Sunday, February 2, 2014

Is Dungeons and Dragons is a Race Fueled, Hate Machine?

There is a segment of this hobby that believes that the Dungeons and Dragons game is a racist, colonial extension of the American mindset drawing on our racially charged history to further propagate the idea that certain races are, by their very natures, somehow less than others. In order to further their assertion the proponents of this theory tend to focus on two avenues: the language used in the game; and the way that other, non-playable, races are treated by gaming materials through the use of racial alignments and the de-humanization of these creatures into moral caricatures.

I find this theory reprehensible and about as intellectually honest as those who proffer the Hollow Earth “truth.”[1] So as is my way I’m going to be working through each of these points and demonstrating how they’re built on false premises and draw incorrect conclusions based on the preconceived notions of their authors.

Language as Root Cause

One of the core precepts of this theory is that the language we use to describe our non-player races has a negative connotation designed to show these other races as lesser beings than the more complex and fully realized player characters. At times the other races are described as Savage. They travel in bands, and tribes; and exist as nomadic wanderers plaguing the civilized world. The problem with finding these terms objectionable occurs when you put them into the context they’re used as opposed to plucking them out of the text and proffering them to the world as proof of your own preconceived notions. The monstrous humanoids are called savage because of their “fierce and untamed nature,”[2] and not because they are some form of primitive that needs to be brought the light of civilization (see Dungeons and Dragons is Way More Racist than You Realize by Mark T. Hirsho for more).

“O ho!” I hear some of these supporters say, “but we don’t describe elves and dwarves as being grouped in bands and tribes. Clearly we do so with the monstrous humanoids to differentiate them as primitive tribes looking for the light of civilization!”

You betray more of your own prejudices by making such claims than do you articulate an argument in favor of your position. Bringing civilization to the wilds is not an activity inherently present in Dungeons and Dragons and if you encounter it in the game it is because you put it there.

Dungeons and Dragons is about exploring the wild places left in the world, finding long forgotten ruins, and returning to the safety of home richer and more experienced for the whole affair. We fight, we negotiate, we run from the monsters we encounter and we spend years developing complex strategies for dealing with the worlds we explore. We battle Slavers and turn back the vile machinations of mad demi-gods who would destroy the world. That’s Dungeons and Dragons; and the idea that all of that leads to colonialism is to misunderstand both the game and what happened during the colonial period.

The De-humanization of Non-human Races

It’s been argued that Dungeons and Dragons does nothing to encourage an understanding of the non-human races and instead goes out of its way to de-humanize them. Furthermore, this de-humanization is a direct result of our racism as we substitute the Other for the non-human races and allow ourselves to devolve in the worst manner possible (see Dungeons and Dragons and Racism by the Main Event, from the website Critical Hits for more).

This complaint is a modern dissatisfaction with the game manufactured by people who have little, to nothing, to do.

Without a doubt, we live in a world where morality is constantly in flux and it is hard to determine the motives of those around us. Every person we meet in this life has their own concerns, moral certainties, and stories. This is not the case for Dungeons and Dragons.

Gary Gygax once wrote “. . . This is a fantasy RPG predicated on the assumption that the human race, by and large, is made up of good people. Humans, with the help of their demi-human allies (dwarfs, elves, gnomes, etc.), are and should remain the predominant force in the world. They have achieved and continue to hold on to this status, despite the ever-present threat of evil, mainly because of the dedication, honor, and unselfishness of the most heroic humans and demi-humans-the characters whose roles are taken by the players of the game. Although players can take the roles of “bad guys” if they so choose, and if the game master allows it, evil exists in the game primarily as an obstacle for player characters to overcome. If they succeed in doing this, as time goes on, player characters become more experienced and more powerful - which enables them to contest successfully against increasingly stronger evil adversaries . . .”[3].

Let me put this another way.

The monsters are not stand-ins for the Other, but are designed as antagonists in the game that our players must overcome in order to progress. They are designated as evil creatures not because they stand in place of the Jew, Moslem, Black, or White but because it is the fundamental truth of the game that human beings – the people playing this game – are by and large good people. They are our contrast and our opponents; and without the conflict created by trying to overcome them there would be no game.

Your thoughts?


[1] While this theory has fallen to the wayside in recent years there is a small, but vocal group who continue to proselytize the idea that the world is actually hollow and that there is another, far better world inside. If you’re interested in finding out more about this try

[2] The primary definition for savage as according to Webster’s New World dictionary (pg. 572).

[3] Gygax, Gary. Role-playing Mastery. New York. Perigee Books, 1987: 26 - 27.


  1. De-humanization of Non-human Races is simply impossible as they aren't human as defined by their being non-human.

    1. When I started to write on that topic I wanted to simply write, "no shit," but I thought that might come of as a trollish dick move.

    2. Yeah but the whole thing is trollish really (not you). Many nonhumans are aliens that want to have their way with the women folk and eat our babies nothing wrong with bashing them in that context.

  2. I usually find critiques such as you cite to be facile and superficial. But they always contain one or more kernels of truth, and I can never totally dismiss them. D&D's origins do include a number of strands that are interwoven with historical racism, ethnocentrism and cultural chauvinism. It is certainly present in the Tolkien strand (which we all know was much more important than Gygax, for legal reasons, cared to admit). There are other strands.

    I know "includes strands that are interwoven with" makes me sound imprecise or even evasive, but that is because the origins of D&D is a complicated issue that takes more than a blog comment to develop.

    Having said all that, I do not think there is any "strand" that leads directly from "racism" to D&D. If you keep pulling strands you will find racism eventually, but that doesnt mean that the creators or the players can meaningfully be described as racist.

    You could just as well say that D&D has roots in the Middle Ages. Doesn't mean all D&D players are middle-aged. ;)

    1. I like that - disagree with the Tolkien statement - but I like the overall sentiment.

  3. Yeah, not sure why people think Tolkien was so important... read DMG 1e Appendix N and the early adventures and early Dragon articles, and you'll see science-fantasy, not straight fantasy.

    Anyway, glad you wrote this, Charles... I don't bother at all. Cries of racism typically only come from racists these days, and I've got enough on my plate that I don't feel the need to bother.

  4. I don't bother with it. The Europeans and Middle Eastern civilizations "invented" racism and slavery thousands of years before there was an "American."

    So I ignore those who speak of an "American mind-set."

  5. yeah, these critiques often involve guilt by association. So:

    1) D&D has origins in Historical/Literary Phenomenon X

    2) Phenomenon X historically associated with Racist Attitude Y

    3) D&D is associated with Racist Attitude Y

    We can agree to disagree about Tolkien; I don't believe he was a racist, but almost certainly a cultural chauvinist (not exactly an unusual attitude for an Oxford don in the first half of the 20th century!)

    1. "We can agree to disagree about Tolkien . . . but almost certainly a cultural chauvinist (not exactly an unusual attitude for an Oxford don in the first half of the 20th century!)"

      Too true!

  6. Great post as usual.
    I have been playing D&D and it's offspring since I was in Jr. High school. I have never once thought of my enemy races as stand ins for any real world anything. I don't tie political, race, cultural or any other real world baggage to my games. It's an escapist hobby because I don't have to think about real world things while I'm playing.If a person looks for subtextual meaning hard enough they can find it anywhere, because the viewer will given enough time and motivation project their personal views and insecurities onto the subject being examined. More to the point I just find the idea of role playing games being in any way inherently racist preposterous and something that must be put forward by people with their own agendas who know very little about the subject of RPG's.

    1. My thoughts as well Mark!

      (And thank you for the complement)

  7. The funny thing is, there is, I think, an obvious racial argument to be made about the classically-structured D&D game, but it's never the one that's made.

    A band of civilized folk head out into the howling, dangerous wildnerness. It's largely depopulated, but here and there there are pockets of indigenous people who offer fierce resistance. Eventually, the civilized folk overcome them, pacify the area, clear it of hostiles, and set up a fort, which begets a town, which begets farmers and churches and so on. Then they realize that they have no place in the safe and secure society they've created, and head off towards the sunset looking for some place on the _new_ margins to do it all over again.

    That would be the Western, of course. But no one is ever like "Orcs are just a hateful parody of Apaches!"

    1. That would be a boring game. Glad I don't play in it.

    2. You know I've thought about it some more Adam Thornton and I think that it wouldn't be that boring if it weren't for the repetitive element of we came, we conquered, now those boring mothers we were running away from are back so we're going back to the came and conquering.

      I don't know. I was flippant in my reply earlier but I honestly think that the game you're describing would be boring because of its repetitiveness. After all, I don't think I'd keep going forward, instead I'd clean out my own nest, so to speak.

  8. I think you are unfairly side-stepping the real issue with these arguments. I don't know... maybe you just fail to see it. Maybe I can illustrate a little better.

    First, let's clear up one thing real quick-- orcs are humans. As are elves. As are dwarfs. As are goblins. They are all humans. Everything that applies to humans applies to them, it's as simple as that. They are exaggerated depictions of how people look on other human groups that are either exotic, but admired, or are hated and looked upon as the other. Just because you give a peoples funny ears or fat noses or weird teeth or color their skin differently does not in one way change the fact that they are human. Hell, you could give them fur, the facial features of a particular animal, a tail and you know what? They would still be human if they walk, talk, wear clothes, read, write, think for themselves and can express their ideas verbally and even artistically, use human tools and weapons, create human social structures, have long-term goals and ambitions-- these are all exclusively human traits and any character that has these traits is really a stand-in for a human regardless of what other species label is attached to them. Yes, Mickey Mouse is more a human than a mouse.

    You ever hear an American southern talk about blacks and mexicans? Ever hear an Israeli or "friend of Israel" or a person gung-ho for the "war on terror" talk about a Muslim? You can turn on Fox News any day. It isn't limited to Americans. You can go back and look at pro-apartheid South African literature or things the Nazis said about the Jews.

    Now, if we were to make their depictions real-- if we were to say, create a fictional world where everything they said about these people was 100% true. Well... we'd come pretty damn close to making Orcs and Goblins, wouldn't we? And so then we could certainly see how these people's crusades against their enemies are justified within their own minds.

    Of course, I am not saying that the Orcs are stand-ins for any PARTICULAR one of these groups. But they are a stand in for the human group that your human group hates and think should be wiped from existence.

    And there IS a certain genocidal intent in RAW D&D. There is a reason why the latest D&D article discusses how many Goblins a 1st level character should butcher to get to level 2. This "other" human group exists purely to be slaughtered-- there really is no other way to play the game and still call it D&D. The rules for negotiating or bargaining or winning over hearts and minds within D&D have always and will always be very sparse and lacking, basically allowing a character to spend no more than 10 seconds on the effort with a single die roll determining entirely success or failure in the pursuit. Really, the whole goal of all characters is to exterminate all the undesirables from the world.

    Okay, then we should question... who are the undesirables?
    The words "tribe" and "savage" are pretty telling because of which group of "other" "undesirable" people they have been applied to in American history. You see all the good guy races have "clans", not "tribes". They build cities, they are absolutely not nomadic. They have high technology and agrarian with lifestock and farms, they are not hunters and gatherers. And you "tame the wilderness" by slaughtering off these wild peoples and claiming it for yourself.

    1. Except of course orcs aren't humans, elves aren't humans, dwarves aren't humans...

    2. JDJarvis beat me to that,
      "orcs are humans. As are elves. As are dwarfs. As are goblins. "
      is not correct. They are fantasy constructs, any thing human apllied to them comes from teh viewer, because they can be anythign you want them to be.

    3. You show me any trait that is true of all human beings and I will show you a trait that elves and orcs and goblins have. They are in fact human. Humans with funny ears or noses or forehead or teeth. But ultimately humans in every single way that at all matters.
      If you can't understand something as simple as that, the general trope of cloaking a made-up human societal group with a handful of physical differences, you aren't intellectually advanced enough on this subject to bother having a conversation with. I suggest you go take some courses on literature or at least read a proper literary analysis book.

    4. And I suggest that you remember that sometimes a tree is just a tree and not a metaphor on the nature of life.

      Our orks, elves, dwarves, and goblins can be nothing more than imaginary creatures set up for our imaginary characters to fight and overcome. They do not have to have another meaning reflecting the fucked up world view that some people see expressed in everything.

    5. Oh, for Christ's sake. It's a GAME, for crying out loud -- a form of escapism used by most of us to ESCAPE from the real-world dick-slappers that want to turn everything into a "socially conscious metaphor" for whatever the cause-du-jour is. We go there precisely because we don't have to watch everything we say or do to make sure we haven't offended some overly officious professional victim. If I wanted to over-analyze parcheesi, I could no doubt find examples of oppression and neo-colonialism there too....

  9. The whole narrative of the game is the very British Imperialistic attitude that lead to the creation of America, that in a weird way subtly justifies the slaughter of the Native Americans to make way for the proper peoples-- the "demi-humans" not the "humanoids". Of course, in the context of other British-imperialized nations the identity changes.... the Orcs can be the Africans in Kenya, the Chinese in Hong Kong, the Aborigines in Australia... but, I really think it was particularly pronounced as a key feature of American history and the game was created by Americans.

    Of course, when they are artistically depicted? Well, Orcs do tend to share a number of features in common with racist depictions of both Africans and Native Americans. Their garb is as often as not inspired by Native Americans. When their culture is expanded upon by American writers, they often do draw inspiration from Native Americans as well. That's why they have shamans, that's why they have a war chief, that's why the men are hunters and warriors and the women are gatherers and raise their children as a collective.

    Seriously, it really wouldn't take much effort whatsoever to turn D&D into a game that the people of Columbia (BioShock Infiite) would likely find quite enjoyable and fall perfectly in line with their world view. But if you wanted to change the game so that it could be about Native Americans or Blacks trying to overthrow white oppressors, then you would have to change almost everything about how the enemies in the system work, are labeled, are referred to and are generally depicted.

    There are no enemies within D&D and all its knock-offs that could possibly be used to represent an aggressive enslaving nation that controls the entire world, humiliates and debases the human citizens and subjects them to slavery and genocide at the worst or controls their every mobility and keeps them restricted to the land toiling away with the threat of imprisonment or death. Yes, you could almost certainly use the basic combat system for such a world, but you'd have to rewrite the Monster Manual from the ground up and none of the humanoids could possibly carry over.

    1. So if the game wasn't about dungeons and dragons you would have to rewrite huge portions of the game, imagine that...

    2. Yeah, no. I think you're manufacturing an argument that isn't there because you want to believe that this is a real problem, and it isn't.

    3. One of the intrinsically western arguments that spring out of the west, such as this one, is the ideal that ONLY Westerners invaded foriegn lands, seized women and raped them, created slaves, committed mass murder or otherwise produced empires built upon human bones. In all the other hubris-driven ideas that Westerners have had about imposing their culture on other people, the truly interesting dissonance is the Western supposition that they are alone in this process, and have been throughout history.

      Who is to say that D&D isn't actually a reflection of Zulu imperialistic culture? Or Uighur imperialistic culture? I personally like to think that D&D is clearly a stand-in for Tamil imperialism as it is practiced today in Sri Lanka. This helps me run my games all the better.

    4. "There are no enemies within D&D and all its knock-offs that could possibly be used to represent an aggressive enslaving nation that controls the entire world, humiliates and debases the human citizens and subjects them to slavery and genocide at the worst or controls their every mobility and keeps them restricted to the land toiling away with the threat of imprisonment or death."

      Strongly disagree. Drow are the obvious possibility, but there are numerous others. Mind Flayers, Githyanki (or Githzerai), Demons, Devils (perhaps even more so than Demons), Liches, Vampires, Rakshasa ("Known first in India, these evil spirits encased in flesh are spreading" is the first sentence of their description in the MM), and maybe even Dragons, are just the most obvious possibilities in the MM and FF. Personally, I think that Vampires might make the best possibility of such a metaphoric parallel because of their ability to convert others to their cause by force or choice.

      And that's the thing. All of this, from the ideas of exploring racism to the ideas of exploring colonialism and so forth, are tightly bound up not with the fundamental structures of the game, but with worldbuilding. If a World Designer wants to explore some such theme, it can be done. If she doesn't, then it can be avoided or glossed over.

    5. Good point about the inimicals. Many of the inimical species seem to have precisely those nasty ambitions we abhor.

      So then. Player Characters: Terrorists? Or Freedom Fighters?

    6. The answer to that is obvious. Since we see the events from the perspective of the PCs, they are Freedom Fighters, of course.

    7. @Andrew: Dude. You need to change your college major. It's starting to seriously affect your self-awareness.

  10. I don't think we fail to see it, I think it just doesn't quite ring true. You do touch on some of the reasons I think we can't just dismiss this critique out of hand. Yes there is something real there. But is it racism?

    Have a look at Adam Thornton's post above. Is D&D grounded at least in part on a wild west manifest-destiny worldview that desires a lawless environment where players can kill people (however defined) and take their stuff with impunity? a place where players can do things that would be illegal in a more orderly social context? Absolutely! Historically, was this associated with a racist view of indigenous peoples that helped permit this behaviour? Absolutely! Is D&D therefore a game predicated on a racist view of indigenous peoples? I would argue that is much too far a stretch. In that lawless realm, D&D players seem to be as dismissive of white, human villagers as they are of any cultural "other." They are all viewed with suspicion, they all have "stuff" and they can all be killed.

    Better to dump the easy "racist" buzzword and ask, why does D&D seem to require a lawless environment free from social sanction? Then you might just get to a meaningful critique of D&D worldviews.

    1. Now that's a meaningful question.

    2. D&D isn't new or exclusively western in having the action take place in the beyond or among the lawless the oddesy stretches beyond the land of lawful men (into. The unconscious), The Outlaws of The Water Margin was started before most of Europe realized the promise of the rennisance and it features bandits and thieves who build an army.
      Wild times and places beyond the normal rules of civil society simply build adventure.

    3. See, you ask a question and JDJarvis comes along with an excellent answer.

      Sometimes having people read your blog is really cool.

    4. Yes, there is a long literary tradition of exploring the distant and alien "other." Occasionally committing acts of violence against the beings encountered, but often not. Usually the long-term goal is simply to find.....something. And the short-term goal, often the cause of said violence, is simply survival. Not colonialism. Gulliver's Travels is another example. More recently, many of Jack Vance's novels from the 50s through the 70s take this form.

      So do you feel D&D campaigns often resemble this kind of voyage of exploration? My (ill-informed) sense is that they rarely do.

      And is it necessary for adventure to take place "beyond the pale?" Or can D&D campaigns be embedded in elaborate cultural settings with dense populations and effective social sanctions? Or is that too difficult to be practical and too constraining on player freedoms?

    5. ("Sometimes having people read your blog is really cool." yes! always! ...or so I imagine..... my own occupies a microscopic niche and thus has very few - but exceptionally cool - readers)

    6. Which blog of yours do you suggest I start reading? You're a fun cat and I'd like to see more of what you've got my friend. :)

    7. Thanks! Obviously, I already read yours....

      Okay, well is the more active of the two, but it is only tangentially rpg-related (Tekumel, but all fluff, no crunch)

  11. Late to the party but I think what often happens is that people find some areas where the thing (in this case D&D) is a partial fit for some theory (in this case an analysis of "othering in colonialism" or something) and they jump to the (unwarranted) conclusion that this thing is REALLY all about the theory...or the theory is all there is to the thing. For example, someone once told me how the Smurfs are communist propaganda because they all share everything and use a shibboleth/jargon and look at the color of Papa Smurf's hat. (There was more to it too...stuff about the roles of various smurfs and how they fit communist archetypes etc.) Anyway my point is sure you can find ways to look at the Smurfs through that lens, just as you can "read" a colonial/racist thing into D&D, but it does not mean that these are necessarily there in the things, or more importantly that the they are ALL THERE IS to the thing. People just happen to have found some ways to apply these theoretical schema to a phenomena and forget that you can apply lots of other theoretical schema to the same phenomena and that fact that you can shove a square peg into a round hole doesn't mean squares are identical to circles.
    I guess what I'm saying is: yes, they are kinda bullshitting but they are not completely full of shit, they just don't understand that the fact that a given paradigm can be used to explain parts of a thing does not mean the paradigm exhausts the thing or is even the best fit. D&D is part old west, part colonial fantasy, part fairy tale, part pulp adventure, parts lots of stuff and not all of it is consistent and no part completely exhausts it. IMO. YMMV. LOL.


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