New Rules of Fantasy: The Tyranny and Power of Defaulting

New Rules of Fantasy: The Tyranny and Power of Defaulting

A warrior leaps at his opponent, ready to strike a lethal strike…

Stop for a moment. When I said, warrior, what did you picture? What was the color of the warrior’s skin?

It’s OK to say white. If it was something else, that’s OK too (and congratulations for building a different default image!) Many people are going to say this. Why? Because white is the default person in our fantasy (often male too). Some people get defensive when you even bring this up, saying that one is “racist” for discussing race, but the only reason that these folks don’t need to discuss race in the first place is that “white” is the accepted default. If I don’t say anything, the majority of people will assume I speak about someone white. See the trick there? To talk about any other ethnicity is to be forced “to bring up race” and “be different”. I’m forced to be other even if I am describing myself and my life because I have to describe my difference from the accepted norms.

And yeah, it sort of sucks and is problematic in a variety of ways in and out of gaming, but what I want to talk about it is how defaulting from my understanding works and most importantly how we can use it to make gaming more interesting.

To start, let me dispel the notion right off hand that a thing you don’t talk about is a thing that you can effectively change. One is not going to diversify one’s fiction by “just not talking” about race. Ignoring it means we go to the default. And the default is not yet diversity. We apply conscious commitment and effort to change things, not a stifling silence and inability to discuss them.

Defaulting is the creation of assumptions within a culture that establish a baseline identity and context for discussion and action. It can be bad when used to cancel or negate other identities, or to encode hate implicitly in one’s speech. Can defaulting ever be good though?

I say yes. The power in defaulting, and why it is so powerful and why people just want to use it, is that it provides a shortcut. It is simply easier to say “I’m American” than it is to say “I’m African-American”. And definitely easy to hold one model in your head than it is to hold multiple models at a time. Context-switching is a real thing. People save time and energy when they default. You build one model of the world with your defaults, saving time, energy and effort.

Defaulting seems to fight diversity. But what if you apply conscious efforts to build different models? In real life, one’s defaults are heavily influenced by locality and experience. In a fantasy world we have a lot more control. Instead of applying a blanket default of eurocentric ideals and appearance, let’s get specific and explicit. Then let’s create smaller defaults for regions that characters go to.

What would our games be like if we were explicit about skin color? If you said that a character was white instead of not saying it (and simply assuming it)? “The typical person in the village has ruddy skin” establishes a default in a specific place, but being explicit about color has some unusual but beneficial effects.

First, yay we can create a platform to discuss ethnicity and race without weird fantasy stand-ins! Being explicit about everyone’s race seems like the opposite of comfortable, but in my experience being direct about descriptions in this way is fine and actually starts to rev up people’s imaginations. You create diversity implicitly when you actually put different types of people or the possibility for different types of people in your game.

If we don’t ever bring up skin color, everybody assumes it’s not a particularly important thing and leaves it on the table. If we “pick it up”, other people observe that and now see that as something that they can play with too.

Next, we add more texture to our backdrops. When players switch reason, we are going to change the model. We are going to describe more to them than race of course, but we are going to create a brief model of what people are like in an area. You can use Gameable Culture as a guide to do this. We are going to use our player’s attraction to shortcuts to give them different looks. We aren’t going to shift the model every second, but as they move through regions they will have different defaults given to them. They will see the differences in culture and appearances in different places that they travel if we impart that information well. Every important region in our game has it’s own baseline of how people look and act. By giving players a slice of that when they travel, we create a richer set of experience and bring our worlds more to life.

Defaulting can be used to oppress and silence, but if we embrace it and use it consciously, we can charge up our worlds of imagination. I mention race and ethnicity here, but you can use this model for any particular thing you care about with positive results.

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