Slaying the Master Race

(This is the third and final in a series of posts retrieved from Neverscapes, NFI’s predecessor. This was one of the earliest posts made to the blog, and it shows… still, I hope you’ve enjoyed these little slices of nostalgia.)

Over on Wired News there’s an article titled Playing the Master Race, concerning the psychology of race selection in insanely popular MMORPG World of Warcraft (seven million subscribers worldwide and climbing). The author references Tolkein, of course, as the father of racially-delineated fantasy fiction:

The people in Middle Earth were rigidly defined by their race. Hobbits were sensible, if unvisionary; elves were austere and aloof; orcs were unreservedly evil. It ain’t where you’re at — it’s where you’re from. Mostly.

Indeed, Tolkien’s obsessive devotion to race has provoked decades of blistering debates about whether his archetypes were thinly veiled allusions to real-life nationalities — complete with rankings of which ones rocked and which ones sucked. The hobbits seemed like the stolid, sensible Victorian English folk that Tolkien adored; the goblins, with their evil technological genius, could be any scary European enemy army, like the second World War Germans. And the orcs, with their Indo-Asian features?

It’s a decent enough article that references several studies into the imagery and language of fantasy MMOs and the fantastic races on offer to players. It was interesting to learn, for example, that a study into the use of emotes (pre-programmed spoken greetings and hand gestures) found that

[…] Trolls [who speak in a Jamaican accent] were “disproportionately more likely to make violent or sexual statements,” Delwiche notes. (Some of their sentences were even scripted in Ebonics: “You going to axe me out?” says the female Troll when you hit the “flirt” command.)

Well, there’s clearly something to that, as the author points out. And whilst I’d never defend the implicit racism and underlying colonial attitudes in such stereotypes, I think it’s interesting to diverge from the article here to consider the worldbuilding of gaming.

Let’s take a brief look at the history of Warcraft, which has been Blizzard’s flagship IP since the introduction of Orcs versus Humans in 1994. In this first game – a very basic real-time strategy effort that functioned like a more basic version of Westwood’s groundbreaking Dune II – the plot was very simple. Orcs and other savage creatures invaded: humans fought them off. This was reprised in Warcraft 2. But for Warcraft 3, released two years before World of Warcraft in 2002, things began to change. The Orcs and Trolls begin the game as a pathetic remnant of their former selves, a few survivors held prisoner in isolated villages, guarded by Alliance (humans, dwarves, elves and the like) troops. The concept of tribal honour was developed, as was the orcish bloodlust that they struggled to control, suppressing baser instincts in order to make a better future for their peoples. Okay, so it’s all very “noble savage”, but it’s a damn sight better than the greenskin-hit-pinkskin of the preceding games. And sure, Blizzard upped the ante by introducing demonic antagonists, so the racial antagonists were displaced, made “good guys”, and this shift needed to be validated somehow – but the Horde are considerably more sympathetic in Warcraft 3 than the Alliance, which is revealed as a decadent, hubristic society, corroded from within by pride, greed and ambition.

None of these are new ideas or themes. They’ve been a staple of fantasy literature for almost as long as the assumptions they subvert. But Blizzard have at least tried to take those early steps outside the most basic cliches and conventions of the fantasy genre. Any gamer can tell you that most fantasy plots still boil down to the sub-Tolkein stereotypes, so it’s good to know that there are developers trying to push this particular envelope. Who knows – perhaps one day we’ll see a Viriconium MMO. Who would you play: a half-mad dwarf in an exoskeleton, the World’s Greatest Swordsman, a gigantic confused insect that wants to return home, or a melancholy poet watching a city succumb to dreams and madness around him? Now that’d be a more interesting choice. The balancing might, however, prove a little tricky.

But to return to the central issue of the Wired article – yes, the implicit attitudes revealed by gamers’ choices concerning fantasy races are deeply problematic. So too is the use of real-world racial stereotypes in the manner referenced above. Its a subject to which more attention should always be paid, and not just in gaming but also in film and, dare I say it, literature. Wasn’t there a film based on a book not long ago that invited us to identify with the grand, cleanly and ordered paleskins over the bestial, dark-skinned monsters that threatened to overrun them?

Yet storytelling in gaming remains, for the most part, both immature and derivative. I’m convinced this is partially intentional: for games like Warcraft, which are founded on the mechanic – not concept – of violent conflict between x and y, it must seem eminently sensible to rely on the old cliches to get gamers enthused.

So the problem as I see it is far from limited to the choices made by gamers, and is beyond the pre-determined choices that developers allow gamers, and ultimately concerns the same crude stereotypes that have been reproduced and subverted endlessly for decades. It stems from a general laziness of thought and lack of understanding, and the continuing employment in all media and storytelling of lazy and racist stereotypes as a shorthand to judging character. The solution, if any, is only to write better stories. There’s something in here too about the fallacy of worldbuilding when you fail to understand the world, but I’m not going to try and shake that loose today.

Anyway, if you’d like to read more of the original discussion, the Wired article is here, there’s a blog discussion here, and a formal response here.

3 Responses to “Slaying the Master Race”
  1. Kerry says:

    A Viriconium RPG would be the finest game ever conceived.

  2. Colum Paget says:

    Oh, this is exactly the kindof thing that ‘ll get my interest. I’m always lambasting people about the protrayal ‘the other’ in fantastical fiction, but on the other hand, sometimes I think maybe we see things that aren’t there. But then again, if we see them, there are there to some extent, even if only in our heads.

    Take Tolkien’s hoards. The view that orcs, goblins etc are representitive of other nationalities makes a lot of sense to us, because that’s how we all tend to think in this day and age; globally. However, even in Tolkien’s day (which isn’t so long ago) I’m not sure that this was as true. Indeed, I’d always understood that what the goblin hoards represented in Tolkien, was people like me, which is to say: Brummies.
    Tolkien was horrified by the way the idyllic (in his eyes) rural society that he grew up in was being swept away by the industrial sprawl of the big city (specifically Birmingham), and the conflict portrayed in LOTR can be claimed to be a rural/urban one, rather than a racial/national one.

    Or maybe that’s just someone else’s spin on it, and he really did intend orcs to represent foreigners. Or maybe it’s a class thing, with the elves as the upper class, and the hobbits as their honest yeomanry servants? The thing is, we’ll never really know. Maybe Tolkien didn’t know himself.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t play videogames, but that’s never stopped me from commenting on something before, so here goes.

    Firstly, I’m a little mistrusting of the wired article, because of this:

    > more than half of women and almost
    > half of men — chose to play as the
    > two most “white-looking” and “pretty”
    > races in the game

    Or, to put it another way, almost half the the women, and more than half the men, chose NOT to play as the two most ‘white-looking’ and ‘pretty’ races in the game?

    Now, depending on how many races there are to chose from, this might still be significant. If about 50% of people chose those two races, but there are 100 races to chose from, then it’s signficant. I don’t play the game, so I don’t know, but the way this line is presented to me here instantly makes me feel that the Wired article is trying to get something by me.
    I’m interested by the gender split that’s implied here. Why do women prefer humans and elves? Is it because they want to be ‘pretty’ in-game, or is it because humans and elves, within the game, have other properties that appeal to female players? At the risk of blatent gender-stereotyping it might be the case that, today and in our society, females lean to characters who are good magic-users, whereas males lean towards characters who can swing an axe. Or it might be that elves dress better, or maybe males are more comfortable to play ‘evil chaotic’ (I’ve never played those games either, but I know a bit of the lingo) characters?
    But, I’m drifiting off-topic here.

    I’m not greatly surprised that Warcraft’s Trolls are ‘disproportionately more likely to make violent or sexual statements’, on account of their being Trolls. I think Trolls were always somewhat like that, since before colonial attitudes got underway. What would have been really interesting, I admit, would be if the elves were like this (but could that be made to work?). Now, the race question comes in with regard to whether they really do have Jamacian accents, or do they have an accent that someone thought sounded ‘Trollish’, and which to other people sounds Jamacian? Could it be that like Tolkien’s goblins, we’re projecting onto Warcraft’s Trolls? On the other hand, did the accent get picked as ‘Trollish’ because of some underlying racial stereotyping among the authors?

    The thing is that you can argue back-and-forth about the meanings of a particular representation. I think it’s safer to take a step back, and consider how ‘the other’ is portrayed in abstract. Alien, AI or other non-human characters may not be intended to represent specific human racial groups, but they do represent someone who is different from us. I can’t really speak for games, but on this basis, much SF is frankly rather fascist. One of the reasons why I stopped watching ‘Dr Who’, was that the series kept creeping me out with speeches about the innate specialnes s and supremacy of the human race (the one example I can remember is when Katherine Tate gets some time-lord inside her (That’s another reason I don’t like the new series, it’s essentially watching the conquests of this 900-year old alien aristocrat preying on impressionable working-class earth women. “Hey baby, how would you like to see the wonders of the universe?”) and makes a speech about how she can save the day because she has the one thing the doctor lacks, that little spark of humanity. Also, daleks, cybermen and god-knows-who-else are always trying to ‘improve’ their species by injecting a bit of human DNA, as indeed, the doctor himself seems to be doing. Oh, and the “4th Bountiful human EMPIRE? WTF!? ‘Planet of the Oood’ seemed to be pushing the other way, except that every non-white cast member was bad, and winded up dead.)

    Throughout most SF&F, it seems that ‘different’ means ‘evil’, and often ‘not worthy of life’ (particularly if different==artificial).
    Admittedly there has recently been a rise of stuff that pushes the other way, with ‘Avatar’ and ‘Wall-E’ and ‘District-9’ presenting a more sympathetic view of the non-human, perhaps I’m a little out-of-touch with what I’m saying.

    So, to sum up, I think that that sometimes we see things that aren’t there in this regard (I’ve had the experience of someone asking ‘why have you made this character sound like a stereotypical ‘blackface’ minstrel from the 30’s?’ The answer was ‘I haven’t. He sounds like a stereotypical british colonel from the 30’s.) but on the other hand, if you ask the more general question, how are ‘other’ characters portrayed in fantastical fiction, and what does this say about us as a society, then I think maybe there is something going on.