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Do orcs in gaming display parallels to colonialist propaganda?

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So I see people online claiming that orcs (or drow or any other savage humanoid race) often unconsciously represent cruel stereotypes of people of color and promote a colonialist narrative. I also see plenty of people claiming that orcs do not and never have represented racial minorities, and that even suggesting such is itself racist. This question is very much politicized. How much truth is there to this assumption? Are there any academic analyses of such comparisons? Is there an ironclad argument either way?
 
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You've done some editing so I'm going to back off a bit.

My answer is still "No."

But when you start addressing something as broad as "gaming", things get complicated.
 
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Eltab

Villager
I have observed that the most energetic purveyors of the claim "__A__ in D&D is a symbol of __B__", where A is an evil / villainous / monstrous race and B is any real-life social-critique sin (racism, sexist, imperialist, &c) have no intentions of making a positive contribution to the gaming community - nor of playing the game themselves.

These go-rounds are exercises in proving to their own satisfaction their superior self-righteousness. Pay them only enough attention to be sure you are not accidentally hit by somebody else's mutual Fireball contest.

Mod Note: Folks, we have rules now against dismissing people's positions by classifying them as "virtue signalling". And don't get the idea that we cannot see the idea when you don't use those exact words. This is trying to dismiss someone because you think you know *why* they are doing an thing, and don't find that worthy. This is effectively ad hominem, and should not enter your discussion. Thanks. ~Umbran

You and we have better things to do - collect some friends and start up a game session!
 
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Saelorn

Explorer
The only time I've heard this complaint directly, it was in regards to the Martians in Space 1889, and that's a game which intentionally goes for the colonialist aesthetic.

I see how some people might have that sort of complaint, in other sorts of games, but I don't believe that the concern is always well-founded. As long as the writer/designer/GM isn't intentionally doing it, and as long as they stop to ask themselves whether it might unintentionally be coming off that way, then it should still be possible to include savage humanoid races without them necessarily being analogous to anything. Sometimes an orc is just an orc.
 
I

Immortal Sun

Guest
Without any specific demonstration of these "claims" I couldn't begin to address them. Given the times, and the authors, it's entirely possible. In the past what we regard now as racist thinking was just thinking.
 

MGibster

Explorer
I don't think it's entirely unfair to make comparisons between colonial propaganda and how orcs or other races have been portrayed in Dungeons & Dragons. Just thinking about how many groups have been portrayed throughout American history as being brutish, immoral, less intelligent, possessing few positive traits, and being dangerous I can certainly see some parallels. I don't believe anyone who created D&D sat down and decided to use Orcs or Drow as a stand in for some real life group.

I don't think it's unfair to characterize those players who have some problems with this as being the type who will make no positive contributions to gaming. We have had some terrible examples of gaming products that were hurtful to real life people. White Wolfe's Gypsy source book for World of Darkness comes to mind. And while I'm not super sensitive to some of these issues I can't help but think those who try to create an environment where a more diverse range of gamers feels comfortable is a good thing.
 

Gradine

Archivist
Eh. It can? I wouldn't argue that it generally doesn't; I'm not fond of always-evil sentient humanoids as a concept, but "faceless, human(oid) goons" is a storytelling trope for a reason, many reasons really. While I find an uncritical approach to mowing down actual living, thinking creatures troubling; I wouldn't go so far as accuse the trope as generally leading to more negative attitudes about race/nationality/culture, let alone more negative actual outcomes (namely, actual violence). We generally know that Orcs are Orcs and not, say, stand-ins for a real-world group.

Now, some time ago on this board a person wanted to create a fascilime of our real, historical Earth, with the Orcs specifically serving as a stand-in for Mongols. Which was a... er-- well, that's a certainly a choice. Not one I would have considered intentionally supporting a very negative worldview, but as a choice it... certainly does make a statement, one that I'd consider more borderline indicative of a colonialist perspective.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
There have been elements of some of the “always evil” races’ treatment in early FRPGs- especially D&D- that could definitely be said to echo some of the racism present in the early pulp and genre fiction that inspired the founders of the hobby. But as time has passed, those elements have been somewhat reduced, and the various races have been fleshed out a bit more realistically by subsequent game designers.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Thing is, depending on the campaign in question, fictionalized racism- even if it echoes the real world stuff- isn’t necessarily bad. I once had a discussion on this board about how the Drow might refer to the schism from other elves as “The War of Surface Aggression” and that their sun-dwelling cousins “senselessly” abhor their “peculiar institution“ of enslaving others.

IOW, a straight-up reskinning of the American Civil War...except in the fantasy setting, the Drow were merely marginalized, not completely defeated. IOW, they could (literally) rise again.

In the right hands, with the right players, that’s a virtually limitless source for plot lines.

And Harry Turtledove did a brilliant series of novels that were essentially a retelling of the stories of WWII in a fantasy setting, right down to all the nasty racist stuff perpetrated during it.

If nothing else, that particular brand of evil would represent a relatively fresh storyline distinct from those more common in fantasy settings- total or partial nihilism, killing all the spellcasters, killing all the non-spellcasters, etc.
 
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Hussar

Legend
Let's be honest here, and I think [MENTION=19675]Dannyalcatraz[/MENTION] hits it right off, fantasy as a genre started off pretty deep into racist territory. The grand daddy's of fantasy (and a large amount of science fiction as well) weren't exactly the most tolerant of men. And, yup, I'm saying men, since the writers of spec fiction up until the latter half of the 20th century (and WELL into the latter half) were almost universally men.

Whether you want to point to Lovecraft or Howard or Burroughs or a host of others, a lot of the initial ideas for fantasy were pretty heavily grounded in strongly racist and misogynistic tendencies. This isn't a secret. So, it's not really surprising when you can see elements of that in D&D.

I mean, sure, Drow are just dark skinned evil elves... in BDSM gear... matriarchal, dark skinned, men hating elves in BDSM gear... :uhoh: :D

It's not really a stretch here.

IMO, the key is to recognize the origins of these things, don't pretend that they aren't there, but, also, as DannyA mentions, there are things that can be redeemed out of material and brought into the open.
 

Staffan

Explorer
Yeah, having "always evil" humanoids does have some problematic issues. My "favorite" example is Burnt Offerings, the first Pathfinder adventure (back when they were still doing 3.5 adventures). The adventure starts in a frontier town where people have gathered to dedicate a cathedral to some of the gods. The celebrations are interrupted by an attack by goblins, who are described as utterly savage: they lack discipline, they eat babies, they burn everything they can, they sing horrible songs of savagery while assaulting the town, and so on. Eventually it turns out that the goblins are lead by both someone from town and an outsider, because of course they couldn't pull something like this off without human(ish) leadership.

I mean, the only redeeming values the goblins have in that adventure are the XP value and comedic value. They are utterly evil. But at the same time, Sandpoint could easily have been placed in the American west and the goblins replaced with Indians, and you'd have an old-school Western movie.

One of my least-favorite parts of 5e is the way it doubles down on this attitude, by saying that certain people are born evil because their gods want them that way, and thus it's OK to kill them by the dozen.

That's one of the reasons Eberron is my favorite setting - humanoids (and plenty of other monsters) don't have fixed alignments. You have orc paladin orders who have been holding patrolling the borders of the area where most of the archfiends are imprisoned, and they scoff at the newcomer humans who think they understand the Binding Flame. You have oppressed goblins in the cities of Khorvaire being considered second-class citizens. You have clans of treacherous elves who hired out their services as mercenaries during the Last War, and after a while decided to conquer a large swath of the country they were supposed to be defending instead.
 

billd91

Earl of Cornbread
Eh. It can? I wouldn't argue that it generally doesn't; I'm not fond of always-evil sentient humanoids as a concept, but "faceless, human(oid) goons" is a storytelling trope for a reason, many reasons really. While I find an uncritical approach to mowing down actual living, thinking creatures troubling; I wouldn't go so far as accuse the trope as generally leading to more negative attitudes about race/nationality/culture, let alone more negative actual outcomes (namely, actual violence). We generally know that Orcs are Orcs and not, say, stand-ins for a real-world group.
I'm not too bothered by having a stock pool of bad guys to pull from - particularly when dealing with creatures like orcs. One thing I've always liked about orcs and their literary origin with Tolkien is they derive from elves. Evil can't create very well - just copy or corrupt. Trolls were a bad copy of ents, orcs were corrupted elves. These evil races are dark mirrors or doppelgangers of the decent folk in the stories. It seems a fitting opposition.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
If, in your campaign, that’s the origins of the “evil” species in question, then it makes sense that there’d at least be MORE evil members than the uncorrupted species. (And I do like the corruption angle- I just don’t use it often.)
 

LuisCarlos17f

Registered User
I am Spanish, and here in my land we are used to listen we were the evil empire. (it is curious, but now USA is following the same steps and suffering their own black enemy created by propaganda by rival powers).

To help against racism I guess I can say this: After the fall of Roman empire when visigoths arrived to Spain "without the green card" the relation with native Hispanolatins wasn't good. Both communities had got their own legal codes and mixed marriages were forbidden, bit by bit this started to be allowed, and in the end Hispanogoths and Hispanolatins become a single group, only Spanish. Even king Wanda could stop a Muslim invasion before 711.

Reporting racism isn't enough, we also to defend the respect of the human dignity, the base of our rights. Without this we would be like Joffrey Baratheon or Ramsay Bolton from "Games of Thrones".
 

Hussar

Legend
I'm not too bothered by having a stock pool of bad guys to pull from - particularly when dealing with creatures like orcs. One thing I've always liked about orcs and their literary origin with Tolkien is they derive from elves. Evil can't create very well - just copy or corrupt. Trolls were a bad copy of ents, orcs were corrupted elves. These evil races are dark mirrors or doppelgangers of the decent folk in the stories. It seems a fitting opposition.
Yeah, but, that line "dark mirrors" kinda is the problem, no? The purely good white, shining race is corrupted and becomes dark, brutish and evil. It's not a totally out there interpretation to see issues here. Particularly when that sort of thing is so ingrained in English speaking speculative fiction.

It's just something to keep an eye on and understand that while you (or I for that matter) don't really have an issue with it, other people might not see it that way and they're not just pulling interpretations out of thin air.
 
What many consider as standard Orc...off colored skin (grey, green and yes even black) as well as aggressive tendencies and tribalistic nature is not the ORIGINAL Orc....

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orc_(Middle-earth)

Original Orcs, made by Tolkien, were "made of slime through the sorcery of Morgoth: 'bred from the heats and slimes of the earth..."

Tolkien also described them as "squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."

From this I would say that their original does not appear to be racist....but their description could be...as well as the fact that he does say that Europeans would find them repulsive...

I wrote a paper in college about the original races from LOTR and how they fit with traditional/normal races in the real world.

A few professors could not agree on the "Orc in the room"...
 
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S'mon

Hero
They represent what you want them to.

Tolkien's orcs definitely didn't represent any colonialist* narrative on his part. Arguably they represented a fear of the urban industrial Proletariat. Other sources may vary.

*Admittedly there are some really weird uses of the word "colonialist" these days. I don't see how fear of invading Mongol hordes who trashed a good chunk of Europe and the Middle East is 'colonialist' - the Mongols were the 'colonisers'. Likewise Moorish invasion of Spain and Turkish invasion of Europe. Whereas invading 'native' areas to kill them and take their stuff is 'colonialist'.
 
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I think the connection between JRRT's orcs and certain stereotypical presentations of "eastern"/Turkic peoples is fairly self-evident.

And what [MENTION=22779]Hussar[/MENTION] and [MENTION=19675]Dannyalcatraz[/MENTION] have said about the pulp origins of contemporary fantasy is likewise pretty evident.

Then there are peculiarities that are distinctive to D&D, like Gygax's Monster Manual describing dwarves as brown but nearly all D&D art depicting them as white.
 

Hussar

Legend
They represent what you want them to.

Tolkien's orcs definitely didn't represent any colonialist* narrative on his part. Arguably they represented a fear of the urban industrial Proletariat. Other sources may vary.

*Admittedly there are some really weird uses of the word "colonialist" these days. I don't see how fear of invading Mongol hordes who trashed a good chunk of Europe and the Middle East is 'colonialist' - the Mongols were the 'colonisers'. Likewise Moorish invasion of Spain and Turkish invasion of Europe. Whereas invading 'native' areas to kill them and take their stuff is 'colonialist'.
Mongol, in early 20th century English, didn't really refer to Ghengis Khan, unless you were specifically talking about history. Mongol in the vernacular tends to be a pretty negative term for Asians - thus we get terms like Mongoloid as a perjorative for those with Down's Syndrome. The description certainly isn't flattering.

And, again, we have to be careful in interpretations not to be dismissive of those who might view things differently. This is literature. There are very, very few "correct" interpretations. So long as you can support the interpretation in the text, then the interpretation, while different, is valid. Simply brushing off criticisms of racism in Tolkien because he's not talking about 12th century Mongols isn't really going to get anywhere.

At the time of Tolkien writing, terms that we would consider pretty pejorative, such as, "squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types" today were not particularly analyzed. However, several decades later, well, when your evil race looks like ugly northern Asians, it's quite possible to ruffle some feathers.

And, really, it's so indicative of the general tone of early to mid 20th century Spec Fic. The casual racism of the day bleeds into the text. And, when we draw from those texts, it can be pretty off putting if we're not very, very careful.
 
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