Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Pulp Fiction Conceptions of Race and Fantasy RPGs

I am in the midst of reading the complete collection of R. E. Howard Conan stories, and something that keeps popping up in the story, in the sense that it's a constant element, is the eugenic conception of Race.

[Note: the Capitalized Word is used to denote that we're talking about ideology, not biology, and signifies that the word functions as an ideograph, in the rhetorical sense. My old teacher, Michael Calvin McGee coined that phrase, and defined as a "building block of ideology." Essentially, you take a term like <Race> or <Justice> and you have a term the definition of which is not only ambiguous, but which also tends to lead to competing (ideological) definitions.]

Race as a concept in R. E. Howard should be understood as emerging from the broader philosophical background of late 19th and early-20th century conceptions of biology. Race, back then, was thought about, particularly in popular culture but also in the emerging eugenic "sciences," as a concrete thing. A person belonged to a particular Race. Races have particular traits. Races are hierarchical in terms of their relative worth or usefulness. Races can be "diluted" or "corrupted" or otherwise fucked up through admixtures of blood (in the sense of breeding). For most folks in that time, and even up to the very present day, this notion of Race was consequential and durable. It colored the way they viewed themselves as human beings, and served as the basis for white supremacism. Even more importantly, it tended to locate Nation and Race very close to one another conceptually, or even not to distinguish between Nation and Race at all, conflating them into one overarching gestalt concept.

I find it particularly interesting in Howard (and Lovecraft, and C. A. Smith, and others from that era) how frequently that variations on this eugenic conception of Race keep popping up. The damsel in distress is never just a damsel in distress, she's racialized, contrasted with those unlike her (particularly when, inevitably, she's captured by those of darker skinned races). In Conan, however admirable they might otherwise be, supporting characters of another Race are used as foils, to contrast what is clean and pure (in Conan) with what is primitive or mongrelized or tainted or otherwise impure (in those who are from other Races). One very interesting exception is Howard's creation of a special category to encompass what would be his Persian and/or Arab analogue races. These, he treats as White, though of somewhat lower stature than the mighty barbarian, what with his blue eyes, steel-belted thews, and whatnot.

It's also jarring to read this stuff when you know exactly where all of this Race talk led. For all of the faux-science trappings of the eugenic terminologies encountered in these works, the focus on Nation and Race are very much supremacist; they would find their ultimate expression in Hitler's genocidal program, but also were found in various other expressions of nationalism based on a Nation-as-Race understanding of where genetic heritage comes from (e.g., Mussolini's interest in reviving what was, for all intents and purpose, the New Roman Empire and Hitler's use of political names, boundaries, and symbols of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Japanese conception of themselves as unique, racially and nationally). It's not innocent stuff. It was the basis for a lot of incredibly Bad Things that happened because people took Race too much as true and given facets of human heritage, rather than simply outward aspects of particular genetic expressions of skin, eyes, hair, and other heritable (but not particularly significant or functional) traits. Hell, look at how the Irish and the Italians (let along Eastern European immigrants) were treated during that time period in the United States. Nation-as-Race was made to be consequential in a lot of ways, to a lot of people, and usually in ways that tended to preserve "Whiteness" as a unalloyed and supreme category.

Anyway, all of this reading I've been doing has triggered a renewed attentiveness, a sensitivity, to instances of Race popping up in other places, whether it be news and politics (which I'm done talking about here), or in talking about character races in gaming. That's where I'm finding this to be the most interesting, right now.

The last couple of days have seen several posts on G+ about dwarves, their essential nature, what sets them apart from the other fantasy races. My own recent thoughts about my part of the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign has me considering elves in ways that are somewhat different than usually is the case. Particularly, in my consideration of elves, I've been imagining them as at best uncaring toward humans and at worst actively genocidal against them. As a fantasy concept for a game, this makes sense. It creates an interesting tension in the game world, making the PCs' racial belonging consequential, not simply decorative or mechanically advantageous in game terms. Being an Elf (as a Race) in Ur-Hadad is, in my mind, problematic. Elves are symbolic of the ancient, oppressive Empire that kept Men in bondage for untold millenia. Dwarves are symbolic of those who aided Men in casting off their chains through metalcraft. The Lizardmen and Serpent People are otherworldly, alien Races, servants and soldiers of the Old Ones.

In any case, the character races used in fantasy RPGs are usually treated as if they simply are window dressing with mechanical advantages of some kind, in game terms. However, if we think about how human beings have lived over the last 200 or so years, and how important Race has been as a concept in driving how we have treated each other (usually barbarically, of course), then it may be that our game worlds could be a lot more politically incendiary than they usually are. When Elves, and Dwarves, and Men, and Orcs, and... whatever, are in contact with each other, the non-human races are not simply reskinned Men with a few new traits. They are, in fact, The Other. They are mysterious, threatening Others bent on who knows what, with potentially real ill-will toward Men.

This distinction is rife with possibilities, some of them incredibly dark. If we take Race seriously in RPGs, we get a lot of marvelous texture to our game worlds: Old alliances and enmities, shared histories of conflict and cooperation, literal Blood-feuds among the game's Races, and (of course) Race-as-Class. Just kidding about that last one, if only just barely. However, I worry about taking such things too far in a game. I trust myself, and I trust my current crop of players, not to turn my game into an exploration of the worst excesses of what happens when Race and Nation serve as the basis on which we are found worthy (or not). I don't want genocides in my game; at the same time, I find myself saying, "But that's what happens. You can't simply ignore it because it's repellent. You MUST SHOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE THINK THIS WAY!"

I also worry that I (the bald-headed white guy) will be misunderstood in my intentions. I'm not a skinhead, people, I'm just a bald guy. I'm not White. I'm a European mutt of incredible admixture. I have no illusions about how stupid it is to take Race seriously as a scientific/biological fact. More than that, I know that Race is a cultural construct more than anything else, one with a history, with a bloody history, to be certain. As such, Race is a dangerous concept, because people can make (and certainly have made) it a powerful cultural signifier. Hell, just look at the commentary on coverage of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman incident that has recently gone to trial. Look at how African American culture and Race get conflated. Even worse, look at how my fellow citizens talk about Those People in that particular case. It's foul, and I'm disgusted by it. I find it difficult that such attitudes can persist, even now.

Anyway... It's going to be a whole lot harder, now, to think about Race in gameplay as just another entry on the character sheet. It's going to be a lot harder to simply think about non-human races as just like Men, but with different skin. It's going to be a lot harder to be comfortable with that, frankly. It makes me uneasy, because I know how bad it can get. That said, I also can't pretend that ignoring Race in my games, and concentrating on making it happy and inconsequential, are anything more than willful ignorance on my part, a dodge at best and an elision of politically potent and dangerous thinking at worst.

In the end, I have to do it as honestly, as truthfully, as I can. I have to approach this with open eyes and with a willingness to take it very, very seriously. I must speak about things instead of assuming that others will simply "get" my gist. But I can't ignore it. When you ignore it, Bad Things continue to happen.

Wow, this really got very serious. That wasn't intentional, but it was, perhaps, more productive than I'd anticipated.