“In the city of Neverwinter, a dwarf named Gundren Rockseeker asked you to bring a wagonload of provisions to the rough-and-tumble settlement of Phandalin, a couple of days’ travel southeast of the city,” my husband intoned to our 11-year-old twin sons.
As the Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons, the venerable fantasy role-playing game, he oversees the action and narrates the details in our household. He’d introduced the boys to the game because they were considering joining the club at school. They’d heard about the game and wanted to give it a try.
For years, they’d chatted nonstop about scenarios involving their favorite characters from Pokémon, and this game seemed like an extension of that interest. They couldn’t sit through a typical four-hour D&D session, but have so far enjoyed it in shorter bursts. Didi likes casting spells; players roll the die to determine how much damage they’ll cause.
I don’t have the patience for most games, but I wanted to learn more about Dungeons & Dragons. More than 50 million people have played the game since its inception in 1974, and there was a surge in interest during the pandemic. Some players credit the game with helping them work out their gender identity by creating an avatar of their true selves.
The game is also pivotal to the hit show “Stranger Things” (with a plot touching on the Satanic Panic of the 1980s). “Critical Role” — a podcast and web series of hours-long episodes featuring professional voice actors playing the game — has featured “Late Show” host and game devotee Stephen Colbert.
In 2020, amid the national reckoning on police brutality and race, critics scrutinized the game, which they said perpetuated thinly veiled racial stereotypes.
“Some of the peoples in the game — orcs and drow being two of the prime examples — have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated,” D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast said in a statement.
In June, the company released “Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel,” a version of the game set in diverse new lands; for the first time, all 16 of the writers involved are people of color who drew on their heritages and cultures in creating the narrative.
Elsewhere in fantasyland, debates over race include recent furor over the casting of Black actors in “The Rings of Power,” a television series based on “The Lord of the Rings” and its appendixes by J.R.R. Tolkien. “The choice … corrects the disturbing, perhaps unintentional assertion of the original — the exclusion of Black, Indigenous, and people of color from Middle-earth reflects the omission of races once considered subhuman from Western racial imaginaries,” poet Vanessa Angélica Villareal wrote in Harper’s Bazaar magazine. “And that omission has had huge implications on what we are able to imagine today.”
Consider the outrage over the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the live-action film of “The Little Mermaid.” Some Disney fans can accept a talking crab, but not a Black actress in the titular role.
Over the weekend, stuck in traffic while leaving San Francisco, my family started talking about urban renewal in the city, and the harm it wrought on African American communities.
“Is everything racist?” Didi moaned. “What about Pokémon? I love Pokémon!”
“Pokémon’s not racist,” I replied. Then I remembered hearing about a creature that resembled a caricature from a minstrel show. “There is one character …”
Gege immediately supplied her name: “Jinx. So they turned her purple.”
Their generation is attuned to these issues in ways my husband and I weren’t while growing up.
Whatever escape we may seek in our games and movies, they often still reflect the world we live in — albeit in a refracted way. Our flights of fancy are much more than child’s play.
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