Do orcs in gaming display parallels to colonialist propaganda?

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wingsandsword

Villager
The idea of a hostile, primitive, uncivilized outsider people just beyond the borders of your land, ready to do you harm. . .is pretty much as old as civilization itself.

The very term "barbarian" comes from ancient Rome and their term for non-Roman peoples they considered unable to interact with them in a civilized fashion (which usually meant the Germanic peoples of central and western Europe).

The same concept of "We're civilized and peaceful, but those people over there are hostile, brutal, uncivilized and barely even count as people" appears in the Old Testament, it appears in the histories of pretty much all the known ancient civilizations. Similar concepts appear everywhere from the Roman Empire to China and Japan, and everywhere in between.

It's hardly "colonialist", more like it's a very, very longstanding trend in how humans view outsider groups.

Orcs exist as a narrative device, a metaphor, a way of embodying that hostile, uncivilized, not-quite-human way that humans have of interpreting outsiders.

After all, you COULD tell just about every D&D story that involves orcs by substituting in some made-up in-story foreign ethnicity. . .but "orc" is a great shorthand for it that sidesteps issues of human race/ethnicity/nationality and substitutes in a completely non-human one and lets players know "these are the bad guys, or at least ones everyone generally presumes to be bad guys".
 

pemerton

Legend
The idea of a hostile, primitive, uncivilized outsider people just beyond the borders of your land, ready to do you harm. . .is pretty much as old as civilization itself.

<snip>

It's hardly "colonialist", more like it's a very, very longstanding trend in how humans view outsider groups.
Supposing your first sentence to be true, that doesn't support your second sentence. Because rests on a xenophobic view of "outsiders" doesn't entail not part of a colonialist outlook.

Orcs exist as a narrative device, a metaphor, a way of embodying that hostile, uncivilized, not-quite-human way that humans have of interpreting outsiders.

<snip>

"orc" is a great shorthand for it that sidesteps issues of human race/ethnicity/nationality and substitutes in a completely non-human one and lets players know "these are the bad guys, or at least ones everyone generally presumes to be bad guys".
When orcs (as in JRRT) are dark-skinned, wield scimitars, and have "bandy" legs, they don't sidestep issues of human race/ethnicity/nationality. They instantiate a particular stereotype in respect of such things.

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.
I certainly agree about casual racism bleeding into pulp literature and related genres. I don't quite agree that the racist language was "not particularly analysed" - people of colour at the time often noticed what was going on!
 

wingsandsword

Villager
Supposing your first sentence to be true, that doesn't support your second sentence. Because rests on a xenophobic view of "outsiders" doesn't entail not part of a colonialist outlook.
Except that "colonialist" is entirely a modern 20th/21st century pejorative referring to modern politics.

If you can point to the ancient world and see the exact same mindset and attitudes there, that's pretty much conclusive proof that it isn't something whipped up within the last century or so.
 

pemerton

Legend
Except that "colonialist" is entirely a modern 20th/21st century pejorative referring to modern politics.

If you can point to the ancient world and see the exact same mindset and attitudes there, that's pretty much conclusive proof that it isn't something whipped up within the last century or so.
I don't think you can look at the ancient world and see the exact same "mindset and attitudes" as nineteenth century racism of the sort found in pulp and other modern fantasy writings.

But even if you could, that wouldn't be any reason to suppose that those mindsets and attitudes, in the nineteenth century and since, aren't components of, and/or causes of, and/or ideological underpinnings of, colonialist ideas.
 

pemerton

Legend
As I recall, it’s the splash page introducing 2Ed’s Egyptian pantheon in Legend & Lore. Could be wrong about the particular book- it’s been a while since I looked at that piece in context.
I don't think I've ever seen 2nd ed L&L in it's full "glory" (I have an electronic text version that I'm pretty sure was a legal download from the TSR/WotC webpage years ago). Which explains why I don't recognise it.
 

Hussar

Legend
The idea of a hostile, primitive, uncivilized outsider people just beyond the borders of your land, ready to do you harm. . .is pretty much as old as civilization itself.

The very term "barbarian" comes from ancient Rome and their term for non-Roman peoples they considered unable to interact with them in a civilized fashion (which usually meant the Germanic peoples of central and western Europe).

The same concept of "We're civilized and peaceful, but those people over there are hostile, brutal, uncivilized and barely even count as people" appears in the Old Testament, it appears in the histories of pretty much all the known ancient civilizations. Similar concepts appear everywhere from the Roman Empire to China and Japan, and everywhere in between.

It's hardly "colonialist", more like it's a very, very longstanding trend in how humans view outsider groups.

Orcs exist as a narrative device, a metaphor, a way of embodying that hostile, uncivilized, not-quite-human way that humans have of interpreting outsiders.

After all, you COULD tell just about every D&D story that involves orcs by substituting in some made-up in-story foreign ethnicity. . .but "orc" is a great shorthand for it that sidesteps issues of human race/ethnicity/nationality and substitutes in a completely non-human one and lets players know "these are the bad guys, or at least ones everyone generally presumes to be bad guys".
Except there is one key issue that you're leaving out here - that every good race is white and every bad race isn't. I mean, how often are the "barbarians" described as beautiful? The civilized race as ugly?

Look, I'm trying to tread REALLY lightly here because it is a very short step from "I interpret it this way" to "Your interpretation is an attack on me". I don't doubt that there are certainly valid interpretations of orc as "these are the bad guys". Fair enough.

But, in the same way, you have to recognize that this isn't the only interpretation, nor is it the "right" one. There ISN'T a "right" interpretation. There are all sorts of interpretations and they are ALL valid, so long as you can support them with the text. And, again, even if we want to leave Tolkien out of the discussion, there are MANY examples of far more egregious works in the genre.

5e D&D, for example, has taken a HUGE step forward by making alignment largely simply descriptive. There's almost no mechanics associated with alignment. Saying a race is good or evil doesn't really mean a whole lot on 5e and you can easily swap out other descriptions. The concept of Orc in D&D varies HUGELY depending on the setting. I mean, Forgotten Realms now has a civilized orc nation.
 

S'mon

Legend
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.
I don't think "colonialist" should be used as a synonym for "racist".
 

S'mon

Legend
Except there is one key issue that you're leaving out here - that every good race is white and every bad race isn't. I mean, how often are the "barbarians" described as beautiful? The civilized race as ugly?
*cough* Conan *cough*

Edit: GMing Primeval Thule now, it's amazing how much difference it makes not to have any orcs/goblins/ogres in a setting. When the PCs kill people, almost always they are killing *people*. Even the Frazetta-Man 'Beastmen' Neanderthals who are explicitly the 'orcs of the setting' clearly have enough humanity in them to induce somewhat queasy feelings when they're slaughtered.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
Not really wading into this topic, as I've had the 'orcs areX' argument too many times to count. But I think it is worth cautioning people: anti-colonialist media has its own downsides, like a tendency toward nationalist messages. Just something you observe if you watch a lot of movies and read a lot of books with strong anti-colonialist viewpoints. The remedy offered for colonialism is often nationalism, even ethno-nationalism.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
*cough* Conan *cough*

Edit: GMing Primeval Thule now, it's amazing how much difference it makes not to have any orcs/goblins/ogres in a setting. When the PCs kill people, almost always they are killing *people*. Even the Frazetta-Man 'Beastmen' Neanderthals who are explicitly the 'orcs of the setting' clearly have enough humanity in them to induce somewhat queasy feelings when they're slaughtered.
I suspect that depends a lot on the audience. I saw little difference in player reaction when playing Pendragon compared with the more fantastical Runequest, for example.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I don't think "colonialist" should be used as a synonym for "racist".
I have to agree that "colonialist" smacks of some kind of rhetorical escalation when xenophobic and/or racist will do. I'm not really seeing a subjugational or exploitational subtext to most treatment of orcs. They're definitely "others" and while that may be an important element to justify colonization and domination, it isn't synonymous.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
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.
Briefly-

There are a differences between the following statements:

1. There are stereotypes in D&D.

2. There are racist stereotypes in D&D, especially in some of the older stuff.

3. The idea of adventurers killing undifferentiated hordes of evil others can often resemble colonialist narratives (hobomurder = colonialism).

4. The concepts in some older campaign settings with regard to "uncivilized" or "jungle" settings and areas sometimes reflects old stereotypes, and/or colonialist narratives.

5. Foundational works of fantasy (Lovecraft, Howard, etc.) that heavily influence D&D contain racist and/or colonialist themes and stereotypes.

I think that these statements all have validity to some degree or another. They are often confused and jumbled because while concepts of colonialism, racism, "the other" and orientalism (to use some phrases) are often used interchangeably, they are not the same concepts. Colonialism and racism are not the same.

But then people often end up worrying, defending, or attacking the intent of people who play TTRPGs or created TTRPGs, which will be a lot more divisive and problematic, or use the above issues as proxies for their preferred political debates.

And it is nearly impossible to have a conversation about any of this because, unfortunately, it has political overtones.
 

pemerton

Legend
*cough* Conan *cough*
I tend to find that the thematic elements of Conan - which reflect broader Nietzschean-type views held by REH - are often underplayed or even ignored in the transition to Conan-influenced fantasy RPGing. Even D&D in its classic form - which is meant to be heavily REH-inspired - tends to laud the trappings of civilisation rather than present them as enfeebling and leeching of vitality.

GMing Primeval Thule now, it's amazing how much difference it makes not to have any orcs/goblins/ogres in a setting. When the PCs kill people, almost always they are killing *people*. Even the Frazetta-Man 'Beastmen' Neanderthals who are explicitly the 'orcs of the setting' clearly have enough humanity in them to induce somewhat queasy feelings when they're slaughtered.
I've run games with orcs that have achieved a similar feel, but not using D&D. Using RM - which already makes combat more vicceral - plus rather rich and richly presented cultural backstory. The absence of alignment certainly didn't hurt in this respect either!
 
Yes, there are parallels between orcs in gaming and racist ideas that were used to justify colonialism and imperialism. But that doesn't go far enough. The idea of orcs and other 'savage humanoids' derive in part from 19th and early 20th century notions of race. Not deliberately, and not always directly, but via the unexamined use of Appendix N authors, Westerns, and so forth.

Have a look at 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast's racist depictions of the Irish. They look remarkably similar to orcs.

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.
It isn't racist because we're not saying that orcs correspond to colonised peoples. We're saying they correspond to a coloniser's idea of colonised peoples.
 
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I have to agree that "colonialist" smacks of some kind of rhetorical escalation when xenophobic and/or racist will do. I'm not really seeing a subjugational or exploitational subtext to most treatment of orcs. They're definitely "others" and while that may be an important element to justify colonization and domination, it isn't synonymous.
What about the idea in early editions of D&D that the PCs would clear the wilderness of monsters and build a stronghold there?
 

S'mon

Legend
I tend to find that the thematic elements of Conan - which reflect broader Nietzschean-type views held by REH - are often underplayed or even ignored in the transition to Conan-influenced fantasy RPGing. Even D&D in its classic form - which is meant to be heavily REH-inspired - tends to laud the trappings of civilisation rather than present them as enfeebling and leeching of vitality.

I've run games with orcs that have achieved a similar feel, but not using D&D. Using RM - which already makes combat more vicceral - plus rather rich and richly presented cultural backstory. The absence of alignment certainly didn't hurt in this respect either!
Re the beastmen, I think them being so human does make a difference to me and some of my players. Certainly the pc who had nookie with the hairy beastman shamaness to steal her magic ring...

Re Conan I agree. Gygaxian fantasy aesthetics are those of the Old West not Hyborea. In Hyborea the Picts are destined to destroy the civilised races, not vice versa - and REH seems to see this as a pretty good thing!
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
What about the idea in early editions of D&D that the PCs would clear the wilderness of monsters and build a stronghold there?
Just worth pointing out, having a frontier or wild region doesn't automatically equate to being drawn from 19th century colonialism. A lot of gaming is based on ancient history and medieval history. There are plenty of places in previous eras that had frontiers. The south in Chinese history for example. Rome too had regions it regarded as wild beyond its frontier (and built forts in many of these places).
 
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