“May I play a character from another race?”

I get this question more frequently than any other in my professional and gaming life. I get it almost exclusively from white folks, since gaming’s Eurocentrism requires people of color to play outside their race most of the time. My answer is emphatically yes, but please study how to do it. Here’s why and how.

As usual, I come at this topic primarily from racial, national, and religious perspectives, but some lessons here apply also to ability, age, sexuality, and class. Gender too, although gender probably differs the most. I will also mostly be addressing white people.

This is a living document; I will add to it as I find more related resources. In all likelihood, there will also be corrections as other people of color who disagree with points I have made are generous enough to point out my mistakes.

Yes, Of Course, Ask People From That Group, But …

… people from that group may well have tired of answering this question long ago. One purpose of this article is to give them a link to which they can point you if they lack the desire or emotional wherewithal to walk you through this long, complicated topic themselves. But yes. Asking real people for their real live experience, respectfully and without pressuring them or making assumptions, is this topic’s killer app. You don’t have to pay all your friends cultural consulting fees (though that would be pretty cool of you), but please at least buy them dinner or drinks or bake them a pie or trade them some of your own work or pet-sit for them or something.

Why?

If you’re ever in a game master role, you have to learn this skill if you want to portray a diverse, realistic world. As a player, though, it’s not so inevitable. So why bother?

  • To diversify the game world. If only we could diversify the gaming population so easily. But better in-character representation chips away at barriers to out-of-character representation, too.

  • To normalize behaviors people of color require to game at all. Subaltern gamers often feel pressed into rolling characters from their own demographic. You’re a girl, so you gotta play a sexy enchanter. You’re Asian, so you gotta play a nerdy scientist. Sometimes the pressure is low-key. All too often, though, people literally say these things to us out loud. It’s great if games give us the option to play as ourselves; but situations where we feel we have to whether we like it or not draw uncomfortable attention to our out-of-character identities. So when you play outside your demographic successfully, you help us convince gaming culture we don’t have to play inside ours.

  • To support games without white people. Many game developers of color design games without any white people in them, to de-center Europe’s dominant position in gaming culture. But those games usually struggle to get critical or financial recognition because (among other reasons) whites worry they can’t or shouldn’t play as characters of different races—even when the games include robust tools to teach them how to do so. Let’s stop that now. Please support people of color who make games about people of color, by not only buying but also playing our games, even if you have to make yourself vulnerable to criticism and confront your own latent biases to do so.

Why Not?

I try not to overthink intent one way or another, but yes, there are some bad reasons. If you asked Jonaya Kemper this question, she’d ask you to break down why you want to play as a person of color. Worrisome reasons include …

  • Because they match a racial stereotype you find amusing or interesting. No. Hell, don’t even do this with white people. Oh cool you’re an alcoholic Scottish dwarf or a coke-fueled Russian mobster, you’re such a good role-player, never heard that one before.

  • Because you need a plight. You want your character to have deep and emotional motivations, and identity issues are a compelling plight, so you went with that. Freelance game writer Lawerence Hawkins calls it “emotional tourism” because, since you’re not from that group, you’re engaging with it by choice and then walking away from it afterward. Systemic oppression will for sure affect many characters of color, but you don’t need to harp on it. Never let victimhood eclipse personhood.

  • Because you think a certain race or culture is sexy and/or romantic. Everyone who’s exposed to bias has bias somewhere in their sexual and/or romantic preferences. That’s not necessarily a solvable problem. You can find your character sexy. You can even feel sexy when you play as them. But if amorous feelings drove your choice of their culture, you need to find a way to separate your portrayal from your feelings.

  • Because you want to show off how much you know about a culture. This is the gaming equivalent of when I mention that I’m Filipino to someone and they reply that they really like chicken adobo. Showing off like this rings false, grates on on other players, and makes the process of play about you and your ego out-of-character. You might be de-centering Europe, but you’ve re-centered the game’s focus on yourself.

  • Because you want to show off how woke you are. Is this one different from the previous item? I guess so, but they’re related. Look, I’m not here to complain about virtue signaling. Go ahead and feel good about your wokeness in the privacy of your own mind. But as with the previous point, if you’re thinking constantly about how you look, you’ll fail at the “just be cool about it” element, which will come up again shortly.

  • Because you wish you were that race in real life. Unfortunately, the Racial Draft will probably be pretty competitive this year.

You don’t have to bail out of this article if one of the above reasons influenced you. In fact, it’s doubly important for you to read through it. See, I’m not worried about your bad intentions because of their inherent moral turpitude; that’s between you and whoever it is you discuss your inherent moral turpitude with (your priest, your dom, your dom dressed as a priest). I’m worried about bad intentions because, unexamined, they lead to harmful behavior. If those thoughts influenced you, then you’ve found one of the angles of oppression into which you are most likely to play. Like, in general. In your normal life too. So when something similar comes up below, pay especial attention.

Neutral Reasons

Some reasons are, like, okay. Maybe you want your character to do a certain martial art or musical style and so you’re making a character from that culture. Maybe you want your favorite actor as the character’s faceclaim. I might just be dead to these things at this point in my cultural consulting career but sure, fine by me. If someone else has a problem with one of these reasons, please listen to them, but at this point in writing the article there’s just some stuff I’m too beaten down to care about.

Practically speaking, most people make characters of color for a combination of positive, negative, and neutral reasons—and may not know for sure what the exact mixture is. Am I an emotional tourist, or just making a character with deep and realistic motivations that engage the game’s serious themes? Am I sure, or have I just hoodwinked myself? Sometimes I run afoul of a character of color executed so poorly that they betray their player’s bad intent; but a poorly executed character with good intent behind them isn’t much better. In fact, people with good intentions are often harder to convince that they’ve done something wrong. Ultimately, intent—good or bad—matters far, far less than execution. Don’t quit yet. We’re just getting started.

An Iterative Process

If you have never played outside your own demographics, make your peace now with the fact that your next—your first—attempt at such a character won’t be your best. Learning to play as a character from another race is, like many skills, an iterative process. You need to practice, make mistakes, and learn from them, starting with easy and low-risk challenges and moving gradually through more complex and fraught ones.

0. What Not to Do

I prefer to give advice in positive, active terms—”do this” rather than “don’t do this”—but unfortunately we have to get through a lot of “don’t” before we hit the “do.” Unless you yourself come from your character’s demographic, your role-play may not include …

  • Ethnic accents. I suppose if you’re British and you want to do a silly American accent or vice versa, that’s fine, but mind that you don’t wander into class caricature either. Andy Kitkowski suggests using your own country’s regional accents for analogous foreigners: for example, if your game’s language is English but the setting is Japan, use Brooklyn or Chicago accents for yakuza.

  • Slurs or reclaimed slurs spoken aloud, even in-character. If I play a character who would use such terms, I might say something like, “Hey, when my character says ‘people,’ she’s not actually saying the word ‘people,’ OK?” and leave it at that.

  • Food-based descriptions of how someone looks. No almond eyes, no mocha skin, none of that. In fact, if you find yourself spending more than a few words on any one body part, consider moving on regardless of comestibility.

  • Prayers (like the Nicene Creed, for example) or sacred expressions (like Buddhist hand seals, for example) spoken aloud or acted out. Passersby without context for your game may think you’re appropriating religious practice for game purposes. Yes, many exceptions to this rule exist in the form of prayers, mantras, dances, songs, or other expressions which are explicitly acceptable for non-practitioners to perform. But if you’re not certain, verbally describe what your character is doing instead: say “I recite the Nicene Creed” instead of “I believe in One God, the Father Almighty, etc.” I promise everyone’s immersion will recover.

  • Extremist religious beliefs. People of color are more likely than whites to be accused of espousing fringe or reactionary religious doctrine. Yes, some people of color do think those things. I do not recommend making your character one of them unless the game you’re playing gives extensive and reliable support for that kind of thing. That said, remember that many religious concepts and practices (possession or animal sacrifice, for instance) seem bizarre or unthinkable to mainstream religions but form a normal part of marginalized minority traditions.

  • Criticism of cultural trends within the demographic itself. We internalize so much kyriarchical oppression that we’re even biased towards ourselves and those like us, let alone towards other oppressed people. Lots of Filipinxs, for instance, are anti-Black, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, colorist, or classist. But you know what? We’re gonna handle it ourselves. Your RPG character can and will have biases—there’s no escaping that—but you will not design them as a platform to criticize a group to which you don’t belong. When I criticize my own demographic, my words have weight because I am that criticism’s originator and object both. I’m putting my own existence, which I cannot set aside or walk away from, on the line. Because you can’t, your criticisms, even if true, ring false and give our oppressors ammunition. Please don’t.

How to Avoid Stereotypes

I have neither the time nor the emotional wherewithal to list every stereotype which applies to every ethnicity, but you need to look up the ones which apply to the group you’re representing. Maybe look them up on the Internet or in a library. Find reputable authors or commentators who discuss this kind of thing: the likes of Tony Chatman, Natalie Wynn, Jay Smooth, Audre Lorde, or James Baldwin. Maybe buy a friend from that demographic a meal and have them run through a few with you … and if you have no friends from that demographic, you might have another problem to fix before you worry about RPG characters. But generally speaking, stereotypes tend to orbit certain subjects: sex, violence, drugs and alcohol, economics, gender relations, food, and emotional expression, to name a few. Find them out. Don’t do them.

“But I don’t know a lot of stereotypes! If I learn them, I might become more racist!” No you won’t. You’ll be fine. Also, it hurts about as much when you cluelessly trip and fall into a racist expression as when you do it on purpose to hurt someone. We can’t tell the difference.

I won’t tell you “avoid every single stereotype with every single character you make” because I know you can’t do that and neither can I. Your character will overlap with some stereotypes, which is bad, but also nearly impossible to avoid. Nevertheless, endeavor to overlap as little as possible. A few subtleties here …

  • Positive stereotypes are still not okay.

  • The conspicuous opposite of a stereotype reinforces that stereotype. I played a game recently which had a great takedown of racism in its subject matter; but then the advice on anti-racist character creation ended with (lightly paraphrased) “Hey, you could make a smart Black character!” which killed the mood for me.

  • If every character in the game shares a certain trait, your character miiight safely take that trait even if it’s stereotypical—for example, in a game in which all characters are martial artists, an Asian martial artist is probably safe. That said, if you’re playing a game which locks characters into demographic stereotypes, take a long hard look at the game itself (see “How Much Do You Trust Your Game?” below).

  • Stay conscious of the (hopefully few) stereotypes your character embodies, but develop them enough that no stereotype defines them. When someone else describes your character, make sure they have several things to say which aren’t stereotypes.

Okay, fine, I’ll name a handful that I see a lot in gaming.

  • Asians obsessed with honor and propriety

  • Black women who go by “Mama,” “Auntie,” “Mother,” or any other maternal/materteral term to anyone other than their family

  • Travelers or Romani whose, like, entire job/character concept is that they’re Romani and maybe they steal things or tell fortunes, I dunno

  • For that matter, anyone whose entire character concept is their demographic or combination of demographics and that’s it

Now that we know what not to do, let’s actually look at the steps of making a character.

1. A Character Who’s Just Like Everyone Else

There’s this canard you hear sometimes, which is that “people of color are just like us! They’re just like everyone else!” This is false. You become a pretty different person if you have to deal with racism every day. Nevertheless, this is where you gotta start.

From the  sigh   Daily Mail:  A well-intentioned tweet from a guy who looks white in his profile pic selfie. It says, “Black or white, we all jus some egg fr” and has side-by-side pictures of a white and brown egg side-by-side in a skillet, and presumably those same eggs cracked into the skillet. The eggs are the same color now that they have been cracked, which is how you know racism is over.

From the sigh Daily Mail: A well-intentioned tweet from a guy who looks white in his profile pic selfie. It says, “Black or white, we all jus some egg fr” and has side-by-side pictures of a white and brown egg side-by-side in a skillet, and presumably those same eggs cracked into the skillet. The eggs are the same color now that they have been cracked, which is how you know racism is over.

Your first character is gonna exemplify a similar principle which is often confused with the canard, which is “We just wanna be treated like everyone else.” Now this one is usually true. PoC don’t want affirmative action because we want to be treated better than everyone else; we want affirmative action so we can be treated as well as everyone else. So … you’re gonna make a character, who’s the same as the white character you would normally make under these circumstances, just they’re from another ethnicity or religion who might also be present in the setting.

Since whiteness is a default in our society, when white people roll white characters, they don’t define them by their whiteness. Of course they are culturally white, very much so, in ways fundamental to their existence—but you don’t notice that, we do. Still, you’re likely to make sure they have something else going on. I’m a white hacker. I’m a white grandfather. I’m a white vampire. So you’re gonna define something else about them, write them as if they were any other character you were going to roll up, and then you’re going to cast an actor of color in their part and play them.

“But nothing about this character represents that culture! They’re just a different-colored face on the character I would have played anyway!” Word. This isn’t the fully realized character of color you’re angling for. This is your tutorial character.

This character has two purposes. One is to accustom you emotionally to playing as a person of color under low-key, low-stress circumstances. The other is to make sure, while you don’t have too much new material to worry about, that you’re avoiding all Step Zero’s traps and pitfalls.

When you’re working in this stage, practice building in character traits orthogonal to stereotypes: that is, unrelated either to stereotype or to the conspicuous opposite of stereotype. Hobbies, music taste, favorite foods, job, favorite subject in school: what is or isn’t orthogonal changes from population to population.

You may find this kind of training-wheels character easier to roll in some genres than others: high fantasy, space opera, and other settings farther from the real world in the early twenty-first century. Nevertheless, this process might teach you better even than I could how even such far-fetched settings are full of real-world signifiers nonetheless.

Awareness of Power Dynamics

As you play this character, consider how oppressive power dynamics relate to them and your portrayal. How do they change the choices you make and how you feel?

For example, people of color experience physical danger more often than whites, often from sources which represent security to white people: if we carry weapons, interact with police officers, or drink water from the tap without boiling or filtering it first, for instance. We also commonly run afoul of offensive behavior and bias, which stress and demoralize and harm us. We have to garden our behavior to mitigate these risks. Maybe we’re especially polite and respectful to cops. Maybe we suppress overt emotion so we don’t look threatening.

Don’t overplay these issues. For us, this is everyday life. I don’t want you going out of your way to harp on how oppressed or victimized your character of color is. Most importantly, people of color at your table may not feel like dealing with systemic oppression today, same as they might not feel like teaching you how to play a character of color. Don’t ruin their day.

At any rate, once you feel confident with your tutorial character, we’ll try something a little more difficult.

2. Add Cultural Signifiers, One by One

Cultural signifiers are expressions or traits which indicate, or signify, your character’s demographic background. A realistic character exhibits a balance of signifiers which are and aren’t coded to their culture. You’ll add them to your character one at a time, not all at once. Otherwise you’ll overwhelm yourself and lose control. Get used to each signifier for a game session or two. Gauge other players’ reactions for possible harm. Then maybe add another, although one or two of these is plenty. Take it slowly enough that you can apologize and course-correct if you get bad reactions.

As with the power dynamics above, don’t flaunt your signifiers. Let the opportunities come to you and meet them organically with or without culturally coded reactions. Don’t go out of your way to show off what you know about a culture. Hawkins suggests that you “let the context of the character speak for itself without trying to ‘feel the life’ of it. You can't. But maybe you can learn or teach something. Maybe you can remind people of what already exists to be seen and heard.”

Here are some candidates for addition, in loose ascending order of difficulty. In each of these categories, there are traps; and I didn’t put food on the list because ethnically coded foods feature so prominently in racist talk, and because misinformation about international cuisine is so easy to come by. Of course it’s okay for your Israeli character to make shakshuka for breakfast, but try not to linger in this arena.

Clothing and Possessions

Things like clothes and material culture are a good start because it’s easy to find well-sourced visual references. What casual or formal garments are in your wardrobe? When is it appropriate or convenient to wear them? Do your culture’s knives or swords have a distinctive shape? How do you deal with heat, cold, or precipitation?

The best choices among clothes and possessions are slightly less well-known options, since stereotypical images often feature the really obvious ones. This is not to say that no Chinese character may ever wear a conical straw hat; but maybe if you dig a little, you can find another hat that’s also popular in China that looks a little less like a racist cartoon about Asians coming to steal white women. Maybe your Japanese samurai can wield a tachi instead of a katana. Question the obvious when you get the chance.

Manners

While caricatures of deportment (exaggerated bowing, obsequious compliments, etc.) do show up in offensive portrayals, guides to cultural etiquette aimed at business travelers can get you started here. Keep in mind that people from culture X sojourning in culture Y usually adopt culture Y’s etiquette for the duration, although there are exceptions: Jews who are shomer negiah might opt not to shake hands with people not of their gender, for example.

Religion

Religion is difficult to portray gracefully and brings in any number of additional, possibly troublesome power dynamics, so you might be intimidated by this option; but I actually really like religion as an early signifier because a lot of widely available resources are designed to help new practitioners or curious outsiders learn about the tradition. How observant are you? Are there any rules you follow from day to day, or on special occasions? Remember the notes in Step Zero about not speaking prayers aloud, doing sacred practices, or playing a fanatical extremist.

Arts and Entertainment

What musical genres, dances, poetic forms, or sports are common in your character’s culture? Is your character into any of them? On a related note to that point in Step Zero about signifiers orthogonal to stereotype, I recommend a balance of media which are and aren’t coded to your character’s culture. If your character is Black and their only interests are rap music and basketball, branch out a little so you aren’t just running down a checklist of obvious Black American stuff.

History

Does your character know their people’s history? What parts of the world would they know a bit more about than usual? With what other cultural groups would they have had contact via immigration or emigration? Do they speak any foreign languages?

Keep in mind also that most characters, unless they’re from someplace completely isolated, will have some diversity in their cultural signifiers. Some items from this list will point to some other culture by virtue of cultural exchange.

Sourcing Signifiers

A common answer you’ll hear when you ask about this topic is, “Do your research, lots of research.” Indeed you should, but careful out there. How do you know your information on such and such a culture is legit and not a mischaracterization? Did you get it from a source within the culture? If not, how did the source come by the information? Is their primary concern the welfare and respectful representation of the culture they’re describing, or do they have some other priority?

Consider also your medium. Even the best information vectors have flaws. Courses at school often prioritize colonialist voices. The Internet, while convenient, abounds in lies. Movies, theater, and television demand that actors subordinate their dignity and their truth to a bottom line of entertaining the white gaze (cw: racism, misogyny, and homophobia, but that’s my favorite film in the world, Multi-Facial by Vin Diesel). I sometimes base characters on real people I know; but even that method requires vetting, since we sometimes make racist jokes about ourselves or act out exaggerated stereotypes for complicated reasons that will get their own article eventually.

The best options are things somebody from the culture in question would do, but not things which ONLY somebody from the culture in question would do.

Live-Action Role-Play

Live-action role-play presents additional challenges because, in many games, a player’s real-world visual presentation represents their character’s appearance. This embodiment process may involve costumes and makeup, which risk evoking whites’ long and seemingly endless tradition of using those tools to impersonate and/or lampoon people of color.

I hate that I actually have to explain this: never use makeup to darken your skin, change your eye shape, or simulate a hair texture you can’t achieve naturally. People do this all the time and we hate it. When I go to Gen Con, my PoC friends and I always play the “how many days before we see a drow cosplayer in blackface” game. Sure, Xarr’en, I bet you were going for dark purple.

As for costumes: I hate that European clothing is the default, that we only get the choice between dressing in the fashion of our own cultures (if that option is available at all) and dressing in the fashion of our colonizers. In an ideal world I could wear a summer yukata or kurta pajama or jeans and a t-shirt or a dashiki and go about my business without it being some kind of statement.

This is not that world.

Practically speaking, I have to take care with how I dress. LARP costuming is not the place to decolonize clothing. The point of decolonizing casual clothing is to establish that it’s a normal way to dress. A LARP with costuming is by definition not a normal context for your dress. Any garments you wear are literally a costume, not a casual outfit.

On Villains

Villains of color are hard mode. PC villains of color are double secret hard mode. A little less so if everyone in your game comes from the villain’s ethnicity—like, sure, write an evil samurai or ninja for Thousand Arrows—but even then, all this article’s advice gets much, much higher stakes when you imply, at your most charitable, that the character of color is bad and so are the things they think, do, and are.

Villains of color are so tough to pull off, even for me, that I don’t think it appropriate to include them in this entry-level article. I don’t want anyone coming away from this joint thinking they’re gonna write Michael B Jordan’s Erik Killmonger or Henry Rollins’s Zaheer. What I will do, though, is advise you to examine villains of color in popular media and what makes them cringey. What trends arise in their backstories, criminal tendencies, and sexual behavior? Which negative characteristics do they all seem to have, regardless of how they fit into the story? Systemic oppression as motivation, implying that anyone who suffers sexual violence or becomes disabled or is poor might turn evil, is particularly played out these days.

How Much Do You Trust Your Game?

As you work through the steps above, you need to ask yourself whether the game you’re playing is helping your process, hindering it, or both. If you want to get good at it quicker, play games written by people of color about people of color. Clio Yun-su Davis’sThe Long Drive Back From Busan” (which has the best half-page you’ll ever read on how to play a Korean) and Julia Ellingboe’s Steal Away Jordan build respectful, authentic depictions of people of color into the character development rules and the mechanics.

But white people wrote most games out there. People of color usually appear in expansions and alternate settings, generated for all the reasons under “Why Not?” They appropriate cool stuff from people of color—monsters, powers, fighting styles—and leave the people themselves behind. Even positive depictions usually hew to stereotypes like the noble savage or the mystical honorable Easterner. Orientalism and the white gaze are a hell of a drug.

As you create your character, analyze the rules and setting text by the same criteria above. Does the character creation process tend to place PCs of color into uncomfortable characterizations? These warning signs may or may not be racist in and of themselves, but tend to lead to racist characters.

  • Look at the statistics which define mental or physical capabilities. Do some races have inherent modifiers to or limits on how athletic, intelligent, or likable they are?

  • Are some races’ magical or mystical powers emphasized to a degree that quickly outpaces others’?

  • Does the game’s core focus on Europe or America, while non-Western countries appear only in expansion material?

  • Are some races more civilized than others? Do some races rely heavily on material and other culture from a historical period that is particularly well-known in the West, while Western cultures continue to advance into the future?

  • Do adjectives like “savage,” “barbarian,” “primitive,” “superstitious,” or “bloodthirsty” crop up a lot in descriptions of sentient beings, even non-player sentient beings?

  • Does mythology derived from European sources dominate the game’s supernatural content? Are other countries’ religious and mythic traditions reframed to match it?

  • Are sensationalized or wicked cults a big deal? Do uncommon religions strongly influence those cults?

  • Are your primary means of interacting with the world violent or exploitative?

  • Does the text state how the creators didn’t intend it to be offensive, but feature only scant mechanical or practical guidance to make sure it stays that way?

… and finally, my personal favorite:

  • Is rolling a less offensive character somehow mechanically disincentivized?

Overruling Me

If you’re out there somewhere and you’re rolling up a PC from a race or religion or something that isn’t yours, and someone from one of those groups tells you they’d rather you didn’t do that? Their opinion overrules mine. I don’t wanna hear any y’all come back to me talking about “someone told me not to do something because it was racist and so I told them James Mendez said I could.” No, I did not. I care about this hypothetical person’s feelings and I’m gonna assume they have good reasons when they’re telling you not to do something. You thank them for speaking up and you listen to what they have to say.

If you’re in a place where you can ask questions, if they tell you of their own accord without seeming pressured that they’re cool to talk about it, then you can go back and forth with them and then come tell me about it. But I’m telling you here and now to err in favor of the person your actions are most likely to hurt, not me. I’m not there. I’ll be okay. Worry about that person who had to summon the courage to go up to a white person and tell them not to do something.

To All the Racist Characters You’ve Made Before …

… I have too. Everything in this piece that I’ve said you can get wrong, I’ve gotten wrong in the past. But I forced myself to study my mistakes and learn from them. If you realize a beloved character you’ve made before is racist, cycle them out of play and revise them. Talk to the other players about what you noticed and how you’d like to improve. Perhaps you’ll retcon their traits or history some; but how you portray them going forward is the most important thing.

Will you admit your mistakes honestly and gracefully?

Will you listen to your critics with empathy and good faith?

Will you improve in practical ways, even if you must make yourself vulnerable to do so?

A Fun Exercise

Do everything in this article, except with a white person.