Race, Sexual identity, and Player Character customization in a pre-civil rights setting

Hi all, I’m creating an interactive fiction at the moment and-- full disclosure-- I’m not certain yet if I am using COG or another system to create the final work-- but that’s not what this post is about.

The time period my story takes place in is late 1920’s. Though eventually supernatural elements do occur in the story, the world is firmly rooted in a fairly realistic and authentic (I hope) version of that time period-- leaning more toward a 1940’s film noir pulp detective style mixed with some action/adventure horror. Think The Maltese Falcon meets the 1990’s remake of The Mummy for tone.

In no version of the game will I use ugly racial or homophobic/ transphobic slurs- even when dealing with nasty characters with tiny brains up to no good.

In no version of the game will any sex be graphically depicted or described- There are moments of passion and then- like old cinema- the aftermath. This isn’t an erotic story, nor is the romance more than a single element- and if you are familiar with noir, you know that romance is messy and full of betrayals etc.

I had originally started writing the game experience from the point of view of an already established character, as if you were The Third Person watching/reading and influencing the protagonists decisions and reading their own very personal inner monologue about their own thoughts, feelings, and memories etc.

I made this decision because, while I know it makes the character less of a role the player fills and experiences, it also allows for easier layering of depth and history; like watching a movie and getting to decide what the established main character does, yet knowing that character is not supposed to be YOU.

Being a white binary male, and also knowing the complexities of discrimination in the time 1920’s I started the work with a binary white male protagonist --an anti-hero really, since this is pulp detective noir.

Of course, we live in more (mostly) enlightened times and I realize that in a Game Book or work of Interactive Fiction there are often a lot of expectations of personalizing the main character to suit the individuals tastes.

I don’t want the player to feel like they were forced to play a role created by someone who doesn’t care about who they are or who they want to pretend to be in a game. This of course complicates things.

I don’t want to have the game take place in a fantasy version of the world that is idealized so that sexism, racism, and homophobia don’t exist there. The story has a lot of good vs evil and such prejudices are as evil as it gets and I feel they should be addressed. It also feels like white washing history if I avoid addressing discrimination-- even though I realize many players of game books are looking to escape awful things like prejudices.

I don’t want to pretend that stupid people with prejudices weren’t everywhere in the 1920’s and that they weren’t in power. I also don’t want to make a story where every character is white and binary to avoid the issue-- you know, classic Hollywood.

I also realized of course that in sensitive matters of allowing the player to choose their race, their outward gender appearance, and their sexual calling (Binary, Non-Binary, Asexual) it might present a minefield of offensive or unintentionally hurtful experiences:

Player Characters that outwardly appear female will face discrimination. Does it make great drama? Sure. Is it fun? It can certainly be frustrating and hurtful.

Player Characters that are non-white will be barred from entering many places and even met with hostility. The potential for drama and exploring ugly truths about history is there, but how awful an experience is this to try and “choose your way” through?

Player Characters that make romantic choices that go outside of the accepted binary roles of the time period could face terrible consequences if the wrong people notice-- again, great drama-- but is the stress and hurtfulness of that experience too much for a game?

The thing is, this game is NOT about racism, sexism, or homophobia-- those elements only come into play if I try to include race and sexuality in character customization and treat the game world as somewhat historically accurate.

What do I mean by historically accurate?

Well, there will be good people in the world who will accept the player character no matter who they are of course, and there will also be some people JUST like the player character too-- though they will be dealing with the burden of what 1920’s society is putting them through.

Many men will treat female characters as lesser people- which can be frustrating but also offer chances for female characters to use that sexist outlook against the idiots who underestimated them.

There will also be people who are just scared and stupid who will treat the player badly or avoid them if they are of a minority our known to be non-binary.

And then, naturally there will be purely despicable terrible people who would mean to do the player harm because of their sexuality or race.

There would be potential romance available, but non-binary characters would have to be extra careful about who they develop feelings for or get close to because being vulnerable to the wrong person can be catastrophic.

If the player approaches a character of another race romantically that could lead to explosive results as well if not handled with utmost discretion.

It’s the 1920’s. It’s way too common for people to be killed for being different. Lots of ugliness and minefields.

So, that’s what I mean by historically accurate.

Now, I can go the easy way with all of this heavy stuff and ditch it by:

Never describing anyone in racial or ethnic terms-- This may becomes an issue if I let the player character be a person of color but leave in any plot points that have race involved (for example I do have one subplot where an innocent black man is accused of crimes and the player must decide what to risk to do the right thing and help them).

I could totally leave out gender descriptions and gender related ideas for the player character and apply them only to non player characters-- which I feel misses a lot of dramatic possibility.

I could just make every romantic partner possibility in the world bisexual and depending on if the player wins them over or has feelings for them the romance just happens regardless of what “society” of the day felt. It makes the work easier for me-- but I admit it also makes the NPC’s start to feel less like they belong to the game world of that time period. That may just be my own mental baggage though.

So the easy way certainly can work-- But it chips away greatly at the reality of the historical representation of the time.

Also, as ugly as the times were for those who were not white or male, there is power in the drama of someone who has been treated with hostility by society when they rise up anyway and struggle to do the right thing in the face of greater dangers-- and I feel like that potential gets lost if I go “the easy way”.

I could circumvent a lot of the backward and vile societal norms of the 1920’s by setting the game in modern times of course, but honestly losing the setting/time period takes a lot of the prohibition era fun out of it for me. The lack of certain technologies and scientific knowledge, as well as the state of global politics really makes the game I have outlined run much smoother and make more sense in the 1920’s. In a modern setting there are over a hundred things I would have to change or throw out just to make some of the events I have in mind work or seem remotely plausible.

So, I am asking for opinions-

Do I create a version of the 1920’s with all it’s ugly aspects intact, AND let the player customize their race and their sexuality overtly at the start-- and have the world react to those choices in ways that seem real for the time?

Is asking a player to choose a character’s racial background and/or their sexuality in and of itself something too insensitive or obnoxious? Even if utmost care is taken to use these aspects intelligently and in as best taste as the subject/time period allows?

Do I create a version of the 1920’s where (with the possible exception of one story-line where a black man is accused unfairly of a crime) I never mention or make use of the players gender or race and that no NPC treats anyone different than anyone else regarding race or gender? In this world any potential romantic partners are available to the player regardless of race or gender as long as the player wins then over. Keeping in mind once more, this game is not a romance game or erotic.

I would really appreciate thoughts and feedback on this dilemma. I admit the worry over which CHOICE to make has derailed my work for the moment.

Thanks, kindly

  • Walt
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I personally don’t play these types of games because it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for me where if the author makes everything inclusive back then when it wasn’t, it breaks immersion but at the same time I do not want to be called a nggr every other paragraph for the sake of accuracy.

But I’ll give my perspective as a black woman who will most likely be treated awfully by some characters in your story if I chose to identify as such. Let me begin by saying I love history and 20’s America, “the jazz age” is one of my favorite eras. Love the Art Deco, flappers, speakeasies and all that. But I’m also, again, African and a woman so I know that idealized version of the 20’s is not for people like me.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making historically accurate fiction but it cannot be inclusive and historically accurate when these two things work in opposition with each other because historically speaking, things have not always been inclusive.

I’m going to take your post as an essay of sorts and break down some things in an attempt to come to a satisfactory conclusion so here are a couple of things I wanted to speak on.

Escapism
You have to take into account your work might be seen as a potential piece of escapism. Some players play these games to escape racism and sexism which they deal with that often. They do not play these games to watch black people get killed, we can turn on the news for that. Some players who happen to be black/Indian/Asian just want to pretend for a moment that they could live that idealized version of the 20’s.

Your game is not obligated to give them that, but it’s a common thing for players to seek a sense of escapism in an rpg like this.

The “power” (??) Of discrimination

I think this is a view of someone who hasn’t been through said hostility. It is not “powerful” to be treated horribly, denied basic human courtesy because you’re not seen as human, have key aspects of your identity ridiculed and be put in danger because of the way you were born. It is traumatic, dehumanizing and disgusting. It’s a burden for the abused to constantly be strong and shrug off antagonistic behavior not some “hurrah we are powerful” moment.

Limited choices in a choice based game

Imagine please for a moment, a choice based game where you couldn’t make certain choices because you’re white and a man. Does that sound like an enjoyable experience? What would be the benefit of me playing such a game when I know my choices will be limited?

Of course it could open up situations where you’d have to be resourceful as a non white player character to get into certain places for example but then everyone wouldn’t be getting the same experience and playing as a white character would be easier and you’d be creating an unequal situation where it’s beneficial to be white.

How much realism?
If you’re striving for realism, yet your game has the MC assumably being the driving force of the plot and doing protagonist worthy things, the MC being non white or non male breaks the realistic vibe you’re trying to set because in that era non whites weren’t given the opportunities to do certain things. Non whites were being attacked by the kkk and fighting for their lives and rights, not attending high end events, sipping Illegal champagne or dancing with flappers.

Like this for example

How is that going to work if I’m playing as a black character myself? Why would the white authorities who have no issue with imprisoning black people without proper trial because of some preconceived notions believe me? Unless you mean breaking him out of prison or something but aside from that am I not one step from being like him?

Also do you know the immigration act was passed in 1924 which included the Asian exclusion act? Will you make it so that you can’t play as an Asian since Asians were not allowed to exist in 20’s America?

If you’re going to go for realism are you going for all of it? Or just the part that allows you to deny access to black person from certain areas?

Conclusion

You came here to ask how to be inclusive of other people not accepted in the times you’re writing about while retaining historical accuracy but I get the vibe that you know what you have to do, bend some rules in some places (which you can after all it’s fiction) but you also don’t want to do that because it will ruin your :sparkles:aesthetic :sparkles:

The real dilemma I think is, “What is more important to me? Inclusion or the vision I have for my story?”

I reeeealllly hope this did not come off as rude but I’m giving my honest a raw opinion on this and please forgive any typos or grammatical errors it’s 2 am and should be asleep.

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I actually made my own topic on this very issue a while back:

which was later incorporated into a more expanded topic:

My main point still stands: realism does not inherently make a story good, especially if that realism is mainly being used to hurt minority players. Now, that doesn’t mean that stories that deal with realistic bigotry can’t be good, but these are stories that have to be written about bigotry. A story in which the bigotry is incidental can end up normalising it, which I’m sure is not what you want.

This is doubly true for interactive fiction, especially if minority players are forced to experience bigotry just to play the game while white cis straight men can enjoy it without any issues. And if your story is forcing minority players to be told how much the world hates them, then the game is inherently bigoted, even if that wasn’t the author’s intention.

Admittedly, it can feel cathartic to fight back against bigotry and win, but that would probably require that the player was forced to play as non-white, female, or LGBTQ+, and thus forced to fight back in the first place, and I’m pretty certain you don’t want to do that. (Also, I would suggest that such a story be written by somebody who has experienced such bigotry.)

Now, regarding the idea that you can’t have a story set in the 1920s without bigotry, well, there’s a lot more to the 1920s than the bigotry, and while the 1920s of your story will be different to the actual 1920s, it was always going to be. Even if you put aside the supernatural elements, your story will be rooted in your own cultural understanding of the 1920s, and will definitely contain your own more modern cultural sentiments, in other areas at least. Also, this particular change will mainly only be noticed by people who are minorities, so why not go the more inclusive route?

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The simple answer to everything asked is: if the subject material being written (abuse, discrimination, etc.) crosses the line of being written for gratification, then it goes too far.

Feedback will be your measuring stick, so as the author, you will need to take steps to ensure you are getting the needed feedback. There are various threads that discuss this, @ParrotWatcher 's thread being one.

This is an example of the feedback I am speaking of:

“Realism” is malleable and is constantly being redefined and refined. As an author, this gives you the ability to finesse aspects of your game which when incorporated into your world-building will be both accepted and embraced by your audience.

As an example, I am developing a game with historical characters in it. One of the characters, I am writing as non-binary, even though history is silent on whether this person was binary or not. My test readers fully accept this character and embrace them as an integral cast member of the story.

So, the “realism” inside my game world has this character as non-binary, while the “historical world” is silent on the issue of this character’s identity.

Every design decision you make should be focused on the scope of your game. Anything outside that scope can lead you into crossing the gratification test. When including anything that might be triggering in any way, you need to be asking: Is what I am writing part of the focus of my game’s scope?

If the writing is inside that scope, you then need to determine the purpose of it. Once again, if the purpose is part of your game’s focus, you need to get feedback that is relevant, even if you canvass for and recruit specific testers.

The feedback will be your most flexible tool in this development process, so you should spend extra time and energy making sure you have your game covered in that respect.

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You didn’t come off as rude at all. The feelings and ideas you have shared had the impact I think they needed to have. You thoughtfully explained your point of view and I truly appreciate it. Honestly I was afraid to post anything originally because I know the topic carries real weight and emotion and draws on experiences I never personally had coming from my place privilege. Your response rightfully causes me discomfort and it’s the kind of discomfort I need to explore and learn from. Thank you for the truth.

It’s very clear to me now that I cannot have a story set in the time period I had originally envisioned without making it the opposite of inclusive. I would either have to create separate experiences and choices for players who don’t create characters that are part of the oppressive majority OR I would have to ignore the ugly truth of a world an oppressive majority created-- which reeks of inauthenticity. Any satisfaction that might be possibly gained from playing as a member of a minority pushing back against an unjust system is laughable compared to the pushing back that really had to be done and is still needing to be done.

I am going to scrap this project and set my sights on a setting that is either more modern or fantastic, a place where inclusiveness feels authentic, and not (like this failed attempt) something that is trying to be depressingly separate but equal (bad enough) but then only succeeds in the terrible divisive aspects of the mistake. There is no band aid for a broken world that can do anything but highlight the damage.

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Thank you for taking the time to share the links and your thoughtful response.

I pretty much agree on all counts. I’m scrapping the outline and setting. The feedback I am getting on this thread has been valuable. It was my intent to actually make the choices available to members of minorities more positive in the face of adversity- as the enemy in the game design was deeply rooted in societal corruption and oppression-- the choices would have led to places of potential power to act and cause change-- but I can see that even creating that situation in the game is the opposite of being inclusive. The irony here that I was trying really hard to make this idea inclusive is almost laughable now. It was probably inevitable that any effort I made would come off as clumsy or even offensive because I am not the right voice for such a thing. I don’t have the experience and outlook to make something like that work even if it was the right thing to do-- and I don’t think it is anyway. I thought by addressing the inequalities of the thing I could make it socially relevant and inclusive but really I was just trying to tie together a bad idea with bailing twine. The bad idea being that a thing can still be inclusive and yet force different (and unfair) experiences which is such a ridiculous paradox now that I see it clearly I want to weep. Ah well, never say I can’t be taught!

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Thank you for the insight. I think I have a lot of emotional baggage when it comes to consolidating what is realistic historically with how it best serves the story. You speak wisely about the scope of the game. This project started as a kind of 3rd person Private Eye Noir story with almost nothing of social relevance-- but I became aware that I was not addressing enough of what I considered to be real injustices of the time period, and then that got me to wonder about inclusiveness-- which led me to try and build in systems that would allow it to be almost a simulator for what it would be like to experience these injustices as the people who had to endure them…and of course NONE of this had anything to do with the actual real scope of the original game-- and EVEN if I could make this “facing injustice” simulator work as part of a game…I was blindly idiotic to the fact that no one needs a simulator for that. Sometimes my brain gets hold of a problem and just wants to play with it as I follow the notion right off a cliff.

I can only say I had good intentions and that I am grateful for all the feedback. Not sure what I will do now, but it is not going to be this Noir project. Whatever I do will take place in a setting where I can honestly feel the authenticity of everyone getting the same experience-- and hopefully I can stay within the scope of what makes it a game.

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Personally, I’d go for a realistic and customisable approach. Even if it isn’t always pleasant, it increases immersion and realism, and fiction isn’t exclusively about escapism - it’s also about reflecting and describing the world the characters live in. If you were to publish the game, I’d enjoy playing characters of different backgrounds and seeing how the world reacts to them very much.

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I appreciate the feedback. I do agree that things don’t have to be escapist or pleasant, but I think my approach to realism on this particular project was highly misguided. I too would enjoy playing a character from a different background in a historical setting, but as I have been properly reminded, some of those characters and settings are not a game for a lot of people. I also know I’m not the right voice for a lot of those characters.

Hopefully I will incorporate what I learn in all this feedback into something better and I hope you’ll like that idea too.

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Well, I think if you want to write a story that take place in the past, discrimination against minorities is (in many settings) a given.
True, many play games to escape from reality and don’t want to see the real world problem in there, but I thibk the exact opposite.
For example, I would love to play game where you are a gay person in the past, but sadly games like these are very few and if you have the Choice your relationship is treated as if they thought it was normal (or at worst, what a lucky coincidence, all the main characters are 100% supportive and don’t even day “isn’t a bit strange?”).

If I want to play a game with an historical setting I don’t want it to be only to say “Oh yes, I’m a woman in the roman empire, I’m fighting side by side with other soldiers because woman are treated the same as men yeah!”
I WANT to experience the hardship of the time, that would be great! Seeing up close the mentality of those people!

If you want to have an inclusive 1920 setting do it, but say clearly that is a fantasy and idealized version.
Another (bad) example is AC ODYSSEY, you can play as a female but you’ll be treated the same as if you were a male! Ok, spartans treated women better than many others civilizations but NOT THE SAME as men! I cringed so hard in some scenes… Especially when she was in other cities…

My opinion? We need MORE games that let you explore past times as part of a minority but that are still FAITHFUL to their times.
Until you give the player the choice to have a “modern” mentality and let them have the chance to meet a bunch of “good” (good, not modern! If a man from the 1920 said “you being gay is strange, I don’t get it but you’re still my friend” he’s still good! He simply has the mentality of his time, that can change in the course of the game) you’ll be fine.

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Thanks for responding and you make a lot of good points. I think the issue for me is the level of realism I was looking for is based on terrible situations that are still going on, and was meant to be based on events that in all practicality were not really that long ago. With the echo of those injustices still in the air, I am not the right voice for that realism. I think in my blundering (well meaning) way I was creating a bigger problem to fix a problem – and that effort would only alienate the people I wanted to include. In the end these fictions are meant to be enjoyed, even when the characters suffer-- and I no longer see what I though was fun in the idea. I think historic realism like I was groping in the dark for works best as entertainment when it is more ancient and far removed from the suffering of today, like the Spartans you mentioned.

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I agree with what others have said, and I don’t want to rehash those points. Let me instead expand on this:

There is a way to be inclusive of players in a 1920s setting while still remaining “realistic,” as long as you keep in mind that our ideas of realistic are very often not the same thing as “accurate.”

Don’t get me wrong, discrimination (terrible, violent, existential discrimination) was (one) part of 20’s America—I assume your setting is the United States?

I ask because I want to come back to that term accurate. I can’t really speak to the United States on this matter, but gay communities in interwar Europe flourished. They existed openly. That’s not to say that homophobia didn’t exist, but there is certainly more gray area than I think you are supposing.

Women also benefited from huge strides toward equality including gaining the right to vote in many places and access to abortion (especially in post-revolution Russia). Again, sexism still existed, but not every time and place was as restrictive as the image you have painted of your game in this thread.

And in general, the after effects of WWI were huge. What I mean by that is that the men who returned home from war returned home changed and challenged many social and cultural norms (including ideas about gender and masculinity).

If was the rise of fascism that crushed these movements—and hey there’s a convenient villain for you.

Why not tell your story in a place that isn’t the United States? Pick a cosmopolitan city, a place where categories blend together and the tide of international exchange washes away the lines drawn in the sand? A place like Beirut or Havana maybe? Think Casablanca vibes.

A setting like that might explain why characters are more willing to look beyond the characteristics that society arbitrarily uses to divide us.

I think it’s possible to tell a “realistic” story about the 1920s and be inclusive to readers from all walks of life. What we think of as “realistic,” what the media has taught us to think of as “realistic,” is often not very realistic at all.

If you want to read more about some of the stuff I’ve mentioned, I recommend the following (especially the Mosse):

Dagmar Herzog, Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth Century History
George L. Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle Class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe

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There isn’t an either-or:

You are already going for a different timeline, so the nastiest stuff can be thrown out the window. No need to have a clinically sterile version of things (heck, i’d be a hypocrite if I’d advice that, seeing my own story), but neither a prejudice-at-every-corner world (which isn’t was real life was like either)

It comes down to the individual characters:
There’s a general good advice for writing characters:
Write every character as if they are the protagonist. meaning each character should have a backstory, worldview etc, even if it NEVER comes up in the story.

So, think about what the MC would have to deal with/witness/do interacting with the other characters and the world of this reality, and go from there.

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you could do what was done for South Park: the Fractured but Whole with race affecting the overall difficulty of the game, and give each gender certain benefits and weaknesses, but if it is pre-civil rights then leave out non-binary and transgender roles as there is no way those options will fit in the story.

this is a bit older than when the story’s meant to be set but the notion that trans folks etc were ‘not a thing’ or would be killed on sight is… inaccurate.

It’s a notion stemming from the same kind of thinking that brought us gems like ‘people didn’t bath in medieval times’

And suggesting to crank up the problems the MC will face cause of how the player builds their character… really, you shouldn’t use some bigoted BS like south park as ‘good example on how to handle this’…

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well it was a f**king good game mechanic that game had and it keeps the story partially historically accurate

Not a lot of people realize that prior to the Hays Code and the US skewing towards conservatism, LGBTQ+ people were actually surprisingly visible.

I get that, but as a person who fits within the minority sphere on multiple levels, I’m not sure I want to play Bigotry Simulator lol. There are ways to address the reality we face without necessarily being discriminatory to the player (or reader, or viewer). I often understand the concerns of how to incorporate reality and inclusion, as a writer myself, but ultimately I think when it comes to fiction, it’s better to lean towards the side of inclusion.

Not to plug a freemium app, but the game app PlayChoices I think did a good job of incorporating player customization with some level of realism. The app has two stories, Desire and Decorum and The Unexpected Heiress in which the protagonist, regardless of race, is an outsider to the setting they are in. In both stories, she is thrown into the world of English nobility–during the Regency era and post-sinking of the Titanic, respectively, and is forced to navigate that. There’s a few comments and brow-raising moments here and there, but regardless, the protagonist is not punished for her race or orientation, and is in fact able to empathize with and understand the plot in a slightly different way.

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You don’t need to throw away the entire thing. A supernatural prohibition-era detective story sounds very interesting, and you could quite easily set such a story in an alternate world with a '20s aesthetic but without the bigotry. (You could even make it about the bigotry as you intended, although I would definitely recommend not making it an IF game where you can choose whether to experience that bigotry or not.)

I think a problem with this is that for cis straight white men playing themselves, the game can be pure escapism, while for non-white, female, or LGBTQ+ players, it becomes unpleasant “realism”. And when you consider which of those two groups faces bigotry in the real world, having a game which reinforces the bigotry is probably not a wise move.

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I am female and LGBT, and I like it when fiction I read mirrors experiences I can relate to, including misogyny and homophobia, and those I don’t experience, but am interested in learning about, such as racism. Describing bigotry is not the same as reinforcing it. Power structures and societal oppression are significant to the lived experiences of the majority of people on earth, and including them in fiction, showing their adverse effects, and, if the author chooses to he didactic and doesn’t think these descriptions speak for themselves, explain why they are harmful is more meaningful than pretending they don’t exist.

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I personally think having a nitty-gritty world were the reactions toward the character would be predetermined by their appearance would be a extremely interesting and unique thing to read. I’m already interested just reading about the description.

On the subject of sensitive subjects to other people, I think having a warning at the start of ‘this game has [so and so]’ should be enough. There are plenty of games that pander to escapism and fantasy, so if someone decides they aren’t interested in playing a realistic game, that’s perfectly fine for all parties involved.

Many people enjoy reading experiences that mirror their own, and simply erasing stuff in the past and pretending it didn’t happen is a bit too sensitive in my own opinion. It’s real, and not everyone can cover their eyes and pretend it’s not.

I think you should go with the first and allow customization, and realistic reactions to that customization as well. I think that’s the best option to both the story and the reader to be immersed.

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