The Race Game

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This is one of those things that’s been rattling around in my head for years – why is it that video game manufacturer’s – especially makers of MMO’s – are so enamored with using “race” as a defining criteria for their character creation?  Species makes sense in many fantasy and SciFi settings, so does faction, but race seems so … outmoded.

I remember back in Everquest 1 being absolutely flabbergasted that the “human” race was white – and only white.  There were no other options.  There were also the proto-human (according to game lore) “Barbarians” who were less intelligent but stronger and wore Kilts and Viking helmets.  Seriously?  WTF people, how did this ever come to market?  Who decided that was OK?  Somewhere along the line they realized they should probably have at least 1 non-white option and introduced the Erudite’s who had dark skin, elongated foreheads, and were physically weaker but more intelligent.  Basically they just took the popular racist caricature and inverted it. And of course High Elves and Wood Elves (both light skinned) are good-aligned while Dark Elves (dark skin, duh) are evil.  That’s a trope they stole shamelessly from D&D but would have been better to leave on the shelf.

In EQ2, the race system isn’t nearly as bad as EQ1, someone at Sony took a hint and so humans can be any color while the Erudites  look much more post-human and are no longer “black.”  Dark elves are still evil while their light skinned cousins are good though.

Other games have been less obvious.  In WoW of course Troll npc’s speak with a Jamaican accent while the Tauren’s overtly borrow cliche’s of native american identity and live in teepees and dress in rawhide with lots of beadwork.  Oh, and both are aligned as “evil.”   To their credit, in WoW the dark-skinned Night elves  are good-aligned and the light-skinned blood elves are evil.  Just to keep things interesting.

Skyrim and Oblivion, the latest two entries from the Elder Scrolls series are a bit better – at least for them color is a separate issue from Race! –  but not much.  The various species of humans, elves, and argonians (lizard folk) and khajits (cat-people) are all represented as “races”.  Now I don’t know about anyone else, but to me the difference between a Nord (whose skin color options range from dark tan to pasty white) and a Redguard (Black with arabic trappings.  Moors, basically.) are obviously less significant then the difference between either of them and the scaled water-breathing Argonian lizardfolk or even the immortal Elves.  And yet they’re all described as Races – as though the difference between a black man and a white one were as significant as the differences between a white man and an anthropomorphic lizard.  That’s just weird.  It should be pick a species (elf, human, beastfolk) and then pick a race within that.

Really this mostly boils down to a matter of presentation in the character creation screen, in Skyrim especially the characters recognize the commonality between the different human races (there are several inter-racial marriages among the human population) and the elves do the same among themselves.  There’s even a sub-plot around the fact that the Aldmeri Dominion (High Elves and Wood Elves)  view themselves as superior to humans.  Of course the Dark Elves (who are, predictably, inclined toward necromancy and dark magic) aren’t invited and neither are the Orcs.  So really it’s only the light-skinned elves who get to be superior.  Which I suppose fits with the intentionally racist character of their faction.  Interesting stuff.  There’s also a sub-plot between the Nords and the native Reachmen in western Skyrim.  Both are light skinned humans but they very clearly view each other as different races and the low-scale guerrilla war between them is a significant subplot.  Frankly, I wish they’d explored it further – I would have much preferred to join the Forsworn and fight for the natives of the Reach then to fight for either the nord-supremacist Stormcloaks or the overtly impirialist Imperials.  This is one case where a game writer is really using the contradictions in their own fantasy world to explore the contradictions in our own.  These sub-plots don’t get the attention I think they deserved, but they’re fascinating no less and add a tremendous amount of depth to the game.  Bethesda is moving in a very interesting direction here.

Don’t even get me started on Age of Conan.  OMFG.

On one hand, it’s obvious why game designers do this type of thing, they’re building on all the games that came before.  Everyone expects Dark Elves to be evil  because they’ve been evil in just about every game that’s featured them since D&D wrote their first monster manual back in the 70’s and decided to make the evil elves scarier by making them black.  Who’s going to go against that kind of orthodoxy, I mean it’s like making your vampires sparkly and immune to sunlight, it’d just be strange.  Right?  Except that at the end of the day, it’s all just fantasy and we really do have the right – responsibility even – to tell each other stories that move us forward instead of just rehashing the worst aspects of our history.

I guess my big gripe is I really honestly can’t understand why game designers use the word “Race”?  It’s really just the wrong word.  Trolls and Taurens and Elves and Barbarians aren’t branches of the same tree like human Races are, they’re entirely different species.  So why not call them Species?  By using the word Race the game designers imply that the differences between them – which can be quite large – are equivalent to the very small differences between races in the real world.  And that’s just plain ridiculous.  The worrying part for me is that it says something very uncomfortable about how people in the real world who don’t blink at this usage must view their fellow humans.

Some people really are born with +2 strength and -2 intelligence, or the real world equivalents thereof.  But the color of their skin or ethnic background bears no relation to that predisposition.  Most of our athletes and rappers in America are of at least partial african descent because slavery, jim crow, sub-standard schools in majority-minority neighborhoods, and a range of other sociological factors have conspired to make it very difficult (but by no means impossible!) for working-class black folks to succeed through business.  The issue isn’t that african americans have some sort of biological predisposition towards being musicians and athletes, The issue is that those are professions with relatively low barriers to entry and potentially large payoffs for those who succeed.  The fact that ambitious young people trapped in a no-win situation would use their music and physical ability to excel where other options have been restricted should surprise no one.  The same exact thing happened in Ireland under Brittish colonial rule.  The issue isn’t race, it’s economics.  Given equal access to opportunities, there are very few people who can’t learn to be an athlete or a mathematician if they’re willing to put in the work to get there, regardless of their origin.

And I suppose that’s really my point here.  The differences between us really are only skin deep and I’d like to see that reflected in my games.  If I’m choosing between anthopomorphic animals, elves, and humans let me pick my species and then customize color and features however I want like in Fallout or Mass Effect (where Race in’t even an issue and it’s just a matter of how you want to customize your characters appearance.).  Hell, I’d even like to be able to pick my ethnicity and my characters cultural background – that has at least as big an impact on people in the real world as their “race” and is what most game designers are getting at when they talk about character races anyway.  So call it what it is!   Let me pick my alignment like I can in DDO – sure some cultural groups might lean towards chaotic evil by default but if I want to make a lawful good dark elf paladin I should be able to!    From there you can go ahead and determine my stat/ability bonuses based on those things in a way that makes sense.  But don’t tell me to pick my “race” and then throw out alignments and modifiers to my stats as though it was an obvious and unquestioned truth that entire races of people are better at specific things or share an identical worldview.  That shit might have flown in 1912 but shouldn’t be allowed to pass in 2012.  I’d like to think our human race has advanced at least that far.