Wednesday, 2 February 2022

Racism and Orcs

The latest edition of the Quillette Podcast contains some interesting thoughts and observations about wokeness in D&D, and is worth listening to. The starting point for the conversation is a recent Wired article on 'genetic determinism' in fantasy, with particular reference to orcs. Apparently, some people think there is something 'problematic' (though I'm not sure that particular word appears in the article) about D&D orcs. The logic of the argument is rather hard to follow, but it seems to boil down to unease about the 'racial essentialism' of portraying orcs as indelibly evil (or, for that matter, elves as being into poetry, or dwarves as being into mining). There is felt to be something wrong with this. It's unfathomable to me that anybody could think that imagining there are such things as orcs and imagining they have intrinsically negative characteristics would lead anybody to imagine that the same could be true of human 'races'. But that genuinely does appear to be the implausible argument that is being made: if there are orcs in D&D, and they are evil, people might play D&D and come to believe that human 'races' might be evil, and thereby become racist. Does that sound even remotely realistic to you? 

I've long ago lost interest in the idea of orcs as an adversary monster, along with most of the trappings of high fantasy in general. They're old hat. But the concept of evil entities bent on the violent destruction of humanity clearly has a resonance with us. Calling it 'genetic determinism' is so self-evidently a category error that I find it difficult to process the notion that anybody could be making that argument seriously - but then I force myself to remember there are people in the world who worry about things like whether dragons are physically capable of flying. Nerds can have a really difficult time with expressionism. 

Orcs don't have genes. They are mythical, fairy tale beings, with a different essence altogether. They're not a 'race', or a 'species'. They're spirits, demons, monsters. This isn't racism. It is quite literally the stuff of which fantasies, myths and legends are made. Why would you want them to be otherwise? 

The other problem, of course, is that even taking the argument on its merits, it makes no sense. Animals which belong to different species are different from one another. It isn't 'genetically essentialist' to say that lions are live in prides whereas leopards are solitary, that crows are more intelligent than wrens, or that ants are social insects whereas spiders generally aren't. It's just fact. So even if one does want to think of fantasy 'races' in the reductive, pseudo-scientific, materialist sort of way that the author of the Wired article clearly does, the problem just isn't a problem in the first place. You're not talking about different types of human. You're talking about different species.

Being charitable, I have no doubt the people who worry about this kind of thing are acting in good faith. Who likes racism? But the idea that one needs to excise orcs from the game, or radically rethink them, because their existence and the fact they are evil might lead people to be racist in the real world is so strange, so melodramatic, so reflective of a complete lack of understanding of basic human psychology, that it beggars belief it would find any credence whatsoever in the world beyond the fever dreams of the most stereotypically, self-parodically woke. It's profoundly odd. 

119 comments:

  1. As you say, orcs are demons. Etymologically, that's what they are: orc-neas, for which "demon-corpses" are the best guess. So the argument is, essentially, "demons mustn't be evil". And where's the sense (or fun) in that?

    And while Tolkien's orcs seem to resemble a monstrous version of Ammianus Marcellinus' already monstrous take on the Huns, they're characterised as brutish *British* soldiers - a link that he makes explicit in his letters. They're the demons of war.

    D&D orcs used, of course, to look like pig-men. I did see a fairly convincing argument on a blog comment somewhere that attempts to move away from the evil pig-men had led, over successive editions of D&D, to orcs taking on dubious "noble savage" stereotypes. But these arose precisely from misplaced unease at leaving them as evil monsters.

    Orcs are goblins. Goblins are devils. Devils are evil. That's it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, if anything it's the "noble savage" idea which causes the problems, because then it starts to make orcs feel quasi-human. Once that happens, one begins to feel bad about stereotyping them. I can follow the line of emotional causation there.

      Delete
    2. this is it. practically nobody on the left has a problem with Warhammer 40k Orks, because they're very explicitly identified with something that's NOT a marginalized racial group. (there's still criticism of them to be made from a Marxist class-analysis perspective, but that's way besides the point lmao). few people have any real beef with Tolkien's Orcs, despite his unfortunate idea of their physical complexion. Orcs as Fae or Orcs as Demons or whatever is wonderful and great.

      as soon as orcs start having "tribes" and "chieftains" and raising human-ish families and having economic relations with human nations, then we kinda start having issues. as soon as Orcs start to be TREATED like a real-world race, they become analogous to a real-world race. (even if they're actually a "species" or whatever.)

      Delete
    3. As soon as the players could be half-orcs, then the "noble savage" immediately follows.

      Delete
    4. @squeen and @Captain Crowbar - Yeah, personally I totally agree it's the 'savage' element of orcs (and other evil humanoids) that's problematic. I'd so love to see a D&D setting where orcs are the high-tech oppressors.

      I love the 'innate evil' though!! That is such a rich trope, and calls to mind so many zombie movies and so on. (And of course many zombie movies are also rightwing to some degree.... but not *all*... these tropes are flexible, they can be used in many different ways by different creators, etc.)

      So basically, if I had my wish, I'd rather Wizards completely rewrote orc lore to make them evil dudes in tanks (and reproducing by cloning even if that helps) rather than making them not-necessarily-evil people with loincloths and spears. Doesn't seem like Wizards is going to do it though...

      Delete
    5. Now that you mention it, Tolkien’s Orcs were distinguished in part by their mastery of industry, weren't they? They chop down forests to fuel their dark engines and construct ever-larger siege weapons.

      Some of that survives in some modern takes on goblins (which Tolkien didn't distinguish from orcs), and maybe a little bit in 40k orks, but it's largely been abandoned in favour of a weird "tribal savages" thing not present in Tolkien’s versions (or any folklore I'm aware of; goblins are ruled by their Goblin Kings, not tribal chiefs.)

      Of course, presenting science as evil and nature as good has it's own potential unfortunate implications if taken to an extreme. But generic D&D settings already have good or neutral gnomes, wizards, artificers...

      Delete
    6. I mean, *anything* has unfortunate implications if taken to an extreme. XD On the whole I'd rather go "science evil, nature good" than "science good, nature evil"! (Even tho, obviously, most of the comforts I enjoy in this world are the result of 'science', haha. But biophilia exists for a reason!)

      Basically science vs nature (or city vs nature, or 'civilization vs barbarism' to use a more problematic turn) makes an interesting dichotomy at the very least. If it's good enough for Hayao Miyazaki, it's good enough for a D&D setting, I think! ;)

      Delete
    7. I agree, and it's something I liked about Changeling: The Dreaming - the chief enemies being, basically, scientists!

      Delete
  2. It's not surprising that "orcs are racist" is a microcosm of the woke ideological landscape. Anything that uses the word "race" in any context is implicitly problematic. Anything that implies genetic determinism is problematic. Anything that involves an aesthetic in the barbarian/frontier/indigenous space is problematic. I'm tempted to go further and suggest that anything beloved by cishet white neckbeards is implicitly problematic.

    Any primordial artefacts in a space being colonised by the woke, like D&D, are necessarily problematic. If these concepts weren't problematic, there would be no need to confiscate and destroy them, and raise new temples to the one true reli-Wait, no. That can't be right.

    Someone should probably warn these guys.

    Rhetoric aside, I think "orcs are racist" is just another low-stakes opportunity to virtue signal on Twitter etc. It's not a true belief or worked-through opinion or philosophy; it's just another shibboleth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Call something racist until you control it" does seem to be a depressingly common route to power these days... Although I don't think that's how most people who engage in these discussions consciously frame it.

      Delete
  3. If there was no “alignment” in the game, would orcs still be problematic?

    (that’s not meant to be a rhetorical question)

    I wonder. I’m thinking about it, I suppose that if there were no alignment in the D&D game, then only the actions of the PCs (murdering and robbing) might be considered “problematic.” And, yes, I mean that even with some sort of “heroic context” (every people’s god is sacred to those people…who’s to say YOU aren’t the “evil” one).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good question. Are the PCs evil?

      Delete
    2. Hard to call them “good Christians.”
      ; )

      Delete
    3. There is no Yin without the Yang.

      Delete
  4. "Orcs don't have genes. They are mythical, fairy tale beings, with a different essence altogether. They're not a 'race', or a 'species'."

    Except...they're not. At least not as portrayed in most Fantasy RPGs. They are also not from myth or folklore. The modern Orc stems from Tolkien who made them up based on older legends and mythology but the Orc isn't a spirt or a demon or a boogeyman of unspecific abilities. They are fictional, like a Star Trek Vulcan or a Star Wars Rodian but they aren't from myth.

    This isn't Ars Magica (which incidentally doesn't have Orcs because, as noted, they aren't mythical). This is a game world that makes them a people, a culture is assumed to exist for them (even if you don't take the time to develop one).

    As silly as I think the argument is, I can understand why it exists. The more you remove the fantastic from fantastic things the more you invite a comparison to the real world. Encumbrance, Weapons Speeds, and the like give way to asking how dragons fly and wondering if orcs are subject to racism. It all goes hand in hand I think.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's a fair observation, and you put it very well. Removing the fantastic from fantastic things is at the heart of the matter.

      Delete
    2. I'd argue that this 'removing the fantastic' is something modern DnD does a lot, and leads to a lot of the setting issues.

      If you take the core idea "orcs are a species that are always evil" and try to meld it with "all of these species are basically human in their origins and behavior," it ends up with some weird implications.

      Delete
    3. Agreed Annon.

      A people are not evil, nor are they good. They are people.

      A dark presence that haunts lonely roads in twilight; now that can be evil.

      Delete
  5. The problem is that there's two conflated arguments here. One is in fact pretty stupid: 'Depictions of racism in fantasy games or literature are bad in themelves, because they're racist'. This argument is utterly stupid, but is a big part of a lot of modern fantasy criticism. The issues with Tanis' depiction in Dragonlance, for example - in text these are clearly depictions of racism against elves and half-elves as _a bad thing_, and people are arguing against them as being bad because they interpret the text as saying that the racist views against elves are correct - that the text is racist, not the characters. This is simply bad critical reading.

    However, there is another argument which gets lost in this, which you are interpreting as 'they argue that imagining negative characteristics in fantasy races leads to racism in real life'. This is not the argument (or at least, it shouldn't be, and I have not seen anyone seriously arguing for that position).

    The argument is that the ways in which orcs are depicted as evil, are used because they are already extant racist sterotypes - that orcs both in physical description and in behavioral steroptype are relying on existing racist stereotypes, and uncritically using those reinforces those casual unconsious stereotypes.

    I don't think that playing in a game with orcs etc using these stereotypes would 'make you racist', but I do believe that there's no good reason to continue to make use of descriptions and shorthands that are rooted in real-world racism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. OK. So can you explain to me the causal mechanism going from A to B, here? Does it really seem plausible to you that if people uncritically use the typical modern fantasy orc in a game, i.e. without thinking about them as being related to real-world views about race at all, it will cause them to adopt, or strengthen, "casual unconscious stereotypes" against real people?

      That just doesn't pass the sniff test to me. I don't think that's how human psychology works. And I think the psychological literature would confirm that (it's even addressed in the podcast episode I linked to, actually).

      Delete
    2. Honest question: would you be comfortable playing in a hypothetical game, set in some close version of the real world, where your violence is directed exclusively against a certain ethnic group? say, like, "Black voodoo practitioners are trying to cause the apocalypse" or something. Surely you agree that that sort of setup is fairly problematic. now, what if I took the same setup but shifted it to a generic fantasy setting, and changed the Black people's skin green and called them Orcs, while changing very little else about them?

      Delete
    3. I personally don't find the "black voodoo" premise any more or less "problematic" than, say, white New England cultists trying to summon Cthulhu. Both sound like awesome setups for an adventure. The race of the antagonists/protagonists doesn't really enter into it unless you want it to. The motivation to defeat the black voodooists or cultists is not (or shouldn't be) because they are black or white; it's because they are trying to end the world.

      Delete
    4. Well, voodoo (or at least Vodun) is a real religion, and that premise is based on ethnic stereotypes about them. If you had, I don't know, white Appalachian Klansmen trying to brew a moonshine so potent it will make the whole world drunk and destroy the inferior livers of their enemies, it might be more comparable.

      Delete
  6. I've always joked at my table, that it's specieism and not racism and it not bunjustlh prejudiced if it'd true.

    It's funny to me that everyone talks about orcs and drow, which are completely fantasy creatures, but never talk about the dwarf problem(ie there are real dwarves in the real world and they are definitely not a different species or even race/breed)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, a huge part of the problem stems from the use of the word 'race' in the first place.

      Delete
    2. Exactly this. If "species" had been used instead, I am 100% certain we wouldn't be having this conversation. There are elements of older D&D mythos and imagery that warrant revision, or at least a conversation, (like the lack of diversity and/or *human* racial stereotypes in some of the settings) but that job isn't going to score the content miners enough clicks.

      Delete
  7. Quillette routinely takes physiognomy seriously. Never take anything they say seriously. No one is saying there's something wrong with Dwarves being into mining.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The dwarf mining thing is one of the explicit examples cited in the Wired article.

      I like Quillette podcasts. They tend to be thought-provoking.

      Delete
  8. My argument against 'orcs are evil, dwarfs are miners, elfs are effet...' was always just that it's boring and implausible for all intelligent creatures of a group to be nearly so similar as their stereotypes in fantasy.
    Another issue is the use of the term 'race' for them. The history of the word is fraught with pseudoscientific nonsense in support of persecution and slavery. Find a different term and people might relax, a bit. But I'd still rather the orcs/elves/dwarfs I meet in fantasy games be a bit more diverse and surprising.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't disagree with that. As I said in the post, I much prefer a mythical, expressionist understanding of fantasy 'races', but if you want to think of them in a more materialist way as they appear in most fantasy settings, it absolutely is better to make them more diverse and surprising.

      Delete
    2. Rationalizing absurb statement to maintain group identity.

      Delete
  9. In the Wired article (and in other takes from similar folks online) they're actually sorta complaining about two things:

    1. the idea that some 'fantasy races' are inherently evil or stupid or weak -- or inherently anything really, although I don't know where you draw the line and why 'orcs are stronger than humans' is bad whereas 'bunnyfolk can jump better than anyone else' is ok.

    2. the idea that racism might actually *exist* in their fantasy worlds -- like, they don't want their games to exist in a world where humans are racist towards tieflings, because this is too much of a reminder of the existence of real-world racism. So, rather than 'fantasy racism' being a clever satire on real-world racism, it's unacceptable because it normalizes racism. Apparently. -_-;;;

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Argument 1 is just weird, as you point out. If you are going to accept the concept of fantasy races at all, you have to surely accept there are going to be points of difference between them?

      The satire point is interesting too. When I read Dragonlance, at the age of 11 or whatever, the idea that people might act in a "racist" way towards Tanis beceause of his mixed ancestry made an impression on me. (I was about 11, I repeat.) It's too grand to call Dragonlance satire. But it did make me think. Should we not even be allowed to think about racism, if only to understand it?

      Delete
  10. (following up to my previous comment...) To be fair to people who accept this argument, I guess it's analogous to women gamers not wanting to play in fantasy worlds where everything's kings kings kings, and women are treated poorly "in the name of Medieval realism" or barmaids are harassed etc. And I respect this desire!! It's good to create fantasy worlds with more gender equality and better roles for women, regardless of whether real-world history was misogynistic.

    But I still think this is so idiotic when the same logic is applied to 'fantasy racism'! >_<;; I guess the crucial difference is that women are a real gender, and orcs (or lizardfolk or bugbears or whoever) aren't a real race.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I do have some time for that argument actually, particularly when it comes to women gamers. Knowing what some men can be like, I can easily envisage scenarios in which women gamers are made to feel uncomfortable or the butt of all kind of "hilarious" jokes because "this is a pseudo-Medieval setting" and women are second-class citizens.

      But yes, nobody seems to appreciate there is quite a wide gulf between sexism against women, which actually happens and has actual victims, and racism against made-up races.

      Delete
    2. "made-up races" can still contain obvious parallels to irl races. if I make a setting where evil hook-nosed banking goblins who practice genital mutilation secretly run society from the shadows, it wouldn't be a stretch for my Jewish friends to be deeply uncomfortable from this. If I set up a campaign about elegant, hyper-civilized elves "bringing civilization to" child-minded "savage races" in the jungle, well, I think that's about obvious. a setting where blue-skinned Blorbos keep gold-skinned Flumbos as chattel slaves but this is presented as the natural order and ultimately what's best for the Flumbos clearly doesn't map onto real-world races but may strike a nerve for historically enslaved communities. it can maybe be hard to see this coming from a position where the vast amount of fantasy tropes were made by people like you, for people like you. of course they're not going to be challenging for people like you. but to foster genuine inclusivity at the table you gotta at least listen to more diverse voices.

      Delete
    3. However, no one is suggesting that there are actual orcs out there being harmed. What is being increasingly noticed and said is that some of the tropes used to characterize orcs (etc.) as evil, "savage," etc., are the same as those that used to be applied to groups of real humans. We don't do a lot of pulp adventure with savage hordes of Africans/Asians/Indians any more, but some of the same descriptions used to dehumanize those people in the past are still used for the evil humanoids of fantasy. As recently as 5e's Volo's Guide, to bring up a specific flashpoint of criticism, there was mention that orc children can turn out okay if taken away from their culture and raised by humans or whatever. Which at some point in D&D's history was probably a step *away* from "innate biological evil," but also happens to echo an actual thing done to generations of indigenous children, recently enough that it still affects people. Just as we're listening to women gamers when it comes to some of the casual sexism in the history of the game, it's worthwhile to listen to gamers who are not middle-class white dudes when they say "This characterization of an enemy species is disturbingly close to this actual racist screed written about my ancestors."

      Delete
    4. Fictional Conan was often referred to as "savage" and "barbaric", as were real-world Vikings and Huns, because those are human traits and not endemic to race. If one sees race in descriptive words like "savage" and "exotic" and "barbaric," then perhaps the "problem" is not with the words.

      Delete
    5. Yeah, definitely imaginary 'races' or aliens or monsters can have obvious parallels (intentional or unintentional) to IRL groups. But I don't think most of these are so obvious or unquestionable as in, say, Norman Spinrad's "The Iron Dream". Like, the association of 'the only dark skinned humanoid race is evil' like with drow is obviously problematic. But I've heard people argue that the Alien (from the Alien movies) is also Black-coded for the same reason... even tho it's barely 'humanoid' and in many of the Alien movies there are human Black characters fighting it. (Or the vantablack creatures in "Attack the Block" for another SF horror example.) Or, antisemites in the Middle Ages thought Jewish people drank blood, does this mean all blood-drinking monsters are problematic? And ditto with liches, or witches, or the 'monsters who control society disguised as ordinary humans' in They Live and similar things, or...

      Basically, racism applies imaginary monstrousness to real people, so virtually every 'monstrous' or evil trait has been used as a racial libel against a group of marginalized human beings at some point. So while obviously some usages are especially problematic, where do you draw the line? Perhaps one answer is "the line is not for you to draw" but I gotta push back against many of these examples because I love monsters and fundamentally think that fictional evil monsters are intended as an 'Other' which every human can agree on.

      Delete
    6. Jason, that's my feeling as well - you hit the nail on the head.

      Delete
    7. " it's worthwhile to listen to gamers who are not middle-class white dudes"

      Now that's just crazy talk.

      Delete
  11. To jump off from the point adam made above, its not just the fantastical becoming less fantastic but that, for lack of a better term, gamespqces are becoming more sympathetic (magic) spaces: if the goal of the game is assumed to be about learning about the IRL world (which i argue is becoming the norm in the mainstream rpg space), then wanting an as-above-so-below correspondance in thematic/tonal matter makes more sense. The old school (qnd even indie) ethos alternatively is usually much more interested in the gamespace as much more wholly seperate, where themes and tone are aligned to by the players thenselves.

    Interest in one method or the other, or questions of the superiority of one over the other, is an exercise left up to the reader of course.

    ReplyDelete
  12. All very interesting thoughts and such. But I think part of the unease expressed in the whole Orcish race is evil comes from the existence of half-orcs as player characters. There are at least two problems that come up there that I can think of. If orcs are inherently evil, does that mean that half-orc characters are also evil, if it is a genetic thing? And if they are not, what kind of society would Orcs and Half-Orcs have so as to produce non-evil characters?
    And if there are half-orcs, how far removed from humans (or elves for that matter) are orcs?
    One of the things that I always liked about the old Al Qadim setting was that racial stereotypes did not exist. Or at least were different. The tension in that setting was more between different cultures, and both Orcs and Elves could be and were part of the same culture. Orcs and Elves lived next to each other, and there would be the possibility (as in a Romeo and Julia thing) of an Elf-Orc. Always wanted to do something with that, but never managed to.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, as I think is said elsewhere in this thread, the existence of 'half-orcs' makes D&D orcs more problematic. It definitely feels like Tolkien is channeling the racist trope of 'half-breeds', that normal orcs are irredeemable, but half-orcs maybe who knows.

      (Although if you eliminate the 'savage barbarians' aspect, the whole 'aaggghh i have evil in my blood, but my human side struggles against it' is *SUCH* a big trope!! That's in like so many vampire and demon books and so forth. And I think it's a pretty rad trope. So it bums me out that anyone would think that the *evil* aspect is innately problematic. The 'savage' aspect, on the other hand, yeeeeeaaaah kindaaa.....)

      Delete
  13. It's funny you mention dwarves like mining, because at least Tolkien's dwarves are explicitly referencing Jews. I don't claim they're antisemitic (they're not), but they not only like mining - they like gold and precious stones, digging greedily (like a stereotype of a jew).

    Likewise, I think you can find some racist stereotypes referenced in orcs. Sometimes you need to squint to notice them, but in some depictions they do exist. This doesn't mean that using orcs in a game will make someone racist, but it could be uncomfortable for some players. There's a middle ground between the extreme of "wokeness" and embracing uncritically any existing trope.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting. I never considered dwarves as an antisemitic, Jewish stereotype…I figured they were just based on the gold-loving fairytale miners from Norse sagas and whatnot.

      Hmm. Maybe the sagas were based on racist stereotypes. Wow now I’m seeing this whole circle…like, no wonder Hitler really dug on Wagner! It all makes sense, now!

      Delete
    2. Enforcing wivren's argument, in Tolkien's letters, the orcs are described as "mongol-like"* as in the mongol ethnic group . The green humanoid is a latter construction. I guess He was trying to invoke the idea of the Huns, Mongols, Scythians, etc.: The eastern nomadic peoples always raiding 'civilized' areas (Greece, Rome) etc.
      Tolkien was a man of his time, he wasn't any more racist than the next guy, but his world-building, unsurprisingly reflects his own world
      On another note, there is a famous letter in which he tells the nazis to f*ck off and that he wished he was a part of a culture as fascinanting as the jews*
      *Not verbatim quotes, don't have the letters in hand right now

      Delete
    3. If fantasy is to inspire it must be rooted in the fantastic and the real, or ideas of the real. There is nothing wrong with basing a fictional creature on a mixture of influences, some of them rooted in real cultures. The Orcs in B10 have some resemblance to Germanic Tribes. What of it? Is a big stink made of that? Of course not, because the charge of racism is only ever applied unilaterally.

      The controversy surrounding this is artificial, a mere foil for an attack on one of the pillars of western civilisation, and the people that are offended by them have been specially conditioned to look for offence in everything. Ignoring them is best, offending them wherever they are found is second best.

      Delete
    4. Disagree. They are from Norse mythology, and they were described as miners and craftsmen then, and I doubt the Vikings knew much about Jews. And it's not as if the love of gold could only be derived from the Jews. And it's not as if the Viking raiders who sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne and plundered its gold and silver had anything to do with Jews.

      Delete
    5. @John L - don't take my word for it. Wikipedia has a subsection on this, but here's one quote from Tolkien in particular: "The dwarves of course are quite obviously, wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic". Obviously they're also inspired from Norse mythology, just not exclusively so.

      To reiterate, I don't claim the dwarves to be antisemitic at all. But I don't think they are as far removed from racial stereotypes as noism seems to think in the article.

      @PrinceofNothing - I'm not quite sure what you're saying honestly. Might be my terrible english.
      I do agree that to at least some degree, the claim that anything and everything is racist is used cynically. But that doesn't mean that nothing is in bad taste.

      Delete
    6. Tolkiens dwarves were born out of stone and have few women. Jews?!? That's a stretch.

      Delete
    7. Um...my reply to Wivren was (mostly) meant as sarcasm.

      The part that wasn't? The word "interesting." As in, it is interesting that someone would go down this line of thought.

      Delete
    8. As wivren said, Tolkien himself SPECIFICALLY compared his dwarves with Jews. It's not a stretch when Tolkien directly draws that comparison himself.

      Delete
    9. He did, but I think his idea for the dwarves was more in the way of a 'race' of wanderers without a homeland, who were somewhat separate from other peoples? This was in one of his letters, if I remember rightly.

      Delete
    10. I'm no Tolkien expert, but -- given that Tolkien hated Nazis and hated antiSemitism and refused to allow his books to be published in Nazi Germany -- I've always had the impression that the "Semitic" element of Tolkien's dwarves was sort of Tolkien's attempt to *flip* the anti-Semitic element of Wagner's dwarves? That basically he was trying to 'redeem the trope', however crude or still-bad this looks to modern eyes.

      Like I said, though, I'm no Tolkien expert. I bet someone else knows!

      Delete
  14. This is another attempt to get their foot in the door. The woke need to control every aspect of our lives... games, culture, politics, work, education. Doesn't matter, SJWs must have total power! At the moment, they're content with getting rid of alignment, D&D racism, and problematic bits and pieces. In 2 years, they'll have even more grievances.

    Thankfully, the tide is turning! There's a growing movement of people who yearn for a return to normalcy. If you're part of the silent majority, now's the time to speak out. Fight back!

    ReplyDelete
  15. My pet theory is that Tolkien intended orcs to be a paradigm of the brutalization of warfare -- especially the modern, trench warfare he had seen as a combatant in Flanders -- so he gave them rough, Tommy Atkins-style voices and the dialogue concerns of a low-level grunt but also layered on elements of the stereotype of the brutish, animalistic, near-cannibalistic "Hun" that contemporary war propaganda had put out. Thankfully, without the rape-panic element also present in that propaganda.

    I think, though, that orcs were always intended to be degenerate human-types, rather than a separate alien species.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, the clearly fascist aspect of Tolkien orcs is always ignored in these arguments. No doubt cuz it's ignored in D&D itself, and replaced by the 'savage barbarian' orc -- and I agree that the 'all the bad guys are savages with spears and low INT' thing is a problem, and certainly a bigger problem than the 'innately evil' thing. But the 'innately evil' thing seems to dominate all the arguments about orcs.

      Personally I'd much rather see a D&D setting where the 'evil fascists' aspects of orcs is emphasized, because if players want hordes of mooks to kill, who better than evil fascists? Why not just remove the INT penalty (tho D&D has INT as a core ability, so kinda hard rules-wise to make 'all humanoids are equally intelligent' a core principle....) and give orcs decent technology and cool gear and make them into the 'high-tech invaders'? Instead everyone seems SO married to the idea of 'savage' orcs and would rather somehow redeem this trope (turning them into WoW's noble-savage orcs basically).

      About the 'orcs are degenerate human-types rather than a separate species' that's also totally true. But I think this just puts orcs more in the category of something like 'bloodthirsty fast zombies' basically. They were something once human, or partly human, but now they're unsaveable monsters. And that's a hugely popular trope! I can go to the bookshelf or video sites and find 1,000 zombie and pseudo-zombie movies where normal people have to fight people-monsters!! And there's even quite a few such stories with the 'oooh nooo, child zombies!!' thing where the heroes have to tearfully mow down crazed evil children (to call back to the grossest moral situation involving how orcs and goblinoids are typically used in D&D).

      And I frickin' love all these kinds of horror stories! I hate how many people this line of argument seems to be willing to throw >50% of the horror genre under the bus by seemingly stating 'the very idea of evil humanoid Others' is bad. It's really getting into the territory of shaming the kinds of things I enjoy. A lot of times it's done poorly like with anything, but I think as horror, the idea of bloodthirsty (or 'savage') pseudo-human killing machines is really awesome and terrifying.

      (Of course, I recognize that this trope *wasn't* being used by Gygax as 'horror' and this is me throwing my own after-the-fact interpretation onto it. >_<;;; And I recognize that Wizards isn't interested in pursuing a 'grimdark horror' angle to D&D and has zero interest in setting up moral situations like in, say, David Moody's "Hater" novels. But what can I say, fantasy and horror are my two loves, haha)

      Basically I think, in the quest for 'seeing orcs in the worst possible light', it's also being forgotten that a trope as broad as 'evil humanoid Others' can be used in so so many different ways. Like zombies and vampires, it can mean different things from different creators and to different people. No one discussing D&D orcs ever seems aware of the existence of Warhammer football-hooligan orcs or Tolkien fascist-orcs. And I'll always love the time Ta-Nehisi Coates, onetime D&D player (tho this was 6 years ago and I have no idea how he'd feel about orcs today), called Trump "orcish".

      Delete
    2. Speaking of fascists, the reason I fell out with orcs, as well as the existence of other evil humanoid races, is that real humans are evil enough. The things human beings did to each other in the 20th century kind of obviate the need for orcs!

      Delete
    3. "the clearly fascist aspect of Tolkien orcs is always ignored in these arguments. No doubt cuz it's ignored in D&D itself, and replaced by the 'savage barbarian' orc"

      Ironically it was WotC with 3rd edition D&D that replaced the 1e-2e Fascist Pig-Face Orcs with Savage Barbarian Orcs.

      Delete
  16. Weren't orcs Elves tortured by Melgoth or something? elves are better than humans in nearly every way but they've been degraded into bloody foot soldiers. This fits Roger G-S pet theory better than any others and suggests something far deeper thematically than the Orc racism trope.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I guess to add something that I don't see being talked about is that many black people and many other ethnicities are playing rpgs for the first time (That is not to say that there hasn't been black people playing and writing since the beginning of the hobby, look at Mike Pondsmith for God's say, or that rpgs are a 'white' thing. God I hate that assumption). Anyway, I remember being rather confused by some D&Disms when I was a teenager, like how Drow are the bad elves and are black or the whole category of evil alignment. Add the fact that many monsters are stated or coded as being tribal and hunter gatherer society-like and I can see a black kid or any other ethnicity being weirded out by that.
    My main problem with 'Orcs are racist' and 'D&D is being genetically essentialist', other than what you wrote, is that the arguments doesn't define the subjects well enough. D&D is being genetically essentialist, okay. which D&D? Original D&D, 3ed? 5ed? Each edition has been written by different people. It is like pointing to a river and saying "that river has some dirt in it." But a river isn't a static thing, it's flowing with many elements coming and going. I can't comment because of the moving nature of the thing. Once you specify a certain portion of the water, then I can determine for myself if there is dirt, and then discuss things clearly.
    I have a similar problem with the word 'woke', people are just using it to refer to: "The thing that I don't like." it doesn't have a clear definition.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, fair enough.

      I have neither the time nor inclination to define 'woke' at present, though!

      Delete
    2. That's just it...you have no obligation to define it. Non-"woke" people didn't invent the term; it was self-applied by the people for whom one's personal identity (racial, sexual, gender, etc.) trumps everything else.

      It's a clever marketing term because of the implication that anyone who doesn't feel the same way is somehow "asleep" or "unaware" of what's happening. Red pill-blue pill nonsense. It's also vague enough that you can apply it to and/or victimize anything or anyone.

      The word "Orwellian" is thrown around a lot, but in this case, it is absolutely what he was warning about in terms of language and its weaponization.

      Delete
  18. In my experience the objection isn't that fictional races are being unfairly stereotyped and demonized as that the language used to describe them is often the exact same language that is used to describe real races and cultures and is thus objectionable to members of those races and cultures who don't think it's fun to perpetuate that language and those attitudes even in a fictional context where they're not personally on the receiving end, because it's still a reminder of when they have been on the receiving end IRL.

    A bunch of middle-aged cishet white males can be dispassionate about this stuff because it's not generally part of our personal experience to have been judged and discriminated against in this way, but we shouldn't make the mistake of discounting the personal experience of those who have had to deal with and experience this kind of racism to not want to have to see and hear it in their escapist fantasies - and neither "but in this context it's actually true" or "but they shouldn't mind because it's not being directed at them" are appropriate responses because they both miss the point.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've heard this argument many times before and I understand it. But this is the kind of thing where interpersonal relationships solve the issue. If there was somebody in my group who was genuinely offended by the depiction of orcs in the campaign and said so, then of course I would respect that. What is the right response when your friend says something you are doing makes them uncomfortable?

      Delete
    2. I mean, I don't want to be snide about it, but 99.9% of the time this argument only seems to be made by fellow middle-aged, straight white cishet males who have good intentions. It's nice to have good intentions, don't get me wrong, but one shouldn't allow them to blind oneself to reality.

      Delete
    3. I agree that when creating stuff for use at your own table or using old stuff it's all about knowing your players and everybody trusting and respecting each other and doesn't need to go beyond that.

      Creating stuff for publication is trickier, though, because you don't (presumably) know everybody who's potentially going to purchase it and what they might find uncomfortable or offensive. I'm not saying authors need to censor themselves and that everything needs to be sanitized to the point of blandness, but at this point these issues are well-enough known (in a way that they weren't 20+ years ago) that ignorance isn't really an excuse anymore. In the year 2022 if you include racist-coded (or sexist, ableist, homophobic, etc.) content it can be assumed that you're doing it intentionally, either to make a point (hope the point is worth it and you're conscious of what you're doing) or out of petulant reactionary spite, which is a bad look and lumps you in with a lot of people that I, at least, prefer not to be lumped in with.

      At this point almost all of the people I play D&D with are women, Latin, Asian, LGBT, or multiple of the above. They're sensitive to stuff that I (classic middle-aged cishet white male) am not. I could bristle and snarl at them and tell them to grow a thicker skin and conform to my standards, but I think it's more productive instead to listen to them and understand where they're coming from and why, and realize how easy it is and how little impact it has on the core setting and stories to not include the dated stuff that they find offensive and off-putting. Upon closer examination, almost all of that stuff turns out to just be lazy cliches and cheap crutches anyway.

      Delete
    4. You're begging the question. I would agree that "racist-coded" things are distasteful. My point is I don't think orcs are "racist-coded" and am yet to be convinced by the comments here.

      Delete
    5. "I mean, I don't want to be snide about it, but 99.9% of the time this argument only seems to be made by fellow middle-aged, straight white cishet males who have good intentions"

      Agreed, though you occasionally get it from non-white Social Justice advocates. You don't get it from normal people at all.

      Delete
    6. The description of orcs may not necessarily be racist-coded, but the description of *half-orcs* absolutely is: orcs are noted as being "fecund" and willing to "breed with anything" and their offspring are described (in the MM, PH, and DMG) as being "unsavory mongrels" who "favor the orcish strain heavily" except for the "superior 10%" who are "sufficiently non-orcish to pass for human" and as being "boors ... rude, crude, crass, and generally obnoxious ... cowardly ... bullies and cruel to the weak but will quickly knuckle under to the stronger." "This does not mean that all half-orcs are horrid, only most of them. It neither means that they are *necessarily* stupid or incapable." All of this is VERY close to language traditionally used by racists to describe people with African ancestry ("even a single drop") and is made worse when combined with racial caps on Intelligence (max 17), Wisdom (max 14), and Charisma (max 12). Even the backhanded bonuses given to Strength and Constitution are consistent with classic racist rhetoric.

      Half-orcs in AD&D are 100% a walking racist stereotype. If you don't see it then that's a failing on your end (either ignorance or willful blindness), not an overreach by those who do see it - especially those who've been on the receiving end of that kind of rhetoric IRL.

      Delete
    7. I don't see it as anything like that simple. On the one hand, one could read this as crypto-racism. On the other, it could just be the product of somebody innocently trying to think through the consequnces of what it would be like if a human and an orc reproduced, given the predicates of what an orc is supposed to be like. If somebody in your group were to find it offensive, then sure, you would be an arsehole to continue describing half-orcs in that way. Is that the same thing as saying they are "racist-coded"? I don't think so. Life is more complicated than that.

      Delete
    8. I mean, the whole "superior 10% who could pass for humans" and "not all of them are horrid, stupid or incapable" could be seen as "very close to language used by racists" or it could just be a game designer trying to figure out a way to make the concept of a half-orc work as a PC race. Given that orcs are monsters, then for a half-orc PC to be able to visit towns and get by, it would need to be in a "superior" category that could pass as human. And not every player wanting to play a half-orc PC would want their PC to be stupid, incapable, etc., and so there needs to be space for half-orcs who aren't necessarily like that. In other words, there are much more charitable readings of the underyling motives of the designers than the ones you're assigning to them.

      Delete
    9. The description of a half-orc reads much more to me like somebody scratching their head and thinking "How do we make it possible to have half-orc PCs being playable, given what the MM already says about orcs?" The answer - they need to be orcish, but able to pass as human; tending towards certain character traits but being able to rise above them, and so on.

      Delete
    10. The AD&D half-orc descriptions comes straight from Tolkien: most of the half-orcs that Merry and Pippin see marching out of Isengard are "worse" than Bill Ferny's friend in Bree, who turns out to be one of Saruman's agents. So Tolkien's half-orcs also mostly favour the Orcish side, but there are some that look sufficiently human for Saruman to use them as spies.

      And the "boors", "cowards" and "bullies" stuff is straight out of 'The Scouring of the Shire' - in which the half-orcs speak and act like loutish Englishmen.

      And note that the humans that are bred with Orcs by Saruman are the Dunlendings, whose name, description and position in the backstory all suggest British 'Celtic' peoples. Certainly, the half-orcs in Scouring are characterised as British in the same way as the Hobbits (and indeed the Orcs). So there's absolutely nothing to indicate that Tolkien was thinking about people with African ancestry when he was writing about half-orcs - and Gygax seems to take pretty much everything he wrote about half-orcs straight from Tolkien (though I'm sure Gygax would have denied the link at some point).

      With AD&D, of course, the "most don't pass as human thing" is a pretty obvious requirement given the description of AD&D orcs: pig-faced with bluish-tinged green or brown skin and pink ears and snouts. This illustration seems to be their ultimate source : https://www.theonering.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/captured_by_orcs-hildebrandt.jpg

      I've occasionally read American writers argue that Tolkien's half-orcs are inspired by fear of 'miscegenation'. But that seems unlikely; it's an interpretation, I think, that comes from viewing his writings through an American lens. Tolkien was not Lovecraft or Howard; for JRRT, the likeliest sources of inspiration for half-orcs and half-elves are Germanic epics and sagas. In those, half-trolls feature in various ways (as in Egil's Saga and the Saga of Arrow-Odd) and a half-elf is a prominent antagonist (Skuld in Hrolf Kraki's Saga, which contains the clear original of the Battle of the Five Armies). There are half-giants too, of course - most obviously Loki.

      As others have said on this thread, racists frequently dehumanise people by ascribing monstrous or bestial traits to them. But mythical, folkloric and fictional monsters will *inevitably* have monstrous or bestial traits - *because they're monsters*. We shouldn't let racists prevent us from enjoying monsters - any more than the Nazis' enthusiasm for Germanic myth should rule its riches out for the rest of humanity.

      Delete
  19. The Woke are the new Puritans. They are just too self-unconscious to know it; HL Mencken knew them well. In his capacity as the American Nostradamus:

    At the bottom of Puritanism one finds envy of the fellow who is having a better time in the world, and hence hatred of him. At the bottom of democracy one finds the same thing. This is why all Puritans are democrats and all democrats are Puritans.
    - A Little Book in C Major, New York, NY, John Lane Company (1916) p. 76

    "The Puritan’s utter lack of aesthetic sense, his distrust of all romantic emotion, his unmatchable intolerance of opposition, his unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views, his savage cruelty of attack, his lust for relentless and barbarous persecution—theses things have put an almost unbearable burden upon the exchange of ideas in the United States."
    - Chapter 8, Marking Time (p. 192)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Tolkein said that orcs are: "in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."

    So Orcs are originally rooted in racist tropes and imagery. They were intended to reflect a specific human group.

    That doesn't mean you're not allowed to have Orcs, or you're going to become a racist if you have them in your game. It's just like running Call of Cthulhu. You can still run and enjoy it, but you should be aware of the problems with the source material and remove the racist elements when you run it.

    You know, hopefully you're not going to run Deep Ones as a metaphor for the horrors of miscegenation, right? In the same way, if you put Orcs in your setting, it's a good idea to make sure you're not falling into racist tropes. That's it.

    You should consider that this podcast you've posted is incentivised to find the most "Self parodically woke" viewpoints it can possibly get, in order to convince you that your favourite hobby is under seige by "Wokeness". I love your work Noisms, so I hope this isn't something you agree with.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Deep Ones are obviously a metaphor for the horrors of Br*tish people, though. pale fish-people with slimy skin, bulging eyes, and grotesque, unlistenable voices? they're very clearly just supposed to be Br*tish, idk what the confusion is.

      Delete
    2. You should consider actually listening to the podcast! It's very even-handed and not about the hobby being under siege by "wokeness".

      Delete
  21. i think my interest in this doesnt have a lot to do with evil or genes or wokeness

    i believe a bunch of contradicting things about it

    firstly, i believe that there is (or should be) more interesting thigns you can do with monsters than killing them, or having them kill people. like they need to serve this function for the game to work at a low level - they need to be targets, they need to be threats. but it makes sense to look for something more than this simple basic game - weirder or more interesting or complicated cases - if you find that valuable.

    so the problem i think arises when youre trying to find this more interesting case, but someone else wants the base case. i think its good, generally, the idea that the mosters should want soemthing, should be doing something, should have some mystery or surprise to them, some grist to work, something new

    but this leads to monsters that are too interesting, or that cant be killed, so that they dont work in the basic case, and youre punished for working in the basic mode of the game, which also might be what you want, maybe you just want a game where youre allowed to swing a sword around

    so then as a player, if i have an attack that can hit a lot of targets, i want there to be a situation where im allowed to hit a lot of targets. which requires ... orcs or droids or stormtroopers or something, the target youre allowed to hit

    if we make them into people, who youre not allowed to hit, the game falls apart because the things your character is built to do theyre not allowed to do.

    so i want both things. the game develops play cultures where people value one thing higher than the other. I find myself in groups where i disagree with the dm or with other players about what monsters are for.

    i think the meta argument about whether races are fundamentally evil is just a painted on justification for whatever position you can take on this problem. I dont think i can even reslve this contradicting impulses my own play. i like the game where you can talk to the monsters. i like the game where you can throw acid on them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I would describe myself as being in the same position. I like both types of game.

      Delete
    2. I agree -- I've been in the position myself where I got pissed off at another player OOC for wantonly killing NPCs because it offended my IC/OOC moral compass -- but then I've probably also done it myself in other games when I was in other moods -_-;;; sigh...

      Delete
  22. There's no doubt that that letter of Tolkien's reads uncomfortably to modern eyes. But it's not quite true to say that the Orcs were "intended to reflect a specific human group". Think about how they're characterised in the books: they, like the Hobbits, are very clearly *British* in their speech. And Tolkien also compares them to British soldiers in his letters ("there were Orcs on both sides" in WW1; his serving son in WW2 is "a Hobbit among the Uruk-hai"), which matches their characterisation in The Lord of the Rings. From Tolkien's perspective, the Orcs are "us", not "them".

    Indeed, from a reading of LotR, the Orcs' Britishness comes through much more strongly than any Central Asian aspects to their appearance (they're barely described, of course). Ugluk is much more a brutal British Army captain than he is Genghis Khan.

    In that letter, though, the "Mongol-types" that Tolkien is thinking of are surely the Huns. The Huns were central to Tolkien's professional life, as the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom by Aetius's Hunnic mercenaries is THE event that echoes throughout medieval Germanic literature.

    The Huns were described as monstrous by Roman chroniclers, and they were also given magical origins and an association with wolves. Later, Attila is shown as in monstrous form with animal ears. And then there's the German=Hun WWI propaganda, with the fearsome Huns of legend turned into beast-men. Tolkien draws on all those legendary aspects of a vanished people in creating the Orcs, but he doesn't use them to form a racial stereotype - instead, he creates soulless demons of war that reflect his brutal and brutalised comrades in the trenches more than anything else.

    It's worth mentioning, too, that Tolkien doesn't *replace* Steppe peoples with Orcs; the Steppe peoples of Middle-earth are very clearly Men. And if one were to give his letter a sympathetic reading, one might argue that he's actually taking pains to say that the Orcs don't look like Steppe peoples but like monstrous versions of them.

    If one were to run a game with authentically Tolkien-esque orcs (rather than D&D's pig-people, which appear to have been derived from Tolkien via the Hildebrandts), it's their Britishness that would come through - their harsh, barrack-room speech; their English colloquialisms; and their Shire-ish anachronisms: "You'll get bed and breakfast all right: more than you can stomach!". And that would inevitably get broadened in the process. One might argue that the very British football-hooligan Warhammer Orcs are what happens, eventually, when people do just that.

    One curious thing: in almost every aspect, D&D goblins are much more like Tolkien's Orcs than D&D Orcs. Yet goblins don't seem to attract the same heat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The purported racism of Tolkien's orcs never made much sense to me despite the infamous comment.

      If he is justly to be accused of racism it is because his world clearly has a racial hierarchy among Men.

      Delete
  23. Other people have mentioned it, but the problem is with how Orcs are often described with language that is similar to how colonized people were often described by their colonizers (like savage). This is a more than fair concern, and even if the orcs are evil trope isn't going to make other people racist it sure as hell should make any game designer, writer, DM, and artist, think carefully about their approach to race.

    Turning this into some caricature of "woke" people is also disingenuous at best.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The real problem is this ever-growing list of perfectly normal words we're not allowed to use anymore because some stranger might take them the wrong way. As a professional writer, I'm feeling marginalized.

      Delete
    2. Mathew Adams, are you suggesting that because a word applies to many groups and any one of them might be offended we need to invent a new word? Sometimes a word is perfectly fitting to what is being described, sometimes it is used as propaganda and slander. Neither is the words fault.

      Delete
    3. im not really convinced that this is a real or growing problem

      like im not sure that anyone's ever been able to write anything without some concern for the sensibilities of the reader, without criticism

      on platforms like twitch and tiktok there are a lot of normal words youre not allowed to use. but this a problem with those sorts of platforms and you can work on a freer platform... on your own blog or your own podcast there's no censor. If you're publishing a book you might have editors, but I'm assuming that there are freer publishers that will not edit you. Is this not the case?

      on one of these platforms where you act as your own censor, i dont believe there are a lot of 'normal' words youre not allowed to use. more than ever youre allowed to write and publish whatever you wish.

      just... not with impunity and not with the assumption of a receptive audience. is that a new problem, or a growing problem?

      Delete
    4. Matt, I'm not sure I understand your argument. If it was human people, even entirely imaginary ones, being described as "savage" (or whatever) I would agree with you and consider it in poor taste.

      But this isn't people. How is describing an orc as "savage" different from describing any monster as such?

      Or are you saying we should entirely retire words like "savage", "brutal", etc.?

      Delete
    5. Mathew Adams, I don't really find your latest comment (4 February 2022 at 05:58) particularly clarifying or persuasive.

      Delete
    6. Brackish, if I can't use an adjective like "savage" in a published work without fear of being called a racist by a horde of faceless online trolls, then there's a problem.

      I was chased off reddit for defending the terrific 1e Oriental Adventures book. It didn't matter to the commenters what the word Oriental actually means, or that D&D could just as easily be called "Occidental Adventures" and no one would bat an eye. I was being transgressive and had to go.

      Delete
    7. It's not just the word savage of course. It's not the words in general. It's how those those words were used historically to describe non-white peoples, and then used in the same way to describe evil fantasy creatures. Orcs as an evil race, no problem. Orcs as an evil race that also have more than a passing resemblance to, say, african tribespeople, well, that's a problem.

      Delete
    8. Matt, I totally agree that's a problem, and find that kind of thing repugnant - but I really don't think many D&D players do think of orcs that way.

      Delete
    9. @gladwain ok but has your writing suffered? do you find you are no longer able to type those words? are you restricted from posting? im sorry that that happened to you but i think you can just do it anyway

      Delete
  24. This seems like a categorization problem where "racist" and "not racist" don't have discrete boundaries, but everyone treats them like they do. It also seems *mostly* unrelated to real-world racism. Are fantasy depictions of Orcs racist? Depends on the depiction, because there's no single kind of Orc. Demon Pignosed Orcs are a very different thing from Tortured Elven Orcs, which are again different from "Noble savage" orcs, and those categorizations aren't necessarily going to be consistent within even the same fantasy world. Some of this stuff edges uncomfortably close to looking like real world racism, but I can't help but look at some of it and think the accusation of racism comes from someone who sees race in everything.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's a reasonable perspective! Thanks.

      Delete
  25. When people write sci-fi/fantasy/horror often the things they're writing about mirror their real world concerns. Racist people are concerned about race so when racist people write genre fiction a lot of elements end up being exaggerated versions of those racial concerns.

    Take Lovecraft for example, Arthur Jermyn is pretty obviously inspired by racist paranoia about miscegenation and a whole slew of his stories are inspired by his racist xenophobia. Now I'm not going to suddenly become a howling racist because I read about an ill-named cat and we shouldn't go and burn Lovecraft's books because they're racist, but denying that there's a lot of racism built into the bones of Lovecraftian fiction is silly.

    Tolkien was much less racist than Lovecraft but there's still stuff in there. As was quoted above Tolkien himself stated that dwarves are based on Jews: "The dwarves of course are quite obviously, wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic." The orcs don't have that sort of one-to-one correspondence with a real world ethnic group, but there's been plenty of fantasy fiction in which various fantasy races are stand-ins for specific real world ethnic groups. And I don't think it's too outlandish to say that making a fantasy race that's obviously based on a real-world ethnic group pure evil would make a lot of people (rightly!) uncomfortable.

    So what to do about this?

    There's a needle you have to thread.

    On the one hand you can make orcs (and other enemy critters) be full-on demonic. No little orc babies, no orc culture, just a vile distillate of the evils of war. That works.

    On the other hand you can make orcs (and other critters) be alien species like in Star Trek. Basically make orcs be fantasy Klingons. They're different than humans but still fundamentally people, and they have all of the complexity that entails including not necessarily being evil even if they still are dangerous (like Klingons!).

    Orcs as demons and orcs as Klingons both work fine for me. It's when you mix a bit of both that it starts getting uncomfortable. For example if orcs are as much "people" as Klingons are and have aspects of real world human cultures, cities, religion, etc. etc. but are also demonically evil... well I don't really like that. Will it turn me into a racist by reading it or playing in that D&D setting? No, of course not. But I don't think it's bizarre to have a problem with that sort of thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, that's a reasomable perspective. I think you're right about the problem being when orcs fall between the two stools.

      Delete
    2. In general I'd beware of Nut Picking. In general people tend to cherry pick the craziest examples of rhetoric from the other side and then share those around widely.

      For lefties now that Trump is gone the mainstay tends to be "back bench state lawmaker proposed an insane bill that will never get out of committee, EVERYONE PANIC!" while the on the right it often tends to be "nontenured faculty at obscure college SAID A THING! Look at how crazy they are!" This has gone beyond these days where you get things like SJW cringe videos and the left wing equivalents where instead of back bench local lawmakers you get just random people, with the craziest of them lovingly collected, collated, and shared.

      Being fed a consistent diet of that stuff can give you really skewed ideas. A few times now you've posted pretty unhinged woke takes on a certain subject and then dismissed the whole general idea and then I pop up in the comments with a "reasonable perspective" on the same issue and (since you're also a reasonable person) you agree that my take isn't crazy even if you disagree with me.

      So to try to get to a conclusion of this long bit of blather, try to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are a lot of really shitty takes on a lot of issues, but that doesn't mean that there isn't something valuable to be kept buried there under the shit that's getting shared around.

      Delete
    3. I'm not on social media. I'm not exposed to much "stuff" at all. So I'm not persuaded it's "nut picking" when this stuff still manages to find its way to my door. I mean, I work at a university - believe me, "unhinged woke takes" are par for the course. It's the water we swim in.

      Delete
  26. I mean...by definition they are racist. Racism is the idea that some group of people has inherent qualities that distinguish them from others, particularly moral/social traits (like being evil, stupid, etc). That's what orcs are (at least in older fantasy). I'm honestly shocked that so many people here are having an issue with that. You can say "well this is fantasy so that's okay". And maybe it is, there isn't any universal arbiter of "okayness" so you get to decide for yourself. I think it's the wrong question to be asking yourself anyway. The real question is, do you want to play with people who might care about it and/or do you care if you offend those people.

    What it comes down to for me is, I think there are certainly a lot of problematic parallels with how orcs are historically portrayed and racist caricatures. It is not a good look that in OG dnd there are really only 2 dark skinned humanoid races that are common (drow and orcs) and both are evil (well, depends on your definition of common, but generally speaking all the dark skinned races early on were evil, so). I can absolutely see how a player new to the game would feel uncomfortable about the primary dark skinned race being categorically labeled as evil, and that's not the type of environment I want to cultivate. "No but see they aren't racist because" is not a conversation I want to be having, and imo you made a mistake if you are having it at all (and occasionally maybe that mistake was having a player in the group who is needlessly difficult...I have never had that happen but I have certainly heard some crazy stories). Even if I'm playing with people who I know don't care...it just feels like lazy thinking to me. The ideas of good/evil feel childish and aren't compelling to me, though I get many people come to fantasy for them.

    I have yet to hear an argument where someone uses the term woke that wasn't reductive and disingenuous. What exactly is it that people are pushing back against? Did someone tell them they couldn't blog/publish if they had orcs? I doubt it. You can keep doing what you were already doing. There isn't some new group of people that suddenly are upset by it, they were always there. It will upset who it upsets, the only difference is that people doing questionable things with orcs are more aware that people are upset about it now. So...it seems to me like people are upset that other people are yucking their yum by being upset...and...idk get over it? You can be okay with what you do without having to tear down someone who disagrees.

    Also, if you think that racist thinking in games doesn't lead to racist thinking in the real world...maybe spend some time on 4chan, cause I'd push back pretty hard against that idea.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "You made a mistake if you are having it at all (conversation about how in game creature is/isn't racist)"
      How are we supposed to figure things out if we can't have a conversation about them? Even coming from a place of "putting this in my game makes my player distinctly uncomfortable/threatened, I should remove it for that alone", that doesn't mean I need accept a blanket assertion that something is or is not racist without debate. You say "By definition they are racist", but you complicate things by saying that orcs are people (which no one has agreed to)! Which orcs are you talking about? If you're talking Tolkien orcs, I happen to agree, based on them being tortured elves and some racial comments straight from the horses mouth (something about them taking mongol features). If you're talking about Drow, I'm failing to see the parallel between magical white haired backstabbing spider worshiping matriarchal elves and any real world people other than skin color.

      "Also, if you think that racist thinking in games doesn't lead to racist thinking in the real world...maybe spend some time on 4chan, cause I'd push back pretty hard against that idea." This undermines your whole statement! If you think that in game races being evil or savage leads to real world racist thinking, you absolutely should care about racism in games and not want people to engage with it! "You can keep doing what you're doing but it leads to racist thinking" smacks of "I know this is bad but going to pretend it isn't". It's speaking out of both sides of your mouth.

      (Incidentally, I think 4chan racists mostly already had racist beliefs, with fictional racism being another excuse to express them. I don't think people who consider racism a bad thing are inclined to become more racist when engaging with stuff that has a racist component.)

      Delete
    2. haha, I just wanted to briefly jump in to say it's funny that I have the exact opposite preference (i.e. I think orcs as rage-crazed mutants is a cool trope and that drow as dark-skinned evil matriarchs is fairly cringe). Which is just to say I really think there's a huge amount of individual difference in the interpretation of these things...

      Delete
    3. SkeletonFarmer, I think the mistake is the use of the word "people". As I tried to make clear in the entry, the moment you start thinking of orcs as mythic representations of evil and not "people", the problem ceasses to really be a problem.

      On the 4chan point - yes, I think being in an internet echochamber can lead to reinforcement of very strange and nasty beliefs of all kinds, including racism. But I find it hard to conceive that playing D&D with a couple of mates would ever have that kind of effect.

      Delete
    4. You do realize that different ethnic groups in real life have differences in the distribution of various traits right?

      Delete
    5. You're either making the banal point that different ethnic groups have e.g. different skin colours, certain physical propensities, or different susceptibilities to illnesses, which is completely irrelevant to D&D; or you're suggesting different ethnic groups are more evil or stupid than others, in which case you can take your internet edgelordism elsewhere.

      Delete
  27. When Quillette is a frequent source of intellectual stimulation, lots of things must seem unfathomable to you. You should really try exiting your clearly highly insulated, racially and culturally homogenous environment sometime. You might stop writing nauseating garbage like this. Or so we could all hope. Holy fucking christ.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My advice: don't read nauseating garbage.

      Delete
  28. notintheface11... You, sir or madam, are an orc.

    ReplyDelete
  29. As an aside, should we be concerned about using norkers?

    ReplyDelete
  30. But in modern D&D Orcs *are* a race of people with their own cultures and customs and civilization, not some ravening fairy-tale creature of nightmare. There's whole regions of conventional D&D settings where Orcs live and work without encountering non-Orcs. At which point the modern conceptions runs straight up against the "kill 'em on sight, they're Chaotic Evil" messaging of older editions. I think it's better that the game reconcile that tension and have Orcs as a kind of person and save the 'always Evil' for more obviously supernatural creatures like demons.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Gygaxian naturalism and its consequences have been a disaster for fantasy.

    ReplyDelete
  32. I was wondering if Orcs could be the same as Morlock, from The Time Machine. Stunted by being forced to live underground, blindly fulfilling a long forgotten purpose, with very little agency. Also preying on people.

    ReplyDelete
  33. "mythical, fairy tale beings, with a different essence altogether. They're not a 'race', or a 'species'. They're spirits, demons, monsters"
    Not. They are a creation of a specific fantasy writer who did put a stress on making his creations firmly grounded in the world as we know it. Including some kind of genetics, etc. And honestly, he was right in this respect - otherwise his tales would just be boring.
    And it was own words of said writer that Orcs are characterized with "the worst features of the Mongoloid race" or something like that.
    So of course there always were people seeing such as - heh - problematic. Even among those who liked that writer's works.
    Of course, when the original D&D authors made their meta-world using his works as one of the sources, they COULD make their orcs synonymous with "demons" or "evil spirits". In that case your argumentation would be trivial and the whole Internet wars about this question would not exist. This is not the 1st time they are fought, by the way. %)) However, ODD didn't take such an approach and so your argument is completely beside the point. ;)

    ReplyDelete