Why you won’t see race in Xenovita
Discussions revolving around race or use of the term in RPGs are pretty heated subjects of talk these days. Whether you favor having the term included in your products or gaming table, or not, a decent understanding of the history, impact, and use in RPGs are worth having, even if you’ll (hopefully) never include use of race in any of your own games.
Warning: The following text may include content that some people may find uncomfortable and upsetting. It’s not our intent to cause any form of harm, but this topic is not for everyone.
Now, for brevity’s sake, I’m going to try and be as concise as possible in this post, but if you’re interested in diving into the complex history of race, race terminology, impact, and so on, I’ll have links sprinkled throughout the article. It’s also important to note that while race is currently a hot topic in the RPG/gaming space, it’s still a hot topic in economic, education, health, and government spheres outside of gaming, and it’s use isn’t covered here. This post isn’t an exhaustive discussion of race in (American or elsewhere) society, but a short contextual understanding of race to springboard the discussion into RPGs.
First off, there seems to be a misconception about what exactly is race? Whether due to the popularity of companies like 23andme or Ancestry which categorically place their customers based on the percentages of their DNA as it relates to a racial category (African, European, Asian, Oceania, and Native American), location, or because of its social-political relevance, there is a general disconnect between what race was and how race is presented today. Indeed, the genesis for racial categories has its history in the works of an 18th-century researcher, Dr. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. His work “on the natural varieties of mankind” formed the basis of racial discussion and organization for the next two hundred years.
As Blumenbach initially observed, race could correspond to the location where most of the visible traits expressed themselves in a population, and just as often not. In part, this is why his first two thesis used regions to categorize people. But Blumenbach continued his scientific studies he also understood that culture played a part in changing the body. Further scientific examinations of human physiology ultimately led to his third thesis and his (18th-century) genetic classification of the human race.
Blumenbach’s five human races:
Blumenbach’s five races remained largely unchanged up to today except for some label updates. Let that soak in for a moment. An 18th-century categorization of race is present today. Unfortunately, the conceptual underpinning of Blumenbach’s classification is largely forgotten and misrepresented, while his classification is mentioned by most people reviewing the topic of race.
While Blumebach was limited by the science of his time, was innately biased as a white European and errored in so many other ways, Blumenbach did correctly declare all humans were one species (in contrast to the previously held idea that there were different species of humans).
His original words also show how the simple, clear-cut classification of five distinct human races displaced—against Blumenbach’s repeated warnings—the complex reality of gradations and the unity of humanity (including equal potential). Blumenbach’s name has been associated with scientific racism, but his arguments actually undermined racism. Blumenbach could not have foreseen the coming abuse of his ideas and classification in the 19th and (first half of the) 20th centuries.
Change, as it were, was not something that came fast in the world of race. Had Blumenbach’s ideas been absorbed correctly, a great deal of human suffering could have been avoided. Instead, it would take centuries worth of medical advances and a deep dive into the human genome to challenge the “racial status quo” and start to reframe the conversation around race.
In science circles, the abuse of Blumenbach’s work eventually gave way to a refreshing look at the “science of race.” Blumenbach’s observations of physiology gave way to DNA research. When the human genome was fully sequenced in 2003, scientists could finally take a hard look at where divisions in race occur—for example, between Blumenbach’s traditional “five human races.” Unsurprisingly, the research soon revealed the blurry lines between the traditional racial groups and even the idea of race. So, the question was then asked, is race is a myth—a mere social construct and biologically meaningless? As with other race-related questions, the answer is multi-dimensional and may well depend on whom you ask.
In the biological and social sciences, the consensus is clear: race is a social construct, not a biological attribute.
End. Stop. Read the sentence again, louder for those in the back. Race is a social construct, not a biological attribute.
Most scientists prefer to use the term “ancestry” to describe human diversity. “Ancestry” reflects the fact that human variations do have a connection to the geographical origins of our ancestors—with enough information about a person’s DNA, scientists can make a reasonable guess about their ancestry. However, unlike the term “race,” it focuses on understanding how a person’s history unfolded, not how they fit into one category and not another. In a clinical setting, for instance, scientists would say that diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis are common in those of “sub-Saharan African” or “Northern European” descent, respectively, rather than in those who are “black” or “white”.
However, even if scientists agree that race is, at most, a social construct, any cursory search of the internet reveals that the broader public is not convinced of this. After all, if an Asian person looks so different from a European, how could they not be from distinct groups? Even if most scientists reject the concept of “race” as a biological concept, race exists, undeniably, as a social and political concept.
The popular classifications of race are based chiefly on skin color, with other relevant features including height, eyes, and hair. Though these physical differences may appear, on a superficial level, to be very dramatic, they are determined by only a minute portion of the genome: we as a species have been estimated to share 99.9% of our DNA with each other. The few differences that do exist reflect differences in environments and external factors, not core biology.
Importantly, the evolution of skin color occurred independently and did not influence other traits such as mental abilities and behavior. In fact, science has yet to find evidence that there are genetic differences in intelligence between populations. Ultimately, while there certainly are some biological differences between different populations, these differences are few and superficial. The traits that we do share are far more profound.
Despite the scientific consensus that humanity is more alike than unlike, the long history of racism is a somber reminder that throughout human history, a mere 0.1% of variation has been sufficient justification for committing all manner of discriminations and atrocities. The advances in human genetics and the evidence of negligible differences between “races” might be expected to halt racist arguments. (Ultimately, there is so much ambiguity between the races, and so much variation within them, that two people of European descent may be more genetically similar to an Asian person than they are to each other.) But, in fact, genetics has been used to further racist and ethnocentric arguments—as in the case of the alt-right, which promotes far—right ideologies, including white nationalism and anti-Semitism. How? By cherry-picking genetic data to support racial talking points. In other words, despite clear evidence to the contrary race is still a convenient tool for discrimination.
Returning to the world of gaming, it’s not difficult then, to see why RPGs and games made before 2003—being products of the racial science of their time—feel discriminatory. (Surprise! They were.) The use of race to categorize fictional groups of people was an acceptable and wholly expected way to present a racial taxonomy based on physical attributes and more. Defining Orcs, Elves, Gnomes, and so on as races, was just in sync with what we’d expect from game developers of the era. If considered selectively, a quick word swap exchanging race for ancestry or another clinical description might have sufficed to bring the work to modernity, but changing description taxonomy was the least of these games’ problems.
Because these games were a product of their era they also perpetuated the stereotypical tropes associated with the abusers of Blumenbach’s work and now, the alt-right. The Dungeons and Dragons RPG famously assigned alignment to entire races, and author bias compounded the presentation of their blanket application by assigning negative traits—like being evil—to predominately dark-skinned races.
To put it differently, RPGs, unlike other games, revolve around individual representation and storytelling. Many players see themselves in their characters. So, if a player’s ancestry is sub-Saharan African, then the carte blanche evil alignment of all dark-skinned “races” says that the game—and the developers—believe dark-skinned players are inherently evil. In other words, that’s “racist AF” and patently untrue.
To some observers, the fix for D&D and games like it is a simple one: replace the word race with a suitable taxonomy or classifier replacement, like species, and remove the alignment mechanic in its entirety. Use ancestry and other clinical descriptors to denote variations within a specific population or single NPC, and refrain from the blanket application of morality to groups or even individuals.
Sadly, there are blockers this type of correction. Alignment is a well-known D&D game mechanic and beloved by long-time players. This presents Wizards of the Coast, the producers of D&D, with a business dilemma; permanent removal could cost them customers and sales. That said, in 2020, as growing awareness of the inherent prejudices and biases presented in their books have reached more of their customer base, Wizards of the Coast issued their intent to complete future retractions, product retcons, and alignment edits that have, to date, produced mixed results, and haven’t yet corrected the problem completely.
So where does “race” fit into Xenovita? The answer is that race doesn’t fit into Xenovita and won’t be present in the RPG.
There are no races or talk of race in Xenovita except some text to help GMs and Players navigate discussions of race at their gaming table. This is an acknowledgement that the only way to fight misconceptions is to engage in education and positive discourse that combat misleading interpretations and representations of scientific findings.
Instead, Xenovita is packed with species and their innumerable variations. When putting together our species and character backgrounds Xenovita organizes our species categorization by an individual species’ many physical characteristics, a sampling of their many different ethnic backgrounds and traditions, methods of communications, preferred environments, common technologies, and more. Statted NPCs will also benefit from a possible motivations section outlining just a few of the many ways a GM or player could use the character in their game, while emphasizing their discretion.
The general idea behind our presentation of species and character creation is to present an honest representation of the people or person in a way that allows GMs and players the maximum story-telling flexibility and freedom of game play. Players and GMs hungry for deeper background and granularity for each species will find it in the historical and cultural text offerings we’ll include in the universe material. We want players the creative opportunity to develop their characters using Qualities and Skills as they play them, focusing more on personal growth than whether or not they fall into a neat stat box of “racial” attributes or alignment.
What’s the future of race in RPGs? With any luck, gone from the scene forever.
Undoubtedly there will be holdouts who will continue to use race either out of ignorance, malice, or by cherrypicking scientific data to support a rational for the use of race gaming, but with vocal opposition and education the mindset might shift entirety into a positive direction and divest race from gaming entirely.
Well, that’s it! Thanks for coming to my slightly condensed
TED Talk rant.
Until next time!