All of the characters Akbar creates have a similar background: They are intensely asexual, visibly South Asian and around Akbar's age. Sometimes the characters dress like Akbar, too.
Akbar uses these characters for Tabletop Club, a Northwestern University (NU) student group dedicated to playing tabletop role-playing games (RPGs). The most common example of a tabletop RPG is Dungeons and Dragons.
Due to their fantasy settings and participatory structures, role-playing games offer a unique opportunity for people to explore gender and sexuality. However, while many RPG spaces have become more queer-inclusive in recent decades, many also remain predominantly white, causing additional implications for queer players of color. NU's Tabletop Club offers one example of how queer people of color explore gender and sexuality through RPGs.
"I know a lot of people tend to [create characters] very different from themselves, or create opposites of themselves," Akbar said. "I try to create characters like [me] because, being very honest, growing up, I wasn't always the most me publicly. So that's sort of why I got into these games, in that I could create myself more realistically."
Akbar, an NU junior who requested to use a pseudonym in this article since they are not widely out, joined Tabletop Club virtually in March 2020 from their home in Gurugram, a city in northern India. They met other club members through the club's channel on Discord, a communication platform widely used by gaming communities.
Akbar played their first campaign with Tabletop Club once they returned to campus that fall. A campaign is the entire story of a role-playing game. Each campaign entails multiple sessions, which typically run two to three hours per week for a predetermined amount of weeks.
Akbar was somewhat worried, they said, being an international studentthey were not white, unfamiliar with the game rules and very confused in terms of gender and sexuality. But the environment was extremely welcoming.
"This is probably an exaggeration, but I haven't met a straight person on the Discord," Akbar said. "So that's great. It immediately became a very comfortable space for me."
There are definitely straight people in the club, somewhere, Akbar clarified; they just haven't met those people yet. Akbar also said they interact with many other people of color in the club.
In Akbar's current campaign, all the players are queer, and four out of the six players are Asian.
"I'm glad it happened this way, because now we're just a bunch of friends," Akbar said.
In addition to forging friendships, playing RPGs has also helped Akbar realize how to label or express parts of their identity. Akbar is asexual, panromantic and nonbinary.
For example, Akbar shared, the first character they created in Tabletop Club used he/they pronouns. At the time, Akbar was still very confused about what pronouns they wanted to use. Now, Akbar uses he/they pronouns in settings where it is safe to do so.
Akbar estimates around 70 people total are active in Tabletop Club this fall. According to Akbar, the club has had the largest number of people ever sign up for campaigns, so much so they had to launch extra campaigns to accommodate all the players. The club is running 10-11 campaigns, each with five to six players, Akbar said. Most of the club's campaigns are designed to finish within one school quarter, so around nine to 10 weeks, Akbar said, though some club members run campaigns for over a year.
Joining Tabletop Club has broadened the horizons of RPGs for Akbar. In India, the only role-playing game Akbar had heard about was Dungeons and Dragons, primarily through Hollywood scenes showcasing the game, for example, in the TV series "Stranger Things" or "Riverdale." But once Akbar joined Tabletop Club, they realized there were many more role-playing games to discover.
Maelea Tan, a sophomore at NU, is one of the Tabletop Club members involved in a game that's not Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, she is playing a campaign for the role-playing game Masks.
In the campaign, Tan plays a Filipino character who uses she/they pronouns and has a girlfriend. "[The] girlfriend's very lovely. I'm like, I'm simping for someone who doesn't exist," Tan joked.
Tan's character is reflective of her identity. While Tan had started to think more about her sexuality and gender identity in high school, she said she didn't really allow herself to really acknowledge or explore those parts of herself until she began college. RPGs have been crucial in that exploration.
Tan first became involved in RPGs over the summer when she played Dungeons and Dragons with four white, queer friends in Blaine, Minnesota, near the Twin Cities.
"In D&D, I can flirt with anybody, which is lovely. And you don't have any consequences for it because they're all fake," Tan said. She began allowing her characters to have relationships with girls. In this way, Tan said, they are able to live the experiences they missed out on in high school because they were pushing away thoughts about gender and sexuality.
Her Masks campaign at NU, which runs entirely over voice channels on Discord, still contains many white players. But the game's background characters are diverse, Tan said, with Hispanic, Latino and Filipino characters represented.
When she began playing Masks, Tan wanted to include aspects of their identity and culture they hadn't fully been able to express until arriving at NU.
Her character's name is Dalisay, and the character uses an alias, Mambabarang, which Tan eventually shortened to Mamba. Creating these names, Tan sought to keep them culturally accurate and relevant, even if that meant she had to explain how to pronounce these names to the other players.
Being a queer person of color in fantasy worlds, Tan said, it's interesting to see how oppressed or stigmatized groups of people, or variations in culture, are represented.
"When I'm in my D&D campaign, it's really, really interesting because I'm playing this character as, Oh, my issue is, people only see me for my value and what I can provide for them in my appearance[like] Asian people," they said.
In fantasy worlds, Tan added, there's also no precedent for the cultural norms, so having extremely queer characters is "A-okay."
Tan thinks their Masks campaign might continue into next year, though it was originally intended to end in the fall. The extra time to delve into her characters and reflect on how they mirror her life is a bonus, she said.
"It's just really nice to be able to have it very flexible, where you can have these things pulled from the real world to influence the campaign and explore it there, but it's also really nice to be able to take a break from it as well. And sort of see, what are the possibilities and how can I apply these into my real life?" Tan said.