Content Warning: racial stereotypes, colonial propaganda against natives
I had an experience that frustrated me enough to almost ragequit playing at a gaming server I spent fourteen years inside, with a few hiatuses in between. People I have known for fourteen years, people I had confided in a lot about some of the struggles these past few years with the amplified visibility of racism that has been in this country for years but now more are more emboldened to act on, gave an interaction to me that left me feeling hurt. It was not on purpose, and I am not calling them terrible people or avowed racists. I want that clear for anyone who might know who I speak about.
Before going into the impact of a recent decision, I want to describe the situation without getting into too much detail. The decision was about whether to make some small revisions to a very niche lore to make it less problematic due to the racist history behind the sources and inspirations used for the lore. I will first admit this is a point I felt personally invested in for it involved representation of some elements of my culture, along with a religion and culture I am protective over in a fantasy context. The verdict was they would integrate the lore as was written in materials, even with the problematic content (for now). I understand why the decisions were made, as they have pre-existing rules about what content they allow and creating an exception to those rules opens a door for passionate fans of other areas of lore to demand changes as well. That has the potential to cause a lot of disagreement and argument within the community.
Still, the impact is there and I do not know if they truly understand or empathize with why the impact of this decision is harmful to me. I say this for one of them has told me that they think I ‘take the game way too seriously’ in the past and then recently one said they ‘expect people to know the distinction between a game and real life.’ Right when I spoke to them of a decision that has issues due to integrating in-book lore that has very established, racist history in the making of it. It pains me to see not just my experiences, but the experiences of people more directly impacted minimized in this way. I felt a reminder of why I may be one of the handful of non-white people playing on the server on a regular basis.
I did not say they could not use the lore. I did suggest revisions that could address the problematic elements, or at least minimize them. This also included options that still keeps in the spirit of what was written in the game books while acknowledging the troubling, racist inspirations of said lore. Regardless, I was told ‘people should know the difference between a game setting and its real-life inspiration.’ In an ideal world, they should. And really, I would not have been upset if that was the reality of the situation.
I will use an example of how fiction can still sometimes have people believe racist assumptions despite a work being fiction. At the University of Texas, students reported that on more than several instances, many teachers seemed to legitimately believe monkey brains were consumed in India, something they learned from the wholly-fictional movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I know it is a fiction, but I have heard that fiction as if it were fact my whole life because that fiction is the only knowledge most people have on the topic. I may not be Indian, but as a White-Southeast Asian, I have my own memories of being accused of consuming foods I would never think of eating. From that, I am very empathetic to South Asians’ annoyance (if not hurt) when they are assumed to eat monkey brains.
If collectives believe this about a group, there is also a good chance they believe that the Cult of Thuggee in the Temple of Doom were really a religious focused cult on mainstream Kali worship. There is enough residue of British propaganda in both colonial literature and pop-culture to reinforce that assumption, and Dungeons & Dragons, a game I love, is no exception. Dungeons & Dragons even refers to Kali’s priesthood as the Thagna, which is one transliteration of the Hindi phrase ‘to cheat/bluff (deceive)’, the Hindi word from which the word ‘thug’ originates and Thuggees got their name. In a future article, I will reiterate how Kali worshipers and the goddess herself has been treated in different pop-culture mediums, including roleplaying games. The “Kali Maa” memes bring me no joy for a reason.
I know that a game should still be fun. This has been reiterated by folks many times in different ways, either to me or to colleagues of mine who want to see different worlds, or at least some tweaks to lore that reduces the baggage the mainstream settings have. If people are not willing to make some reasonable modifications to a setting for people at the margins to enjoy, then there is a problem. I am coming to a point where if there were other Dungeons & Dragons based gaming servers that had better consideration for these sorts of scenarios, I would be finding ways to wrap up stories where I am and go there. No hard feelings, really; games should be fun, after all.
Unfortunately, there is no better option, so I do what I can to reclaim what parts of the lore I can. As in previous blog posts, though, I know it is a matter of not if, but when I may move on.
For me, fun includes not having to constantly be oversaturated with sources of terrible experiences and how the dominant culture sees people like me, and moreso my relatives, as something we’re not. Fantasy settings unfortunately project real life assumptions in their lore making. Whether the oversaturation of problematic experiences in gaming servers come from sexism, racism, homophobia or transphobia, people can learn how to make gaming spaces more inclusive. They can even do so while even having pseudo-European flavored settings. It is not enough to just have a check list of: ‘we have a few people of color players, check’; ‘we have trans and queer peoples, check’; ‘there are some of these people who agree with us, check.’ Then a stop and not having the conversation again. I want more at this point. If the source material is problematic, it is within the server’s power to change it. Rules should not be an excuse in cases like this.
I am not trying to cast a lick of shade here when I say any of the above – it is all in love. I would not be playing in these servers if there were not something I loved about them, whether the people or what I can make and enjoy playing. Still, I am left disheartened, somewhat heartbroken, and now have some fears regarding people who I used to not feel unheard around. Some people might just accuse me of taking my so-called ‘social justice’ work too seriously if they read this. This is even knowing they lack the same skin in the game (no pun intended). I do want to fix the personal aspects of this dynamic and it feels I am losing options, but that is beyond the point.
If a setting suddenly had a deity named “Allah,” “Adonai,” or “Yahweh” – to have people demanded to convert or kill people in their name, or partake in literal cannibalism instead of the Eucharist (a form of symbolic cannibalism), I am pretty sure something would be done. And understandably so. Even if not, there are enough devout Christians in these spaces, in roleplaying servers or broader pop-culture, to ensure people do make the distinction between fact and fiction. Non-European religions in the Global North lack the same clout, power, influence, and representation in Western media. Even the less offensive representations out there mostly scratch the surface and cater to the more dominant audiences, becoming nothing more than half-hearted effort.
Needless to say, I am being reinforced the message even more than before that allyship in gaming communities is a work in progress. This goes for me as much as anyone else. There will certainly be a second part to this.
With pained love,