Friday, October 10, 2014

Warcraft and Racism

Is this a problem?
Long-time readers of Be Healed! would rightly guess that I am an Alliance patriot. I mean that in the best sense of the word "patriot." I make no bones about it: the Horde is the instigators of most horrors brought on Azeroth. Yah yah, the ultimate evil of the Burning Legion played a hand in that, but the orcs made their own choices and need to reap their own consequences. And anybody who wants to stand next to them can get what's coming too. The basic orc point of view-- that they should be able to take whatever they need to survive because they have the strength to do so-- is no different from how a bully justifies his actions. And I won't stand for it.

Anyway, That's not really what I wanted to talk about today.

What I really want to talk about is, "Am I being racist when I slam on the orcs or Blood Elves?" I am always struck by a lot of people using a morally flexible point of view to justify actions or plot twists in Warcraft: WoW presents a "morally complex" story with many shades of grey and no absolute rights or wrongs. Or is it really a lot simpler than that?

And, yes, Warcraft is a game and that's a good thing. But playing games gives us chances to make bad choices and to explore morally gray areas in a context where the consequences aren't as dire as they are in real life. In order to get this benefit, though, we do have to examine the quandry.

Warcraft is Completely, Undeniably Racialist.

Was he racist?
About a year ago, I was reading a literary criticism of J.R.R. Tolkein that posited one of the weaknesses of his work was it's inherent "racialism."  That was a word I had not read before, so I went a-digging and essentially found that "racialism" is essentially "racism" -- only that it's used for works of art meant to give the artist some distance from the negative connotations of being "racist." Using Tolkein as our example: All orcs are evil. All elves are good. Dwarves are greedy. Men are mixed up but ambitious and hopeful. Like it or not, this is basic racial profiling in the same ugly sort of way that we get upset about in real life.

Jumping back into our game...Warcraft is "racialist" in exactly the same way Tolkein is. Almost every bit of culture in the Warcraft universe is based on a racialist point of view. Allow me to list a few examples of this:
  • Dwarves are gluttonous drunks who like to start fights.
  • Goblins are greedy little bastards that blow things up.
  • Trolls are all typically high on something.
  • Night Elves are all tree-hugging hippies.
  • Gnomes are basically the nerds of Azeroth.
  • Draenei are Mary Sue goody-two-shoes.
  • Tauren are wise people of the earth.
  • Orcs are violent warmongers.
  • Humans are ambitious and self-centered.
  • Forsaken are conniving and untrustworthy.
These generalities are pretty much what you could read off the Warcraft box. So, it's no good to point to examples that don't conform to these standards, nor what "my"character does that makes him/her different from that. We each have our own ideas of what makes our characters cool and different from one another. Blizzard's writers are also classy enough not to just stop with the profile and expect us to use it as a characterization. But the stereotype is still there ...

Racialist Needs in a Shared Fiction Universe

Is it even profiling if we're really just making it up?
We wouldn't stand for this kind of racial profiling in the real world, (though it still happens all the time) but it's a very helpful shorthand in a created universe when it helps to paint pictures in our mind about what these characters are all basically about. 

Remember, the fantasy tropes we fall back on in every game we play were based originally in books-- ones that didn't have that many pictures. If you're going to introduce multiple groups of humanoids, you really do have to draw some broad strokes about their appearances and their cultural values. It's a matter of expediency. I'm reminded of the stuff they put on the Voyager spacecraft that has sailed out of our solar system and might someday make contact with extra-terrestrial life. It's a unique and ultimately huge collection of material that might "introduce" the human race to E.T. We can't do that for elves or tauren. It's really too much material.

These tropes are also based on long, long established folklore from a huge variety of countries, so to carry them into modern fantasy, they had to be redefined and standardized. (and even so, there is still some mixes. Elves can be Legolas or Santa's helpers and yet we'd never mistake one for the other).

So, in that regard, as we all let our imaginations run through Azeroth, we can interact with each other more easily if we have the same basic profiles in mind. This is not an excuse to paint pictures of the player behind that character, but it is something for us to work with if we roleplay, or if we construct our own stories as we move through Warcraft.

I Think It's About Choice
I'm generally disinclined to think that it is "racist" to draw up fantasy races in certain stereotypes. (now, basing those fantasy races on real-life racial stereotypes might be another problem.) I think "racialism" is mostly a sort of artistic shorthand.

But it doesn't change my distaste for Blood Elves or Orcs. In fact, I'd mostly mellowed on Orcs, believing that they were stirred up, into some bad choices by the Burning Legion and had become (a little) more peaceful in the intervening 35 years. And then Garrosh Hellscream came along and showed me how I was wrong about that.

But I stuck a key word in there just now-- "Choices."  In the end, what I dislike about Blood Elves are the choices they made as a people. They ceased to be the High Elves, living in relative peace and beauty, and defined themselves as out for blood. This was a choice. And a bad one.

Same for the Orcs. Yes, we're going to be mixed up since virtually every PC orc in Warcraft joined Vol'jin's revolt and fought against Hellscream. But the Orc nation chose to follow. And early on, when Hellscream's bloodlust was roaming over Ashenvale and Azshara and probably even Theramore, those orc PCs were mostly just fine with it. We can look at Saurfang and Ettrigan to see that it's not a "racial" proclivity for orcs to give in and follow a bully. It's a mistake of bad judgement. The same can be said for the Blood Elves that followed Kael-Thelas, and we have to accept that basically the entire Sindorei followed him into his madness, facilitating the brouhaha that happened at the Sunwell.

On the opposite spectrum, one can look at the Draenei.  The Draenei were Eredar who chose not to align with the Burning Legion. They had a choice and declined. And they suffered horribly for it. Was it a "good" choice? I think so. The Warcraft basis of good and evil thinks so.

Where does this leave us?
Gosh, if I know. The arguments of racialism and racism in fantasy tropes has been going on for decades at least and shows no sign of ending soon.

I don't know what he said to the Horde, but at our first meeting, Taran Zhu tells the Alliance that he won't stand for this "race war" to be brought to his shores. And unfortunately, I think the writers didn't follow through with that very well. They gave us every tactical explanation for what everybody was doing in Pandaria, but that could easily be whitewash over deeper hatred. In fact, Garrosh himself seemed to be painted pretty thick in racial hatred of every sort by the end of his story in Pandaria. Varian Wrynn seems to mostly act as if the Horde is a nation state (it is). But listen to Tyrande Whisperwind as she rides into battle having glaived the front gates of Orgrimmar to pieces. "We're not here for you, troll." The way she spits out that last word at Vol'jin is with such distaste and loathing, you can't help but worry.

 But that's alright. Like I said near the beginning: Warcraft is a game, and the purpose of a game is to give us the chance to confront issues in a safe environment and maybe direct ourselves a bit truer in real life as a result.

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