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This is a time period where we are all being called to make systemic change. One of the many areas that needs to be addressed is games. Games can be a place of creativity and imagination that has a powerful effect on our lives. It is important to move away from toxic narratives that reinforce systemic oppression to inclusive narratives that affirm the worth and dignity of all people.

As a game designer I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to decolonize my game system, its setting, and the individual games that I play. There are some great resources out there for this, but it is easy to miss things because decolonization has a lot of different parts and there aren’t any comprehensive resources on it (at least, not any that I could find). So I’m making one here.

This is very much a work in progress. I’d love suggestions of more articles and topics to add to this list, as well as other changes to its content and structure. And if you are someone I’m citing or linking to, I’m happy to make any changes needed to make sure you feel good about how I’m representing you and your work.

A green chalkboard with the words “Time for Change” written on it in white chalk.

A gray chalkboard with the words “Time for Change” written on it in white chalk.

 

 

What Does Decolonization Mean?

Decolonization is the process removing colonial influences from something. The process of removing racism and decolonization have a deep connection to each other because we can’t completely decolonize something without removing racism, but we also can’t completely remove racism without also decolonizing.

An important aspect of decolonization is that it includes addressing things that on their surface don’t appear to be connect to racism, but actually are. This is because the process of colonization included violently suppressing the perspectives of colonized cultures. For example, indigenous perspectives about the connection between humans and nature were suppressed in favor of colonial narratives. This means that the process of decolonizing includes challenging these colonial perspectives about our relationship to nature.

Racial Equality Tools Glossary: This glossary contains definitions of a lot of useful terms like anti-black, colonization, decolonization, cultural misappropriation, and structural racism with links to longer articles and discussions for each topic.

“What is decolonization and why does it matter?” by Eric Ritskes: “Decolonization is a goal but it is not an endpoint. I like this open-ended beginning because it speaks to two things: that the struggle for decolonization is a journey that is never finished and that, on this journey, uncertainty is not to be feared…”

 

 

Hire Marginalized People

The most ethical starting point for working on any project is having a diverse team of people who are all being paid fairly for their work. This includes looking carefully at the demographics of who has power and making sure that marginalized team members have a say in shaping the core structure of the project.

In addition, don’t treat marginalized team members as if they are automatic experts in the representation of marginalized groups that they belong to. Hire consultants and sensitivity readers and make sure that those people are also being paid fairly. There is a long pattern of organizations exploiting underpaid labor out of marginalized people based on their strong desire to be represented and included in important community projects. Knowing this, make sure that consulting isn’t an afterthought or an add-on, but part of the project that is budgeted for.

There is a section of “People to Hire and Follow” given below.

 

 

Fictional Races and Cultures

“Orcs, Britons, and the Martial Race Myth, Part I: A Species Built for Racial Terror” by James Mendez Hodes: This article is a deep dive into the history of JRR Tolkien’s deliberate creation of orcs out of racist myths about Asian peoples.

“Orcs, Britons, and the Martial Race Myth, Part II: They’re Not Human” by James Mendez Hodes: This article focus on how the racism in the depictions of orcs shifted as they were incorporated into Dungeons and Dragons, the real-world harm caused by racist depictions of orcs, and strategies for reclaiming and rehabilitating orcs.

“Decolonization and Integration in D&D” by Graeme Barber: “D&D set a template that has been relentlessly reproduced by fantasy RPGs right into the modern era. Unfortunately, it was a template of unchecked, and unquestioned colonialism and the repetition of racism based narratives.”

“On Decolonizing ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and Similar Role-Playing Games” by Eugene Lee: This short article focuses on the importance of separating alignments from character races.

Twitter Thread by Lucha Libris on Race and Background in the Second Edition of Pathfinder: “Pathfinder 2e apparently does away with “race” as a term, using “background” instead. This is a good step, but if the game still gives stat bonuses and penalties based on racial heritage, we still have a long way to go. Here’s why, and it applies to fiction too, not just RPGs.”

“Orcs and Racism in D&D” by Eugene Marshall: This article has a brief discussion of racism in the portrayal of races in D&D and proposes separating biological ancestry from cultural heritage.

“Decolonizing Magic” by G. A. Barber: “Magic in many RPG’s is inherently colonial, unevenly distributed, and more often than not advantages white or European coded groups in game over POC groups.” This short article covers the most common ways colonialism gets encoded in magic systems with tips for decolonizing magic.

 

 

Fictional Religions

“Best Practices for Religious Representation, Part I: Check for Traps” by James Mendez Hodes: “This article series is a toolkit to help creators and players of games and fiction build religious characters and organizations, portray them with fairness and respect, and draw on real-world lessons to craft fictional religions which sing.”

 

 

Representing Real Cultures

“Best Practices for Historical Gaming” by James Mendez Hodes: “I’d like to share some principles I follow when I work with historical and real-world settings, either in play or in design. For shorthand, I’m going to refer to them as “historical,” but many of these principles also apply to games set on contemporary Earth.”

“Yes, There Were People of Color in Pre-modern Europe” by David M. Perry: “A conversation with @MedievalPOC, an activist using social media to change how we see color in the past.” “Breaking news: There were black and brown people living in medieval Europe! Many of them were full members of society, though others were marginalized, enslaved, or otherwise excluded. This shouldn’t actually be news, but it’s the kind of realization that’s been missing from too many movies, novels, games, and even scholarly textbooks for too long.”

“History lesson: Scholars take aim at racist views of Middle Ages” by Noble Ingram: “The white supremacist fascination with the Middle Ages stems in part from the prevailing, though discredited, notion that Medieval Europe was an ethnically homogeneous white utopia.”

“‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” by Kameron Hurley: “‘Women have been part of every resistance movement. Women dressed as men and went to war, went to sea, and participated actively in combat for as long as there have been people.’”

When exploring the culture and aesthetics of historical times and places (this includes borrowing cultural elements for fantasy settings) it is important to take into account the major forms of oppression that are connected to that cultural time and place. For example, the Victorian era was a time of colonization and empire building for England. If you are creating a steampunk setting that borrows heavily from Victorian culture and aesthetics, it is important to spend some time figuring out how you are going to respectfully deal with these cultural elements.

“Towards a Steampunk Without Steam” by Amal El-Mohtar: “I submit that the insistence on Victoriana in steampunk is akin to insisting on castles and European dragons in fantasy: limiting, and rather missing the point. It confuses cause and consequence, since it is fantasy that shapes the dragon, not the dragon that shapes the fantasy. I want the cogs and copper to be acknowledged as products, not producers, of steampunk, and to unpack all the possibilities within it.”

“10 Ways to Make Your Game More Diverse” by Meg Jayanth: This is a YouTube video of a speech with automatically generated subtitles that have some errors. “In this GDC 2016 talk, 80 Days narrative designer Meg Jayanth shares some useful information on how to make diversity in character design not just an afterthought, but instead a powerful tool to help players engage with ideas of inclusion, representation, and cultural respectfulness.”

 

 

Anti-Blackness

“‘Anti-blackness’ is a form of racism that is specifically damaging for black people” by Natalie Morris: “The concept of anti-blackness pushes back against the idea that all ethnic minorities have the same lived experiences and can be shoved under a singular umbrella. To be clear, all kinds of racism are deplorable, but it is still worth carving out clearer definitions for the kinds of racism that disproportionately affect certain groups – like anti-black racism.”

“Recognizing And Dismantling Your Anti-Blackness” by Janice Gassam: “A critical part of disrupting and dismantling anti-blackness is a recognition that the problem exists. Below are some ways that you can interrupt anti-black bias in your everyday life.”

 

 

Cultural Appropriation

“What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm” by Maisha Z. Johnson: This is a great overview on what cultural appropriation is and why it is harmful.

“How to Change Your Conversations About Cultural Appropriation” by James Mendez Hodes: This article presents a clear framework for assessing appropriation in complicated situations. “But what if we reframed the conversation? What if we talked about the same content, but we broke the topic of cultural appropriation down into its component parts: the distinct power dynamics, patterns, and consequences of each individual cultural exchange?”

Many Native American people, as well as people from other indigenous cultures, have been very clear that they don’t want people outside of their cultures playing around with their mythology. It is important to respect this. The following articles discuss one specific example of this.

“‘Magic in North America’: The Harry Potter franchise veers too close to home” by Adrienne K.: “I want Native peoples to be able to represent ourselves. I love the idea of Indigenous science fiction, of indigenous futurisms, of indigenous fanfiction, and indigenous characters in things comics and superhero storylines. I know it can be done, and it can be done right and done well. But it has to be done carefully, with boundaries respected (ie not throwing around Skinwalkers casually in a trailer), and frankly, I want Native peoples to write it. We’ve been misrepresented by outsiders every which-way, and it’s time for us to reclaim our stories and images, and push them into the future, ourselves.”

“Paquette: J.K. Rowling lifts Indigenous traditions but ignores history” by Aaron Paquette: “By repurposing Indigenous legends to which she has no claim, Rowling silences the voices of those from whom she steals, and gaslights yet another generation. Not intentionally, but simply by drowning them out in her wake as she sails into her enchanting New World.”

 

 

Intersectionality

In addition to racism, colonization imposed many oppressive ideologies onto colonized peoples, including their religions, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. This means that decolonization includes addressing many different forms of oppression.

“Intersectionality” by the Wikipedia community: “Intersectionality is a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities (e.g., gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, physical appearance,[1][2] height,[3] etc.) might combine to create unique modes of discrimination and privilege. Intersectionality identifies advantages and disadvantages that are felt by people due to a combination of factors. For example, a black woman might face discrimination from a business that is not distinctly due to her race (because the business does not discriminate against black men) nor distinctly due to her gender (because the business does not discriminate against white women), but due to a unique combination of the two factors.”

“Redesigning the Tabletop, Queering Dungeons and Dragons” by Lee Hibbard: “The practices I engaged with in order to ‘queer’ my D&D game provide an insightful lens into a new way of engaging with participatory storytelling games, one that allows for alternative play styles, a pushback against stereotypical (and frequently racist/sexist) fantasy worldbuilding, and queer identity expression.”

“Accessibility Resources for Gaming” by Fay Onyx: “This page includes areas of accessibility to consider for tabletop role-playing games, podcasts that address accessibility in tabletop role-playing games, and links to a broad range of gaming accessibility resources which includes resources for board games and live action role-play.”

“Version 2.0 of Accessibility Score Card” by Tara Voelker Wake: This tool contains a list of specific questions about videogame accessibility that then generates an accessibility score.

 

 

Community Dynamics

“Decolonizing the Dungeon: Gatekeeping” by Nick Masyk: This article focuses on the social dynamics of gatekeeping in the tabletop role-playing game community as well as touching on how it shows up in game content.

“White Supremacy and Medievalism in Online Dungeons and Dragons Communities” by Alaya Swann: “The erasure of historical accuracy is deeply implicit in perpetuating racism. The more the idea of a white medieval basis for fantasy is left unchallenged on forums, masquerading as ‘reasonable’ or ‘historical’ argument, the more normalized it will continue to be.”

“From the Mailbag: The Unbearable Baggage of Orcing” by N.K. Jemisin: This short article discusses the pressure to include orcs in her work to be considered a “real fantasy” writer.

MTV Decoded with Franchesca Ramsey: This video series with subtitles focuses on having conversations about race. It tackles a wide range of topics, including “Just Try Saying My Name Right!” “White People Whitesplain Whitesplaining,” “How to Deal with Racist Trolls,” “When People Congratulate Themselves for Not Being Racist,” and “How Do You Handle a Racist Joke?”

“How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” by Jay Smooth: This is a short YouTube video with subtitles that has a great explanation of the difference between the “what they did conversation” and the “what they are conversation.”

 

 

The Role of Violence in Games

The way that violence is glorified in many games reinforces harmful colonial narratives.

“Game Theory Chat: Decolonizing RPGs” by Mids Meinberg: This article focuses on violence in tabletop role-playing games with discussions about emulating works that don’t glorify violence, grounding the protagonists in community, and decolonizing incentives.

“How to Make Your Game Anti-Fascist” by by Mids Meinberg: This article discusses emotional safety rules, biological determinism, the role of violence, and making fascists enemies.

 

 

Relationship with Nature

It is important to remember that different cultures have different perspectives of nature. The perspective of nature as something to be conquered and dominated is a colonial Western perspective that is increasingly becoming revealed as a destructive myth with very real consequences to all of us. But because violence is so central to most games, this hostile relationship to nature often becomes central to game settings and storytelling.

In addition, the concept of a small town surrounded by a hostile wilderness is rooted in the history of colonization. It is about settlement and coming to a “new” land that is experienced from the perspective of an outsider.

 

 

Monsters

Monsters are frequently amalgamations of things that are considered dangerous and threatening by a society. Any traits that are thought of as “other” by a specific society can end up in its depiction of monsters. This is why oppressive stereotypes regularly show up in the depiction of monsters.

“Monster” by the Wikipedia community: “A monster is often a type of grotesque creature, whose appearance frightens and whose powers of destruction threaten the human world’s social or moral order. A monster can also be like a human, but in folklore, they are commonly portrayed as the lowest class, as mutants, deformed, supernatural, and otherworldly.”

This section focuses on traits that are coded as monstrous. For a discussion of evil sapient species, see the “Fictional Races and Cultures” section above. Though, do keep in mind that racial and cultural stereotypes can end up in the depiction on non-sapient monsters too.

Also, as stated in the section above in the section on cultural appropriation, Native Americans, as well as people from other indigenous cultures, have made it clear that they don’t want people outside of their culture playing around with their mythology. This includes “borrowing” monsters and creatures from their mythologies.

It is also important to examine how gender and sexuality are represented in monsters. Here are some negative patterns to watch out for: exaggerated sexual dimorphism, sexualized women, hideous women, sexualized violence, homophobia, and negative depiction of trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming traits.

“Ableist Monsters” by Fay Onyx: “Traits associated with specific disabilities are regularly used for monstrous and evil creatures. Not only does this reinforce negative ideas about disability, this also results in harassment and mistreatment of people with these traits. This article identifies disabled traits that are commonly part of stigmatizing depictions of monsters and presents a range of options for replacement traits.”

 

 

Game Mechanics

Colonialism is sometimes entrenched in game mechanics. The following articles examine some of examples of this in board games.

“Addressing Ableism in Tabletop Role-playing Games” by Fay Onyx: “A new series that aims to identify ableism in the core content of tabletop role-playing games, including game mechanics and central setting elements. There will be brief discussion on the reasons these game elements are a problem. However the focus will be on identifying a list of options for ways that participants can alter these games to reduce or remove this ableism.”

“Revenge of the Feminerd: Board Game Colonialism” by Jarrah E Hodge: “The legacy of colonialism still underpins social inequalities in North America and around the world, so I want to take a closer look at the games I play that deal with this theme.”

“The First Nations of Catan: Practices in Critical Modification” by Greg Loring-Albright: “I am hopeful that players of Settlers of Catan will play First Nations of Catan and think about the differences between the games’ narratives, especially European-descended people playing in the U.S.”

 

 

Game Narratives

Watch out for game narratives that repeat the pattern of colonization, such as having player characters explore a “new” land, which they loot while killing its indigenous inhabitants. It doesn’t matter if this behavior is “justified” in the game’s narrative. This is not okay.

“White Savior Narrative in Film” by the Wikipedia community: “The white savior is a cinematic trope in which a white character rescues non-white characters from unfortunate circumstances. This trope appears in an array of genres of films in American cinema, wherein a white protagonist is portrayed as a messianic figure who often learns something about him or herself in the course of rescuing non-white characters from their plight.”

“Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for 80 Days and Beyond” by Meg Jayanth: This is the text of a speech with pictures of many of the slides. “In this 2016 GDC session, 80 Days writer Meg Jayanth explores best practices around writing three-dimensional, engaging NPCs to enliven game narratives.”

“There’s no such thing as a good stereotype” by NK Jemisin: “The strong female character (SFC) is a stereotype. It’s gone beyond just a trope at this point. It’s ubiquitous; we see this character appear in films, in books, in video games — and because it’s a stereotype, we’ve started to “see” it in real life.”

An important pattern to examine in plots is the disproportionate killing of marginalized characters. This affects all types of marginalized characters including women, people of color, queer characters, trans and nonbinary characters, and disabled characters. This is especially bad considering there are fewer depictions of marginalized characters to begin with.

“Tropes vs. Women: #2 Women in Refrigerators” by Anita Sarkeesian: This is a video with subtitles and a transcript. Do note that this video contains multiple descriptions of graphic violence against women. “Big Barda is just one of many female character who’s random and meaningless death was constructed to order to create a more intricate storyline for a male hero.”

“Bury Your Gays” by TV Tropes:  “Even when there is a perfectly valid narrative reason for the writers to choose to kill off the character, or it serves the story perfectly, it’s often the case that killing one queer character is removing the only positive representation within the narrative. Additionally, given the ratio of mainstream queer narratives that end in tragedy, compared to ones with a genuinely happy ending, any addition to the list of the dead is often greeted with dismay, no matter how technically well executed.”

“Bury Your Disabled” by TV Tropes: “Bury Your Disabled happens when a disabled character is killed off in a movie or TV Show. There are four types of Bury Your Disabled.”

 

 

Characters and Representation

“May I Play a Character from Another Race?” by James Mendez Hodes: This article gives a great overview of how to respectfully play a character outside of your own demographics.

“So You Want to Play Someone of Another Race” by Kazumi Chin: “…In order to play a person of another race, you must understand race as a system of colonial knowledge production.”

“Stereotypes & Tropes Navigation” by Writing with Color: This is an organized list of more than fifty posts discussing specific stereotypes and tropes to avoid.

“ASK – FAQ” by Writing with Color: The frequently asked questions section of Writing with Color contains some amazing resources for respectfully describing race as well as some great general advice on creating respectful representations.

“Gender at the Gaming Table” by M Grant: “This is an index of essays about how to handle gender in tabletop roleplaying games, and particularly for game masters who want to run an inclusive, representative game.” This series of articles by M Grant focuses on trans and nonbinary experience.

“How to Write Gay Characters (without Stereotypes and Clichés)” by Rosalarian: “Since fiction is a reflection of the real world, it should include gay characters. But how can straight writers respectfully and accurately portray individuals who don’t share their sexual orientation?”

“Trope of the Week Series” by Fay Onyx: Harmful patterns in the representation of disability, how to know if you are doing them, and what to do differently.

“Fate Accessibility Toolkit • Prototype Edition” by a large team of people led by : “The Fate Accessibility Toolkit is a new toolkit for Fate Core that brings characters with disabilities into your game and supports players with disabilities at your table. We’ve assembled a team from disabled communities to ensure that this book speaks to you from their real, lived experiences.” This toolkit includes detailed “discussion of specific disabilities, including blindness, D/deafness and hardness of hearing, mobility issues, dwarfism, chronic illness, autism, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolarity, and PTSD” that will be valuable to anyone working to represent disability respectfully.

Audio of a Panel Discussion about Representation in Board Games (no transcript): “Whether we talk about race or gender or sexuality or religion or culture, the world of games is a distorted mirror – many players who love and share our passion for play cannot find themselves when they look into it.”

 

 

Oppressive Language

“Making International Podcast Month Inclusive and Welcoming” by Fay Onyx with Input from the 2019 International Podcast Month Organizational Team: This document contains a list of words and phrases to avoid, as well as lists of alternatives and some links for further study. Please note that this isn’t a comprehensive list—it is a list that focuses on those terms that a large number of people are unaware of.

 

 

More Things to Consider

This section is for thoughts, ideas, and tools that don’t yet have their own section.

“The Giant Robot of Offence” By James Mendez Hodes: “The Giant Robot of Offense is a framework for creating content which won’t harm people. I use it for role-playing games, but it applies to any media which generate participatory elements (including cosplay and fanfiction).”

 

 

Games to Use as Examples

A twitter thread started by Avery Alder containing a list of games about oppression and power:Tabletop roleplaying game folks! What’s your favourite game about dismantling oppressive systems of power?”

80 Days: This is a game based on Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days that tackles colonialism, subverts expectations, and gives agency to the nonplayer characters while creating a rich, diverse world where the protagonist can have meaningful interactions.

 

 

People to Hire and Follow

“Pay Attention: Black Voices in the RPG Community” by Tabletop Micdrop: “A (non-exhaustive) list of Black folks you should give space to that are active members of the TTRPG community.”

“Indigenous Game Developers” by Elizabeth LaPensée: “Indigenous people work on a range of games from commercial titles to indie hits in various roles.”

Call for Black Female Writers by Chella Raman: This is a large list of people who are looking for paid work. “Do I know any Black female writers who have thought about writing games, but don’t know how to get a foot in? For a paid thing. Experienced writers, but not necessarily games (film, TV, theatre, comics also good).”

POC in Play: “The Representation and Inclusion Movement for People of Colour in the Video Games Industry” “POC in Play is an independent organisation creating a range of initiatives and programme of events designed to increase the visibility and representation of People of Colour in the video games industry. We aim to work with industry, educators and other diversity organisations to create more opportunities for all.”

Elizabeth LaPensée: “Elizabeth LaPensée, Ph.D. is an award-winning designer, writer, artist, and researcher who creates and studies Indigenous-led media such as games and comics.”

American Indians in Children’s Literature: “Established in 2006 by Dr. Debbie Reese of Nambé Pueblo, American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) provides critical analysis of Indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books. Dr. Jean Mendoza joined AICL as a co-editor in 2016.”

James Mendez Hodes: “James Mendez Hodes is a Filipino-American writer, game designer, cultural consultant, and martial artist from the greater New York metropolitan area.”

Lucha Libris: “If you like this thread and want to bring my perspectives to your next RPG project, you can hire me! I’m available as a freelance content creator, diversity consultant, and sensitivity reader.”

Gamedev.world: “Gamedev.world is the global game developer conference. Featuring 30+ speakers from all over the planet, all talks will be close-captioned and translated into Arabic, Simplified Chinese, English, French, Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.”

 

14 Responses to “Decolonizing Games Resource List”

  1. bwgustaf says:

    Fate Decolinazation Toolkit is being worked on by James. I’d also like to add Deeper Dungeons Games (natural resources such as Plants, Animals, and Minerals, with rules on how to sustain & cultivate them in a Setting. They also have a series called Diceception, which is focused on adding kid’s games like dunk tank & skeeball into an rpg.)

  2. bwgustaf says:

    Correction: Deep Dungeon Games. I got them mixed up with the board game company that has a similar name.

  3. bwgustaf says:

    One last thing: They’re needing 700 people to help unlock The from the Wilds supplement. Herbology (Plants) didn’t get enough backers to unlock it, but it uses Miyazaki-Inspired nature gods alongside detailed Elven settlements to tell a complete story about the fantastic plants.

    • bwgustaf says:

      One last thing: They’re needing 500 people to help unlock The from the Wilds supplement. Herbology (Plants) didn’t get enough backers to unlock it, but it uses Miyazaki-Inspired nature gods alongside detailed Elven settlements to tell a complete story about the fantastic plants.

  4. bwgustaf says:

    https://www.deepdungeongames.com/product-page/the-weavers-writings-on-the-wilds-preorder Majority of the books are pre-order, so they may need help with I.T.

    The other books are reasonably priced (~$15 per book), but this is about $40 since it didn’t fund on kickstarter (my assumption is that more money goes to the art, since harold’s herbology has absolutely stunning pictures of every major plant).

  5. bwgustaf says:

    Another Add: Richard Iorio is a pro-mental health awareness advocate and President of Rogue Games. His RPGs include Colonial Gothic (an anti-colonial game that hopes to bring historical injustices to light, but with a bit of a horror vibe), Fairyland (a kid-friendly version of the ruleset that gives it a Fairy-Tale Feel), and Shadow, Sword, and Spell (an alternate world setting that deconstructs the gamer mindset, and which is probably the darkest of the three settings. It has a fantastic version of the Donner Pass (where the party was stranded in winter.)

  6. bwgustaf says:

    Love M Grant! Monster Darlings is one of my favorite gaming blogs ever.

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