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Game piece from Dungeon & Dragons game
FILE PHOTO: A Dungeons & Dragons miniature dragon hand-painted by Alan Cooley at Main St. Board Game Cafe in Huntington, New York on Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty Images

How a new generation of gamers is pushing for inclusivity beyond the table

For decades, players of tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) have used dice, pens and paper to engage in a form of entertainment that combines collective storytelling with strategic puzzle-solving and combat simulation. Once considered a niche hobby, these types of games are experiencing a boost in mainstream visibility thanks to series like Netflix's "Stranger Things" and the upcoming film "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves."

According to industry estimates, hobby game sales soared during the pandemic, increasing from about $1.6 billion in 2019 to over $2.6 billion in 2021. Tabletop roleplaying games saw a 31 percent increase in overall sales in 2020. In 2022, Dungeons & Dragons alone generated some $100 million to $150 million.

As TTRPGs permeate popular culture through podcasts, live-streamed internet shows and celebrity boosters, the community surrounding them is becoming more diverse. Traditionally seen as a pastime for white male suburbanites, tabletop gaming has more recently become a platform for minorities and marginalized people to tell their own stories.

"People of color and women have always been a part of TTRPG culture," said Steven Dashiell, a postdoctoral fellow at American University who specializes in studying male-dominated subcultures. But "actual play shows" — the term for a tabletop roleplaying game performed for audiences — give them more visibility, Dashiell added.

Aabria Iyengar is something of a celebrity game master, or someone who facilitates TTRPG sessions for players at a table. She has appeared on many popular actual play channels, such as Critical Role and Dimension 20, as well as shows directly sponsored by Wizards of the Coast, the company that owns Dungeons & Dragons.

When playing, Iyengar said, she gravitates toward non-human characters — like elves and merfolk.

"Growing up and acculturated as 'other' on several axes of identity, my brain automatically defaults to that," said Iyengar, who is Black and a member of the LGBTQ community. "Even though it is uncomfortable to be othered constantly, it is what I know and it feels right […] There's not the trauma attached to otherization so it feels like a fun opportunity to play in 'What if being markedly different came with fun benefits?'"

When Iyengar was new to tabletop gaming, she would often go to a local gaming store to play in community events organized by Wizards of the Coast, but she sometimes felt like an outsider in a space where most players were white men.

"Those [were] uncurated tables where things got very monoculture very quickly," she said.

Recently, actual plays have been finding port with a new generation of gamers, many of whom come from more diverse backgrounds. Social media allows fans of these shows to form communities and organize meetups where they can play the games they watch.

WATCH: How diversity in media and entertainment affects young people

"This new guard of hobby geeks are highly aware, and if they are not directly BIPOC people, they are allies," said Aaron Trammell, an assistant professor of informatics at UC Irvine.

But even within these gaming communities, there is some friction. Old School Renaissance, or OSR, is a gaming movement whose players claim they are "against outside politics permeating their game space," said Dashiell. These players support the use of traditional fantasy tropes in game design, such as the existence of "good" and "evil" races with no nuance. OSR gamers are often seen as the old guard of tabletop gaming and tend to idealize the past, which "defaults to a white, masculine worldview," Trammell said.

Created in the 1970s, "Dungeons & Dragons is one of the first and most prominent TTRPGs," Dashiell said. "[And] race has been key in character design."

When players create their in-game personas, they generally choose different aspects from a menu that culminates in an imaginary character with a history, personality, physical traits and special talents. Characters can be one of many different "races," such as humans, elves or dwarves. These character types could be considered various species; some resemble real animals, while others are more like dragons or even angels. But the different beings have always been racially coded, according to Dashiell, with humans specifically "[having] always been seen as an analog for white."

Dungeons & Dragons has a tradition of promoting humans as the best or most versatile characters. Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, was a self-described biological determinist. He believed that different races of people were biologically distinct and capable of different things in life.

"This can be seen in early D&D with non-humans or demihumans having level caps," said Trammell. This means that in earlier editions of the rules, non-human characters could never achieve the same degree of growth as human characters.

Additionally, orcs were initially created as a group of bestial humanoids with the sole purpose of being killed by players. This classic "evil" race could not be chosen by players for their character until 1993 with the release of "The Complete Book of Humanoids," a sourcebook for the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The works of J.R.R Tolkien are credited as an inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons within the game's own "Appendix N" and Tolkien has described orcs in the xenophobic vernacular of 1950s Britain.

Over the years and through subsequent editions of the game, these racial allusions have generally been minimized. In the summer of 2020, amid a reckoning on race and inclusion throughout many industries, Wizards of the Coast released a statement outlining steps it was taking to help "everyone to feel at home around the game table and to see positive reflections of themselves within our products."

"But for every two steps forward, they take one step back," Trammell said, citing a recent publication's inclusion of a simian race of humanoids reminiscent of old minstrel shows.

Wizards of the Coast also recently presented a new vernacular for the upcoming rule changes to the game replacing instances of "race" with "species."

"At best I think that this is an earnest appeal to fans that WoTC is taking the representation of race seriously in its games, but at its worst I really think that this may quash some of the important dialogue that is happening around the topic within fan communities," said Trammell. "The problem never was that race was a concept in fantasy worlds; instead it has been that fantasy worlds are the product of any number of white supremacist tropes that mirror those in our own."

"The issue was never really 'race' but essentialism," Dashiell agreed. "And essentialism is baked into the system of D&D — it's in its DNA. I think many people would consider it a completely different game, as race/species give advantages and disadvantages and there needs to be a checks and balances system for parity, consistency and fun."

Some game systems outside of D&D are doing away with race as a defining aspect of player characters altogether, while other systems are engaging in stories and worlds with non-white, non-Eurocentric designs.

Monte Cook, owner of Monte Cook Games and a former Dungeons & Dragons designer, developed a setting-agnostic game system, meaning it can be used to tell stories in many different genres. A distinguishing feature is that players can create characters without needing to consider race or species for mechanical perks.

"Race and class are premade buckets that you fill," he said. "By focusing on who your characters are, it gives players more control."

While there are no in-game mechanical benefits to choosing a particular race, Monte Cook Games strives to encourage diversity through artwork. The artwork they commission tries to be inclusive by showing women in the Wild West or children of color exploring a haunted house. Sometimes the art depicts people wearing masks so that players can imagine themselves or their characters in those situations.

"We want everyone to feel welcome, to feel seen," Cook said.

Beyond those who play the games, what is often overlooked is the community of people creating and marketing them. When he started in the business, Cook said, all the designers, artists and editors were of similar backgrounds and ethnicities, but he is seeing the culture change and become more diverse. "We want people of all types in the driver's seat," he said.

One example is Coyote & Crow, a new game focused on telling specifically Indigenous stories.

"The more I wanted to create a setting that didn't have colonialism as part of its structure at all, the more I realized the only way to strip that out of the setting was to create an alternate future where colonization never even happened," said Connor Alexander, creator of Coyote & Crow, which has a First Nations setting and themes.

Coyote & Crow began as a reaction to seeing games featuring characters of different cultures without having the same representation behind the scenes building the game. The project, which raised over $1 million on Kickstarter, allowed Alexander and a team of Native designers to create a world and craft stories that were distinctly not Anglo-European. For instance, players are encouraged to create characters who are part of expansive multigenerational families, as opposed to the loner trope typically found in Anglo-European fantasy tales.

Alexander sees the growth in popularity of actual plays as the first step to growing diversity within the hobby.

"Unfortunately, there hasn't been any breakthrough show yet that has displayed the kind of diversity that I want to see," he said. "Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of good actual plays out there with a lot of great folks, but none of them have broken through in a way that I want to see them break through yet, and part of that is [due to] the dominance of Dungeons & Dragons."

In a recent investor meeting, Wizards of the Coast CEO Cynthia Williams described Dungeons & Dragons as "under-monetized." The company's goal is to increase products targeting players even after they have purchased the source books needed to play. One of the biggest draws for Dungeons & Dragons and TTRPGs is the relatively low cost of investment to start — once players buy a rulebook, they can keep playing indefinitely, limited only by their own imaginations.

That imaginative freedom is what gives minorities and marginalized people the opportunity to build worlds that center their own stories. On a community level, this creativity can be seen in the proliferation of "homebrew" games made by fans who customize the settings, characters and rules of published systems to their liking.

Corporations and collective storytelling may sometimes be at odds, but "a thing does not have to be perfect to be good," Iyengar said. "As a Black woman, and queer, if I had to throw away every piece of fiction that did any of my identities dirty, I would have nothing to do but sit quietly in a room."

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