When Black Lives Matter protests were raging following the death of George Floyd, the publishers of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, pledged to take concrete steps to make their games more diverse. Wizards of the Coast promised to “share what we’ve been doing, and what we plan to do in the future to address legacy D&D content that does not reflect who we are today”. In addition, it also pulled several racist cards from the card game Magic: The Gathering, such as Invoke Prejudice, Jihad and Pradesh Gypsies.
Perceptions of racism in fantasy go back to the origins of the genre. Is it a coincidence that D&D’s dishonourable, dark-skinned elves come from a matriarchal society, or that its savage orcs bear uncanny resemblance to a traditionally white, western conceptualisation of barbaric peoples from the “uncivilised” world? Although fantasy affords us every freedom to imagine new worlds and cultures, for the last 200-odd years, humans have mostly managed derivative facsimiles of our own. This includes reproducing the scourge of systemic racism.
The racist history of fantasy fiction, including role-playing games (RPGs), has its roots in our fascination with medieval European history, says Kavita Mudan Finn, a first-generation Indian American, who is an interdisciplinary scholar of medieval and early modern European history. “It reaches back to a misplaced imaginary nostalgia for a golden age when everyone was in their place and, most importantly, they were happy to be there. A number of extremely talented writers, artists, poets, musicians picked up on this nostalgia and created wonderful works of art that are nonetheless steeped in this highly colonialist, highly racist culture and ideology,” says Finn. “In maybe 10, 15, 20 years from now we will be seeing a more diverse, more welcoming, more realistic, more accurate version of the middle ages. This is starting in academic circles, and eventually it spills out into pop culture, and into conversations about fandom culture and representation.”
What is popular fantasy today is inextricably linked to the idea of medievalism imagined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the social and cultural values of that time, where heroism was associated with masculinity and whiteness. Take JRR Tolkien. On the one hand, he spoke out against Nazi race doctrine and has been heralded for “multiculturalism” in his work. Nevertheless, his stories are steeped in Eurocentric bias. As Dimitra Fimi, author of Tolkien, Race and Cultural History, writes on her blog, the forces of “good” in Middle-earth are fair-skinned, while forces of “evil” are dark; Orcs are “slant-eyed, swarthy and sallow-skinned”; the “heroes” are all white-skinned. “Why have neo-fascist and neo-Nazi organizations endorsed The Lord of the Rings?” Fimi asks.
Similarly, Robert E Howard’s Conan is a “white American hero: self-sufficient and independent, strong, honest and moral, abiding by his own code of honour”, writes Melbourne-based academic Helen Young in her 2015 book Race and Popular Fantasy Literature. “His ‘dual identity of being a savage, but being white’ makes him naturally suited to lead the softer, more decadent and corrupted peoples of the south.
“When fantasy took off in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” says Young, “a lot of what was produced was quite imitative of Tolkien in particular, but also of Howard and his early sword-and-sorcery stories. So the 19th-century racisms … that founded the genre were then written into genre convention through that process of imitation.”
One of the best – or worst – examples of a flawed understanding of history leading to perceptions of a racist representation is George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, seen on TV as Game of Thrones. Martin has said: “I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like.” But the sexualising of young women, exoticising of non-white characters and white saviour storylines in the series are typical of the prevalent white-washing of medieval history. Asked by a fan on his blog why all the novels’ black characters must be “servants, guards, or charlatans”, Martin responded thus: “Westeros around 300 AC is nowhere near as diverse as 21st century America, of course… but with that being said, I do have some ‘characters of colour’ who will have somewhat larger roles in [forthcoming book] Winds of Winter. Admittedly, these are secondary and tertiary characters, though not without importance.”
And what about fantasy literature in Asia, Africa and the rest of the non-white world? “Western critics, readers and publishers don’t understand them as fantasy,” says Young. “They’re classed, often, as magical realism. It’s probably a legacy of colonialism, in that fantasy understands itself as being a literature of the impossible, where magic is real, and where the rational audience knows that this is not possible in our world … There is a real tension with western concepts of reality that emphasise rationality and scientifically explicable and observable phenomena, and exclude ways of thinking and being that don’t align with that from reality.”
The pushback to structural racism in fantasy, be it fiction, television or gaming, comes in many forms. Starting conversations about diversity and inclusion in publishing is a start. “It’s not enough just to have these characters who look like us,” says Nick, co-host of the podcast MEGAsheen, all about gay and geek culture from a black perspective. “We have to have the developers, the writers, everybody behind the scenes that make the game have to have some sort of say.”
Some of that work may require going back to the drawing board. Eugene Marshall, a white game designer and writer, published a zine that provides alternate character creation rules for D&D’s fifth edition, replacing race with ancestry and culture. “Race is not a biological reality,” he writes, “rather, it is a social concept constructed and employed differently at different times in history and in different places in the world … Because these harmful concepts have no place in our world, they need not be in the stories we tell with our friends, either.”
“Dungeons & Dragons teaches that diversity is strength, for only a diverse group of adventurers can overcome the many challenges a D&D story presents,” begins Wizards of the Coast’s diversity statement. But in an unequal world, words such as “diversity” are loaded. Pushing past the legacy of colonialism is the only way to create a more level playing field; fantasy should not be an excuse for stories to perpetuate the prejudice that resulted from imperialism. “Part of our work will never end,” continues the statement. In that, at least, it is right.