can differ in social structures and values. The often-elegant Chelaxians wouldn’t generally respect a Kellid’s leathers and skulls, though she may have killed their previous bearers with her own bare hands. Similarly, she might not respect a Chelaxian’s fine silks and delicate jewelry, despite the craftsmanship and the indication of his social status. Or, then again, maybe they would, and maybe they’d trade often, or make things together that neither culture would have made on their own, like diamond-eyed squirrel skulls on a filigree necklace.  Again, it’s up to the player.

Most importantly, there aren’t changes to a character’s stats or skills just because of their ethnicity. In fact, the core rulebook of Pathfinder doesn’t address ethnicities at all. A player could look in the other books and choose an ethnicity for their Human, to help explain how certain aspects of their cultural upbringing encouraged them to devote more time or effort to learning certain skills the player has chosen, or arranged things so that they were quite familiar with certain trades having watched them from a young age. For example, not all Varisians are Bards, but there’s a culture that supports Bards and helps provide them with what they need. This doesn’t mean all Varisians are charismatic, or that they all have high skills in Bluff, and to play that way would be uninspired to say the least.

However, I think most GMs and players would really look askance at a player who tried to assert that they should get a Charisma bonus “because I’m a Varisian,” or that they needed to put points into CHA because “that’s how Varisians are,” or that they couldn’t put points into Strength or Intelligence because “Varisians aren’t fighters and they’re only street-smart.” That’s not accurate to the world as written, and it would imply a certain discomfiting failure of comprehension about the realworld ethnicities as well.

That sums up the basics well enough, hopefully.

Some might well argue that there are still stereotypical depictions in these ethnicities themselves. The Varisians seem to borrow heavily from common depictions of the Roma, the Vudrani clearly draw from Hindu culture, and the Showanti seem inspired by Native Americans. But are these depictions genuinely stereotypical? Are they more stereotypical than depictions of more Nordic-inspired races? Is it crude or oversimplifying to even have such analogues in a fantasy world? If so, is it worse than having all humans belong to a monoculture, which would seem to actively discourage a user from playing as a character who adheres to a culture that more closely matches their own? To me, that would seem to imply that “This is a fantasy world, with fantasy gods and a fantasy culture; the fantasy elements of your own culture are invalid, and this world does not support people who believe anything remotely like you do.” Sure, fantasy and roleplaying are often all about escapism — but so is all acting.

Roleplay gives you the freedom to mentally explore a world and explore feelings and reactions that may be different to, or outright contrary to, your own. It’s an old chestnut that gamers or roleplayers of all kinds use those fantasies to be whatever they wish they were in real life, but that’s only a sliver of the truth. It’s not about being something else that one wishes to be, but using a character to explore other, not-necessarily-better ways of being. Maybe to explore worse ways of being. You can write fatal flaws into your character, or compulsions, or tragic backstories, which you act upon consistently as you play. As you get a feel for how your character relates to the world, the purpose of the quests, and the party members, you learn to respond to conflicts and scenarios situations as your character would — with hasty assumptions and intimidation, or with kindness and concern, or with an eye on what you can gain, or with concern only for your party members, or with concern only for your god, or whatever you’ve chosen. It’s a fairly obvious realization that You The Player are doing all this thinking; You The Player are becoming aware of other ways of thinking and being and responding than you  would probably choose in a similar real life situation. You’re mentally exploring a different set of possible responses and reactions to the world and to other people. This may only affirm your actual identity and usual courses of action — “If my character was as shy as I am in real life, I wouldn’t be in the stocks right now;” “Good thing my character knows when to shut up, even though I never seem to.” But you know that these choices are coming from you, drawing on your past experience and mimickry of others, just as your real personality does. And that they are things you could, in theory, incorporate into your own behaviors — or, at the very least, understand and empathize with when you encounter them in others.

I’m not in the least bit implying that one could understand another realworld culture by playing an analogous character in a game over the course of a year, or even multiple years. Some games, like Deadlands, are set on alternate Earths and do have brief but thorough explanations of realworld religions you can choose for a character — doing the research required to play one well would, possibly, help one to understand that culture. They would not, however, help one understand such a realworld person’s actual life experiences. However, I do think that it would help a player see people of that culture — or any culture — less as The Other. Because any player of any ethnicity can play any character of any race or ethnicity, and do anything in any capacity as such, it ultimately affirms our similarities over our differences.

But perhaps that’s another argument. Is it insensitive, in any way, for a white male roleplayer to play as a dark-skinned character of a culture clearly based on Hinduism? Is it insensitive for a Japanese female to play as a Native American-inspired Showanti?  Are there – or should there be – particular concerns or cautions, if a white player chooses to roleplay a character of a different ethnicity?  It’s another assertion of privilege that we seem to expect white male protagonists to be the most identifiable characters possible, in passive media and interactive media alike, and to therefore implicitly expect black, Asian, Hispanic, etc. people to have no qualms about playing a white dude for a year.  It’s probably common for a black gamer to play as a white protagonist, because there’s no other option.  Video games, especially, don’t always have full character customization – and even when it does, sometimes it’s limited.  But when GIVEN options, is it questionable in any way to play a race other than your own? If so, what does that imply exactly?

Consider a white player who doesn’t address a character’s culture or upbringing (perhaps because the character, like others in the party, is from a cosmopolitan area with a near-monoculture,) but who decides to make that character of Zenj heritage. Just because.  Is that to any degree disrespectful to the various realworld cultures upon which the Zenj are so very loosely based?  Does it suggest that the appearance of another race can be put on and taken off like an overcoat, with no regard for culture, and without having to confront one’s sense of privilege?   Or is it instead offensive to suggest that playing another race or ethnicity would or should come with certain social responsibilities, as if it were a burden or a set of limitations?  Or is the choice to play a different race or ethnicity only offensive if the player also chooses, as they roleplay, to embody an intentional and exaggerated stereotype of the realworld cultures it draws from?  What if it’s not intentional, they just aren’t good at roleplaying?  Is there a responsibility to do it right or don’t do it at all?  Is it instead better to just… not do it at all?

Is it, for lack of a better word, Zenjface?

This is where the nature of the game really begins to hit home. Because, when it comes to official campaign materials, even if we want to embrace an ethnicity as fully and well-roundedly as possible, all we know is what they’ve written. And what they’ve written on these fairly-clearly African-derived ethnicities is pretty slim so far. So, as those curious people who scroll down that page on the Zenj have realized, the description of the Bekyar appears, to say the least, a little less than PC.  In much the same way as a bathtub contains a little less water than the Pacific. The group described as being darkest-skinned is also described as extremely tall and imposing, mostly slave traders, and exclusively demon worshippers.

Yikes.

But while this sounds at first undefensible and reprehensible, the author who wrote the campaign had this to say:

As for the Bekyar and the all evil all the time, that’s partially a result of being limited in word count, and the Bekyar homeland being, well, off of the map. I wasn’t able to really go into extreme detail about what was south of the Mwangi Expanse, just a few paragraphs. However exploring that region and fleshing out the Bekyar much more would be a really cool thing to do (for instance, what if a non-demon worshipping group of ethnic Bekyar had populated the ruined cities of the Shatterfield?) Or less horrible Bekyar cultures might just be off the map and largely not encountered by explorers from Avistan or other more northern Garundi nations.

And therein is the fascination of canon. What is the truth value of a statement about a fictional character or ethnicity? What’s written about the Bekyar is limited not only because the real-world word count was extremely constrained, but because the fictional explorers of the fictional world had not yet travelled to these fictional lands to get to know these fictional people, and have only come back with fictional basic descriptions of what’s possibly a fictional fictional culture. As that thread goes on to discuss, it would be equally concerning if The Africa Analogue were somehow forbidden from having any evil-aligned communities, for fear of perpetuating realworld stereotypes. However, if these crude descriptions of the Mwangi cultures are so limited, why is it not better contextualized that these are not necessarily the full or accurate descriptions? Or, then again, would a description of similar brevity (and imbalance) — or, hell, the very same description — be seen as less offensive if it were instead describing an enclave of Caucasian-looking people?

And this, again, may bring us full-circle, to the argument that it’s a fantasy world, and no matter where the inspiration has come from, these are all fictional peoples.

This, perhaps, is the ultimate curse of fantasy: those who write it are still humans. All we can draw upon is human experience, human culture, and human concepts.  Especially when it comes to games, to make something playable, it needs to be something a user can grasp and relate to in some way – and drawing from familiar real-world sources is a good shortcut to that. It might be argued that it’s less of a shortcut, and more like cutting corners – a cheap and insensitive collage of realworld cultures that invites, and possibly codifies, stereotyping — or at the least draws too many parallels to the realworld to provide effective escapism.

Still, we’re all just people. We’re all just gamers. As we play, no matter how different our character may look or act, it’s still us. So there’s no reason to lack diversity in gameplay – and there’s definitely no reason to lack it in the art that’s used to help depict the world. Maybe it’s idealism, maybe it’s privilege, but I think I still believe that Pathfinder’s embrace of diversity and distorted reflections of realworld culture serve more to affirm our common humanity — while allowing us, and even encouraging us, to challenge our common perceptions.

I have no answers for most of the rhetorical questions I’ve asked. All I can do is keep thinking about them, and trying to both broaden and refine my thoughts.

Open-ended questions for an open-ended world.

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