The Reverence Trap
There have been a few products recently that I’ve had a hard time approaching, from a review level, because I’m not sure how to address the reverence that they show, either to the conventions of a genre or to a specific creator or creator’s estate. While they are similar problems, I think they arise from different places.
If these products felt as if they were intentionally playing with harmful tropes in bad faith, it would be easier for me to find an angle from which to view them. The problem is, there is usually enough going on in the text of some of these products that it makes me feel like the creators aren’t doing what they are doing to be hurtful, or to push the boundaries of “free speech,” or even to appeal to a certain regressive demographic. It’s just that some problematic content is so deeply intertwined with genres or franchises that it’s hard to identify and isolate those problems.
Reverence to Genre
A lot of American media, especially, has been written from the perspective of cis straight white males who have grown up with a Christian background, or at least have more familiarity with Christianity than with any other religion. This leads to a whole host of unaddressed problems that can manifest in the text, not the least of which is who and what gets to be considered “normal.”
There are also tropes that have their root in extremely hurtful or destructive narratives but are, themselves, one step removed from those narratives. Here are some examples:
- Atlantis as Ultima Thule, a northern continent populated by an advanced Aryan superrace that, in a secret, hidden, history, formed the foundation of many advanced nations that are populated by people of color in the modern era
- Native Americans as a mono-culture, sharing very broad, sweeping traits no matter where the individual nations originated
- Native Americans as a noble, but fading, defeated culture, whose story is already told, absolving the person engaging with the trope of the need to examine the problems that face modern Indigenous people
- Using any kind of “man disguised as a woman, deceiving the people they interact with” narrative without thinking about how that trope relates to harmful trans stereotypes
- Having the primary representation of LGBTQIA+ characters in a setting or adventure being decadent pan-sexuals, indicating that their identity is more about excess than honest emotional connections
- Portraying any wonder created by an ancient civilization, especially those that are traditionally non-White, as being created by aliens/transdimensional/supernatural forces
- Any introduction of a Confederate character that does not address the evils of the Confederacy and the primacy of their desire to perpetuate the institution of Slavery
- Historical narratives that only include Black characters as people that come from a poor, uneducated background, or only portrayed as having “blue collar” jobs
- The whole world is against cops, who have a thankless job, and need to stick together, them against the world
I’ve seen all of these in products in the last year. In many cases, I didn’t feel as if the author was intentionally perpetuating harm, but I also felt that they were engaging with tropes that were “one step removed” from direct harm, without addressing that root cause. I’m not saying that these tropes shouldn’t be used at all, I’m just saying that you should look for the origin of tropes, modify them when they have hurtful roots, and provide context directly to the reader, instead of trying to gloss over real-world harm with “in-game” narration.
For example, Ultima Thule works better if you make sure you aren’t perpetuating the idea that this Aryan race is the origin of the success of non-White cultures. You can present Indigenous people as people living in the real world, with real concerns, from real communities, instead of portraying them as loners carrying on a dying tradition.
If more narratives included positive representations of actual, real trans characters, it would take the fangs out of portrayals of duplicitous shapeshifters that have too often been used as a dog whistle for transphobia. Portraying LGBTQIA+ characters as existing, across the board, in a variety of roles, helps to take the sting out of the characterization of any antagonistic NPCs.
Framing any defense of the Confederacy as noble sends a terrible, harmful message, and if for some reason you do want to cast a former Confederate in any kind of positive light, that’s not going to mitigate the harm the “lost cause” narrative does unless that former Confederate clearly repudiates the Confederacy and considers themselves complicit and contrite about their contribution.
No matter what era you are portraying, failing to show successful Black business owners, scientists, and educators is perpetuating a narrow and inaccurate view of history. Additionally, learning where affluent and successful Black characters may have come from is going to do a lot to edify people interacting with that material, especially when faced with the number of times that successful Black communities were destroyed with impunity by White racists.
Given modern transparency about the abuses of police departments, portraying police as martyrs that are a island of people pushing back against a world that hates them is dangerous. It feeds into the concept that police need to use violence to “tame” a chaotic society, and that their mistakes are understandable due to the stresses put on them.
You can do all of these things and still tell war stories, horror stories, and pulp action stories. Adding some degree of depth and intentionality doesn’t erase the other tropes that make up that genre.
Reverence to Creators
I’ll admit, with much of Lovecraft in the public domain, as well as a wealth of cosmic horror created by other, less problematic creators, I’ve gotten a little spoiled by the expectation that modern games referencing Lovecraft will call him out for his racist views. Unfortunately, other creators that have their works deeply rooted in various genres often have an estate that is licensing their material, and keeping the estate happy often limits how comfortable a license holder is with addressing the worst aspects of that creator’s work.
The biggest problems I see in this category usually arise from products being willing to contain a glowing biography of the creator that doesn’t touch on any of the worst aspects of what they have included in their work. That isn’t to say that some of these products don’t proceed to point out where you might want to exercise care in using the material, but this language is often softer than it would otherwise be, and because it is often not directed back at the creator, it feels less like “[Author] was wrong for including this harmful trope],” and more like “This harmful trope just came out of nowhere, and we felt like we had to include it, but be careful around it, because sometimes bad things just randomly appear in fiction, and it’s nobody’s fault.”
In all honesty, the more a licensed work is about the work, and doesn’t provide any kind of glowing commentary about the author that created it, the more some of those lighter “avoid the pitfalls in these tropes” feel like they are at least somewhat effective. Unfortunately, when the primary narrative is that “[Author] was a living saint,” the less impact any disclaimer of harmful tropes is when discussing games derived from their work.
Do I expect anything licensed from an estate to be as critical of the author as some modern games have been of Lovecraft? Definitely not. However, I would hope that part of the process of licensing the material includes having the license seekers openly and honestly discuss how they will reference and address the worst aspects of the author’s work. I’d also love it if a game based on the author’s material didn’t feel like praising the author, rather than talking about what is engaging about the work, leaving room for honest criticism.
Shouldn’t You Get Back to Work?
I like reading games, playing games, and writing reviews. It does slow down that process when I come across a line, a theme, a rule, or an adventure scenario that makes me wonder why some aspects of the original work aren’t being addressed.
Because I’ve been pretty negative about things I’ve seen in the last year, I wanted to specifically call out the Star Trek Adventures Player’s Guide and Gamemaster’s Guide, because they reference that while Star Trek has always been a forward-thinking, progressive franchise, in the past, they have made mistakes, and that just because Star Trek is about being progressive, that’s not an excuse to ignore those mistakes and rectify them.
I’m not calling for everything to be sanitized. I’m just asking that when something is included, think about what it means, especially from perspectives that aren’t your own, and if something seems as if it could be harmful, provide content warnings and guidelines about that material. And for the love of all that’s holy, hire marginalized people to work on your games. In the case of licensed material, hire marginalized people who both love the property, and know what it’s like to see the material in something they love that doesn’t represent them.