By Lauren McCoy
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) has officially outgrown its basement origins. Selling more copies in 2018 alone than in its previous 44 years of print, the once fringe hobby has amassed a global player base of over 50 million and cemented itself into the mainstream.
With this D&D renaissance, the stereotypical image of the anti-social cis-hetero white guy is no longer reflective of its diverse fanbase. Yet, despite the company’s commitment to inclusivity, players remains doubtful that the game may ever reconcile the harmful beliefs that underlie its core mechanics; namely, how themes of biological determinism reinforce White Supremacy in Dungeons and Dragons.
Biological determinism refers to the belief that human characteristics are determined by hereditary factors, reducing fluid social identities into strictly biological characteristics. The dangers of this type of thinking should not be understated. Biological determinism is often linked to racist and misogynistic stereotypes, where race and gender are understood not as social constructs but as biological realities that determine someone’s behaviours and overall “character”.
At its most extreme, biological determinism can fuel ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Since behaviour is understood as a heritable quality, biological determinists believe that it is imperative to prevent the proliferation of “bad genes” that occurs when “undesirables” reproduce. Eugenic policies become enforced in the name of strengthening the nation or preventing social collapse, ranging from restrictive immigration to forced sterilization and genocidal extermination.
So when co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax, self-identifies as a biological determinist, there are reasons to raise concern.
Not All Races Created Equal – Racial Essentialism
The biological deterministic foundations of D&D are most visible in the blatant racial essentialism that underlines character creation. The fantasy “races” that populate D&D are ascribed with fixed a set of behavioural and physical traits, represented in the form of “racial abilities” and “ability score increases” that shape character’s personality and skillset.
This situation is made worse by the game’s heavy reliance on racially coded language that reaffirms historical narratives of white supremacy. As many have pointed out, fantasy races act as the vessel to reproduce racial stereotypes, where the physical and behavioural descriptions echo the harmful rhetoric used to demonize non-European cultures and People of Colour. The concept of moral alignment within D&D makes these values judgments explicit – dehumanizing “primitive” races like Orcs while justifying the moral supremacy of white-coded races like Elves. Concerns have also been raised over how combat as a core mechanic allows players to enact racialized violence. With entire races classified as “evil”, the game encourages slaughter-without-empathy as part of the player’s crusade to defend an idealized, white-washed, medieval fantasy.
Looking Backwards – Misogyny and Gender Essentialism
Lacklustre attempts to address race essentialism within D&D have left many concerned that the game may never overcome its biological deterministic foundations. However, these critiques fail to consider how biological determinism has been previously dismantled – this time, in the form of gender essentialism.
In very real terms, D&D was not designed for female players. The biological deterministic perspective of D&D creators conceived of the game as a “boys club”, citing that women could never truly appreciate the game like men, who had evolved to enjoy simulated fantasy combat. It’s for this reason that the earliest editions of the D&D playbook exclusively use male pronouns, failing to even consider the possibility of serious female players.
While not meaningfully included as playable characters, essentialist representations of female bodies remained present within the game’s monsters. Female monsters often reproduced misogynistic tropes of women as animalistic and emotionally irrational, unable to control their bodily urges and requiring rational male heroes to tamed them. The monstrous representation made clear that the source of women’s evil was rooted in their hyper-sexualized physicality – a dehumanizing condition that was impossible to overcome and justified violent intervention.
When considering how to manage playable female characters, concerns revolved around how to appropriately quantify women’s physical differences from men. One early solution involved capping the abilities of female fighters’ by reducing their strength modifier and preventing them from surpassing level 10. This ensured that female fighters always fought at a disadvantage that reflected their “natural” weakness and created a sense of “realism” within the game. The appeal to a supposed “biological reality” that made it inconceivable for women to be as strong as men within a fantasy setting underlines exactly how gender essentialism served to reinforce misogynistic and patriarchal ideas about women.
Possibilities for the Future
Examining the evolution of D&D from its 1974 origins to the most recent 2014 release, scholar Antero Garcia traced the shift towards empowering images of female heroes over the course of multiple editions. This change is paralleled by the increasing use of gender-neutral language – going from justifying male exclusive language as “neutral”, to more frequent references towards female players, to eventually vetoing gendered language all together. The result was that by the 5th Edition, D&D has erased the gender essentialist rules and representations that plagued early versions of the game, encouraging an understanding of gender grounded in identity and not biological fact.
Garcia argues that this gradual shift was the result of the changing social context. Just as much as D&D is influenced by its prior editions, it is also informed by cultural forces that shape how the game is understood. However, this explanation fails to highlight the active role of community protest in re-defining the rules of D&D, who’s efforts are visible as early as the 1970s. Dismantling gender essentialism wasn’t achieved passively, but through resistance among female and male players alike. With women making up only 10% of the playerbase in 1979, this solidarity among fans was vital to removing misogynistic rules within D&D.
These protests were strengthened by the presence of Homebrewed content. While the official Players Handbook acts as a starting point for gameplay, it only holds as much power as the adventuring party allows. In a game predicated on imagination, Homebrewing can act as a vital space for resistance and experimentation against the distasteful elements of biological determinism.
Just as meaningful change was implemented to address gender essentialism, similar possibilities exist for dismantling White Supremacy within D&D. Vocal disapproval and solidarity among the fanbase is vital to ensure official rules are inclusive and reflect the needs of modern players. In the meantime, Homebrewed content offer alternatives paths to dismantle White Supremacy within personal campaigns – a process already underway by the community.
While there is no mistaking the harmful rhetoric that underlined the game’s creation, it is ultimately up to the players to determine for themselves the future of Dungeons and Dragons.