Imagining Different Worlds: Gaming, Dealing With “Baked-In Setting Racism,” and A Want For Change

A friend of mine and I talked about decisions by other staff members or administration on a gaming server. She threw in the comment about how some places out there are hard to budge on changing or at the least introducing new stories. Sometimes, they are impossible to budge on even acknowledging existing nuances where these stories can flourish, even when you point out in source material how it can work. This is especially the case when trying to make stories about astereotypical depictions of a monster race. Her comment was, with utter sarcasm, “Can’t lose that setting flavor of baked-in racism.” Harsh.

As Sam Wilson in Falcon and the Winter Soldier said regarding Baron Zemo, “(S)he is out of line, but (s)he’s right.”

Maybe I have too much of a “modern” or “progressive” view to be considered a proper lover of fantasy. Some might suggest I am “reading too much into it.” I hear it, and I will say what I say, anyway. Honestly, if you come in with that as your first thought, I will still sleep at night if you choose not to read this article, since you are reading in bad faith to start. I will live even better if you do not try to ‘splain in some form or another to me why my view does not count. I write this piece for myself, as well as for anyone who needs to know they are not alone in feeling what I do (you are not crazy, I hear you).

For anyone wanting to read further, even with some discomfort at the tension this sort of conversation brings, feel free to hear me out. I appreciate it.

Justified Racism in Fantasy

I would like to think that I am about to write what I am going to because I am just tired of the same recipe for a fantasy story – that of relying on “justified racism” for a storyline, versus acknowledging racism for the problem it is. That is, I am just tired of fantasy that is based on “kill them because they are an orc/goblin/some Other-ed depiction.” Unless people are dealing with elementals, demons, and other sources of cosmic energy, I am just tired of “this/that creature is inherently evil” formulas. It is different if a clan of a monster was a villain, and was not reduced to such simplistic, problematic tropes.

Let us discuss how human clans that are antagonists in a setting are treated. The clan “Boomur” decides to try destroying an entire city with their axes and might. A war starts. So, why are people killing group Boomur, a human clan? People recognize they are a persistent threat who declared war on the city. Despite this, somehow, humans are considered inherently good or pure without some “blood-related” or “cultural” baggage of their own. These malicious clans are not considered the norm for (mostly coded white) humans, right?

I am not unique in this sentiment. Many people, especially many black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), of who I realize I cannot speak for all, have expressed a want for changing how fantasy handles monsters that have historically been a place-in for an “Other.” Yes, I know a few who believe the opposite, but I am not going to tokenize them here; it is also a talk for another time and place. We already know that Tolkien, as much as I love his work, had heavy Orientalistic undertones in his depiction of evil groups within his world. Giant mastodon-elephant mounts, who otherwise are known as remover of obstacles, good luck, and protective symbols in various regions in Asia (depending on which one) were some of the most dangerous creatures in Lords of the Rings. Enough said.

Example One: Orcs

James Mendez Hodes (2019) does a phenomenal job deconstructing Tolkien’s orcs. With class, he shows how later depictions of orcs draw from anti-black and indigenous imagery more recent, after the real life Asian-Pacific descended groups racially-coded into fantasy orcs became idealized as the model minority stereotype. Prior to that, per Hodes’ words, all the negative stereotypes of Asian-Pacific Islander groups (especially Indian) had been put together in Tolkien’s creation of orcs. We also know any non-human race is racial code for some minority, marginalized, or otherwise not deemed white (/-enough) or less represented group in Tolkien’s time. His humans, of course, being the dominant group and ultimately the center of most of his works and coming from imagined idealized Arthurian-legend like setups or pseudo-European inspired societies, with only a few bad representations.

It does the job imperfectly, sometimes still missing the mark, but I will at least give the Forgotten Realms Setting some credit for making a variety of human ethnic groups in their world. This, at least is one way to make distance from the original racial-coding of orcs and bring some additional representation to an otherwise pseudo-Eurocentric setting. In addition, they also originally made a 2nd edition good-aligned tribe, while also later having more diverse orc populations in Thesk (Eastern Faerun) who can be played with any alignment. Previously, for all the issues with aspects of language the Zakhara setting has among other things, they also were a place where orcs and even gnolls had any alignment.

Unfortunately, highlighting this latter content more versus keeping it in the backdrop receives backlash from anyone who want their Tolkienesque feel to fantasy. I have received this sort of backlash when I tried to introduce the orcs that do not represent the stereotypical type. Even when acknowledging where in the lore I am drawing from, there is sometimes resistance.

Orcs also are not the only racially-coded race full of (mostly negative) stereotypes based on people who are of the global majority, yet do not have the same power as those in the center of white hegemony.

Example Two: Dwarves

English Literature Professor Rebecca Brackmann (2010) does her own literary criticism of Tolkien’s treatment of non-human races. In her article, she focuses on dwarves and links it to antisemitism in her work on racial-coding. The work does a phenomenal job of showing how the antisemitism in Tolkien’s Hobbit was not borne of “hate” for Jewish people. Instead, she focuses on the negative stereotypes that many Europeans had regarding Semitic peoples going back as far as William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Dr. Brackmann also does a fantastic job showing how sometime around and after World War II, Tolkien realized what the Hobbit did and he put effort into cleaning up the work. Unfortunately, he could not remove all the tired-old tropes regarding the Jewish people in the story without sacrificing the main plot. Still, he was able to make dwarves later with more varied backgrounds and inspirations. Gimli, for instance, does not emulate the greed that became a focal point in his predecessors’ storyline in the Hobbit. His characterization was reminiscent of the Gurkha ideas of honor via loyalty and bravery per Dr. Brackmann’s words, but there was nothing problematic or perpetuating harmful stereotypes from this analysis.

Example Three: (Surprise!) Elves

Despite how idealized they are for having an ancient, sophisticated civilization and their “beauty” in many portrayals inside fantasy, even Tolkien’s, I argue against racially coding (most) elves and subraces in fantasy as white – with very few exceptions. Me saying this will enrage both white supremacists and liberal thinkers who do not pick up on certain subtexts in racial-coding within fantasy because being idealized for ancient civilizations is not the same as being humanized.

Before I say more, let me preface this section by saying I respect people like James Mendez Hodes’ thoughts on comparing Tolkien elves to the French, and understand why people would make this comparison. This is in part due to the adjacency the French had to the British that the protagonistic human groups were coded-in for in Tolkien’s time. Looking further, though, the elves were far from the center of the narrative, and only seemed to matter when they centered the humans of the story. This is why I also respectfully disagree with any telling insisting their culture or society was more like the Antebellum South or the British. I will elaborate further on this in future works.

Backtracking a bit, one might ask with my statement on idealizing something from a group while not humanizing them: how can people idealize a group of people’s history and culture while dehumanizing them at the same time?

Let us use a historical example of a despotic, fascist leader who had love for a culture or civilization in their own eyes, but no love for the people that created it. This one will be most palatable for people to understand, even if he is far from the only one who showed this tendency: Adolf Hitler. He idealized Indian civilization and its history, along with the Euro-White centric telling of it. Yet at the end of the day, he would want the British Empire to still rule India in his time. It does not mean he had any love for Indian people. Indian people were never the center of his discussion of pushing white supremacy, and at most had a history and culture discourse misappropriated by him to endorse and uphold white hegemony. Again, this is something I will talk about in the future when I solidify my research on racial-coding in fantasy.

In the mean time, other work has been done on the subject of elves in fantasy. Barring a few settings, they almost always have represented an idealized minority in the Western world. Feel free to do an interlibrary loan on some articles on the subject, or dig through the internet if you feel your mind is up for the challenge of sifting through all the (mis)information out there. Until then, look for my article in the next few years, my mental health and time permitting!

For the Record…

I want people to understand: I have no issue with having racism portrayed as a theme in fantasy or fiction stories when done a specific way (or ways). For it to work well for me, it needs to do its due diligence to do several things. One, avoid making it the only element in a story. Two, focus the story on criticizing or deconstructing it. Three, minimize the display of excessive trauma based on race or throwing about epithets (talking about you, Quentin Tarantino).

Unfortunately, many authors and creators try to show a condemnation of racism in their writing, whether in fantasy or in real-life based fiction, and end up considerably perpetuating it in other ways.

I will give two contrasting examples, some of which are not fantasy writers, but the themes they introduce are nonetheless relevant.

Clint Eastwood made the film Gran Torino and centered a grouchy old (white) man who starts racist. His character excessively uses the g-word (that was me wincing) and shows other problematic elements, but not in a way that holds his character accountable. Then he “transforms” into a white savior figure; I think it could have done more cleverly, in hindsight. This is just one of many examples of how people in the creative professions might have intended to demonstrate an educational opportunity for racists, but end up centering them in their narratives.

Bucky Barnes in Falcon and the Winter Soldier on the other hand serves as a counter example of someone characterized far better (thanks Disney+). Barnes started out with some more subdued, but still problematic ideas of the world, something that is very realistic for modern-day biases. One of them is not understanding why Sam Wilson would not take the mantle of Captain America. Later, you see a good character development where Bucky Barnes takes accountability for his previous ideas and how little they accounted for Sam’s experiences. He actually apologizes for them, too! It is refreshing to see that sort of development, and characterization as a whole, really. There are many other things they do right with Bucky Barnes’ character, but not a talk for this piece.

Onto an example of a more fantasy-based storyline. In one of the Warhammer storylines, your main character is a human who starts excessively prejudiced against elves, but has a comparable explanation for it as Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. The character in question had family that were killed by elves and the story makes it feel like justified hate for a racially-coded group. This is in comparison to having a hatred that needs accounted for and to overcome. We instead see a character whose hatred is excused, and no elves are able to lay forth how genocidal the humans in Warhammer are, or can be. In settings especially like Warhammer, the humans, the Imperium (or Empire) in particular in the 40K series, are analogs for Euro-White and white supremacist, fascist organizations. It is no accident many alt-right people love them. Speaking of which…

Gamers Who Fetishize White Supremacy, and More Baked-In Racism

Adding to above, the alt-right fetishize the Imperium to a fault. I do not play the Warhammer games, but I have enough friends who do and have reported as much to me and the why. Similar has been done with the Empire in Star Wars. Those who created these analogs for fascist organizations have actively condemned this fantasizing and idealizing of Empire, all of which supports the point of this section.

Gamers, multiplayer and analog-gamers alike, love baked-in setting racism more than new stories. A number of them glorify ideas of supremacy instead of playing characters with problematic mindsets as thought experiments or in stories meant to deconstruct the toxicity of problematic characters. Some of the gamers profiled in Discord servers, I notice, throw out dog-whistles betraying, often deliberately, beliefs upholding white supremacy. These same gamers often love playing the Empire, or the Imperium, or in the case of the Forgotten Realms Setting, the Zhentarim. They are playing these concepts to project, as well as act out beliefs they have in the real world, yet know enough of us might say “punch a Nazi” to express it outright. It becomes a source of frustration for the players who condemn white supremacy while playing these concepts as a thought experiment, yet have to be surrounded by people like this at all times.

I say this as a gamer. This is also said as someone who at some point have done a simple game event that involved killing a group of monsters attacking a city and probably, without trying to, perpetuated some problematic elements while doing so. Monsters attacking a city is a story element, albeit a cheap one at best when it is only that. At worse? People are beholden to fantasies that keep to old, classical, (and generally overdone) stereotypes that demonize a stand-in for a racial Other. Much of fantasy, no matter the who or what, heavily relies on having a force outside of the protagonists to fight or overcome. There is no way to fully avoid that aspect.

A Longing For New Imaginings of Fantasy

Despite all words said here, I want to see some of these traditional fantasy creatures reimagined, re-coded into non-pseudo-European based setups, or have new beings introduced in the genre all together. Or, I would like to see existing creatures, such as nagas, asuras, and devas revised or redefined by more BIPOC writers being at the table. There is a long-due need for newer adversaries to defeat, or in the case of Raya and the Last Dragon, an adversary that is based less on killing another group of people. Continuing to enforce the status quo in the name of keeping to Tolkien-inspired models does nothing more than creates an echo chamber, one that inevitably normalizes certain ideas of fantasy (and gaming). Believe it or not, it also normalizes certain ways of thinking about people fantasy races are stand-in for in the real world.

Ultimately, the fantasy genre becomes hard-pressed to evolve. I see Tolkien as a product of his time. Again, he at some point even rewrote how he portrayed dwarves in his works after World War II when he realized he unconsciously perpetuated antisemitic ideas. As much as I tense at all the Orientalism in his works, I recognize there were some things he did right. I get it.

Still, it is past due time for Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) developers and other analog game developers to recruit some BIPOC and especially Southeast and Desi/South Asian writers as well as consultants to revise how they have depicted many concepts taken from the real world. This is especially true for how they have written the Indian Pantheon for so many decades. Take the (mis)use of the goddess Kali in multiple settings and how her worshipers are portrayed. More and more research in South Asian Studies and related topics have confirmed how the Cult of Thuggee were not a religious cult of Kali fanatics. Instead, they found the ‘Thuggee’ were referencing a multifaith group of outlaws and ruffians who, while their documented actions have been reasonably questioned as moral, were no different than any other outlaw of the time. There were Muslims as well as Sikhs in this group, and though I have yet to run into reading about it, it would not surprise me if Christians were among them, too.

Rachel McDermott has in her own works on Kali in Hinduism and the Cult of Thuggee noted how the Cult were heavily propagated (and imagined) by the British to justify their rule of India to the Euro-American world. Alexander Lyon Macfie (2008) also supports considering how much the idea of the “Cult of Thuggee” is a construction of British colonial narratives to depict a specific, generally negative portrayal of British colonial subjects in India. More authors, such as Rasheda Parveen and Akshara K. Rath (2018) have made similar observations in how appropriating Kali to the Thuggee served specific functions in colonial narratives in subjugating peoples – and ideas.

A number of South Asian Hindus, and by extension a number of additional Asian groups who may venerate aspects of Kali historically, have not portrayed her generally as an evil entity. Neither did they en masse condone or support violent strangulations as the Orientalist imagination has suggested over the years. Despite further information supporting this now, pop-culture has yet to change their portrayal(s), the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons’ Manual of the Planes still referencing Kali as a Chaotic-Evil entity in the Abyss. Destruction does not always mean “evil” in religions, something that stands true even for a few D&D created religions. If people can imagine a goddess of death who has benign worshipers wearing black, and evil ones wearing white, we can do better with how we treat real-life gods who have existing worshipers (see Greyhawk’s Wee Jas).

On a side-note, regarding the Cult of Thuggee: the term “thug” originally came from Hindi to mean an outlaw or ruffian, and derived from a Sanskritic word in kind. Nonsurprisingly, using this word against Black folks has a similar weight as using the n-word now, for the term the past centuries has been racialized for people seen as “uncivilized.” The British use of the “threat” of a Cult of Thuggee should be no surprise with that in mind.

In Conclusion…

I would like to see less reliance on, once more, short of demons and other types of outsiders (if that), racially-coded creatures being evil-aligned as an inherent trait. It would be nice to see stories that are more than about attacking creatures or living beings based exclusively on race. Orcs are treated this way even when source material does not put them in the “always evil” category. There is heavy resistance on having storylines of orcs who do not fit in the evil category, I notice. Contrary to some perceptions, there are in the Forgotten Realms some niches of nonhostile or non-evil orc groups, such as in Thesk in 3.0/3.5 Edition (Unapproachable East, 2003, pages 176-177), and older edition Zakhara materials. Despite this, there is resistance to these sort of ideas .

I would like to see creatives reconsider decisions like this in the future.

Some might have read through all of this and wonder, why am I even playing in fantasy, roleplaying games, servers, and analog stories? If I do not like some of this, why do I bother logging into a gaming server at all?

My answer is this: I will be facing problematic content in the real world no matter where I go or what hobby. All of this, just like my job, history, and past dreams and nightmares, are a product of historical colonialism, racism, systemic abuses and violence. To one degree or another, if I pick another hobby, or focus on another interest, I am going to be dealing with it. There are almost no hobbies out there that I love that do not love me back, not to mention deny love to many of my BIPOC friends more. Picking another hobby will not change this, either.

Believe me when I say I rather not be having a conversation like this with anyone. In an ideal world, we should not need to have this conversation or we can play our games without being concerned about this. We can all play, worry-free, and incapable of harming others. Being able to not have this conversation or consider having this conversation is a privilege. I can avoid it sometimes, but many others do not have even that. So I write this for them as much as myself.

This is not an ideal world. So, I am here, and I am staying in this space as long as possible. My best way to handle all of this is take what I have to work with (for better or worse), and see what I can do to nudge the narrative(s) to ones more enjoyable by people often left out. At some point, we might be able to reclaim some of these ideas as our own and not just the dominant group’s.

Then we can talk about whether we can “stop talking about baked-in racism in fantasy settings.*

  1. Image from above comes from the site:
  2. Quotation from friend comes with permission and will remain anonymous.

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