Like many pasty white geeks, I learned my "English Accent" from countless repetitions of Monty Python sketches and movie bits. I also learned my Scottish, Irish, and Australian accents from the Pythons. Since then I have become a man of a thousand accents--all of them terrible. In the confines of my gaming group, I break into accents with little or no provocation, and if I'm not careful, they can bleed into one another, changing from Russian to German to Australian without warning. Still, accents are a staple of any game I run, since they help define the NPCs for the players, instantly providing a personality and even a physical description, if the accent is taken from a familiar actor or show.
In fact, I never gave much thought to accents until the group ran back-to-back campaigns set in the 1860s and 1870s--a "Weird West" Fate campaign and a Wild Talents "This Favored Land" campaign. Although the characters and the objectives were utterly different, both raised uncomfortable questions about race for me and my friends. In the Weird West game, I warned everyone that I planned to play many NPCs as prejudiced or outright racists, and since one of the guys chose to play a freed slave, they would have to deal with that when they encountered it. The player said he understood that, but that he himself was against the use of the N-word, and could we just take it as written, without saying it in game? We all agreed. But during the game, it fell to me to portray black people, freed and slave alike--and for the first time I felt self-conscious about the accents I used. And it wasn't just me. The GM of our Wild Talents game also struggled with the use of "black accents".
I started wondering if it was racist of us to use certain accents to portray NPCs, especially those who were not Caucasian. Was it okay to put on a French accent but not a Middle Eastern accent? If so, why? Surely my French accent is just as atrocious, based as it is on Pepe LePew--in other words, an imitation of Mel Blanc's imitation of Charles Boyer. Would I feel comfortable putting on an English accent in front of an English friend, and would I feel the same way if I did a hip-hop accent in front of a black friend? I couldn't answer definitively because it would depend in most cases on the friend and how well they knew me. In the interest of full disclosure, my entire game group consists of pasty-white American men of a certain age. We would welcome women and/or men of other ethnic backgrounds, if any of them could stand us.
Certainly my intent is never to insult or demean an ethnic group, nationality, or region when I do a voice in game. I'm a cast of thousands for my players, using accents in place of verbal description to bring flavor and life to the NPCs they encounter. It's a short cut, a way to tell my players who they are dealing with. That's part of the problem, I think: stereotypes are short cuts as well, made when we meet someone and are trying to decide how to think of them, and often those stereotypes lead to negative connotations. But of course, not everyone with a certain accent fits that stereotype, and if you play them ONLY as a stereotype, then you are letting your prejudices dominate the game. On the other hand, if different NPCs with the same accent nevertheless behave as individuals, some of them good, some bad, some indifferent, then you are exploring and challenging those prejudices, and I think that's a valuable thing.