This is RPG-ology #29: Political Correction, for April 2020.
The phrase has been around long enough that I cannot imagine anyone in the English-speaking world does not know what “politically correct” means. In the short form it means never saying anything that might offend any member of any minority group, whether or not such a person is present. I bring it up here, though, because just recently someone in a role playing group asked whether the concept had any impact on our games.
I hope that my readers are all literate enough to have read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and intelligent enough to have grasped its message. I have elsewhere cited it in relation to Freedom of Expression, and consider it one of the most important statements on the subject, perhaps second only to the famous dissenting opinion by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes (also excerpted at that link). It is entirely un-American to censor speech; beyond that, it is dangerous for reasons discussed in that article.
The issue here, though, is about censoring the content of our games. My answer is similar, but with some additional thought.
Someone (I think perhaps the Reverend Paul Cardwell of the CARPGa) once gave me the expression in relation to role playing games the great thought experiment, and I find that to be an extremely apropos description. In many ways, games are about expressing and exploring ideas, creating characters who either share our beliefs or offer other beliefs, and pursuing where these beliefs lead through the conduct of the characters who hold them.
In my Faith in Play series I have been running an intermittent miniseries on alignment in Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™, and I discussed what “chaos” means in the entry Faith in Play #22: Individualism. I mentioned having played an attorney in one game, and the fact that this lawyer was not lawful but chaotic: he very much stood for the principles of the ACLU, the fact that everyone has the right to be and do whatever he wishes within the parameters that in so doing he does not interfere with the rights of others to do the same. I am not a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and they sometimes support cases I would oppose–but I have a lot of respect for their defense of the First Amendment. Further, playing that attorney in that game allowed me to explore to what degree I agreed with them, believed that the rights of individuals needed to be defended as against the preferences of society at large.
In fact, it seems to me that this entire issue of “political correctness” is precisely about this: do individuals have the right to believe and say things that are offensive to other individuals? Do my freedoms include the right to be protected against anything I find offensive?
In my case, at least, they probably don’t. If you want to call me a dirty WOP, or a stupid Christian, or a narrowminded WASP, I have no recourse. I object that those are perjorative insults, but you are free to use them. But what about the game?
In one of my games, a half-orc player character insulted one of my non-player dwarfs. The dwarf took it in stride and responded, “Did your mother like orcs?” That certainly would have been politically incorrect if our rules applied to that world, but it was entirely appropriate within the context–and that is the key. Our worlds, be they fantasy, futuristic, historic, or something else, are filled with people whose views and prejudices are part of their time and place. In literature we use science fiction and fantasy to explore real-life issues. Enemy Mine is very much about overcoming racial prejudice, despite the fact that the tension is between humans and aliens. Captain Kirk says in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, “I’ve always hated Klingons,” again exploring racial tensions. If you’ve never seen the classic movie Tick, Tick, Tick, you’ve missed a story that is very much about southern blacks and whites overcoming their differences. We use art, and particularly fiction, to explore these kinds of concepts. The characters within the stories are intentionally politically incorrect, because that is the only way we can convey our message.
There is a caveat here. We are gathered at the gaming table to have fun, to enjoy ourselves. Every one of us has limits, lines we do not want to cross. How graphic is the violence, or the sex? Are there particular abberations which bother someone at the table? Some won’t want to play a game that explores rape, or abortion, or–well, there are many aspects of reality that make us uncomfortable individually, and when we get together to play a game we should know what those lines are and not cross them, not make our fellow players uncomfortable.
I don’t believe in being politically correct. I also don’t believe in being impolite to people. That doesn’t mean that I can’t have rude characters in my games or my books or my stories. That political incorrectness is sometimes necessary to explore ideas and beliefs that are different from our own, and so come to understand each other better.