I tend to not want to discuss the topic of -isms in RPGs, frankly. I consider it a kind of bear trap where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. This is because there is so much polarization out there now at the political level, and a lot of people seem perfectly happy to drag all that into the world of Fantasy (ala RPGs). I’m not all that happy with it, however. I’d like to explain why.
I’m a believer in Escapism. The real world has become a very disappointing mound of crap in many ways for many people. Being allowed to retreat, even temporarily, from it is a human right in my opinion. It is one of the purposes of fantasy and has been a human activity for thousands and thousands of years, starting with shamanistic journies to Tir Na Nog and resulting in the amazing epics of the Gods that we have received from the ancients. For a group of people today to pooh-pooh on all of that and insist that everyone kow tow to their modernistic viewpoints (as if those will never change because they are “Eternal Truths” or some such) strikes me as ill-considered, fraught with moral perils, and destructive of the human condition. Games have been played, and stories told, for umpteen generations to sooth the human soul. I’m of the opinion that what happens in an RPG world can be considered to have taken place in the realm of Fantasy. And as such should be considered off limits to real world intrusions. So in this I side with Tolkien who once wrote:
“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”
The issues that are being raised in the RPG community, in fact in every community, by those who wish to focus all attention on the politics of identity, sexuality, race and class are important. We should not blindly accept these -isms when they are destructive to the happiness, prosperity or lives of our fellow creatures. We should be willing to stand up for the oppressed and stand with those who seek to end oppression. I do agree with all of that. But where I draw the line is when the desire to right the wrongs of the world becomes a motive, or excuse, for disrupting things which are innocent … that which exist in the realm of Fantasy. It seems to me that when the impulse to “spread the word” and “shape the narrative” and “guide the world to a better place” becomes positively evangelical, it is then that it has crossed the line from “living a good life” and setting a good example, over to forcing others to do what some insist they ought to do. I disagree with this approach. I think it smacks of Totalitarianism, the worst of all the -isms in this world. And I think that the realm of Fantasy should not be subject to it. Ever.
Children live a great deal in the realm of Fantasy. Off in their otherworld they parley with unicorns and dragons, and have adventures, and live and frolic and enjoy life as children should. I don’t believe we should be trying to inhibit them from doing so. In the same way I also feel that people regardless of their age should have the right to continue to escape to that other world when they can find the time, so long as it does not impede on their ability to uphold their responsibilities in life. Even if that realm includes such anti-political ideas as “The Good”, and “The Evil” (which it most certainly does). Even if in that world Orcs are “Evil beings”, and High Elves are “The Good Ones”. These idealizations are part of what the world of Fantasy is about. To cast aspersions at this, and to attempt to deny people the right to experience such journeys is to deny them a means by which they can grow and evolve as spiritual beings. It is to lock them into a single, and rather harsh, view of the world, and to insist that they never look at anything else… anything “other”… anything beyond this world. It is, in other words, to place them in a prison of Ideology and tell them they are wrong and immoral for ever wishing for and seeking an escape from it. I disagree with this view.
As for how to handle when some players abuse others at the RPG table (a charge that often gets tethered to arguments for restricting the hobby’s many and varied expressions)? My rule of thumb is pretty simple and straight forward: don’t play with those people. But do we need to be told that because of that tiny abhorrent handful we’re all supposed to change our own play preferences and styles and forego the Fantasy that we have been enjoying escaping to? I think that’s rather unfair, and so I simply reject it.
I prefer the realm of fantasy to remain sacrosanct and beyond the reach of those who demand that their political imperatives be complied with at all times and in all places. While I well agree with the goal of improving the world, I don’t agree with their methods, or the ferocious zeal with which they pursue it. Let children enjoy their childhood. Let those who wish to contemplate fantasy worlds contemplate them in peace. And let people enjoy their elf-game hobby as they feel inspired to do so. That is my way.