Friday, October 21, 2011

Today's Steampunk RaceFail: Wolsung

Via my friend bankuei comes this, uhm, delightful example of casual racism dressed up as entertainment.

Bankuei's only posted the two images, and it's possible that there may be more egregiously racist images that I'm not seeing. 

Now, I get that this is a Polish RPG game, so there may not be a whole lot of African, indigenous, or Asian peoples there who have lived there long enough to find these kinds of racist caricatures of their home cultures insulting. But this is, in fact, an example of what I'm talking about when I say steampunk is not a form of escape for many, and is not immune to racism. Here we have caricatures of... I don't know, pygmy Africans? Carib natives? And then there is, of course, the pinch-faced caricature of Chinese people, complete with pointed ears; this hobgoblin figure draws on the Fu Manchu character (as well as an exaggeration of other Chinese characteristics). 

I don't really know what goes on in Poland in terms of race relations, but that doesn't really excuse the fact that it draws on racist stereotypes of what Foreign Peoples look like, stereotypes that render the Foreign People looking Not Human or Completely Barbaric. And thus the tradition of dehumanizing the non-West by cultural producers continues to feed the ignorance of folks who may likely never interact with these stereotyped peoples on a personal basis, to see folks like us as, you know, normal people. 

Which is why it's so important for us POC to be creators of our own worlds, where we won't be these kinds of caricatures. Because these stereotypes live on, and sometimes in us. How many of us are working hard to decolonize our minds of what has been taught to us about our own people, as inferior to Westerners? How many of us are products of the White Man's Burden to civilize us? How do we re-invent ourselves to be free of that? 


  1. ZOMG Epic Fail. >_< But at least we have another concrete benchmark to refer to in the future, if we're going to look for a silver lining.

  2. The first one is savage halfing (check out his hairy feet). The second one has pointy ears, because it's an orc.

    The orc comes from the gallery of evil arch-villains ( So he looks, you know, evil. You can also find there nazi trolls ( and ugly nazi witches (, so Germans should feel offended, a demon dressed like Englishman (, so Englishmen should feel offended, and brutal caricature of corrida (, so Spaniards should feel offended.

    In the rulebook you'll find more content offensive to all nations. For example Poland (called Slavia in the book; slavia -> slaves?) is a muddy hole, which inhabitants bungle everything they try to do - so Poles, including authors of the book, should also feel offended.

    And now seriously. I think that before you judge the game, you could read it's page (, and/or it's simplified rules ( There is paragraph about races: dwarves, elves, gnomes, halfings, humans, ogres, orcs and trolls. Nothing offensive. Look at page eight: there's an orcish singer. Quite pretty for me.

    My friend played an old orc scientist from Ozumu (Japan), who was looking for an artifact, which would help him defeat dragon Genbaku (Godzilla), that was devastating his hometown from time to time. Apart from being a scientist he was also a martial artist, because, you know, ALL people from Ozumu know martial arts. He enjoyed playing this character. I enjoyed my "french" elven bon vivant. My other friend enjoyed his gnome (jewish?) golem-creator. So I think that cliches and stereotypes can be quite entertaining and playable if served properly - and IMO this game serves them properly.

  3. Oh, yes, basic "it's offensive to everybody therefore you shouldn't be offended" defense.

    Because, you know, stories that strive to reach beyond stereotypes and caricatures are SO BORING!


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  5. I didn't mean it's truly offensive to anybody. What I meant was that every race and every country in the rulebook has good and bad sides. You shouldn't concentrate on one bad side, of one specific race/country, and say "this game is sooo racist".

    All villains in the gallery are evil, ugly, and twisted - and so is orcish sorcerer, and halfing cannibal. Same races, when pictured as common people or heroes, look normal, sometimes charming (for example orcish singer).

    How would you draw a member of cannibal tribe or evil Chinese sorcerer, so that it wouldn't be offensive?

  6. I'm not sure that pointing out that they're literally 'non-human' really helps your argument, Jingizu... but as to your final question, I'd suggest going beyond tired stereotypes. Turn them on their (pointy) ears, rather than just recast them.

    Even when (as you point out) the authors are poking at stereotypes of themselves, they're using the same one Al Capp used with his "Lower Slobbovia" - it's been done, and rather than retelling the old Polack jokes, why not 'reinvent' the area? Marie Curie was Polish, after all...

  7. The point is, Jingizu, is that there are more depictions of certain races as "bad" than there are "good". And very often, the "good" ones in certain races are the exception, not the rule.

    And your final question is deeply disappointing. I'd draw them as, you know, normal-lookin' people, rather than rely on old stereotypes of grassy savages and slitty-eyed mystics.

    I'll defer to bankuei's judgement of the game when he finally plays it, as he has a strong sense of these things when it comes to RPGs. But for the record, those images are truly problematic, and I don't care that they're "making fun of stereotypes". If it's racist, it's still racist.

  8. MacAuslander: wolsung's version of Europe is also inhabited mainly by "non-human" races, and Asia is inhabited by humans too. "Humans" are just one of eight races, and according to the rulebook: "Human tribes can be also found in the deserts of Lemuria and Sunnir, the jungles of Atlantis or the prairies in Vinland. However, they are not the majority on any continent".

    Jha: if somebody has shown me "normal-looking" gentleman with a kind smile on his face, and said "this is a powerful sorcerer, evil to the bone", then I would be deeply disappointed ;) It's a SORCERER, he should wear long robes, bear magic artifacts, and have an evil grin on his face. Wherever he comes from, Asia, Europe or America. However it doesn't look like I'm going to convince you, or you're going to convince me, so I'll stop trying. Peace, have a good day :)

  9. It's a SORCERER, he should wear long robes, bear magic artifacts, and have an evil grin on his face.

    Clearly you have no conception of the evil ordinary-looking and yes, kindly-looking people are perfectly capable of, on a daily basis. That's... not very imaginative. Nor even remotely connected to reality. But okay.

  10. It's connected to pop culture, comic books, cartoons and many action movies. And Wolsung is a game "about adventures of Extraordinary Ladies and Gentlemen", superhero style. If I wanted something more connected to reality, with gentle-looking bad people, I would play Call of Cthulhu or World of Darkness.

  11. Okay - it's a game. I've had their site bookmarked for a while, as I'm a long-time gamer, and I was rather hoping this would be a good Steampunk RPG - but it's falling right in line with some fairly traditional ways of looking at a 'fantasy' world. The game bills itself as "Steam Pulp", but unfortunately it seems to have (perhaps unconsciously, but still...) picked up the pulp-era social consciousness as well.

    Go take a look at the Ladies and Gentlemen section of the Gallery. Do you see any non-white humans there? Check the fantasy races represented - elf, halfling, gnome. Any of those appear to be of color?

    Again, your point that "it's connected to pop culture, comic books, cartoons, and many action movies" DOESN'T HELP YOUR ARGUMENT. It simply points out that this problematic depiction of The Other is widespread. It's still problematic.

  12. Hey, hey, Jingizu, you know what else is connected to reality?

    RACISM! Which, as MacAuslander is pointing out to you, can be found in the game. Just because it's not in-your-face-hateful-violence (and racism is rarely like that anyway these days) doesn't disconnect it from reality. If anything, its connection to pop culture, comic books and cartoons makes its presence even more prominent and problematic.

    Thanks, MacAuslander.