ENTERTAINMENT

Dungeons & Dragons Panel Offers Advice On Representing Asian Cultures

For the first time, Wizards of the Coast offered Asian fans of the popular fantasy game a public venue to express themselves.

An online event hosted last weekend by Wizards of the Coast, the company behind the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, included for the first time a panel designed to educate players on sensitively portraying Asian cultures and stories.

Moderating the “Weaving Asian Stories” panel at  D&D Celebration 2020 was Daniel Kwan, a Toronto-based game designer and one of the hosts of the “Asians Represent Podcast,” which celebrates the contributions of Asian creators in the role-playing game industry. He was joined by podcast co-hosts Steve Huynh and Ammar Ijaz, as well as Pam Punzalan, a game designer in the Philippines, and Ahmed Aljabry, who lives in Saudi Arabia and has translated D&D material into Arabic.

The panelists urged D&D players to avoid the tropes and broad generalizations that previously appeared in the game’s depictions of fantasy realms influenced by real-world Asian cultures, including fixations on honor and people speaking with stereotypical accents. They encouraged players of color to represent themselves by swapping the typical Caucasian rendering of fantasy species, such as elves, for more multiracial portrayals and recommended scholarly works such as “Orientalism,” a 1978 text written by Edward Said that analyzes the exoticization of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East by Western countries.

An image of rules from the current D&D "Dungeon Master's Guide," with suggestions on what to do when "being unsure how to act
An image of rules from the current D&D "Dungeon Master's Guide," with suggestions on what to do when "being unsure how to act with honor."

Speaking with HuffPost, the panelists all agreed that respectful cultural portrayals within an imaginative game like D&D could be educational, and Aljabry described the role-playing experience as a “great opportunity for people’s curiosity and interest to break cultural barriers.”

“Diversity makes better games, and gaming better,” Ijaz said. “Shifting away from the stereotypes that lead to the same tired tropes enables richer storytelling, deeper characters and more fun.”

Wizards of the Coast, a subsidy of Hasbro, has faced criticism this year over its depiction of culture and race within D&D. In June, the company pledged an ongoing initiative stressing diversity, stating that it would employ sensitivity readers for future products.

The company has also apologized following accusations of an unsupportive work environment for creators of color, and it drew flak for continuing to profit off of products like “Oriental Adventures” and “Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures,” two D&D rulebooks originally published in the late ’80s and early ’90s that present fantasy kingdoms laden with stereotypes of East Asia and the Middle East. All of the “Weaving Asian Stories” panelists previously appeared on livestreams critiquing both books, which are now being sold alongside a sensitivity disclaimer, and received varying degrees of backlash from non-Asian D&D fans who dismissed their criticisms. 

Wizards of the Coast acknowledging Asian viewpoints via D&D Celebration 2020, which also featured panels on inclusivity and mental health, was a “first step rather than a solution” toward rectifying the company’s missteps, Kwan said. He noted that collaborating with Wizards of the Coast for the panel had been a positive experience but he still planned to advocate for “better representation, hiring practices and the treatment of those in the D&D community.”

Huynh elaborated upon the importance of representation, stressing that, stripped of its dice rolls and complex rules, D&D is ultimately about multiple people uniting to create a collaborative story.

“Stories can help us grow empathy, expand our world views and whet our appetite for even more learning,” Huynh said. “Unfortunately, those benefits begin to diminish when they are constantly coming from a small set of experiences. We’re at a point where marginalized voices can add so much more to what’s already there.”

“The world as a whole needs compelling, evocative, intriguing stories, but no single story can fully satisfy or represent everyone,” Punzalan agreed. “The best way to solve that would be to amplify more voices that don’t fit within the current status quo, showcase talent that has always been there but were rarely given opportunities to bloom and shine light upon contexts that exist beyond the familiar.”

Watch the full panel below.

CORRECTION: This article previously misstated that “Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures” was published in the 1980s. It was published in 1992.