An Anti-Racist Historian Reflects on Gaming

Awhile ago, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to join their Harry Potter RPG. I was a bit wary of the RPG aspect — don’t those involve math? And nerd-boys? I hate math. And nerd-boys. But — I love Harry Potter. It really sounded like an elaborate game of pretend — combined with booze. I love pretend! And booze.

So, I joined. And it’s been an exciting few weeks in the Hogwarts of the 1970s – my group and I have rescued each other from pegasi, played Quidditch, engaged in some pre-pubescent flirtation, and have gotten to know each other both in-game and out-. It’s been really – fantastic, actually. RPGs and fandom fulfill my need for inter-class contact described by Samuel R. Delaney in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue,* where he argues that contact and discussion based around shared interest is as important as contact based around shared social networks. It’s this interclass contact that makes city life tolerable, because it creates a multilayering of identities and communities. It diversifies who you have your leisure time with, and brings you into contact with people who you’d otherwise be less likely to meet.

This class bit is totally neat, and since I just finished Delaney’s book, I’m incredibly excited about it. But, what I’ve been finding really interesting – and what originally inspired this essay – was the absence of race, colonialism, and homophobia in our discussions of Hogwarts. I’m playing a biracial Hufflepuff with some queer leanings, and so far she hasn’t encountered racism of any sort, or brought up her mixed heritage. Neither have the other characters of color. One, a black boy from a Muggle family in America, has referred to race, but it’s more pithy than Panther. This, in a game set in the 1970s, when Loving v. Virginia* had just been battled out in the US. This absence of race as a lived experience, as something that deeply affects people’s lives, does not seem inauthentic, considering the source material. Rowling does not go into the dark parts of Wizarding history, the tensions of colonialism and post-colonialism facing modern-day Britain, or even the vagaries of race. How can she, and create a Hogwarts you’d want to go to? How can she, when she’s writing about the white characters in a world where whiteness means not having to worry about pesky things like colonization and racism? I realized, with a pang, that in that timeline, our Quidditch matches and balls coincided with Steve Biko’s death at the hands of apartheid police, that the colonized states across the world were finally, finally throwing off the bonds created by the First World. This sounds silly, I know – but seriously, how involved would Rowling’s wizards have been in world-changing events? Would there have been a call for divestment? Were there South African wizards who supported apartheid? Were there wizards and witches resisting the colonizers of Brazil? Should I be playing Zipporah as race-neutral or as black?

And then, the sexuality. I’ve been playing Zipporah as possibly bi. She’s been flirting with one of the other girls in-game, who’s expressed a vague interest back (this, when she’s not being impossibly Slytherin). There’s been no talk of this, and we’ve both been playing that bit of characterization through innuendo and implication (clearly, they’re like 12. The most they’re going to do is share books and possibly be BFF). But, unlike Dumbledore and JK Rowling’s “straight til proven otherwise” handling of sexuality, they’re open to the possibility of same-sex affection, a possibility unimpaired by such things as homophobia and the legal, social, and physical constraints facing queer women. It’s a beautiful world, where two maybe-bi tweens can jokingly ask each other to the Halloween ball, blithely ignoring things like race and social censure.* But seriously, what does it mean to play a character of ambiguous sexuality on the cusp of the British feminist movement? We’re playing in the 1970s. It will be another thirty years until the British government makes it illegal to engage in work-place discrimination based on sexuality. The Act of 1533, the law used to condemn Oscar Wilde for buggery, had just been taken off the books in 1967. We’re fantasizing on multiple levels.

This troubles me. It’s also kind of awesome. I had no idea immersing one’s self in a game could force me to think so critically about the assumptions underlying an author’s world-view. Is there a liberatory potential to imagining a world where race and colonialism are ignored, and sexuality is treated as a facet of one’s social experience versus a defining factor? I have no idea. For me, it’s silumultaneously relaxing and schizophrenic. Playing pretend in a world that’s class/color/sexuality-blind reinforces how much these things impact my daily life. It also, at times, makes me feel oddly inauthentic. It brings me out of the game, because I’m forced to go, “Oh, wait, when I was a middle schooler, being me didn’t feel this easy.” I’m not playing a good role because the parameters of the world in which we’re playing have declared some serious aspects of that role off-limits.

*Fine, so Delaney was talking about interclass contact specifically in regards to porn theaters. My life is just a lot less exciting than his.

*This is the case that made mixed race marriage legal on the federal level in the United States.

*SHE SAID NO! WTF.

Comments

  1. Raft Tree says

    But in Harry Potter those things are represented, just under different names for the most part, the whole ‘pure blood’/’muggleborn’ issue being comparable to race issues and things like being a werewolf or part giant often being compared to being gay in our world. I find it surprising that any Harry Potter based game set in or before canon would be class blind, because there is a huge class devide in the books – look at the Malfoys versus the Weasley’s for example. But I understand how easy it is to play your characters class blind and have that become the norm. I just over a month ago started in my first Harry Potter rpg and it’s very interesting seeing people’s reactions this in game. There’s already one same sex relationship started and no one has made much comment on it, but it’s not exactelt public yet.

    As for their involvement in those things, surely they are on the verge of a war at the tme your playing in and so it’s easier to consider the world separated?

    Although people do bring up the sexuality issue, in regards to the importanct of breeding to old pureblood families, assuming that would bring a stigma against anyone persuing same sex relationships.

    I very much enjoyed and agreed with your article, I was just trying to show the context I see for this lack of prejudice against ‘muggle’ concerns.

  2. Mecha says

    As a frequent RPer (who is involved in building some peoples’ worlds) I end up thinking of similar issues quite a bit. And seeing people just shrug at being gay or bi in situations that don’t seem shruggable. A lot of people in near-modern campaigns just sorta assume that ‘near-modern’ = ‘modern + then some’ on the equality front. I think that is in large part because so few people are equipped to actually deal with those issues without crossing the OOC boundary, or feeling like they are/the young white male (and generally societal) assumption that racism and sexism aren’t really real.

    At the same time, I’m in a ‘medieval’ campaign where someone who works as a church functionary is at least trying to deal with being lesbian as an explicit character conflict. It depends a lot on the group and the game’s level of realism.

    -Mecha

  3. Melpomene says

    Hi Raft Tree!

    But in Harry Potter those things are represented, just under different names for the most part, the whole ‘pure blood’/’muggleborn’ issue being comparable to race issues and things like being a werewolf or part giant often being compared to being gay in our world.

    But the thing is, they don’t need to be represented. They’re already there. If the Muggle world and the Wizarding world overlap to the point that, say, the British PM and the Ministry of Magic have occasional contact, and the two worlds share a history, then race doesn’t need to be represented, because it’s already present.

  4. Melpomene says

    At the same time, I’m in a ‘medieval’ campaign where someone who works as a church functionary is at least trying to deal with being lesbian as an explicit character conflict. It depends a lot on the group and the game’s level of realism.

    That’s really cool. :) How much OOC convo did you guys do to parse that out?

  5. TerraNova says

    In my experience (both as a player and a GM), tabletop gaming can offer interesting opportunities to talk about class, color, & sexuality (though often mediated by metaphor). Mecha’s ‘medieval’ lesbian church functionary, for example. Or the 11th century cross-dressing, quasi-transgender scholar monk played by a friend of mine in a game I’m running.

    But doing so seems* to require a conscious willingness on the part of both players and GM to engage in a discussion of ‘issues’. Perhaps because (as it’s easier in real life to pretend you don’t see or cannot recognize sexism/racism/sexuality discrimination) it’s easier to elide past it in games we play for fun; since we** don’t often play games because we want to be made angry or depressed.

    * Again, in my experience. This particular gaming group has been unusually open to complex games. But I’ve definitely been in groups who played fantasy games because they were fantasy. Politics definitely not desired.
    ** By we I mean my sample set of friends- 25 to 40 yo, predominately white academics. Not meant to generalize to the whole of American, let alone academic, or even blog culture.

  6. Raft Tree says

    But the thing is, they don’t need to be represented. They’re already there. If the Muggle world and the Wizarding world overlap to the point that, say, the British PM and the Ministry of Magic have occasional contact, and the two worlds share a history, then race doesn’t need to be represented, because it’s already present.

    I agree there. My point was more that people feel they do not need to address these issues for those reasons more than they don’t exist. But I do think that race can be seen differently, as it is in many different countries whose leaders communicate.

    I can understand how hard it is to bring in these issues though – people don’t want to be playing a racist/homophobic/whatever character, for the most part. Also, that even if that sort of prejudice should be present, something is even more wrong if the prejudices which are the central themes of the book magically disappear – even though they should share our prejudices we don’t really know, but we do know what conflicts they do have. Sorry if I’m not being very clear. Although, just today we have a chracter in my game realising she is attracted to another woman and feeling a real internal conflict and worry about societies reaction, which is nice to see is being taken into account. But it is a very emotional/character driven game.

  7. MaggieCat says

    But the thing is, they don’t need to be represented. They’re already there. If the Muggle world and the Wizarding world overlap to the point that, say, the British PM and the Ministry of Magic have occasional contact, and the two worlds share a history, then race doesn’t need to be represented, because it’s already present.

    Going by the books, I can see where there might be an argument that it took a different form of “race”. In one of the charity books that Rowling did (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) it’s mentioned that when the Ministry was setting up their regulations, there was a very vocal group that wanted Muggles considered animals.

    I’m not saying that’s how it really was obviously, but I can see where it might be hard to project the same issues whole cloth because it’s been divided into magical/non magical rather than race as real history has seen it. So if a minority wizard has greater social standing than a white muggle in the 1950s, how do you work that into the history we know? (That may have made more sense in my head.)

  8. Mecha says

    Melpomene: Well, that group has, for a very long time, been explicitly comfortable with gay characters for various reasons, despite having people of various orientations and gender expressions. As such, one of the straight players wanted to play with that particular conflict. There wasn’t a huge amount of explicit discussion because we all know that we can all more or less work at that level (I assume there was some adjustment to the concept before I joined the group, but I don’t really know.) Another of the RP environments I’m in are all amateur writers of some sort, and so are very good at handling whatever things come up.

    I have definitely had experiences like TerraNova and Revena talk about, both where the campaign just doesn’t deal with certain real world issues and others where people do deal with real world issues, but forget specific sexual/racial/etc overtones. However, I would say that in some cases people are actually worse at discussing issues like that than playing the characters involved in them, possibly because of the inherent distance a character provides, along with a set of reactions that (if you’re a good RPer) might not have much to do with your own.

    -Mecha

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