D&D 5E D&D Races: Evolution, Fantasy Stereotypes & Escapism

DarkMantle

Explorer
As someone new-ish to the recent controversies, I tried to deconstruct the "big picture" and make sense of all the conflicted feelings going around. Here's an hypothesis:

Evolution says "Keep it simple, stupid"
  • Humans are predisposed to binary thinking, pattern seeking, and stereotypical thinking
  • For our ancestors, this was an evolutionary feature to increase efficiency and reduce cognitive load, which presumably increased their likelihood of survival
  • Today, we are still averse to uncertainty and ambiguity
  • So we still reduce a complicated world into simplified narratives.
  • This feels good and gives us peace of mind to see the world in simpler terms.
It's simply fantasy
  • This attractive perspective made its way into fantasy fiction through its authors' POVs and the readers who enjoyed it.
  • Fantasy is escapism, not homework. It allows us to explore human themes without taking up the same cognitive category as the burdens of real-life.
  • If there was fantasy fiction that wasn't escapist enough, it didn't sell as well.
Fantasy stereotypes
  • Fantasy races are also an outcome of stereotypical thinking.
  • Each race was a subset of human personalities. All dwarves typically have so-and-so traits. Orcs were cardboard caricatures of the Other. They didn't have a wide separate personality spectrum.
  • This was practical: It would be almost impossible (?) to come up with fantasy races that are both un-human and relatable for mainstream readers.
Escapism was for fun, not homework
  • If D&D is an escapism from a messy, complicated, uncertain, ambiguous world, than stereotypes fit easily into fantasy worlds.
  • D&D was to relax and have fun. The hard thinking was for real-life.
  • Only if D&D were an escapism of a different sort, like where players want to engage with complicated "there is no right answer" dilemmas, then stereotypes don’t play a role and and are even disadvantageous.
Conflicting goals
  • So this is where different goals come into conflict.
  • The modern world was starting to realize that an increasing number of stereotypes are really problematic in a global civilization
  • For the designers of D&D, the goal was always to make a game that people want to purchase, play and enjoy.
  • On the other hand, significant portion of society wants to move away from harmful or problematic stereotypes, where they may be.
  • Meanwhile, our brain have not finished catching up to modern civilization. The brain still likes what it likes 100,000 years ago, and the way we feel isn't going away.
  • In D&D, stereotypes can continue to feel settling (for escaping from an overly complicated world) or unsettling (where they touch close to real-life pain)
Given all these goals, I think we are caught up redefining what fun and escapism is all about.
 
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Lyxen

Great Old One
  • The modern world was starting to realize that stereotypes are really problematic in a global civilization

And that's the problem, not stereotypes, but thinking that stereotypes are problematic. Stereotypes are not problematic, they are extremely useful and actually the whole of D&D is based on stereotypes. After that, you can use them or subvert them, but even subverting them makes them useful as a reference.

The problem is not stereotypes, the problem is BAD stereotypes, with BAD in this case meaning that it refers in a bad way to the real world.

99.95% of the races and species in D&D are stereotypes and never cause a problem. Actually, only 2 cause a problem, the orc and the drow, both for bad reasons (the orcs in D&D are greyish or greenish, and drows never were all inherently evil anyway), although it's certain that the "dark = bad" is in itself problematic.

The problem is people inflating these small issues to humongous perspectives and mixing that with other problems (for example about genre, which is more a problem of representation). Nothing more. In France, where we don't carry the same problem (we have others, for example colonisation, so it's not a question of feeling better in any sense, just different), we have absolutely zero problems with orcs and drows (who are extremely cool), and races in D&D in general.

So it's not stereotypes, it's bad D&D stereotypes for relations with real world stereotypes, and these are actually local, not global.
 

payn

Legend
Given all these goals, I think we are caught up redefining what fun and escapism is all about.
There is a collective culture around this, and a personal. For example,
Fantasy is escapism, not homework. It allows us to explore human themes without taking up the same cognitive category as the burdens of real-life.
I am the exact opposite. I use my fantasy to examine my real life burdens. I double down, I dig in, I escape by going deeper. Perhaps Im unique in this, but I dont think this generalization is as universal as it may appear.
 

DarkMantle

Explorer
And that's the problem, not stereotypes, but thinking that stereotypes are problematic. Stereotypes are not problematic, they are extremely useful and actually the whole of D&D is based on stereotypes. After that, you can use them or subvert them, but even subverting them makes them useful as a reference.

The problem is not stereotypes, the problem is BAD stereotypes, with BAD in this case meaning that it refers in a bad way to the real world.
I agree, not ALL stereotypes are bad. Some stereotypes are useful or pragmatic.

I guess one example of a useful stereotype is: 16 year olds are not mature enough to drink alchohol. That stereotype made its way into law. This may upset 16 year olds, but it's the law.

I've edited the original line to your point, to clarify it's about less-than-useful stereotypes.
 

DarkMantle

Explorer
I am the exact opposite. I use my fantasy to examine my real life burdens. I double down, I dig in, I escape by going deeper. Perhaps Im unique in this, but I dont think this generalization is as universal as it may appear.
I don't think you're unique in this. Shows like Black Mirror are many others (maybe it's more sci-fi?) do dig into real life problems.

What I was intending to say is that fantasy escapism is one way of getting away from the stuff we don't like doing or thinking about. Often that can be getting away from real life burdens, but it doesn't have to be.
 

payn

Legend
I don't think you're unique in this. Shows like Black Mirror are many others (maybe it's more sci-fi?) do dig into real life problems.

What I was intending to say is that fantasy escapism is one way of getting away from the stuff we don't like doing or thinking about. Often that can be getting away from real life burdens, but it doesn't have to be.
Gotcha. I know a lot of people had trouble escaping because there was no depictions of people like themselves as heroes. Only villains and/or primitives.
 



DarkMantle

Explorer
One thing that can really put a damper on a person's escapist fantasy is reading something that sounds an awful lot like the justifications to do horrible things to other people like them being used to say why it's ok to kill something on sight in said fantasy.

I get it. Hard for me to tell who you're referring to? I hope you're not referring to me as making justifications? I just tried to create a hypothesis, because so many people are arguing without any end goal, it feels to me.

Stereotypes are by definition oversimplified generalizations. Generalizations are a necessary aspect of our cognitive functions. Stereotypes are not.

Generalization is a very broad usage. Definition I just pulled for stereotype was "a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing". I could be wrong, but I think I used the word correctly.
 


DarkMantle

Explorer
What if you want to escape stereotypes and justifying bad actions by saying 'it's fiction'?
I think of a lot of the changes in fantasy/sci-fi recently have been a shift away from good-vs-evil classic fantasy.

So if you're talking about a fantasy world that is devoid of stereotypes, then isn't that continuing this trend of (re)imagining what escapism looks like in fantasy?
 

Yora

Legend
There is a collective culture around this, and a personal. For example,

I am the exact opposite. I use my fantasy to examine my real life burdens. I double down, I dig in, I escape by going deeper. Perhaps Im unique in this, but I dont think this generalization is as universal as it may appear.
I find the whole idea of escapism very strange.
And even if it's an actual thing, why would people immerse themselves in worlds of brutal violence and senseless killing to relax and distract themselves from their own daily life.
The wish fulfillment that I see catered to with "kill the faceless hordes of evil" is getting away with whatever you want without having to justify your actions. Which does not seem healthy.

Mostly, I see people perceiving the appeal of heroic fantasy fiction in general an RPGs in particular to see great wrongs being put right successfully. Where is the reward when the success falls into your lap without having actually faced the issues that you're trying to overcome?
 

payn

Legend
I find the whole idea of escapism very strange.
And even if it's an actual thing, why would people immerse themselves in worlds of brutal violence and senseless killing to relax and distract themselves from their own daily life.
The wish fulfillment that I see catered to with "kill the faceless hordes of evil" is getting away with whatever you want without having to justify your actions. Which does not seem healthy.

Mostly, I see people perceiving the appeal of heroic fantasy fiction in general an RPGs in particular to see great wrongs being put right successfully. Where is the reward when the success falls into your lap without having actually faced the issues that you're trying to overcome?
I think its a personal answer, that could have cultural impact. I just dont know how to discuss the concept well.
 

Mercurius

Legend
Ursula K Le Guin said, when talking about fantasy literature in her seminal essay, "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?", that the primary "use of the imagination" is "to give you pleasure and delight." She added a secondary use, which is "to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny."

But let us not skip over that she said that the first is primary. This was part of her defense for fantasy at a time when it was still deemed in a pejorative light, as "mere escapism." Her view was that giving pleasure and delight is itself a noble cause.

But in terms of D&D, we play it to have fun, to experience pleasure and delight - and that is shared by everyone. Anything after that point varies on the individual. In other words, what meaning they ascribe to the game--and to what degree--is entirely up to them.

I personally don't go to D&D for Le Guin's secondary use, or at least only to a very small degree. I might go to that in a book or film, or when writing a story--it is a good way to work out an idea. But for D&D? No, it is just about fun: playing make-believe in an imaginary world.

This is not to say that it is wrong for another to find that secondary use - not at all. For some people, D&D is the main context they have for being imaginative and creative. Nothing wrong with that, at all.

I think a lot of the disagreements on this meta-topic have to do with the different degrees to which people apply Le Guin's secondary use, and more specifically, what lens of interpretation they use. And depending upon the latter, what hermeneutics one employs, different aspects of D&D will look differently.
 

Mercurius

Legend
I find the whole idea of escapism very strange.
And even if it's an actual thing, why would people immerse themselves in worlds of brutal violence and senseless killing to relax and distract themselves from their own daily life.
The wish fulfillment that I see catered to with "kill the faceless hordes of evil" is getting away with whatever you want without having to justify your actions. Which does not seem healthy.

Would you apply the same logic with actors who play bad people? Is it "unhealthy" to play a character that does bad things?

I think people immerse themselves in such worlds because, well, they're not real - and they know it. I personally am glad that I'm not a mighty-thewed barbarian fighting hordes of evil, but it certainly is fun to play in an imaginative context. It isn't about getting away with stuff or even wish fulfillment. It is really quite basic, and taken directly from childhood: It is fun to play make-believe.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Given all these goals, I think we are caught up redefining what fun and escapism is all about.
It's hard for me to define for another person what their fun and escapism should be. All I know is what works for my table.

And I know at my table, it's not fun nor escapism if the game turns into Sociology 101. We're just there to relax from the daily stressors with friends by roleplaying completely fictional personalities and defeating completely fictional super-evil bad guys, not agonize over whether orcs or drow are inherently evil, or whether a "dwarf" hates being called a dwarf because the word can mean something much smaller than usual size, suggesting there's something wrong with being a "dwarf" because it's not usual size, and then we get to "halfling" and who would call themselves "half" of anything....o_Oo_O

However, I'm not running a big company and having to decide how the product I put out reflects on the values of that company and its image, and its profits, and its employees who depend on that company. I'm just a guy trying to roll some d20s with some pals on a lazy afternoon.
 


The PHB section on Tieflings begins as follows: "To be greeted with stares and whispers, to suffer violence and insult on the street, to see mistrust and fear in every eye: this is the lot of the tiefling." The thing is, I've experienced versions of that in real life because of my ethnicity. So it's not really fantasy escapism away from the realities of everyday life, but a reproduction of it. I may want to inhabit that fantasy and explore what it would be like to be a devil-person in that world. But maybe I don't, and if I don't, I find it somewhat tiresome (whether it's me or someone else who is the tiefling character). Same with fantasy worlds that have slavery or massacres of goblin villages; the real world has versions of those things too, so it's not necessarily escapism. As always, being able to have a conversation with your group is important.
 

Orcs, elves, and dwarves are different species*.

If you're given a dog, a cat and a horse it isn't racial stereotyping to have the dog herd your sheep, the horse pull your wagon, and the cat catch mice.


*in D&D at any rate. Admittedly in LotR orcs and elves are the same species (although dwarves are still distinct) and in Elder Scrolls all three all the same species (although they're still distinct from humans as well as from the lizard people and the cat people and the the tree creatures)
 
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DarkMantle

Explorer
OK so what escapism looks like... is has a lot to do with what you're escaping from

To have fun, some people run away from Sociology 101, and some people run towards it

To enjoy myself, I avoid watching horror movies and serial killer TV shows. Some people want to watch torture porn and murder shows, on purpose. Go figure.
 

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