I'm writing fantasy stories in different worlds which do not share any history with our own. I was thinking I wanted to move away from the classic 'all white cast' scenario in most games, by picking one of the groups of people and making them a different skin tone.

I had originally thought this would be easy, in a completely different fantasy world with it's own culture there is no reason I can't pick any random skin tone and give it to a group of people, beyond ensuring they live in right geographic location (ie closeness to the equator) for that tone to have evolved. However, when I actually tried to pick a group of people I ran into the issue that I could see someone making claims that a group is racist or that my game has unfortunate racial implications even though the group was created without consideration for race and any race is effectively an afterthought on my part. It puts me in the awkward situation of feeling it's 'safer' to have no diversity then have diversity that someone can complain about how it's used.

To give an example the story where it came up involves one group (group A) being invaded by another (group B). The protagonist is actually jumping between two versions of the timeline, one a generation in the future, so we can see in the future that group B successful conquered group A and is now ruling over the part of the world. How good a ruler group B is over group A depends on who you ask. The first part of the plot seem a clear cut attempt to stop group B from invading in the 'past' timeline. As time goes on it will be learned that the real problem is both sides are being manipulated into conflict by a third party who will be the real villains of the story.

The story has some parallels to the colonization of the Americas, including a preaching of something like manifest-destiny and the fact that diseases spread by the new contact between the races will take more lives then the actual war took, though in this case the diseases ravished both groups about equally. As such I'm afraid that if I don't keep everyone the same race it will bring up claims that I'm misrepresenting colonization or other claims of unfortunate implications. This seems true regardless of which race I make group A or group B.

To give another, less extreme, example I have a different story with two groups in something of a cold war with each other. The Kingdom has a strong central leadership, a very strong military presence, and rules over a larger area; while the republic has a weak central goverment and only militias, but is more technically advanced and owns more fertile lands. Originally the kingdom is depicted as bad guys due to the kings apparent warmongering, but later on both sides are shown to be guilty of questionable decisions and neither side clearly in the right or the wrong. As in the other story there is a bigger villain that plays a role in later parts of the story.

In this case I'm less apprehensive about assigning a race to one group or the other, since neither side seems, in my mind, to fit as directly into one racial stereotype or have as direct a parallel to something that is always going to be bound associated to racial discussion like colonization has. Still I worry about depicting battle between two racial groups (war will be declared during the story) is always going to be a problem.

The countries will not contain a mixture of different races, limited transportaiton technology and other world building reasons mean each group will be made up almost exclusively of one phenotype. Likewise since these are video games I can't realistically do a blending of skin tones across a nation (with southern being darker then northern). I can do a sharp contrast of one group a different race then the other or nothing at all just due to technically difficulties of doing something more subtle.

So my question is, can/should I try to add some racial diversity by having the different groups be different races? Or should I error on the side of caution and just say both groups lived on the same longitudinal line and thus are roughly the same skin tone (possibly with some other differences between the groups like general height or hair color which I think are safer to write)

If it can be safe to have my existing groups different skin tones then how do I do it in a way that prevents people from reading implication into the choice of race when I'm honestly willing to assign any skin tone to either group and wouldn't be changing their characterization? Should I just not worry about it, pick a race at random for each groups, and ignore the fact that some people will always find ways to be offended in what is written?

  • Must they be human? For that matter, must they be the same species? – Monica Cellio Oct 11 at 2:17
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    Has anyone actually said something, or is this all "I imagine this might happen"? – wetcircuit Oct 11 at 2:29
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    People who want to be offended will find a way, and you definitely can't please everyone. Just write what you want. – eyeballfrog Oct 11 at 6:36
  • I didn't read all of the answers but Star Trek handles this with spots, stripes, ridges, and so on. – DPT Oct 11 at 14:08
  • @eyeballfrog imho that's a poor excuse for the lack of thinking on author's part. – Alexander Oct 11 at 17:25

Videogame, in a fantasy world that isn't our world. Why not make people blue, red, green? Who says their biology and skin colours have to conform to earth's? In fact, then you'd have a number of "races" (whatever "race" means), but you wouldn't be in any way tied to earth's stereotypes.

You definitely don't want to make all people pale-skinned. You do that, a whole lot of earth's population are going to feel excluded, and rightly so. There's already lots and lots of content that's all-white.

Many videogames I see nowadays (the Dragon Age and Mass Effect sagas are the example I most often turn to) have a slider for skin colour - goes from ghost-white to deep black, with all possible shades of brown in between. Both aforementioned sagas sort of ignore geographical realism completely, and just stick people of all colours wherever. I'm quite comfortable with this approach. I mean, why not? And even if it screws realism a bit, we're prepared to suspend our disbelief enough to accept magic, and health made of hitpoints. (Just think of how absurd the last one is.) If we accept that, why shouldn't we accept varied skin colours?

I also believe you are somewhat mistaken when you talk about means of transportation not allowing "racial mixing". Trade caravans existed from times immemorial. As long as you've got some sort of a pack animal, you've got those. Goods were travelling all the way from India to the Mediterranean ~1000BCE. We've got archaeological evidence of that (stones and metals that could only be found in place A, or goods exclusively manufactured in place A, found in place B). If goods travelled, so did people. And if people travelled, they also stayed, and had children. Considering that, a rather mixed population is not entirely unlikely. In particular, while the distinction between Scotland and the Sahara is rather sharp, people in, say, Iran, would have a much higher diversity of skin colours.

  • In fact, according to Kurzgesagt, trade over thousands of km occurred as early as 8,000 BC. – J.G. Oct 11 at 6:29
  • While I like Dragon's Age approach, it's far from being mandatory or even necessary. It works there because the protagonists are meant to be self-inserts of the player. At large, we don't need every protagonist (in games or other media) to match our skin tone. If the audience can't recognize the fact that, regardless of skin, we're all human beings, we have a bigger problem (as people). – Liquid Oct 11 at 8:53
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    @Liquid It's not necessary, but it is one option. Personally, I find the "unrealistic appearance" option more interesting, and I notice that's the example you bring: we don't normally have people born with white hair. – Galastel Oct 11 at 9:46
  • Yes, the unrealistic appearacne option is allright; I was referring to the sliders for skin tone. – Liquid Oct 11 at 10:30
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    @Liquid I disagree that they are meant to be self-inserts. Do you assume Hawk, the Warden and the Inqusitor should look the same? – rus9384 Oct 11 at 12:54

For a video game:

One approach to being post-racial is to just have racial mixing. As many cultures today are, due to migrations (forced by slavery or not) and inter-mixing of genes. We have had the same thing here on Earth forever: The modern human genome shares genes that are distinctly Neandertal, and distinctly Denisovan. Those lines of early hominids clearly interbred.

Since your world is not Earth and has its own history, an implied part of that history can be widespread migrations prompted by population pressure, Malthusian wars over food, water, space, access to the coast or rivers, etc.

In the end, your people can be many colors without being racist. The Roman culture was this way. They did not discriminate by skin color; rulers, citizens and slaves could be of any color. The discriminated based on other characteristics, but "race" in the modern sense was not one of them. They considered inferior the uncultured, "barbarians" (a reference to not speaking the Roman language), people in non-Roman dress. Basically xenophobic, but to the Romans "like us" was not exclusively one race, it was about Roman attitudes, beliefs, life style and behavior.

So in your position, I would just make "racism" something people have not really invented yet. All populations are of mixed race, and one mixed race population achieving victory over another should not trigger any racism.

Write your game so race truly is only a decoration on a character and not a factor in game play, and ensure outcomes are determined on the merits of battle and play. If you have control in a story, assign race to leaders in such a way that no particular races seems to win or be defeated disproportionately versus any other.


I originally screwed up on this answer, because as Galastel pointed out to me in a comment, I overlooked the fact that this was a video game! So my advice below applies to novels and won't really work for a video game. However, I still regard it as useful advice if novel-writers come to this question, and like me do not realize it is about a visual medium.

Why is it necessary to mention skin tone at all? Can't you let the reader assume whatever they wish to see?

I have written multiple books without mentioning anything about the race of the characters. My narrator never describes them, they are only described by other characters (in thought or dialogue), and that never mentions race either.

The only reason to mention race is if race matters to the story, and if what you want is a story without racism, just be "post-racial" and do not mention the race or "skin tone" of any character, ever. It is not necessary to the story so you shouldn't care, or insist that the reader see the same skin tone you see. If you do insist upon that, then race actually DOES matter to you that the reader see one character as White and another as black or Asian or Hispanic or Indian, you should let go of that. Or, change your mind and have their skin tone matter to the story, since it matters to you.

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    Psst, Videogame. Visual medium. The association between race and skin colour isn't as straight-forward as Americans would have it, (for instance, we Jews come in all colours, and are a "race" unto ourselves, if you accept the concept of race at all), but with skin colour right before your eyes, you can't "assume" as you see fit. ;) – Galastel Oct 10 at 22:41
  • @Galastel Yeah, I missed that.... – Amadeus Oct 11 at 1:28
  • @Amadeus: "do not mention the race or "skin tone" of any character, ever." How exactly do you do that? Ignoring the whole "visual medium" issue, how do you describe in text what a character looks like without creating some notion of "race" in the mind of the reader? Even something as simple as describing their hair can rule out entire races (blonde? Probably not of asian descent. Straight hair? Probably not of african descent. etc). – Nicol Bolas Oct 11 at 5:18
  • @NicolBolas that's faulty thinking, though. Why someone should take a simple description to rule out an entire "racial descent"? What's even the point of doing that? – Liquid Oct 11 at 8:59
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    @Liquid Assumption of realism (if we assume characters are homo sapiens). So, what Nicol says is not meaningless. If you say a character has a dark brown skin it will be associated with a certain race. Few will think about native Australian. – rus9384 Oct 11 at 12:58

Some people will always find ways to be offended in what is written and will accuse you of racism, and that's a fact. This can potentially happen regardless of your efforts, so, just ignore them.

It seems to me that you are already being enough considerate of the themes you are going to write about. Arguably, the colonization scenario where A meets B and they are overall tricked by another C group is the more "risky", since colonization is still an issue in many countries, and its effects are still linger today. But stories (and video games) need to talk about touchy themes. As long as you are considerate, avoiding harmful myths like the "savages in good touch with mother nature" or the "enlightened colonizers", you should be ok.

As you mentioned the other setting is less related to race, yet there is no reason to avoid racial issues completely (as the Kingdom could be majority A and the republic majority B), but it's fine if things are mixed up. As J.D. Ray mentions, diversity comes also in culture, costumes and habits, so just remember to use that as well.

I'll drop here an example of a videogame that does both: Bastion from Supergiant Games. The two main factions in the history of the game are Caelondians (olive-skinned, white-haired people) and Uras (white-skinned, dark-haired). You can easily tell them apart due to their clothes, also: Caelondians wear western-style clothes, while Uras have wear a somewhat middle-eastern clothing. To be fair, while the protagonist (the kid on the right side of the image) is Caelondian, it doesn't seem to me that any of the races has been given a poor representation.

Bastion

In my opinion, while it's good to ask difficult questions about difficult themes like racial diversity, this shouldn't be the focus of an author. If it doesn't make sense with your setting, you shouldn't force racial diversity just for chasing political correctness. In many cases, it like chasing a ghost.

I feel like your question of "race" based on skin tone is misplaced, though your core idea is a solid one. Take for instance your Group A and Group B. One is the conqueror and the other is subjugated. The color of their skin probably doesn't have anything to do with the situation in the way we think of it in our world. However, each group's sense of "the other" is key to their perspective and how they would interact to someone outside their group. That's the core of racism in our society, and it really has little to do with the particular color of someone's skin; we, as a whole, look for ways to differentiate "us" from "them".

So maybe you can figure out ways to differentiate one type of people from another visually, such as manner of dress, that will work in a very-visual video game setting. Maybe everyone from Group A wears a particular type of hat, and Group B a particular color of coat.

Making everyone white seems like a sure way to get tagged as being racist. I know you're not and appreciate the sensitivity you've given this.

The other answers have some great feedback regarding this and I think you'd do well by following much of the advice given.

You could go there other way and force the issue of race, but not with black v white skin tones. Try, as another answerer suggested, stripes v. spots, or as James S. A. Corey did in Leviathan Wakes, long bones v. compact bones - and people from a well (ie. a gravity well, or planet) v. belters (people born and raised in low gravity environs).

Your story involves aspects of cultural divides and domination which is the basis of racism. So, put it in your story, it may enhance the sub plots.

Either way, best of luck!

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