Whitewashing RPGs and Cultural Erasure

Introduction

I’m a little sad that at this point I’m going to have to discuss this topic like this—I’d love to make this into a podcast from start to finish. I’d love to bring on specialists for the topic: I know a few costume/dress historians and even an armor historian or maybe I could even find someone well versed in classical architecture.

You’re probably raising an eyebrow at this statement and wondering where the heck I’m going with this and what do these topics have to do with Whitewashing RPGs and Cultural Erasure. So let me explain this in two very strong arguments:

(1) Fantasy RPGs are based off very specific time periods of our global history that from the games interior deal with specific eras of dress and couture, specific eras of architecture, and specific eras of technology such as blacksmithing and tools.  In fact, even the language of fantasy worlds draws from specific eras.

(2) Fantasy RPGs are also strongly based off specific world cultures during these time periods and, yes, usually European cultures.

Where the Whitewashing and Cultural Erasure comes into RPGs is the idea that the inclusion of what we in the United States term minorities (PoC = People of Color) is a new thing and the act of including them in an RPG property based on pandering or somehow damaging to European identity. THIS is what I’m talking about!

I wish I could ignore this—because if you think the inclusion of a certain ethnicity ruins something you are racist and amazingly you probably don’t see it. It’s a horrible way to think, but it’s worse that it has influence and therefore articles like this one MUST exist to dispel this notion before it spreads. Quite frankly, in a world where we are given only superficial knowledge of any topic in history we are all victims of the human behavior that drives us to create our own conclusion based on what we know and trust of the authorities who have given us this knowledge. 

Yet, have you ever really asked yourself:  were or even when PoC began to be involved in European cultures?  Big Hint: it didn’t begin with the European slave trade that plays so strongly into American history.

So, let’s set the most basic litmus test for fantasy worlds:  knights in shining armor.  Armor with plates did not come into existence until around 1300 CE. It’s probably the most middle of the road date we can look at for this topic and we’ll end it with piracy and ships of the 1700’s.

Architecture

If we were to judge the architecture of the popular fantasy worlds such as Faerun, Anthas, Thedas, Greyhawk, Golarion, or even Aventuria we would find that the vast majority of the architecture runs a wide gambit of styles from Byzantine (500 CE) all the way to Baroque (~1700 CE).  The ruins in which the adventurers explore seems to be of Greek to Classical Roman design (800 BCE – 500 CE).  Yes, it is perfectly logical for there to be such a wide variety of architecture side by side:  many of the still standing famous chapels of the world come from the Gothic era of 1,000 CE (let alone the magnificent architecture of Rome which has been standing even longer than that).

Dress and Couture

What we understand of Fashion is sometimes a little more difficult in terms of fantasy worlds; where people in togas sometimes exist side-by-side with other forms of couture.  However, if we were to look at the most fashion forward parts of fantasy worlds, we would straddle an era of fashion of ~1300 CE era into of the Baroque era moving forward into Rococo eras.  This strangely makes a lot of sense as this era of fashion largely continued being popular for stage and costume clothing as well as nobles wearing this era of fashion when sitting for paintings into the mid-1800’s.

Technology

The topic of technology can get kind of dicey as we discuss the concept of iron and steel ages as well as origins of various weapons.  There are tons of wannabe experts arguing the where, when, and what’s of sword design.  So, let’s skip that and go to the most cringeworthy moment in old school RPG weapon history:  Halberds!  Yes, the legendary pike weapon that Gary Gygax was obsessed with and TSR wrote at length about the various types.  Historians agree that Halberds came into popularity from 1300-1500 CE. Manacles and shackles also came into popular usage around this time as technology updated.  Stained glass common in the more popular and cosmopolitan cities of fantasy realms wasn’t developed until ~1200 CE in our world.  The boats and ships that we use in our pirate like campaigns?  Also coming into existence later than 1500 CE and running until 1800 CE.

Genetic Comparison

Somehow, most people forget the natural migration of people around the world, the usage and exposure of roads under Rome, or even the need for global trade that saw cultures and ethnicities move around the world.  If you’ve done DNA testing and looked at the models of where your ancestors likely migrated from, well, its absolutely fantastic to see!  I have and I have a small percentage of Middle Eastern ethnicities in my genetic makeup even though my family tree can only trace itself back one generation into Europe.  How do you think that got there?

Want an example of a famous historical figure of African descent in Northern Europe?  How about St. Maurice (images of below with his Coat of Arms) who died in Switzerland in 287 CE.

If this doesn’t make sense to you; if you cannot separate yourself from the concept of ethnic diversity outside of the slave trade—then let’s go there.  Let’s talk about the Roman Empire’s slave trade.

We all know and accept that the Roman Empire came into existence around the sixth century BCE.  The various countries of Europe were considered their provinces, for instance, France was under their rule by ~140 CE and England in 43 CE and remained under their rule for over 300 years.  Rome even attempted to invade Germania multiple times over its existence.  Anywhere Rome went they brought their slaves (often of African or Asian decent) and there are now proud communities throughout Europe able to trace their lineage to these people.  The later European Slave Trade, which obviously drew heavy upon European technology such as ship building, saw people of African descent diversifying Europe even further in the 1600’s.

Need an example, probably one of the largest populations of African Roman descent is in Southern Wales with an estimated community in the thousands.

An example of someone from the later European Slave Trade?  Anton Wilhelm Amo became the first Black college graduate of University of Helmstedt in 1727 and later went on to become a University professor!

Putting it All Together

Yes, there were communities and peoples of all ethnicities in Europe throughout every era and nation that influences what we call fantasy; anywhere from hundreds of years prior to migrating even during these time periods.  As such, minorities and PoC have an equal claim to fantasy and I shouldn’t be having to say this!

Yet, it never fails that someone, somewhere calls having minorities in fantasy “pandering” or the ridiculous loss of European heritage.  It’s time we all took a serious look at fantasy as a result.  Don’t get me wrong, I love fantasy games and the worlds therein.  However, it would be remiss of me to not point out the problematic parts and, honestly, demand change. 

Was it some nefarious plan?  Partially, erasure is nothing new and fantasy erasure is a result of historical erasure.  Hitler and his ilk declared PoC’s alien peoples and even before World War I had driven them out of schools and during his reign practiced eugenics and sterilization upon them as a minority in Germany.  Even before then minorities of every disambiguation have been easy targets in Europe for hatred. 

Sometimes that hatred comes in the most nefarious of forms as we equate a culture with a certain appearance.  From Roman noses to Irish redheads to French lips and even pale skinned courtesans—we have come to identify something physical as a pinnacle of a heritage with everyone revering only that identity.

Is there information on the existence of these European minorities out there?  Of course, there is!  However, we too often rely on a superficial education to be a complete education.  We gloss over major historical facts and figures with a single paragraph because its easier.  Then we consider what knowledge we have gleaned to be perfect knowledge, and this is certainly not the case.

Imagine if you will being of African German descent; driven from your homes by a mad dictator and returning to it.  Imagine the development of RPGs in the 1980’s, decades after the death of said dictator, based in what is essentially your home nation drawing largely from a mixture of mythology and history where your ancestors were present.  Then imagine all of that being erased from those games.

Then imagine not being from Germany, but instead the rest of the world—this is what has happened everywhere in the 1980’s with RPG development. You don’t have to go far in our old books to see harmful and destructive cliches of minority culture and heritage.

It’s for this reason I want to thank those companies trying to break these habits and be more inclusive in their game development.  Companies who now have iconic minority characters and are slowly leaving stereotypes behind.  We have a long way to go, but let’s be mindful and keep going!