“Diversity” and American Dominance in RPGs

The US dominance of both the pen-and-paper RPG industry and the diversity debate is a real problem, one that, I think, is actively hindering attempts to address the problems created by a lack of diversity.

Let’s take an example I’m intimately familiar with: Japan. (For people who don’t know, I’ve lived here for 12 years, my wife is Japanese, and I’m in the process of naturalising.)

The important “racial” minority groups are the Koreans, the Chinese, the Okinawans, the Filipinas, and the Burakumin. All of these groups are “East Asian”. They disappear when “racial diversity” is being considered for an RPG. “Racial diversity” is used to mean “people from lots of different categories that are important in the USA, completely ignoring distinctions that are important elsewhere”. To expand, when was the last time you saw a game being careful to represent both Hutu and Tutsi accurately, or Serb and Croat, or Ukrainian and Russian? Or even Sunni and Shia? These are all groups that have had wars over the distinction in the recent past, or are fighting them right now, so large numbers of people thought the distinction was worth killing for. But all of those distinctions are invisible to “diversity”.

On the other hand, in Japan, in Noh theatre and Kabuki theatre, the female parts are played by men, and both of these are revered national art forms, and UNESCO World Heritage traditions. In Takarazuka theatre, the male parts are played by women, and that has 100 years of history and a large contemporary following (overwhelmingly female). This is mainstream. Emoji were designed in Japan, with same-sex couple icons, to absolutely no outrage at all. The government approach to transgender children is to issue guidance to schools on how to deal with it appropriately, including allowing the child to wear the right uniform, and provide counselling and medical treatment as necessary. This is not an issue; I only know about it because NHK did a special on it a few months ago. Aya Ueto, who is a still a pretty big female star, played a transgender boy in her breakthrough role, and that was about 13 years ago. Manga depicting gay romances between young men and between male high school students is a large genre, overwhelmingly read by women. (It is, as far as I can see, much, much larger than the genre of lesbian romances between schoolgirls.) US assumptions about gender/sexuality diversity and context are just wrong in Japan.

The same, incidentally, is true of assumptions about racial relations, as I wrote here last month.

(Also, the Japanese language is gender neutral by default, and a fairly high proportion of names are gender ambiguous, but women’s rights are a considerable distance behind the west. Thus, I am not optimistic about the effect of “more inclusive language”.)

I am sure that there are similar differences between the USA and other countries with which I am less familiar.

So, if you are trying to increase the diversity of your authors, artists, and editors, your first rule should be “no more Americans”. That will help you break out of the assumption that the American way of dividing up the world is the only appropriate way, and help you introduce some real diversity into your game settings and characters.







4 responses to ““Diversity” and American Dominance in RPGs”

  1. […] teacher who’s been working for years to integrate into Japanese society, writing about America’s narrow concept of diversity. Tl;dr version: it’s complicated, and simply featuring visible minorities in a game, with no […]

  2. Andrew Gronosky avatar
    Andrew Gronosky


    Unfortunately a rule “no more Americans” would be a violation of US employment law, which precludes discrimination on the basis of national origin. Probably if you thought your position through you would realize that suggestion is both unfair and untenable.

    Being American is not a guarantee of ignorance. I know you well enough to know that’s probably not what you meant, but it your choice of words is unfortunate. It’s not clear to me where you got the idea that lumping Japanese, Koreans, Filipinas, and Okinawans all into the same “east Asian” category is what passes diversity in the US. Sure, such binning happens, and is a mark of incompetence at understanding cultures. The training I received in my staff job at university and in my workplace tell me to think rather differently from that.

    What I think you meant was that having all your authors, editors, and artists of the same nationality makes them ill-equipped to deal sensitively with the complexities of societies not their own.

    The realities of the industry are such that an American game publisher can’t necessarily find a freelance author who understands the subtleties of Japanese society well enough to write a game or scenario set there, who has the talent to write game material people will want to play, and who is available to work and on the schedule and pay rate the publisher can afford. In that case, a better rule would be “cancel any project you can’t staff with people who demonstrate understanding of the societies required.”

    No one can be a master of every society. No amount of reading could give me the insider’s perspective on Japan that you have gained by living there 12 years, meeting different people, engaging in the civil discourse of Japanese society. That implies, given a choice between me and you to write some game material set in Japan, a publisher should definitely select you. In fact, I should not even attempt to write game material set in Japan. As an author, I should know my range of cultural competency and not try to write outside it. My publisher should do diligence to ensure that she can explain what cultural literacy I’d need before I sign the contract and start work, and to check that I actually know what I claim to know. That is more work than simply barring Americans from working in the game industry or boycotting American games, but I think it will lead to better outcomes — especially for American companies.

  3. David Chart avatar
    David Chart

    The “no more Americans” suggestion is in response to several “diversity” programs in RPGs that I know of where the rule is “no white, cis, heterosexual men”, but it looks as though they are just hiring more Americans. Similarly, the suggestion that all the east Asians get lumped into the same category is based on what I see happening in RPGs, and how I see diversity being judged there. I have no doubt that other bits of US society do rather better with that. Even the RPG industry has, finally, worked out that Japan and China are not the same.

    What I mean is that if all of your staff have the same nationality, all American in this case, they will see everything through the lens of American issues. Even the diversity training is American diversity training, making you sensitive to aspects of diversity that matter in America. I’m not going to say that it’s impossible to get away from that without living in another country for years, but I will say it is really, really hard, and hiring non-Americans is a much easier way to get around the problem. It’s not even a simple matter of cultural competency, and it’s certainly not about ignorance. If you study another culture from America, you study the aspects that look interesting or important from an American perspective, which does not necessarily match up with what that culture thinks is important. This is not a bad thing; the American perspective is just as valuable as any other, and looking at Japanese issues from an American perspective can be very enlightening. It’s only a problem when that’s the only perspective.

    As an illustration, the claim that it is illegal to discriminate based on nationality when hiring in the US is one that no-one outside America would think to make. According to the US Embassy in Japan, to get an employment visa “The sponsoring employer in the U.S. must file a petition. The petitioner must demonstrate that there are no workers in the U.S. to perform the work that the applicant has the necessary training and experience to perform.” In practice, this means that I can never be part of the core staff for Pathfinder, because Paizo requires them to work on site (to the best of my knowledge), and I would not be able to get a US visa to do the job. If I already had a green card, my nationality would not matter, but that’s quite a substantial prerequisite.

    I’m not suggesting that Americans should be barred, or American companies boycotted, just that there is more to diversity than the US-based categories used in all the explicit discussions of diversity in RPGs that I’ve seen. Having more non-US perspectives in the industry would help that.

  4. Timothy avatar

    Just to agree with David on the American work ban thing: I’ve tried writing for American magazines and had to quote American tax numbers, which I don’t have.

    Also, of course, the current rate of pay in RPGs drives out many of the non-Americans. The current rate of pay for American RPG writers is between 2 and 5 cents a word. The legal rate in Australia is $985 for the first 1 000 words. This rate is often not met, but our more general rate of pay for writers here outside the RPG industry is 30 cents per word, which is why our tax office keeps telling me I’m not a professional writer, I’m a hobbyist: I don’t demand an (Australian) commercial rate for my work.

    That never seems to float to the top in these discussions, because the cultural framework in which renumeration is discussed is an American framework (except in Ars, where David has noted that the authors are “volunteers paid an honorarium” on some occasions.

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