Orcing the Other

The Power Dynamics of Role Playing

The celebrated author N.K. Jemisin has written about her problem with orcs, which is related to the ways that orcs build on racist stereotypes. In her words:

“Think about that. Creatures that look like people, but aren’t really. Kinda-sorta-people, who aren’t worthy of even the most basic moral considerations, like the right to exist. Only way to deal with them is to control them utterly a la slavery, or wipe them all out.”

On twitter, Jemisin also shared Matthew Gault’s article on why he found it too disturbing to continue playing a game where the entire point is to manipulate, control, and enslave orcs.

Orcs, most famously in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, could be thought of as evil magical minions, but I’m not sure this does justice to the particularly horrendous role they are given, at least in many incarnations where they exist only to be killed. (There is a parallel here with the role of ‘terrorists’ in US action films as the embodiment of orientalist stereotypes of Arab people. See the work of Jack Shaheen as well as Jackie Salloum’s disturbing short film Planet of the Arabs.) So it’s worth thinking in more depth about orcs, and though them, the politics of racism in fantasy games and literature in more detail.

Not Being an Orc Any Longer

Given the particular problems of orcishness, I’ve been thinking more about the issues of taking on the roles of others in games. It’s not uncommon now to be able to take on the role of the orc as your main character. Although, I don’t have a lot of time to devote to gaming, but when I do play, I often end up playing the orc because it’s the only slightly masculine female character. It’s so common that I even started referring to gaming as ‘being an orc’.

Jemisin’s post reminded me that, as a white person, my ‘being an orc’ is problematic in several ways. These stem from a combination of racism and sexism. As Gamergate demonstrated (not that it wasn’t already patently obvious), sexism is also widespread in gaming. There are ongoing critiques of the hypersexualization of female characters in games, including efforts to get designers to retire that infamous article of clothing that no warrior would ever actually wear: boob armor. But too often discussions of sexism by white gamers are divorced from examinations of race and ancestry, and white narratives, mythology, and characters as the ‘default’ option.

But given how the character of the orc draws on racist stereotypes, by playing the orc I’m adopting and furthering those stereotypes. That means that I’m choosing racism over sexism, taking on a gaming sanctioned form of Blackface to avoid being shoe-horned into a hyper feminine character. But there are even more layers to this, and they’re related to the ways racism and sexism intersect.

The racism of orcs is also an additional form of sexism for at least three reasons. First, as extensive scholarshp has shown, dominant standards of beauty in Europe and North America have long been built on a white ideal. This means that women of color characters are less likely to be seen as feminine even if they have many traditionally ‘feminine’ traits. Second, the racist association of women of color with nature, and stereotypes about powerful Black bodies (in the negative, as in out of control and violent) are clearly also mapped onto Orcs. This leads to depictions of female orcs as potentially more ‘masculine’, and to them being seen as more masculine as well (inclduing by me). Third, there is also a history of women of color, and Black women in particular becoming a kind of repository for the Other, so this might also lead to the game designers giving female orcs nontraditional gender characteristics, as well as other kinds of Othered characteristics related to class, ability and disability, and so on.

So the female orcs’ femininity are less likely to be included in the definition of the feminine, which has long been based on white femininity. In addition, the orcs are less likely to be seen as feminine even when they are given traditionally feminine traits, and finally, non-traditional characteristics (including masclune gender) are more likely to be given to them overall.

What this means is that by playing the orc I’m not only choosing racism over sexism. Instead I’m choosing racism-sexism (racism and sexism against women of color), instead of sexism against white women. And that’s not something I’m willing to do, which means that it’s time to go back to playing the crappy elves, or some other such character. (Apologies to elf fans everywhere.) In games like Skyrim pretty much every character is a racial or ethnic stereotype of some kind (including most obviously, Latinx, and middle eastern people, respectively), but given the ongoing horrendous treatment of Black people in the US and Europe, the positioning of orcs is especially heinous–and this with the understanding that Skyrim is better than many games and other media out there. It also means I’ll try to support diverse creators so that this kind of choice isn’t necessary in the future.

On Being Another

Beyond being an orc, thinking about playing the orc also brought up the problematics of people playing the Other in gaming, and online more broadly. Ever since the early days of internet chat rooms in the 1990s, there were ongoing scares about people ‘misrepresenting’ themselves online. Just one example: the early episode of Buffy the vampire Slayer where Willow meets Malcolm online, and he turns out to be a demon. For certain, people have been assaulted and murdered via any number of online bait-and-switch tactics that involve one party claiming to be someone else.

But from early in the wider adoption of the internet, people in online communities defended the ability to become someone else, and this certainly was liberating for some, particularly in queer communities where it was sometimes possible to be out anonymously online, if not offline. Gaming amplifies this in problematic ways, however. For example, there were the cases of bloggers claiming to be, for example an Arab lesbian kidnapped in Syria, but who turns out to be a white guy from Scotland. So although the notion of fluid identity online might seem progressive at first glance, and indeed in certain circumstances it could be, it is important to be attentive to the role of power in such exchanges. In light of the legacies of colonialism and racism, whites, and especially white men, mistakenly believe we have a right to access to everything, including the personal experiences of the people oppress. So, some people are more free to be other than themselves, to take on others’ experiences.

In addition, in gaming some people have long been forced to take on the role of another (if not THE Other), because of the lack of representation in the media. Many of us have long had to take on the role of a white man because that was the only option available. That has a different dynamic than, for example, a white man playing a character who’s a woman of color. For one, a man playing a woman, or a white person playing a character who is a person of color, is not necessarily progressive. It smacks of voyeurism in a variety of ways. For one, in a universe where female characters are scantily dressed, a straight man might play a female character simply to starte at a nearly naked woman. That is what it is, but it’s arguably not about trying to understand her perspective. And it is jarring in this world, where a hypersexualized female characters, in stories told by male creators, are often the only option.

But even if one’s intentions are progressive, playing the Other can still backfire. People indeed might play other characters partly out of curiosity about others’ experiences in a media climate where diverse experiences have long been systematically represented, even if there are some counternarratives out there. In a society where racism, sexism, etc. are the default way to be, then it’s possible, and even likely, that the plot of the game is itself deeply racist and sexist, or that at the very least it doesn’t take into account the diversity of possible main characters. In those cases, even if your character is diverse in some way, you end up parroting a dominant script. So then taking on a diverse character gives the illusion that you’re ‘understanding’ something about that character, when you’re actually just reinforcing roles that have no nuance, and no difference of perspective. This is arguably true in games like Mass Effect 3, where it’s possible to be a female Shepard, but where the game only changes slightly as a result.

An Imbalance of Discomfort

But even if it were possible to write the most progressive game on the planet, in terms of characters and plot, one where diverse creators were involved all along the way, there’s still an affective awareness of difference that affects how one plays another’s character. Jemisin’s analysis of orcs in literature demonstrates an inherent disconcertment with orcs that likely comes at least in part from her experiences in US society. Although I’m intellectually and personally aware of such issues, and was conscious of the racialization of orcs, it’s still indicative that, as a white person, this didn’t stop me from taking on the role of the orc in order to try to contend with my gender and its largely absent representation in dominant media writ large. In cases where it’s possible to play masculine white women (Mass Effect), that’s what I do. But in cases where that wasn’t an option, I adopted a character with racist overtones to accommodate my nontraditional gender, because as a white person–even one who has thought about these issues for much of my life–my level of discomfort with racism is less sensitive than my disconcertment with race.

This imbalance of discomfort matters, and it’s important to be aware of differences in disconcertment at a very fundamental level. Of course, there are games out there whose narratives deal explicitly with racism. The Assassin’s Creed universe is basically founded on the idea that gamers, and indeed the main characters of the games themselves, can take on the personae of their ancestors from vastly different period of history. The characters of  Aveline de Grandpré and Adéwalé do attempt to contend with slavery in ways that are fully integrated into the game. It’s possible to critique the way this is done, and how successful it is or is not. But, there is at least an effort to include the experiences into the game. So playing one of these characters might be an opportunity to engage with the horrors of slavery, however imperfectly and fleetingly. Even so, and even if it the game’s narrative were entirely successful, that also doesn’t change the lifetime of experiences that I, as a white person, have had and will have, aside from the few days or weeks that I spend playing the game. So a game, a story, a film, can be useful, but it will never be a panacea. This isn’t to underestmiate the very real importance of representation, only to remind myself, and fellow people who have some form of privilege: we can be aware of differences, but we will never really know how it feels from the other side.

On Not Reclaiming the Orc

So an understanding of the Other will always be imperfect, and maybe that’s even for hte best. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that it might somehow ‘truly’ possible to understand another’s experiences. In short, it’s gross. It seems like an invasive, even violent act since, taken to an extreme, that would involve inheriting all of their memories, moods, and sensations stretching back until the day they were born. But particularly from a position of privilege, it is necessary to make a greater effort to see things from other peoples’ perspectives, particularly to listen when they’re trying to explain them to you. Indeed, this is one of the main goals of both literature and ethnographic writing. Playing a game or reading a novel won’t erase privilege. But pointing out the imperfect understanding is also not a get-out-of-jail-free card, not a free pass to stop listening. Indeed, done well, listening might make you more deeply aware of the existence of other perspectives, and with some serious, ongoing, imperfect effort, that awareness might ultimately help lead to privilege’s undoing.

Jemisin is understandably wary of the ability to reclaim the orc, despite numerous efforts. (See the comments on her above post, and the related conversation on twitter). So let me close with the only reclamation of the orc that I’m able to imagine. It’s a story I could write, one adapted from Jorge Luis Borges’s “Averroe’s Search“:

An orc starts to remember that she is human, that her ancestors were ripped from her family and subjugated as slaves. She remembers that she came from a great society, maybe from Ife, maybe from countless others in Africa and beyond. She remembers lost languages. She remembers names, and hills, and homes. And amid the inundation of thoughts, impressions, and sensations, she tries to remember one more feeling: the feeling of not knowing slavery, of coming of age unaffected by its forms of subjugation. But in that moment, in that attempt to know full emancipation, she is no longer an orc. She is as she has always been, a person that far exceeds any imposed orcish characteristics. In that moment, the figure of the orc evaporates. And my pretension to write about the orc, to even pretend to put myself in the position of an orc, evaporates with it.