In the 1980s, the popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) was hit by a moral panic that lasted into the 1990s: some people became worried that, because some of the game’s characters were demons or devils, playing D&D might induce people to commit suicide—or seduce them into Satanism. Despite the dearth of research on this question, many psychiatrists joined in the panic. The makers of D&D responded by removing demons and devils from their game—but those characters were later restored, and today most people think the whole episode was just silly.
Now D&D is facing a new controversy: some people have complained that its depiction of fictional monster races, such as the orcs, promotes racism. Many D&D storylines are about the battle between good and evil, so these monsters tend to be depicted as evil by nature. But do the game’s storylines or depictions use any tropes related to real-life racism? Does playing D&D promote real-life racism? And does its depiction of monster races tend to offend people of colour? Or is this issue being promoted by a small number of very vocal people who hope to spread their political talking points to a wider audience?
It is no coincidence that this controversy has descended upon D&D players just as a deluge of claims about systemic racism has spilled out of academia and into other left-leaning institutions, including many media outlets, medical associations and museums. The evidence in support of this narrative has always been shaky—but moral panics are seldom concerned with evidence. Outside these institutions, there has been a general pushback against the claims, but the world of gaming journalism appears to have been largely captured by the leftist narrative. And the makers of D&D, battered by accusatory headlines and Twitter mobs, have gradually made changes in response to this new moral panic.
It is far from clear that D&D’s capitulation will make any practical difference in relation to concerns about racism. To see why, it’s helpful to note the difference between the explicit use of racist tropes to describe characters, on the one hand, and any particular viewer’s personal interpretation of something as racist, on the other. For example, some D&D products feature characters called the Vistani—which they describe as a race of gypsies—and depict them in ways that are based on widely known clichés about real-world Roma cultures. Thus, it would be reasonable for people to ask D&D to touch base with representatives of Roma cultures and address any feeling they may have that this depiction denigrates them. By contrast, orcs are not described in terms of clichés about any real-life race (unsurprisingly, since they are ultimately based on fictional characters in Irish folklore—and Tolkien, who made orcs the bad guys in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, explicitly noted that he did not intend them to represent any real-life people). Thus, if the thought occurs to some people, Orcs remind me of Group X!, it is less clear that this subjective impression is evidence that the depiction is racist—and more likely that they are projecting their own racist tropes onto orcs.
Even if those who consider it racist to depict orcs as evil are only a tiny percentage of the public, they are also likely to be the most vocal and accusatory critics—and this may lead us to give their voices undue weight. Ideally, determinations about whether a given depiction is racist would be guided by well-designed research studies that produced reliable data about how widely the depiction is experienced as racist. However, very few research studies have been done on D&D, and most of them have focused on whether D&D is helpful in psychotherapy.
Being a research psychologist, I decided to do my own study to explore two questions that I felt were relevant to this debate. First, is playing D&D associated with having racist attitudes? And second, is there a consensus among individuals—and in particular among people of colour—as to whether orcs are depicted in a way that is racist or otherwise offensive?
I explored these questions with a diverse sample of individuals that included both D&D players and non-players. I asked them about their leisure activities, including D&D playing, as well as questions designed to measure their ethnocentrism (defined as a tendency to show a marked preference for one’s own ethnicity and disdain for others’). I also presented them with the D&D description of orcs and asked for their reaction to it. (I asked them several questions on other topics as well, to make it less obvious what I was investigating.)
The results were interesting and important for this debate. First, playing D&D was not associated with ethnocentrism—being exposed to evil monster races did not tend to make people adopt racist attitudes in real life. This finding undercuts the concern that being exposed to essentialist depictions of some monsters as inherently evil would promote racist attitudes among players. Second, only about 10% of respondents found the depiction of orcs offensive—and their reaction didn’t depend on whether or not they were D&D players, or on whether they were white or people of colour. Thus, concern about portraying orcs as evil is apparently a minority view, even among people of colour. This suggests that the uproar the makers of D&D are facing is not a consensus opinion, but the opinion of a small, vocal minority.
This research also revealed an interesting nuance. Later in the study, I asked respondents to consider the depiction of orcs again. This time, I asked them more bluntly whether they found the depiction racist, and the percentage who said yes increased to about 34%. (Once again, the respondent’s ethnicity didn’t make a difference). Other research has shown that nearly everyone who finds something racist also finds it offensive. So, what might explain why only 10% agreed that the depiction was offensive but 34% agreed that it was racist? My suspicion is that asking people about racism produces a kind of priming effect. That is, the mere act of asking about racism may make some people assume that the thing you’re asking about must be racist. Because if it weren’t, why would you ask?
Ultimately, neither result provided support for activists who are demanding changes to the D&D universe. Playing D&D with monster races isn’t generally associated with racism in real life, and there’s no consensus about evil orcs, even among people of colour. It’s not clear that a minority view, no matter how vocal, should dictate the artistic direction of D&D—or anything else in popular culture. Such demands are arguably bullying demands for censorship.
That said, one might argue that there’s no harm in making these changes—for example, one argument I hear is that, if players don’t like the changes, they could simply choose not to implement them, and keep the evil orcs in their own game. I don’t think that’s a serious argument, because it could equally justify keeping the evil monster races and enabling those who object to opt for a version with more nuanced monsters.
Moreover, I suspect that there could be harm in making changes that increasingly bubble-wrap these fantasy worlds—particularly in response to some people’s personal, subjective judgements about what is or is not offensive. In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt discuss the dangers of practising what the psychologist Pamela Paretsky has called safetyism: research in clinical psychology has established that avoiding what make us anxious tends to increase our anxiety, while cultivating resilience and a sense of humour about minor irritants tends to reduce anxiety. When we shield people from irritants and stressors—and even from downright objectionable things—we actually increase their anxiety.
Making fictional monster races less evil, removing controversial topics like slavery from the game—or locating adventures in buildings that resemble university dorms, complete with wheelchair-accessible dungeons—is taking a safetyism approach to gaming—treating players as if they were made of spun glass. In countenancing these changes, we may in a small way be contributing to what, in the US, experts have identified as our country’s mental health crisis.
Another problem with capitulating to activists’ demands for these changes is that it tends to trap people on the apology treadmill. We know from previous experience that no apology—and no changes to the system—are ever enough to satisfy these activists: they simply respond with ungenerous rejections of the apologies, and then move the goalposts, demanding further apologies. Their outrage seems intended, not to achieve any specific change, but to imbue them with the power that comes with outrage. It’s no wonder that D&D’s recent changes in response to activists’ demands have already been met with demands for more changes. Capitulating to outrage merely invites more outrage. Reward a behaviour and you tend to get more of it: that’s Psychology 101.
All this suggests that the makers of D&D—and other gaming systems, such as Pathfinder—will be better off cultivating resilience, and resisting both Twitter outrage mobs and the recent tendency of gaming journalists to play the problematization game (which used to be played mostly by postmodernist academics). Hopefully, their resolve to resist will be bolstered by considering that this controversy has all the hallmarks of yet another moral panic, not too different from the Satanic-cult panics of yesteryear.