I used to play at being LARPer, joining my friends in their weekly/bi-weekly Camarilla games. It was thrilling at first, but I learned pretty quickly that I wasn't cut out for the live-action environment. Too much politicking, and a scene that just wasn't my own.
One of my friends was helping to run one such game, although I really can't recall if it was an official cam sanctioned event, when he came across an unusual character pitch. Someone in our group wanted to play a Japanese Fianna. If you're unfamiliar with the term, Fianna is a tribe of werewolves from Werewolf: The Apocalypse. They're absurdly Irish.
Now, I'm not one to say someone can't play something that's unusual, but I think my friend made the right call in saying no. This Japanese Fianna was a katana wielding ninja (is there any other kind?) before he felt the pull of Werewolf life and journeyed to America. So, yeah, he was a killboy powerhead level cheesemonkey.
But it got me thinking. What is racism, and do we express it in our game designs? Although consider this caveat: I have an almost fanatical dislike of racism, and stand opposed to it in any form, despite the fact that I am undoubtedly racist in some way myself.
Racism seems easy to define, but can be hard to recognize. Although that's not really true, since it can be a total bitch to define, I'm going to forward a simple definition, for the purposes of this post. Racism is discrimination based on race. This can be anything from believing that you're better than someone else because you have a different skin color than they do, to thinking that everyone of a particular race shares a specific trait that other human beings don't possess. That's just the obvious examples, too. It can be so subtle as to be nearly undetectable.
Consider these three examples from roleplaying games.
Werewolf tribes from Werewolf: The Apocolypse
Stargazers are asian, and practiced martial arts. The Fianna are Irish, and possess most of the stereotypical Irish qualities, such as a love of drink and a bad temper. And then there's the Black Furies, the Amazon/Feminist sub-group that seems to show up somewhere in every oWoD game system.
Races from DnD 4th Edition
Quoting from the book here: "Half-elves cultivate large networks of acquaintances, as much out of genuine friendliness as for practical purposes." "The drive to behave honorably extends into the rest
of a dragonborn’s life: Breaking an oath is the height of dishonor, and attention to honesty extends to every word." "Dwarves never forget their enemies, either individuals who have wronged them or entire races of monsters who have done ill to their kind."
Vampire clans from Vampire: The Masquerade
The Ventrue are the epitome of grace, power, and influence. All Gangrel share some degree of wild, untamed quality in their natures. Malkavians and Nosferatu are all mad and ugly, respectively.
Of these three examples, the only group I would not describe as racist are the clans from V:tM. They are a self-selecting group that possess a specific curse that turns people into monsters. A Ventrue is power hungry and domineering because Ventrue embrace such people. Malkavians cannot help but be attracted to the mad, and the Nosferatu are cursed with an ugly mug from the day they draw their first unbreath.
For the other two, I contend that those definitions, that assigning of traits, is inherently racist. My impression is that in designing races for settings, developers frequently confuse race with culture, and vice versa.
I do have some additional points, but this is already long enough. I should just get out of the way so we can talk about it now.