There are few things in life as satisfying as defeating a tyrant. Indeed, the world we inhabit is fraught with oppressive systems and the powers that run them. In order to satisfy or perhaps placate our anger with situations deemed outside of our control, many of us turn to escapism. The role-playing game (RPG) hobby is one such escape. There are ubiquitous adventures and campaigns that enable players to defeat evil, and emerge as heroes to downtrodden populace. Each game is an opportunity to resist an oppressor that, though existing solely in the imagination, nevertheless represents the quagmire of oppression many people are otherwise trapped in. These games of escape, when played with like-minded people develop a sense of community and enable us to face the hardships of life.
This list is designed to develop your understanding of the latent potential in RPGs to address equality and fairness, which are so often missing in our world. Read on to discover 5 elements of social justice that can be developed in RPGs.
#1 Fosters Empathy
You create a character with a list of attributes, abilities, skills, languages, and then travel with companions who have done likewise. If you’ve done your homework and created a good backstory, then you will be putting yourself into the mindset of another (albeit fictional) person. Your companions will hopefully be doing likewise, and before you know it, everyone gathered will be experiencing a degree of empathic connection with someone other than her or himself .
“Role-plays” are a staple in office meetings, and some university classes, which often are used to help illustrate contextual issues and possible solutions to them. By putting yourself into the mindset of another person whose experiencing things with an alternative perspective, you are engaging in empathy. Empathy is a hallmark of social justice, as it enables people to reach out to others with a sense of seeking to understand, rather than just wanting to get their point across. However, with RPGs, the players get to use a myriad of fantastical powers and abilities, which enable them to overcome their obstacles. Nevertheless the interpersonal skills developed around the gaming table are pivotal to developing healthy relationships once the dice rolls are over.
The argument here is that some people play villainous characters, or are insensitive by nature. This is arguably endemic in certain role-playing groups. However, even these players don’t have to end the opportunity for social justice. If the player wants to play a villainous character, that doesn’t mean the party has to be villains. In fact, opportunities for role-playing abound in situations such as these, with social justice-focused characters arguing their point against those with more…”flexible” morals. Likewise, if the person is insensitive by nature, that doesn’t mean they can’t role play sensitivity, or be open to change.
Now, if the players are unwilling to change or to attempt to think empathically, then you must consider what you want from your role-playing. If social justice is something you want to pursue, then perhaps a group playing a villain campaign isn’t for you.
[Just like Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade…choose wisely]
#2- Works with Disabilities
People with disabilities play role-playing games too. It is sad to note, however, that many people with disabilities do not have an opportunity to see themselves portrayed in the fantastical lands that they create. This is an opportunity for role players everywhere to incorporate disabilities into a campaign. Having a hero with a disability isn’t hard to work up to being awesome. Think Murdoch from Daredevil is any less awesome because he’s blind? More likely he’s all the more cooler because of how highly developed his other senses became, making him a hero. I mean, we’re playing this game largely in our imaginations, with flying dragons, and elves and orcs, right? The only people limiting our imagination by excluding disabilities are ourselves. So, try incorporating some disabilities into your character creation, or making a memorable NPC. I guarantee that your world will become richer, and your empathic understanding of others deeper, as you experience characters with real world challenges.
#3 Addresses the ‘isms’
The world of fantasy role-playing has been guilty of white privilege. It’s assumed that characters are white, muscular, able bodied, and usually male. Female characters are historically either sidelined as weak and submissive, and/or generously endowed, white, able bodied and nearly naked (see Women’s Roles below). Furthermore, female non-player characters are usually presented as victims, in need of rescue by male adventurers. What a blasé hormone fueled imagination involved in those creations!
[Wait a minute…. It’s the same thing in fantasy movies/video games!]
Fortunately, Dungeons and Dragons has been expanding its understanding of gender & cultural roles in its newest edition (5th), and gamers everywhere can reap the benefits of adopting whatever culture or gender (see gender identity below) they see as best enriching their world.
What I haven’t mentioned, and what’s been laying latent in existing Dungeons and Dragons editions, is that the concept of race is usually less about the color of your skin and more about what type of humanoid creature you are. Are you a thin, tall, handsome elf? A rugged, powerfully built orc? A short and stocky dwarf? A perhaps a tiny gnome? Or some conglomeration between these. Wouldn’t it make for an interesting world if some people’s racial implications of our own world appeared in your fantasy one? If you’re a dwarf and all of the stools at the bar are too high to reach, forcing you to sit in the lower seats off to the side, wouldn’t that wound your high-powered world-beating hero more than any sword point? Wouldn’t you demand to know why? Or perhaps you’re a half-orc who is subjected to racially charged remarks, and open hostility because they associate you with the terrorizing soldiers of a war fought years ago?
Now, I’m not saying that you need to develop racist policies in your game, I’m just saying that unfair conditions placed upon people based on circumstances and characteristics outside of their control are something that can be explored if you want to add to your players’ understanding of social justice. If they feel unfairly treated by the town’s local businesses, its quite possible that they would take that feeling and use it towards making a more socially just world- both in the imaginative one created, as well as our real one.
#4 Influences understanding of Gender Identity
The new 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons expressly states that players are not beholden to choose either male or female for their characters. In fact gender is written as a fluid notion of character creation, which is also how it's increasingly understood in academia and society. If you want to (or not) associate with the norms ascribed by the society your character comes from, it’s up to you.
The important thing to remember is that it’s a fantasy world, limited only by your imagination. If you associate with a different gender, and wish to be portrayed as such, then by all means, use your imagination to adopt this. Because there are no physical limitations placed on your imaginations, your character’s gender association can be whatever they want. In the real world, gender is a performance- we continually act out aspects of our identified gender all the time. In our fantasy world too, we can add our understanding of gender to our performances of the characters, adding depth. Role-playing with gender awareness can be a liberating tool for many who identify themselves as LGBTQQIP2SAA players, and who may want to see a reflection of themselves existing in their fantasy world.
#5 Cultural Understanding of Women’s Roles
The language and resources developed by Dungeons and Dragons in years past has been, let’s be honest, male-centric. Women were, as mentioned above, little more than sports car models along for the ride, or as an interpretation of some juvenile fantasy. Their voices were silenced behind gender normative language geared towards expanding the testosterone driven fantasy world. Fights, conquests (in every sense of the word), and domination were, and still are dominant themes in the world. The new 5th edition has been thankfully much more realistic in its portrayal of women in the book’s artwork (no more chain mail bikinis). However, its up to the writers to continue to pursue more dialogical modules, and non-linear storylines which can help women feel more comfortable exploring the rich fantasy settings that exist. So too should the players of current editions be more aware of the language, roles and storylines that they use and craft.
Our imagination is limited only by the constraints we put on it. It’s important to be discerning of the group you play with, as the world you create has a touch of yourself in it, and finding others like you makes world development much more harmonious. But, even if your group has some members who remain unaware of social justice, you can, if you play smart, get them thinking about social issues and develop their empathy and participation in our world.
Dustinopolis, Devourer of Cheese, is an 11th level dreamer who has been rolling dice and playing roles off and on for over ten years. He currently “works” as Assistant to the Evening Custodian at the High Level Gaming Company, who “pay” him “regularly”. He prides himself on writing (*most) blogs fully clothed. If you can’t wait until next week’s post, you can follow him on Twitter @devourcheese for more questionable insights.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.