Wizards of the Coast(WotC), who own Dungeons & Dragons, recently issued a statement on diversity. As would be expected, the responses were divided along ideological lines. As to why you should listen to what I have to say about the matter, I will begin by establishing my relevant credentials. I have been a gamer for about 40 years and have written professionally for over 30 years. I have a doctorate in philosophy, have taught ethics and aesthetics for decades and have numerous professional publications. As such, I can justly be considered an expert on the matter.
The statement made by WotC has three main aspects. The first addresses race in the real world. The second addresses the portrayal of fictional races, such as orcs and drow, within the game. The third addresses racism from the real world within the game, with the example of how a Romani-like people were portrayed in the Curse of Strahd. In this essay I will focus on the in-game issues.
Before getting to the in-game issues, I need to pre-empt some of the obvious fallacies. While it is tempting to make use of straw man attacks and hyperbole, WotC is obviously not preventing gamers from doing as they wish in their own games—if you want to portray orcs as always evil, you can do that. The only change is in what WotC will be doing when it creates its content. As such, the only sort of censorship issue that can be raised here is self-censorship.
There have, of course, been ad hominem attacks on folks at WotC that take their alleged motivations to be relevant to the correctness of their claims. In some cases, the attacks are that WotC is just cynically engaged in “woke marketing” to sell more product. While this could be smart capitalism, it proves nothing about the correctness of their position. In other cases, the folks at WotC have been attacked for being liberals making things soft and safe for the dainty snowflakes. This is also just an ad hominem and proves nothing—one must engage with the actual position they take.
To be fair, there is a legitimate question about the ethics of the folks at WotC: their motives do matter when assessing them as people. If this is merely cynical snowflake marketing, then they could be criticized as hypocrites. But their motives are still irrelevant to the assessment of their position and plans. It is to this that I now turn.
While the Monster Manual from AD&D does allow for monsters to differ in alignment from their standard entries in the book, many fictional races in the game have long been presented as “monstrous and evil.” These most famously include orcs and the drow (a type of elf). The concern expressed by WotC is that the descriptions of these fictional races mirror the way racism manifests in the real world. Their proposed fix is to portray “all the peoples of D&D in relatable ways and making it clear that they are as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.” In the case of real-world racism manifesting in their products, such as the depiction of a fictional version of the Romani, they plan to rewrite these parts of past works and ensure that future products do not contain such problems. These changes raise both moral and aesthetic concerns.
One way to try to defend the traditional portrayal of the fictional raises is to, obviously enough, appeal to tradition: since Tolkien, orcs have been portrayed as evil. Since the G and D series of modules, drow have been evil in D&D. The obvious problem with this defense is that it the appeal to tradition is a fallacy, one I have addressed at length in other essays.
Another way to defend the idea that some fictional races are inherently evil (or at least almost always evil) is to use in-game metaphysics. Until recently, good and evil were objective aspects of the standard D&D world. Spells could detect good and evil, holy and unholy weapons inflicted damage upon creatures of opposing alignments, and certain magic impacted creatures based on their alignment. Demons and devils are, by their nature, evil in classic D&D. Angels and other celestials are, by nature, good in classic D&D.
In D&D worlds, gods of good and evil exist—and certain races were created by such gods. For example, the elves have mostly good deities—with the most obvious exception being the drow’s goddess Lolth, the queen of the demonweb pits. As such, the notion of races that are predominantly evil or good makes sense in such game worlds.
While this defense does have its appeal, it raises an obvious concern: in the real-world people defend real racism with appeals to good and evil. They invoke creation stories to “prove” that certain people are better and others inferior. As the folks at WotC note, the fantasy worlds often mirror the racism of the real world.
The easy and obvious reply to such concerns is to point out that most people can distinguish between the fictional world of D&D and the real world. Casting orcs and drow as evil and monstrous, even using language analogous to that used by racists in the real world, is nothing to be concerned about because people know the difference. The player who curses the “foul green skins” in game will not thus become a racist in the real world. Thus, one might conclude, WotC stands refuted. There is, however, a standard philosophical counter to this reply.
In the Republic Plato presents an argument for censorship based on the claim that art appeals to the emotions and encourages people to give in to these emotions. Giving way to these emotions is undesirable because it can lead to shameful or even dangerous behavior. Viewing tragic plays might lead a person to give in to self-pity and behave poorly. Exposure to violent art might cause a person to yield more readily to the desire to commit violence. While Plato does not talk about racism (because the ancients had no such concept), his argument would apply here as well: engaging in fictional racism can lead people to be more accepting of racism in the real world. As such, Plato would presumably praise WotC for this action.
At this point it is reasonable to bring up the obvious analogy to video games. While the power of video games to influence ethics would seem to be an empirical matter, the current research is inconclusive because the “…evidence is all over the place” —so it currently comes down to a matter of battling intuitions regarding their power to influence. So, I will turn to Plato’s student.
As Aristotle might say, players become habituated by their play. This includes not just the skills of play but also the moral aspects of what is experienced in play. This, no doubt, is weaker than the influence of the habituation afforded by the real world—but to say that D&D games with moral components have no habituating influence is analogous to saying that video games with hand-eye coordination components have no habituating impact on hand-eye coordination beyond video games. One would have to assert players learn nothing from their hours of play, which seems unlikely.
I am not claiming that D&D takes control of the players in an insane Mazes and Monsters scenario, just that experiences shape how we perceive and act—something obviously true. So, I do not think that people who play in D&D games that cast orcs and drow as monstrous and even those that mirror real world racism make players into Nazis. Rather, I merely support the obvious claim: our experiences influence us and getting comfortable with fictional racism makes it ever so slightly easier to get comfortable with real world racism.
For those who prefer Kant, one could also advance a Kantian style argument: it does not matter whether the in-game racism that mirrors real world racism has an impact on people’s actions or not, what matters is whether such racism is wrong or right in and of itself. If racism is wrong, then even utterly harmless fictional racism would thus be wrong.
As someone who regularly games, I can see the obvious danger in the arguments I have just advanced: would not the same arguments apply to a core aspect of D&D, namely the use of violence? I will address these matters in the next essay.