Sunday, February 28, 2010

Whitewashing History

I recently posted about a Deadlands game that one of my players started. As I was reviewing the rulebook, I came upon a sidebar where the authors explain that racism, slavery, and sexism are all things of the past in the world of Deadlands. Keep in mind, Deadlands takes place somewhere around 1877. Granted, this game is not supposed to be highly historical... after all, the Civil War continues to drag on and monsters/magic/steam-tech exist. However, I find that I have a bit of a problem with the notion that all the unpleasant historical tensions that our country grappled with are simply gone, poof. The book acknowledges that not everyone has transitioned into this new, enlightened Old West, but those people are in the pun intended.

Something about revisionist/apologist history rankles me. I know Deadlands is just supposed to be a role-playing game, and it is a game I enjoy. I can certainly understand the reasons for omitting some of the unpleasant historical social models. For one, this is supposed to be a recreational hobby, and a game with those elements present might be quite unpleasant for some players. (This is the part where I expect at least one of you sitting behind your monitor to say, "Coward!", since that's what seems to happen any time anyone expresses opposition to controversy or squickyness in their games.) Another reason is that it can limit character concepts. Imagine playing a female character in a Deadlands game that adhered strictly to gender and race politics of the U.S. in 1877 (on the other hand, I can think of at least a few gamers I've known who would enjoy such a thing.)

Perhaps this entire blog entry speaks to my own personal cynicism about human nature. After all, I am admitting that I can suspend my disbelief in a world full of monsters, crazy-ass technology, and supernatural powers, but I have trouble swallowing the notion that the Confederacy just up and quit slavery, or that the human race is capable of putting aside bigotry on a societal level. When I ran Deadlands, I had the unpleasant elements present, but I did not beat the players over the head with it, nor did I use it to make some kind of statement... to me, it's just how society was in late 19th century America. I would hope that the kind of people who I would game with are able to acknowledge that the US could be a pretty ugly place back then (and still can be) and to recognize how far we have progressed as a society since then, and that they wouldn't need to have such elements ignored completely for the sake of playability.

At the same time, I have that tiny but persistent voice in the back of my head that says, "Oh, just shut the fuck up and enjoy it, will you? Why must you analyze and nitpick everything? "

I do intend to enjoy this game, but I can't help but mull this over.

Josh, if you happen to read this, just ignore this entry and chalk it up to my compulsive over-analysis of everything. Run your game how you run your game. I will be in my seat, dice in hand, ready to blind people with Science!

...hmm, now I want to flip through Vampire: the Dark Ages. I wonder if they had a similar sidebar in there somewhere...


  1. To appreciate that the history involved in your game has been whitewashed, you first have to know something about the history involved...and frankly, not that many people really have any sort of grasp on history.
    But then, it is just a game, huh?
    Think of the trouble the publisher would get into if they tried to include accurate language, let alone authentic mainstream values and mores from that particular period. Charges of racism and worse would tear everything apart. Messy.

  2. Almost no RPG deals with sexism, slavery, pogroms and the like. Remember back when females and males had different stat maximums?

    I don't think a mainstream publisher can do anything but white wash, they would get protested to ruin / sued for hatecrimes if they tried otherwise. If you want it, you can add it in.

    Personally, I'm MUCH more pissed-off about whitewashing in TV News, history textbooks, and TV documentaries.

  3. @Nether-
    I can't imagine someone with no grasp of history would even want to play Deadlands, but you never know.
    As for charges of racism, etc... I think you are spot on. We live in the era of the disclaimer, after all.

    @Norman- Oh, I quite agree, but this is my blog about table top gaming, and I am loathe to discuss any other subject in it. In fact, I considered deleting this entry several times before I completed it.

  4. I don't think you should apologize for calling a game out for being disingenuous with the past.

    I'm not familiar with the game, but let me guess, players can take on confederate roles without all the messiness of explaining why they are fighting and dying to support slavery?

    Yes, it's "just a game" but where do you think a culture's "isms" manifest themselves? Games, movies, songs.

    I don't think a game should force players to take on racists roles or play out cruelties, but to pretend they disappeared, poof!?

    Can you imagine any WWII game that said "oh, that holocaust stuff didn't happen in this alternate universe."?

  5. @Telecanter- In the world of Deadlands, the Confederacy still exists in 1877, but it has freed the slaves due to political pressures from Europe. (No, seriously)

    Perhaps it's easier for me to be dissatisfied with such a change since, as others pointed out, I am not a publisher and don't have to worry about what the general public thinks of what I write.

  6. I certainly appreciate your position regarding this quandary, and Deadlands in particular.

  7. I guess I missed the part about the freed slaves in the book if it ever came up I was gonna leave slavery in the south and probably will. also been trying to add in townsfolk being a little uncomfortable about the native American in the party but they calm down when they find out he has adopted the "white mans" ways as it were. also it seems almost silly to leave out racial/gender tensions in a game all about a tensions between half a dozen geopolitical factions with their own agendas

  8. Thinking about this more. There's whitewashing then there's stupid.

    I don't know much about Deadlands ROPG (I thought the setting was further west AZ, NM and the East wouldn't matter) But, they could have either kept slavery or just left it open / unanswered for DM to decide. Otherwise why not retcon out slavery from the beginning.

    OTH, Deadlands (I've played CCG only) always seemed like more of a "comic" book / sans-realism sort of setting I wouldn't expect to be dealing with "heavy" moral subjects. Shootin up zombies seems more it's style.

    But, if you can't bitch on your on blog then what's the point? Rant on, I say!