Gender, Race and Dungeons and Dragons

The elephant is in the room. The revival of all things D&D has been an invigorating blast in the last year or so, and it is heralding a wave of creative imagination from people of all backgrounds. D&D is not just the realm of geeky straight white boys, it has opened up to everyone.

This is an unabashedly good thing, but it’s just a start.

What has been percolating on the edges of the D&D Renaissance is a realization that the game, created by (I presume) straight white men, was a product of its time, and as a result will have “baked in” gender and race assumptions that might be worth exploration.

I agree with this, and I welcome the exploration. Some of it is already apparent to me. Despite the presence of monsters, Dungeons and Dragons has people in it too, and how those people were depicted reflected the sensibilities of the time. Settings like Greyhawk may have had a large dose of Eurocentrism, but settings like Al-Quadim and Kara-Tur suffered from a dose of Orientalism.

Sometimes it was hard to see, as Gygax in particular was a history nut, and he knew his weapons and armor, so there were always things that told an astute reader that he had read academic sources with care and interest.  Oriental Adventures was obviously well researched, even if it did replicate a Western view of the “East”.  There was clearly a lot of reverence for the cultures being depicted.

I expect to see lots on this sort of discussion in the future, as more and more people get into the game and question how they are being represented. I heartily encourage this dialogue.

Today I want to focus on something else, equally important to the question of representation, and that’s how the game works on the ground. How is game mechanically structured, and more important, how is it used? Historians of technology only comparatively recently turned to this kind of question, and have seen large dividends in understanding how technology works.

D&D is no different.


Artistically D&D has represented women most often in a sexualized way. Ironically enough, the early edition depictions of women were far less sexualized, in part as the art was less technically sophisticated, but as time went by the “chainmail bikini” school of D&D art became prominent. However, recent editions like Pathfinder have done a lot to change that, though the art is still stylized at least some of the images are less sexualized, a response to changing gamer demographics I would assume. Fan art is also hitting D&D in a big way, and that is changing the depiction of women as well, as many of those artists are women who want a greater variety of heroic images in the game.

Game mechanically, the differences between men and women in D&D are reduced to a limitation on strength for female characters, other than that human males and females are interchangeable in the game. And indeed, strength is the only area where character stats have limits based on gender, so men and women has the same potential to score high in intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution and charisma. So the D&D rules score somewhere in the middle on this, they limit women in strength, but not in anything else, and they treat men and women equally on charisma, which is in and of itself interesting given traditional male attitudes to appearance.

But beyond this, the gender of a player and gender of a character do not have to be the same. This isn’t a new thing, when I played the game first back in the early 1980’s, male friends of mine sometimes played female characters. In college when women played with us, a fairly rare thing, they would often play male characters. It may have been a sin of omission, but the issue of cross-gender play was never officially addressed in the rules.

This and this alone makes D&D the potential tool for so much more than just gaming. Role play has a key psychological impact, it opens up people to new possibilities as decisions are made while in a persona, one place removed. It’s not hard to see how someone wrestling with gender identity might gain some self-insight and realization from playing a different gendered character. Drag is role-play, adopting a social and psychological role, D&D gives the player the option to “drag” other identities without the real-world consequences of doing so.

So to be clear, this doesn’t mean that gender based assumptions didn’t inform D&D, they did, and to whatever degree they are baked into the game they are worth teasing out. Neither does it imply that you have to play the game as an exploration of gender identity. But the ability of D&D to transcend gender role assumptions and allow for creative and exploratory play is a crucially important part of what the game provides. It also suggests that D&D is “open” to any gender of participant, in a fairly unique way amongst games.

This isn’t limited to gender by the way, shy, ineffectual kids often blossom at the table, assuming the role of the mighty warrior makes them the mighty warrior for a time, and sometimes even away from the table. Role playing allows you to explore, “other you’s”, that can apply to gender or anything else.


Which brings us to race. Again, I would echo my earlier caveat, there is a lot to be said about how race assumptions are baked into the game. 

However, in use, D&D has an interesting inversion on race. 

There is “racism” in the game, in the sense that it has racial preferences tables, with reaction adjustments (e.g. adjustments to how characters react to other characters) based on race. Elves hate dwarves, so there is some racial antipathy there in the charts.

But there is no attempt anywhere in the game to link game races to real world races, e.g. that elves represent white people or dwarves represent black people. There are some traces of this in the source materials D&D draws from, for example Tolkien has been accused of various forms of racism in his work. However, the author explicitly warned against reading his work as allegorical, and he mentions that there were dark skinned human beings, and that orcs were not human beings. To the degree that the source material was produced by (mostly) men of an older generation, you can assume there will be racial prejudices in the work, but it seems clear that none of the classic authors that inspired the game were trying to have fantasy races stand in for real world races.

More importantly, I think, than all of this exegesis, is the game mechanics of race in D&D. Human beings are not classified by race in any way other than “human”, there is one human race in D&D, and it’s all colors of the rainbow.  Even as early as the 1980’s there were non-white characters depicted on D&D products.

That wasn’t the “norm”, but it wasn’t unseen either. The game simply makes no assumption about whether you are white, black or anything else. There are zero game mechanical differences between different groups of human beings.

So in that way, D&D gives us an opportunity to portray a world where race, as we understand it, does not differentiate human beings. This is an immensely important realization. Just like gender, race based assumptions permeate our environment, no matter where you are. Given our current understanding of colonialism and post-colonialism, a game that does not encode established race based assumptions is immensely important.

And what I said above about gender applies to race here as well, a white male can play a black character, or vice versa. Role play has transformative power, allowing us to at least try to see the world through the eyes of others. Through role-play D&D allows players to be something else, in some cases this “other self” is a hyper-exaggeration of the regular self, the small, ineffectual white teenager becomes a full grown white man with a strong swordarm and the luck of the gods behind him. But in other cases it can be a self very different from the current one.

As we move forward to look into how the game was created and what assumptions it brought forward, we should remember that as a game, as it is played, D&D was and is greater than these assumptions, and has the potential for so much more. There is simply nothing in D&D, nothing game mechanical, that encodes either sexism or racism, so this gives us an opportunity. The fact that the game also holds the potential for role-play of the “other”, creates opportunities for empathy and self-exploration that are unrivalled in other forms of game.

As the game opens to more and more kinds of players I expect this aspect of the game to garner more attention.

You heard it here first. J


Popular posts from this blog