When Stereotypes Attack: Real World Misunderstandings in Fantastic Worlds
If ever there were evidence that fantasy worlds are often a refuge for unexamined prejudices, it is not found in the goblins and the orcs as easily as it is found in the contemporary stereotypes which are placed in these fantasy worlds without alteration. I am referring in this entry to the Vistani - the obvious and cartoonish Dungeons & Dragons insertion of Romani peoples into the Ravenloft campaign world. These gothic-genre Gypsies were first introduced in 1983 with the original Ravenloft module and embodied the most banal qualities of the stereotyped Romani person. They were written as mysterious and exotic permanent outsiders whose ability to foretell the future was dependent on remaining forever mobile, on never settling in one location for more than a week lest they suffer grave sickness and be labelled outcasts by their own people. Vistani society was matriarchal in intent if not in practice and men who possessed the the mystic abilities which defined the Vistani were treated with distrust and often outcast in order to prevent some cataclysm.
Here we see a very real world stereotype which defines Romani peoples as a people who are possessed by a terrible wanderlust and who are more magical creature than real human. We also see (once again) the familiar Dungeons & Dragons conceit of using matriarchal societies to render a culture alien and strange and the equally familiar conceit of positioning exceptional men as dangerous to these matriarchal societies. It is an all too familiar approach that has been embedded in Dungeons & Dragons since its inception forty years ago - the difference with the Vistani is that these are not a fantasy people serving as a vehicle for antiquated but still-unexamined ideas. They are an inauthentic duplication of a real people whose entire in-game lore relies upon real language taken (poorly) from these real people and whose entire in-game identity is simply a regurgitation of stereotypes used to oppress these real people in Europe and elsewhere for centuries. They were also - for quite some time - nothing more than a footnote.
Until this week, when the official Wizards of the Coast Dungeons & Dragons twitter account posted the above tweet and changed their user icon to an image that - with its exaggerated nose and demonic grin - is more a monstrous caricature than an authentic representation of an oppressed people. The tweet essentially offered up plot hooks to those who retweeted any 'Madam Eva' tweet and it dressed up these hooks in the language of fortune telling. It is worth mentioning that Romani peoples have performed fortune telling as a service in the past, but this service is no more central to Romani identity than running nail salons is central to Korean immigrant identity or running a deli is to Jewish American identity. Indeed it has only ever been a means to an end: surviving in a society that disenfranchises a population by relying on the stereotypes which the majority population uses to disenfranchise that population. It is an attempt at surviving and is nothing more than the expression of an unkind circle of oppression.
At first I was willing to simply scroll past the initial tweet. I have been a fan of Dungeons & Dragons for more than two decades. It is easier to turn away and live a life inured to the way that so many people put these stereotypes on parade. It is not difficult to justify the caricature as something closer to the Halloween costume, or to perhaps simply say that those responsible for perpetuating the stereotype are simply ignorant and that their ignorance excuses the crime enough to spare them the rebuke. After all - the Vistani are probably more based on the gypsies of Bram Stoker than on the actual living people who face oppression and disenfranchisement in otherwise 'civilized' European nations. But then I saw the above tweet using the word 'Giorgio' to refer to those who are not Vistani gypsies. Giorgio is a piece of real language that is used in some Chib dialects to refer to those who are not Romani themselves. It is similar in many respects to the use of 'Gaijin' in Japanese culture or 'Haole' in Hawaiian culture. It is not offensive. It is only meant to establish status in a world that threatens to erode ethnic culture. I am no Giorgio but I would put good money down that says the employee behind 'Madam Eva' is - someone not of a specific ethnicity using the language of that ethnicity to do nothing more than offer up cheap flavor while promoting an upcoming product.
The use of this language drew (for me) a direct connection back to actual Romani peoples by using our actual language and it reduced a potentially clever twitter campaign to the Gypsy equivalent of black face or yellow face. It also took this display further and required that twitter users retweet (and thus perpetuate) the stereotype in order to engage with the otherwise entertaining campaign. It made co-conspirators of its audience in order to boost its signal and it did so to great effect. Madam Eva was suddenly no different from Mister Yunioshi except without the distance of time to render her no more than a temporary discomfort to laugh away, and her message was reaching who knows how many feeds.
So why is this harmful and where is the solution? I like being constructive. I do not want to simply complain without proposing workable solutions that should please all parties involved. I have always enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons and I believe that it should explore cultures and cultural experiences beyond its typically western European milieu. But the practice of using real world stereotypes to represent cultures as alien or exotic in a practice of gamified storytelling ultimately reinforces those stereotypes as acceptable representations of real people, either in our microcultures (as in the days when Dungeons & Dragons was a hobby of the minority) or (increasingly as nerd culture becomes popular culture) in the greater macroculture. It allows tools of oppression to persist and to do so in a way that renders them palatable rather than grotesque. But a broader game like Dungeons & Dragons must be able to extend itself beyond its traditional forms if it is going to allow for all its players to see themselves in its stories.
Broadening their hiring practices by actively seeking out fantasy writers who are attached to the ethnicities being mirrored in their games. Attempts at including other cultures beyond the standard European fare have come from a place of well meaning intentions but these good intentions often fall flat. Oriental Adventures was a continued attempt at embracing Asian cultures in the series but writing staff for these books have never possessed even a single Asian writer on their teams. Similarly, the original Al-Qadim setting had no Middle Eastern representation among its authors. This is not because there are no available writers who belong to these ethnicities. There are many authors out there of Middle Eastern, Asian, African and even Romani descent - and they would no doubt appreciate the chance to write for a game so storied and established. But doing this would not only benefit the authors by representing their cultures through the lens of fantasy with authenticity; actively seeking out these authors and requiring their inclusion on products dealing with their cultures would also benefit Wizards of the Coast. How? It would increase the authenticity of their product beyond its stale stereotypes. It would also ensure that Dungeons & Dragons reaches the broadest audience possible through the broadest representation possible, through good hiring practices, and through the purchase of greater good will.
As to where the Vistani are concerned?
Well, even I do not need a tarokka deck to find them to a few good writers.