D&D is Cultural Appropriation?

A British gamer travels to America for the first time, and speaks of the way finally “gets” the tropes behind Dungeons and Dragons.

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the ‘borderlands’ theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the ‘civilizing’ mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn’t fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA – and the Americas in general – has a scaleĀ about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don’t just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn’t need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker ‘city’ – the richest per capita in the USA at one point – precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

It’s not medieval Europe, even a middle ages seen through a distorted American lens. Anything European is really little more than very superficial window-dressing. Dungeons and Dragons is the Wild West with swords instead of six-shooters. The complete absence of anything resembling social class, and the whole zero-to-hero character arc thing is a dead giveaway. It really does owe far more to Ayn Rand than to J.R.R.Tolkien.

This does put the social justice arguments about the game into context. The argument that D&D characters should be overwhelmingly white because historical accuracy is racist bollocks because D&D isn’t set in anything resembling medieval Europe. And to argue that a game that is based on medieval Europe and written by Europeans must reflect the demographics of 21st century North America because diversity is also bollocks, because such a game isn’t default D&D.

This entry was posted in Games and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to D&D is Cultural Appropriation?

  1. Colum Paget says:

    # The argument that D&D characters should be overwhelmingly white because
    # historical accuracy is racist bollocks because D&D isnt set in anything
    # resembling medieval Europe.

    This I completely agree with, but then this is my problem with the ‘sensible armor for women’ trope too. It’s got dragons and magic in it, there are no rules or need to connect to realism. After all, you can be an elf in dungeons and dragons, so surely you can be black?

    # And to argue that a game that is based on medieval Europe and written by
    # Europeans must reflect the demographics of 21st century North America
    # because diversity is also bollocks, because such a game isnt default D&D.

    Yes, and this exposes the tendancy of Americans to project their culture and situation onto everyone else. Still, I can see an argument for offering diverse characters as a choice for the player. Now, this is not so much to offer these choices so the player can be someone like themselves. One of the things that no-one expected when female characters finally were allowed to appear in violent video-games, is that a lot of people like to cross-dress in games. Admittedly, some of this is just that people like to stare at Lara Croft’s ass while she runs about in the game, but I think people in games like to try on being someone else. Why do we expect that people seeking escapist entertainment want to maintain their identity?

    Of course, the ‘social justice’ crowd will say that’s a form of tourism or appropriation. But handled well, and without being preachy, I could see it could be used to get a view of someone else’s worldview via gaming. I don’t think anyone will ever try though, because the political risk is too great: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.