BREAKING: Biological Essentialism is Not Good

There’s been buzz lately about Wizards of the Coast making efforts to course-correct some of the more egregious racism in the structure of Dungeons & Dragons. If you haven’t read it, take a sec to breeze through part of their statement:

Throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game—orcs and drow being two of the prime examples—have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated. That’s just not right, and it’s not something we believe in. Despite our conscious efforts to the contrary, we have allowed some of those old descriptions to reappear in the game. We recognize that to live our values, we have to do an even better job in handling these issues. If we make mistakes, our priority is to make things right.

Source: https://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/diversity-and-dnd

Okay – yes. Dark elves being a race of dark-skinned, matriarchal, universally-evil creeps is a many-legged problem. As is the idea that all orcs are evil (or goblins, or whatever). It’s good to correct these things. I don’t think I’ve ever met a DM that stuck 100% to “all X are evil” anyway – good to remove that from the rules as written. And, true to the spirit of D&D, there are some New Books you can purchase with revised race information!

We present orcs and drow in a new light in two of our most recent books, Eberron: Rising from the Last War and Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. In those books, orcs and drow are just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples. We will continue that approach in future books, portraying all the peoples of D&D in relatable ways and making it clear that they are as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.

There’s a word in this paragraph that caught my eye. Did you spot it? “Orcs and drow are just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples.” Not races, but peoples. You might have noticed it higher up, too – “some of the peoples in the game.” You know what word doesn’t show up in their statement on diversity? Race.

Broadly, I gotta say, it’s a good thing. The mere fact that the word “race” is used to divide the D&D setting into discrete, objective categories is a political choice. It is the codification of scientific racism in a game world. “Race,” in the real world, is an invented thing, a construct. The qualities of “race” are subjective, and have historical roots. Race was created for a reason. In the setting of D&D, though, race is objective and real. Elves have pointy ears and low-light vision; dwarves are hairy; orcs are evil. It’s a form of biological essentialism that is, for the most part, a fantasy. Yes, real life humans have genetic traits we can pass on, but the distinction between the races of D&D is more akin to the difference between species, not races. Also, it seems obvious, but moral categories like “good” and “evil” are not even close to something biological – but in D&D as written, they are. Real-world scientific racism relies on this perspective; the idea that the different “races” are, in fact, closer to being different species.

Race, as a concept, is very thoroughly baked into the high fantasy genre, and specifically into the world of role-playing games. Different games present this differently – it was only a few years ago that Pathfinder adopted “Ancestry,” as opposed to “Race,” and it sounds like D&D may be going that direction with the as-yet-unannounced rulebook WOTC plans on releasing later in 2020:

Later this year, we will release a product (not yet announced) that offers a way for a player to customize their character’s origin, including the option to change the ability score increases that come from being an elf, a dwarf, or one of D&D’s many other playable folk. This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.

This, I think, is where the future of RPG character design has to go: fixing the fundamental assumptions about biologically essential traits carried by different races. I’m not going to praise WOTC until I see what actually changes, but I’m glad their eyes are drawn to the roots of race in game design. Tying objective game mechanics to something as subjective and political as race is, ultimately, a cop-out. Good games eliminate that junk.

Other people have written far more articulately about race in role-playing games! I think this post from The Public Medievalist summarizes the problems very well; this more academic piece is mostly about video games, but touches on some of the same biological essentialism inherent to fantasy races in gaming.

Or, to sum up, here’s a Good Tweet from a few months ago that sparked a lot of kerfuffle in dumbasses online:

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