Ableism in RPG gameplay
This is a guest post by Jonathan Lavallee. Jonathan spends his days toiling about with batch processes and overnight jobs, but in his other life he’s a game designer and a poet who is constantly trying to unpack his suitcase only to find more stuff he didn’t realize was in there already. You can find his blog at Gamish Designer and game design work at Firestorm Ink.
This is a question that came from the Ask a Geek Feminist post, which is still taking your questions. If you’re curious about something you think a geek feminist could answer, ask away and we’ll see what we can come up with. If none of the regular bloggers will pick up the question, they’ll throw it to someone for a guest post or open it up to the general commentating public.
That’s why you got stuck with an ally answering this enchanting question from Timm! (it’s big so I’ve edited it down a bit):
Many table-top RPGs feature a merit/flaw or asset/complication system where you buy little extra things for your character (assets or merits) offset by buying some kind of flaw or complication. It occurred to me that, among all those available flaws, there’s always a list of physical disabilities to choose from, things like blindness, deafness, missing a limb, etc, and this stuck me as potentially problematic. On the other hand, in games that don’t feature this kind of option, you essentially never see any characters who are less than fully able-bodied (at least in my gaming experience, YMMV) unless they have some magical/technological device that completely negates the disability (think Geordi’s visor in Star Trek) so merits and flaws at least encourage players to think about characters with levels of ability different from their own.
So my question is: are these systems problematic/ableist by nature? Or does it matter more how they are implemented from game to game or gamer to gamer? Does the mechanical underpinning of the system figure into this consideration at all? If these systems are inherently problematic, any thoughts on how to implement them so they’re not (as) problematic? Thoughts on RPG characters with disabilities in general?
It’s big, so I might take this apart and talk about it in pieces because there are a lot of questions there but they all pertain to ableism in RPGs, specifically in regards to the character creating process.
are these systems problematic/ableist by nature?
I don’t think that the advantage/disadvantage model (or how ever it is flavoured in the game) is inherently problematic or ableist. The concept is that you want a character that is not perfect, and as such will have to overcome not only external obstacles but internal obstacles. If you read a story where the characters are perfect all the time and there is no potential for conflict because they are perfect it’s going to be a pretty boring story. Like Timm! mentioned, systems that don’t have this kind of mechanic tend to have those perfect characters that go about doing perfect things.
Where the problem happens is when designers try to fill in the blanks for what would be considered an advantage and a disadvantage. The first game I ever ran into that had this concept was the Hero system which had great disadvantages like dependant non player characters (DNPCs) and Enemies and Limitations on Powers. All this was great, and if they stayed there the potential for ableism was lowered greatly because these are just people who depend on you, people you’ve pissed off and times when you couldn’t use your special powers. The problem happens when you get into things like physical and mental ‘disadvantages.’ This is where the ableism is so thick you shouldn’t be able ignore it. Doubly so because as a reason to take these ‘flaws’ the game gives you a carrot in the guise of more points to spend on cool stuff for your character. There are many people who play games with the desire to push the rules as far as they can, and in doing so will take those ‘disadvantages’ because it will get them points to spend without thinking about what that actually means.
Or does it matter more how they are implemented from game to game or gamer to gamer
This is two questions in one. When it comes to being implemented from game to game the answer is no, it doesn’t matter. If you want to use the advantage/disadvantage model, which as noted above I don’t believe is ableist on its own, and then add blatantly ableist material then it’s ableist regardless of what kind of spin they want to put on it. The problem is that they’re all lumped together with all the other negative traits like being vengeful, being intolerant, or any sort of other negative traits. That one isn’t that hard.
What’s hard is when you talk about it from player to player. As a TAB-gamer, playing a character that has a disability has its issues. Much like anyone from a privileged position who plays an oppressed character — a cis-man playing a woman, someone who is TAB playing a disabled person, a white person playing a person of colour — it can be incredibly problematic when done without thought, understanding and respect. This isn’t to say that such a thing can’t ever be done, but that the potential for appropriation and caricature are great, almost too great in that kind of setting. The reason is that unlike a novel where you can take a break and do some research, your answers are improvised and are based off of you, in that moment and that’s often when your privilege is going to show up.
It’s one of my biggest frustrations with the gaming community in general, this cross playing of characters, and I rail against it a lot when it happens around me in non safe settings (conventions being the biggest venue) because more often than not you’re left slamming your head aginst the table as you watch someone reinforce their X-privilege (X being straight, white, male, able-bodied, cis-gendered or any combination there of). There are plenty of guys who try to play, “The Hot Chick” or TAB-players who think that having DID* is fun without any regard of the inherent problems of doing so.
I have stories. Oh goodness do I have stories about that, but that’s for another day.
If these systems are inherently problematic, any thoughts on how to implement them so they’re not (as) problematic?
To keep this answer shorter, because I think I’m going to be repeating myself, the system itself isn’t inherently problematic. I can take an undesirable characteristic, like being vengeful, and attach it to my character to gain a benefit that can be applied elsewhere. The problem is when the designer gives you options that are oppressive. There the fault lies with us as designers to make those options as wide and varied as possible, to create a large number of characters and possibilities, without dipping our toes into frameworks of oppression. I know that I want to be as inclusive as possible to have more people who are able to enjoy the games that I make.
Thoughts on RPG characters with disabilities in general?
I’ve touched on RPG characters with disabilities being played by TAB-people above, so I’ll just make a general comment. The lack of characters with diabilities in role playing game isn’t unique to RPGs. It’s the systematic problem that exists in all media, which is kyriarchal in nature. You don’t see people with disabilities often in television, books, film, theatre and even then when they do exist they’re often caricatures, comedic relief, or done really badly. I remember reading the frustration of a lot of wheel chair users at Glee because people would just push Artie’s wheelchair around. When I heard that, having spent time around people who use wheelchairs, my jaw dropped because that was at best horribly rude. However, that’s how the Kyriarchy thinks, always from their perspective and so they don’t see a problem with any representation that fits within their world view.
RPGs are just another avenue for telling stories. It’s collaborative storytelling that runs into the same problems that any storytelling method has. The storyteller, both as player or as GM or other if you play a lot of indie games, has to unpack and try their best to understand their privilege, otherwise their representation of a character that isn’t exactly them is going to be horribly problematic-ist.
For those in the comments: How do you feel about thoughts on RPG characters with disabilities in general? How do you feel about “cross-playing” as mentioned above?
*DID – Dissociative Identity Disorder, still called Multiple Personality Disorder by many RPG books!