Diverse ethnicities in IF

Ripped from the “Brothers” thread,

We were thinking about this briefly on the Choice of Games team and I wanted to point out a strategy that didn’t come up in the thread (I think), which is to use NPC names to convey hints about a character without belaboring a description of their age, skin color or making a Thing about their ethnicity.

Which is to say, if you name your scientist Leticia, you don’t have to say a lot (or even anything at all) about the character’s ethnicity–you don’t even have to decide for yourself what the character looks like–but players may be better able to “fill in the blanks” better.

In the reverse direction, you can convey a lack of diversity by using a selection of NPC names that are common among WASP Americans, even if you don’t say anything at all about skin color or diversity.

Names, background, environment. What does their mom make for dinner?

John Scalzi wrote a book in which one side character was not physically described – but he mentioned that he graduated from Howard University.

This is a strategy that’s heavily reliant on cultural cues - which means that, like other kinds of cue, they can go sailing over your audience’s head, particularly if they’re from a different country, region, culture or age group.
I’m really attentive to naming styles - I read blogs about baby naming trends even though I never intend to have kids, I fiddle around with writing Better Culture-Dependent Name Generators for NPCs, I once wrote a whole essay about naming cues in a year’s Comp entries but then decided it was too overready and threw it out -, but I still miss a lot. I knew that Georgiana Bourbonnais in Impostor Syndrome was a WoC, but from the name I didn’t get anything other than ‘French-flavoured pen-name.’ (Other people felt it suggested Cajun.) I don’t get any read off Leticia: it fits with some patterns common among African-American names, but it’s also a pretty traditional white name. The younger sister in Bee is a Lettice. I’ve known a white Lettie or two.

Super-useful, and I really think that paying close attention to the implications of naming is something authors should spend a lot of thought on. But it can still involve walking the line between Cue That Goes Right Over The Audience’s Head and Cue That’s So Over-The-Top It Feels Kinda Racist.

blank stare

Yeah, what maga said.

Howard is a historically- (and presently >90%) -black US university. (I know this only because Ta-Nehisi Coates is an alumnus and mentions it fairly often.)

Oh. Unlike Emerald, I didn’t even get that I didn’t get it. I just foolishly assumed that Howard was a fictional version of Harward, or something similar.

So yeah. If you’re writing for an international audience and the detail is important to the story, it may be a good idea to spell it out. Not only facts like this that may or not be known to people, but also aspects of culture. I’ve been heavily exposed to American culture (mainly the Hollywood version of it, but also through reading things on the internet) so I can pick get many references, but it’s still something alien to me. I can’t think of any good example, but here’s something to illustrate a difference: I’ve never observed this behaviour, while what I’ve read on the 'net leads me to believe that it’s a quite common thing in some parts of the world. (On the other hand: living in a culture doesn’t automatically mean that you understand it either, as the article I linked points out. Sometimes it seems to be the opposite.)

Or one could use the ambiguity and let the player decide the PC’s race or gender. Say you play a character named Alex, who leaving the house must choose what shoes to wear, pumps or clogs. The same could be done with race.

But I think we were talking about NPCs, weren’t we?

Though I have some pretty serious doubts about that approach for PCs too: the idea that gender/race/sexuality etc are such shallow characteristics that they affect only essentially insignificant choices makes me nervous, though I know others disagree. To make good on the promise that players will experience what your game with equal power while playing, say, a gay white male or a trans female of colour as they please is a truly difficult task, and it’s unlikely that many authors could do equal artistic justice to all the various possibilities, and it is very easy to get it wildly and even offensively wrong. I tend to think that the decision to make these differences merely skin deep either stems from an ingenuous equation of player and protagonist or is a (sometimes justifiable) quasi-political decision, but it’s not one that could be appropriate to all games. The radically different experiences, power, entitlement, protection, esteem and self-esteem actually shown and felt to/for/by people of different genders, ethnicities, sexualities, classes, nationalities and so forth might well be part of the subject of the game, and if so it’s simply not possible to obscure them, though one might (as Counterfeit Monkey, eg, does) use them in creative and unexpected ways. And even when they are not foreground, they are surely often pretty crucial background.

The problem with NPCs is sort of the opposite. What do you do if, say, the race of a particular NPC is not actually important to your story, but it is important to your story to sketch the environment in which your game takes place as containing a diverse range of people, perhaps treated in a particular way? That’s how I understood it at least. Peripheral NPCs, to make impact during their brief appearances, often have to be sketched with pretty bold strokes, and that inevitably brings a huge risk of being heavy-handed or even resorting to crude stereotypes. It’s a very difficult problem, but quite a different problem from creating a PC where you have much more room for subtlety, if you choose to use it.

Just as long as you don’t end up with Lando Calrissian, the only black man in the known universe. :laughing:

In Middle-Earth race has a real impact on characters. As an Elf I have longevity, preternatural wisdom and magic powers. Human races are quite literally skin deep. They have no impact on character other than those implied by prejudice.