In a press release issued about its past “mistakes,”—issued in tandem with countless other organizations in response to antiblack police murder and global uprising for Black Lives—Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) publisher Wizards of the Coast said, “(S)ome of the people in the games—orcs and drow being two of the prime examples—have been characterized as monstrous and evil.” It noted how such descriptions are “painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated” and concluded by saying, “That’s just not right, and it’s not something we believe in.”
The press release gave me pause. I had played Wizards’ games including DnD and the trading card game Magic: The Gathering since I was a kid and continue to play DnD weekly with friends I’ve known for over twenty years. I celebrate all earnest efforts to make the world of gaming more just and equitable. But their statement prompted me, as a Black and queer gamer, to think about how I relate to DnD, the places, and spaces where it’s played, and the broader cultural forces of fantasy and speculation that subtend it. What did it mean that I have loved, have spent hours playing, a game that admitted its connection to the “denigration” of people because of their race? And how did I understand and relate to that denigration as a Black and queer person myself?
Whether because of the nostalgia-trip-slash-teen-horror-drama Stranger Things, the incredible popularity of YouTube and Twitch actual plays like Critical Role and Rivals of Waterdeep, or because of a new, more user-friendly rules system, DnD has reached a level of cultural prominence that would have been unimaginable to my thirteen year old self. Dungeon Masters and “leveling up” aren’t niche knowledge anymore. But DnD was mind-blowing for me when I was 13, or maybe 14, and my then-best friend left the three core rulebooks for Second Edition at my house.
They were black with red lettering declaring Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. On one, the Player’s Handbook, a tanned and buff human male, clad only in a loincloth, furred boots, and a horned helmet, stands in triumph, his axe raised high in the rubble of some ruined place. Behind him are two other figures, one cloaked and one with a crossbow. The other book, The Monstrous Manual, depicted a number of strange and terrifying creatures: a rotund menacing being with ten eyes, a minotaur, a strange insectoid creature, a skeletal mage, and, of course, a huge red dragon in flight.
I devoured these books, like a mind flayer eating the brains of its victims, learning about the differences of breath weapon and habitat of the eponymous Dragons, the rules governing the twisting halls of the dank Dungeons they call home, and the feats a player needed to perform in order to become the hero of the land.
As I grew up and discovered more about my own difference, my feelings about and orientation to the game changed. It’s not just some bad experiences: Gaming stores can be a mixed bag, often espousing “safe space” rules and regs while allowing the hostility of juvenile white hypermasculinity to rule in tyranny. Such simmering disdain made it difficult for me to connect with other gamers and kept me apart from the game for a long time.
But beyond other players’ bad behavior, how the game approaches the question of humanity is complicated. The first step a player takes when they sit down to the game is picking a “race” and a “class.” Parsing the difference between biological and cultural definitions of race are beyond my remit here, but suffice to say that in DnD, race signifies a whole lot.
From species, to difference, to culture, “race” carried with it certain advantages (and disadvantages in earlier versions of the game). Class, on the other hand, refers to the role or job the player will assume, and not their position in the political economic hierarchy. And yet class also carries connotations about social function. I increasingly realized that fantasy narratives often lean into these connotations, even if they do so ultimately to undermine them.
On top of this, DnD relies on even more complicated racial fantasies and fictions. It centers on the myths and legends of Northern and Western Europe. And it deploys Orientalist and primitivist ideas about people of color in its analogous fantasy world.
And so, even as a kid, while I was not so clear-eyed about why “race” was a bad term to use to describe what some in the community have taken to calling “background” or “culture,” I was also aware that I was different from Wizards’ imagined player.
Fortunately for us all, Wizards of the Coast has taken steps to decenter some of these tropes in its recent products. Depictions of characters in the world of the game have increasingly trended towards a form of representational diversity. More women (including women of color) characters, more queer and trans characters, and more characters of color populate the pages of Wizard’s publications.
Reflecting on the stakes of Wizards articulating its priority in terms of diversity and inclusion, I have thought of the many gamers like me, who, I imagine, were central to urging Wizards to rethink the party-line of evil orcs and drow. We did it because we knew, on some level, that we were the orcs and drow, and not the white, “northern Europeans” whose collective mythoi formed the core of DnD’s lore. Sure, people of African and Asian (and, more rarely, Indigenous) descent appeared in its stories. But when they did appear, it was cloaked in the trappings of alterity. Or else, racial and ethnic difference was imputed through essentialized ideas about biology and culture. DnD misrecognized skin tone and musculature for morals and ethics, “alignment” in the game’s terms. This last bit is what the press release refers to when it describes the conflation of orcs and drow—biological groups—with evilness.
But the press release also made me wonder how some of us have played and continued to play the game, even and despite what its publisher describes as mistakes. What I have come to realize is that DnD offered me (and, I imagine, other gamers like me) the opportunity to disidentify, to use José E. Munoz’s term. We used a unique and complex form of fantasy to reimagine the dominant ways of thinking about a world and its people. That is, DnD offered me (us?) the space to understand, critique, and militate against the oppressions of the real world—antiblack racism and homophobia in my case—and their analogs in the world of the game from within its system of difference.
Through disidentification, gamers of color, queer and trans gamers, women gamers, all deploy the scripts of fantasy in order to make space for ourselves. We recenter experiences of difference—rejection, and oppression, sure, but also love, respect, and empowerment—within a narrative world we make, one that is simultaneously obsessed with race (and gender, sexuality, etc.) and deeply interested in effacing it. A quick glance at that ADnD cover—the fighter in the loincloth—reminds me that while he surely represents a certain kind of virility and masculinity, he is also saturated with discourses homoerotic longing, colonial conquest and dispossession, and sexual danger. Reimagining that figure as black, as queer, as a woman, fundamentally changes the narrative.
What all this suggests to me is that my magical fantasies of differences of body, mind, and soul—differences that are fundamental to RPGs generally and DnD in particular—are in the service of something practical, and every day. These fantasies help me negotiate the experience of my identity politics in the real world.
So, while it matters that Wizards states, and lives up to its commitments to be more diverse and inclusive in its publications, there has never been a direct relationship between their world and mine. What was and remains so captivating about DnD for me was not the prospect of heroism, of triumph over “evil” per se. Instead, it’s always been the promise and possibility of belonging—and especially, of belonging to a world of my own imagining. The sign “elf” for many gamers might signify either a fair-skinned creature from Norse mythology, Celtic lore, or the stories of Tolkien. But my elves weren’t white; they’ve always been shades of brown.
Justin L. Mann is a 10th-level wizard who researches and teaches at the intersection of Black studies, speculative fiction, and security policy.