Sunday, November 28, 2010

When is Racialism Racist?

racism |ˈrāˌsizəm|  - noun
  • the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
  • prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief
racialism |ˈrā sh əˌlizəm| - noun
  • another term for racism.

I was reading a piece of commentary about J.R.R Tolkien this past weekend that dropped something on me that I hadn't really thought of before. Tolkein might be regarded as "racialist" in the way that he attributes specific characteristics to the different races that populate his Middle-Earth.  "Dwarves really like material goods. Hobbits are fat and kind of lazy." Even the different lines of men have their good qualities and bad qualities based largely on "bloodline," which makes it seem like something of a eugenics observation.

Before we proceed any further, let me state that Tolkein was no racist. He vocally opposed anti-Semitism, Adolf Hitler (who he called a "ruddy little ignoramus") and the Nazi Party. He once commented on racial segregation in South Africa, saying "The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain." Scholars have noted that any latent racism of his early writings became fairly consciously repudiated in his later work.

Racism is one of those huge topics that I can't begin to address in a thousand words or so, so I won't try except to note that "Racism is bad." Beat that for succinct.

Back to the topic at hand: if one might think of Tolkien as racist, then what about the World of Warcraft? "Dwarves are hard drinkers. Orcs are hot-headed savages. Night elves are tree-hugging hippies."  Right?  How far off is that from saying, "White people can't dance, Asians are good at math, and black people like fried chicken?"

There are some fine lines being tread here, no doubt. I think Blizzard has taken the most fire over the sort of Carribean portrayal of trolls in game, with the accents and all, in particular.  I believe that this image is presented affectionately, if nothing else. But latent racism is still something that all people should be aware of. What seems harmless and affectionate to one person may still be offensive to others.

The growing presence of goblins in WoW has left me feeling just a little uneasy as well.  The money-grubbing, the accents of the new voice work, and certain physical traits of the goblins have me just a little worried about what Jewish people might think when comparing the goblin to their own longstanding stereotypes.

I don't think I can condone or condemn WoW for racial portraits. Again, it is far too complex for now. But I would like the offer a few things however, that separate perceived racism in game from real racism in the real world.

Fictional worlds, and fantasy in particular, is an allegory of our real world. That means that things are simplified and made more clearly understood, but in the end, all races and peoples of a fantasy world are really just a reflection of the human race. We should all appreciate a nuanced and distinct character, but those characters only really appear in contrast to the characters surrounding them.  That is what makes Atticus Finch or Thrall so special, for example. 

In WoW, Race is Player Choice
In the end, racism is based on things that an individual has no control over.  Nobody chooses the color of their skin. WoW players, however, distinctly choose their race, accepting the positives and negatives of what our game society has developed about those races. Players can still choose to make racist statements using these parameters within the game, but the presentation for selection, in itself is not really racist.

WoW Writers Try Hard to Present the Races of Azeroth as a Product of Their Own Choices.
The Blood Elves are nasty conniving no-goodniks. I can say this with a clear conscience because they were not born that way. The Blood Elves chose their path after the Scourge's destruction of Qul'Thelas. And, I can accept that some blood elves aren't as bad as all that (see Valeera Sanguinar).  Similarly, the orcs tumbled headlong into turning their society from a peaceful hunting/gathering people into a vicious, surging war machine. They had some help from Kil'Jaden, but mostly they did it because it was fun. The Darkspear trolls made choices separating them from many other trolls. My beloved draenei have spent more than 10,000 years being whittled away into extinction because of their choice to not fall into corruption as did the rest of the eredar.

Game Mechanics
Ultimately, it's important for the sake of the game to make some broad generalizations about what Azeroth's races are like. We would not have nearly as much fun if the game didn't make these distinctions. There's not a lot of room for PvP in Hello Kitty Online, after all.

One could make an MMO based more on character class distinction than racial distinction but I think that would be much more difficult and/or result in a much smaller set of choices. For example, instead of making four healing classes, you would have to make four good healing classes and four evil healing classes. Or maybe have two healing classes on each side. The first would be a ton more work, the second would be unsatisfactory to most players. As it is now, there are four healing classes divided around 10 races. That's 6 different kinds of Shaman, 8 priests, 4 druids, and 5 kinds of paladin. That's 24 different kinds of healers (priests have disc and holy options). Choice is good.

Racism is Pejorative, Racial Traits in WoW are Not
The definition of racism at the top has a good add at the end:  "esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races." But this means that racism is dependent on the attitude and context in which racial differences are presented. Racial differences in WoW are not presented to distinguish inferiority or superiority, they are there to distinguish one from another and to present trade-offs for players to make when they choose their race. Goblin racial traits are OP for example, but that sure doesn't make them the best race to play in WoW.


All of this is barely scratching the surface of what I think remains a very large issue. I worry about oversimplifying it while at the same time being leery of saying more than I can readily support. I apologize to readers for my deficiencies in this regard.

Going back to the issue of allegory in fantasy, participants in the fantasy can read their own interpretations into it. But someone's interpretation does not necessarily make the work bad in itself.  Going back to Tolkien, he emphatically denied that the hobbits were representative of the English people, though many reached that conclusion. And that was basically a positive association. Similarly, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not racist no matter how many libraries or school boards try to ban it for being so.


  1. OK, so why do the Gnome's come in for such poor treatment in WOW. Only Gnomes have the indignity of being a gnome doll, carried by Ogre's & other races. How many times have I heard Orc's talk about using Gnomes for fish bait. Just because they are short doesn't give license to make fun.

    Oh, in the various WOW videos & cartoons out there, the best line by far has been, "Dude, your girlfriend is a blue goat". ROFL.

  2. Sorry, I deleted my earlier response because I don't think I really addressed the matter at hand. Gnomes do get pretty poor treatment in WoW. I think Wes is talking about the "Gnome Effigy" that is frequently pickpocketed from ogres (and exactly where is a pocket on those loincloths they wear, anyway?). But it's important to note that these sorts of things are inserted by the developers, not by players (for the most part).

    And truthfully, I do hear a lot of disdain for the gnome race from players as well.

    In part, I think this is because there has always been a comic edge to the gnomes that is not present in any other WoW race (though I think you'll find goblins getting the same edge when we see them next week). Gnomes have also suffered from generally less story development than many of the other WoW races, which leaves a lot more room for players to fill in the blanks with something pejorative.

    I think there are lore reasons as well. In many ways, the gnomes with their flying machines and crazy weapons represent the most confounding thing that Horde races encounter while fighting the Alliance. A big mighty orc slinging his way across a battlefield comes face to face with a teeny-tiny gnome, who whips out a death-ray and fries him on the spot. What's an orc supposed to think about that? I think "fear" and "confusion" would be reasonable responses.

    And then, I think that some players have biases about character races based on who they think play those characters. Which has made me think of an ongoing study about these very sorts of questions. Expect a blog post about that really soon.

  3. PS: in response to the unfortunate and poorly considered "blue goat" epithet, I offer, from machinima previously featured in this blog, "There's certain sex appeal to a horny babe with built-in heals."

    But then, the same song demands that one "grab a space goat and get out on the floor." so what they hey.