Playing Against Type

There has been a plea within the tabletop community for diversity in designers and players. If you’re a person of color, a woman or a part of the LGBTQIA community you are begged to “Please consider joining us”. At first sight it sounds pleasant, but then when you scratch the surface it can be rather scary. Yes, the big group of nerds who were ridiculed as children or teenagers who like what they like are in fact threatening to some degree.

When you happen to be a minority in a hobby occupied by mostly white men, not only will you be challenged by those inside that hobby, but also by of your own race or culture. This translates into role-play games in an interesting way when we discuss diversity, representation or sometimes lack thereof when it comes to play.

The debate comes up again and again, either in the Google Plus community, forums or articles. Why don’t women players play men? Why don’t men play women? Can white players play characters of color? Why doesn’t anyone ever play trans or a gay character? As if these characteristics were a mechanic to be picked from a playbook.

The one thing you have to remember is that people live with these characteristics. It doesn’t exactly define them solely. I’m Puerto Rican, I’m a woman, these are things that help shape me, but they don’t define me.

Why is diversity so important?

Women get tested for their so-called nerd cred.

“So do you know the name of the creator of D&D?”
“Your boyfriend/brother/male friend must’ve gotten you into tabletop gaming/whatever geeky interest.”

Although the ideas of what is feminine are changing, there is a difference when you happen to be of color.

“You’re too white” someone is going to tell you. There are times that we can’t talk about liking role-play games to those within our culture because it’s rare to see geeky kids of color in the media. Your white gaming friends will also make remarks, they will make jokes at the expense of your race or culture just to test and see if you can take it.

“A rogue played by a Puerto Rican is hilarious! You know? Because Puerto Ricans love to steal, am I right?”

There are times you feel like you should be able to take it.

“You’re a cool kid, be cool about it.”
“Your character is bisexual? Well, certainly they must have more than one lover. Bisexuals are so promiscuous.”

Diversity is needed to break stereotypes and to make it welcoming to all people of walks of life, despite the fact that it is a mainly white, middle class pastime.


How can role-play be important to people?

During our Contessa Panel about Playing Against Type I asked my friend Beth, who is openly trans and a lesbian, about why role-play was important to her:

“Role-playing is important to me because I don't have role models in the same way most others do. Growing up, I really struggled with assignments where we needed to write about them. Now I can name possibility models, Lana Wachowski, Laverne Cox, Ellen Degeneres, Ellen Page, but none of them speak to the whole of who I am, what I'm about, what I feel called to.

As a teenager I was so busy trying to be what society thought I should be I didn't have a clue what it meant to be myself.

Now as an adult, I can't go around acting like a teenager (although others seem to get away with it) as I figure myself out. Instead, every character I write has a bit of myself inside. I continue to figure myself out through the games. I have grown as my characters have grown.”

In role-play we can be the people we aspire to be. As a result we can play and be the role-models we wish we had while growing up or even having now. Yes, you can play anything, but those of us who didn’t have strong representation in the media can now see those characters through the games we play.


Why should I play against type?

You are not your character. I can translate some parts of myself into the game but I am not the character, that character is a part of the story which allows me to be whoever it is that I want to be. I can play a white man the same as I can play a queer Black woman.

Role-play allows you to become someone besides who you are, a lot like acting and improv. I can say that I am the most beautiful woman in the world, the ‘yes and’ way of role-play allows me this. I can fit into someone else’s skin, something that the real world doesn’t allow me to do. (Yes and is a rule of improv, yes being that you accept the reality given to you. And being the additional information to be provided to give the world more substance.)

This doesn’t come without consequences though. Liz C. makes a point during our Playing Against Type Panel that in a game she ran set in the 1940’s, a player remarked on wanting to play an African-American. She made sure to ask if he was sure of this considering the time and location. It did settle afterwards to the player that life would be difficult, they assumed by the right of privilege that it wouldn’t be a problem.

If you want to play against type and do it right, do your research. For instance, playing a Muslim vampire wouldn't work because the consumption of blood is Haraam.

Researching, learning, seeing these characters blossom and grow, sensing that they themselves are real, helps us see those different from ourselves as humans. Although we deal with people different from us within the community, it is rare for us to get to know one another at a deeper level. Role-playing something different from me, researching and understanding, helps create empathy.

The more accepting we are to diversity within our games, the more accepted those of diversity will feel in gaming. More chances we have to meet and connect.

I have a better understanding of myself because of role-play friends. I can call myself an ally of  those different from myself again and again, but nothing rings truer than when they become your friends. We want their stories reflected in the ones we tell. I want Beth to see herself in games in a positive light, I want to see minorities being strong and capable.


What if the player playing against their own type starts to feel offensive?

The best thing you can do is call them out. Calling someone out is scary. You know this is going to be taken hard if they take themselves too seriously or perhaps do not understand where you are coming from. It’s a double-edged sword, but how are we supposed to get any achievement or come to an understanding if we don’t talk about it? Calling someone out or calling in is necessary in order to have a better understanding.

Here's the experience of Chris Whissen. Two different instances but with two different reactions.

“I have stories of when correcting a fellow player went right, and when it went wrong.

The first time was a friend who was playing a character of mixed Mexican and Native American descent. He kept combining Speedy Gonzalez with Tonto speak to act out his character. Having lived for a quite a while in the southwest and been treated like a son by my parents’ Mexican best friends and like a cousin by a local Pueblo village, I was really ticked off at how offensive his take was. (Not that I wouldn't have found it horrible otherwise, but I might not have been as clued in if I hadn't been as familiar with the cultures being played.) So, on break I let him know that it was offensive and maybe he should update his background past 1960s stereotypes. He apologized to the group and admitted he hadn't really been thinking about it. The character turned out great and everyone had fun. I think he was just being silly and not thinking (I know I did a lot of offensive things back in high school without realizing it), and it helped we were both male. It also probably helped that he had encountered his fair share of crap because of his own background.

I tried the same tactic a few years later when a new player joined our group and attempted to play the "sassy black woman" stereotype. It was, words can't describe how offensive it was. He, however, didn't take it so well when I tried to point it out. He called me "a little bitch" out to ruin his fun and walked out. I will say, the dice he left behind - and never responded to emails asking if he wanted them back - were pretty nice.

Basically, I think knowing the first person is what kept it from seeming like an attack. Though it's possible his own experiences made him stop to think more than another friend might have. Maybe calling out a player their first time playing with us didn't help with his reaction.

On the other side of the situation, I know how I've felt when called out for poor handling of a character outside my experience. I've felt anger and hurt (natural and short-lived reactions to being told you're wrong), followed by embarrassment and resolve to do better. I usually come to appreciate the person for having enough faith in me to believe I wasn't being an ass on purpose, but was just forgetting to think things through.”

Chris Whissen did the correct thing in approaching the person with his concern. It is important to maybe pull them aside, if you feel comfortable, and let them know what they’ve done. When you role-play with someone, it is a social event and you hope that this person is a good person. Give them time to process, being called out is not easy and people make mistakes. If they react violently or try to call you sensitive, take a step back and reconsider if you wish to continue interacting with them. No one should make you feel bad when you’re doing the right thing.


How should I react if I get called out for being sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic during a game?

Please consider it does take a certain bravery to correct someone on these matters. Some of us are conditioned to not react immediately, especially on a face-to-face interaction. If you are pulled side, if you are spoken to privately take in consideration how hard it is to detail how you’ve done wrong. I’ve corrected people before and there have been times people have been gracious and other times not so much.

The only reason someone calls you out is in the expectation that you will do better, you will be better. It’s fine to take a break but don’t let this discourage you.


Why is playing a stereotype bad?

Characters should not be one dimensional. Good characters are diverse, complicated and interesting. Playing a stereotype benefits no one, it leaves the impression on players that this is okay when it isn’t.

There are NPCs that are played for laughs, that’s great as long as your players are comfortable, intelligent enough to know that this is not what represents a larger group of people, but for some of us- that stereotype hurts.

Not all Latino and African-Americans are thieves. Not all Middle-Easterners are terrorists, not all Asians are overachievers. Not all elves should be white. Not all characters should be solely young, thin, beautiful creatures. Not all bisexuals are nymphomaniacs. Not all women are damsels, not all men are great warriors.

Make your characters interesting, make them unique. Understand that at times people fit into two minorities and so it makes their lives more complicated than you think.

Does this mean I shouldn’t play someone different from myself?

Not at all! You should play someone outside of your gender, outside of your race, sexuality, and all of that. What is asked to be done is have some empathy when you do and to also do some research. Don’t be afraid of being corrected. If someone does, hope that it comes from a place of kindness.

There are plenty of resources online to get a better understanding of races, culture, gender, and sexuality. There are plenty of players that are open about their struggles, people who don’t mind the questions as long as they’re not offensive.

Make it interesting, make it good, but remember to have fun.