I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy tabletop role-playing game, for over 15 years, and it’s been a joy to watch my beloved hobby become both more popular and more inclusive. But all is not well in fantasy land: online forums that use ahistorical understandings of the so-called ‘medieval’ underpinnings of fantasy can be mechanisms for the radicalization of white supremacists and white nationalists. Internet forums provide easy, often anonymous, tools for spreading racial hatred, and sometimes proliferation of white supremacy relies specifically on historical denialism.
In 2018, the right-wing website Breitbart published a brief article about an academic study by Stanford Professor Antero Garcia on how representations of race and gender within both the official D&D books and the D&D community over its forty-year history have bolstered misogyny and white supremacy. Since then, over 10,000 comments have been posted by Breitbart readers. Many responded defensively, saying that their D&D games have always been inclusive, while others found it an opportunity to heap scorn on ‘PC culture’ and ‘libtards.’ One commenter remarked, ‘You want a tabletop RPG for a non-white audience? Write and market your own. Good luck selling it.’ This comment, although it raises interesting questions about the relationship of capitalism to colonialism and racism, assumes that Wizards of the Coast, which produces the official D&D materials, and other large game publishers have no ethical obligation or even financial incentive to produce and market more inclusive or diverse games. Another comment argued that D&D ‘was INVENTED by Whites, drawing from all sorts of Middle Ages / Medieval fantasy ( You know: WHITE , and not the way Quentin Tarantino and his Blacks want to think it was )!!!!’
Tarantino aside, it is a common assumption that ‘medieval’ means Western European, and that Western European means white. Indeed, the appropriation of the medieval by white supremacists has become more open in recent years, including the use of medieval symbols such as Thor’s hammer Mjollnir and the flag of the Knights Templar as identifiers at Renaissance Faires and historic reenactments. David Perry writes that this obsession comes from an imagining of medieval Europe as a ‘pure, white, Christian place organized wholesomely around military resistance to outside, non-white, non-Christian, forces.’ Paul Walsh, a Unite the Right rally participant at the deadly Charlottesville incident in 2017, taught fellow participants how to use a medieval style shield, and claimed his experience LARPing (live action role playing) as his expertise. Similarly, the Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant fantasized about an all-white Europe in his justification for the mosque killings. In other words, this distorted view of a white Europe is explicitly linked to racial violence.
As many medievalists have been vocally protesting, though, medieval Europe was far more diverse than contemporary imagination and pop culture paints it. Several extensive collections of resources on race and the Middle Ages have been compiled to help researchers and educators. However, it is difficult to fight the weight of decades of white-washing by existing pop culture. This distorted view then becomes fuel for racist arguments based on so-called authenticity, especially for D&D games based in a quasi-medieval European setting.
D&D’s race issues are not particularly original; they are mired in the larger issues at play in traditional fantasy. Since the days of Tolkien and before, the genre of fantasy has relied on 19th-century conceptions about how race, culture, and ethnicity function that are both incorrect and damaging. For example, Hugo-award-winning author N.K. Jemisin outlines the ways orcs have replicated racist stereotypes throughout the last century in fantasy and then adds, ‘In games like Dungeons & Dragons, orcs are a ‘fun’ way to bring faceless savage dark hordes into a fantasy setting and then gleefully go genocidal on them.’ The fact that many players do not recognize these harmful valances only makes them more damaging.
Some commenters use these racist tropes deliberately; one Breitbart commenter remarked, ‘Funny how the prevalence of White “racism” is directly proportional to the amount of shîtblooded orcs we let into this country.’ The comment implies that it is only the presence of these so-called ‘orcs’ with their dirty blood that causes racism to exist at all. It solidifies a white nationalist agenda by implying the country would be cleaner and less racist without immigration. The comment also, notably, uses the word ‘let’ to denote control over the movement of non-white people by white people without acknowledging the role of colonialism and the slave trade in that movement. This deliberate erasure of history is essential for the commenter’s argument.
The newest edition of the official Dungeons and Dragons rules has made significant advances in being more inclusive; the company Wizards of the Coast has hired more women and people of color, though there are still some problematic aspects of the official materials. Many D&D players and online commenters do actively resist whitewashing of history, especially in forums that actively moderate, such as the D&D 5th Edition Facebook group , where racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist posts result in swift bans. Gaming companies and gamers themselves are working on making their communities more inclusive. There are also many people who have created alternate settings to remedy the problems that D&D communities inherit and perpetuate.
So why does it matter what internet trolls say? The erasure of historical accuracy is deeply implicit in perpetuating racism. The more the idea of a white medieval basis for fantasy is left unchallenged on forums, masquerading as ‘reasonable’ or ‘historical’ argument, the more normalized it will continue to be. Changing the online environment matters, and the best antidote is better historical and cultural awareness – seeing and calling out racism, including the continued erasure of black people and people of color from medieval history and from the past, the present, and the future of the game.
Alaya Swann is Professor of English at Collin College in North Texas. She received her PhD in English from Arizona State University, and her research interests include medieval childbirth and women’s medicine, medievalism in popular culture, table top role playing games, web comics, gender, and racism/white supremacy. Her work has appeared in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine and the Journal of Popular Culture. She tweets @alayaswann.