Do orcs in gaming display parallels to colonialist propaganda?

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It's hardly "colonialist", more like it's a very, very longstanding trend in how humans view outsider groups.
These ideas have changed over time. We see, starting I think with Linnaeus in the 18th century, something new - the notion that the mentally and morally inferior other is that way, not because of climate or culture (as Aristotle believed), but because of their biological makeup.

This is the same as the idea of race in D&D, particularly in early editions.
 
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.
D&D has medieval trappings but it's really set in the Wild West.
 

S'mon

Legend
What about the idea in early editions of D&D that the PCs would clear the wilderness of monsters and build a stronghold there?
What could be more colonialist than planting a colony in the wilderness, yep. Certainly a more accurate use than decolonisation as the replacing of European history in European University courses, the last time I saw the word used. Before that was in Black Panther. :)
 

wingsandsword

Villager
While yes, many of the classic fantasy and pulp authors reflected the casual racism of their eras, how exactly are you supposed to create a monstrous, villainous humanoid race that cannot in any way be seen as any kind of racial or ethnic metaphor?

Unless you make them look utterly inhuman, you're working with the established palette of human skin tones, hair types, facial features, builds ect.

You're trying to create something that will convey menace and threat to the audience, to be that dangerous, primitive and different-looking and strangely acting outsider/foreigner that has been an element of human culture since antiquity.

If you make it too inhuman, you lose that metaphor, if you make it something that has no resemblance to humanity, that allusion is lost and it becomes just a generic monster race.

So, how exactly was Tolkien, or any other author, supposed to convey the idea of a bestial, foreign, hostile, barbaric people that are recognizably similar to humans, yet alien, without being anything that could be construed as potentially offensive to any real-world race or ethnicity?

The only alternative would be to make Orcs that were totally inhuman. I've seen it done, with orcs treated in some sources as having green skin and pig-like features with snouts, treating them as greenskinned anthropomorphic pigs/boars. . .but that tends to lose the more "realistic" aspects of fantasy.

Personally, I never read those stories and thought they were an obvious stand-in for ANY specific real world race or ethnicity, simply that they were meant to look brutal, barbaric, and hostile to the intended audience. Depending on the audience, they could be the Philistines to the ancient Israelites. It could be the Celts or Goths to the ancient Romans. They could be Mongols or Manchus to the ancient Chinese. They could be the Ainu to the ancient Japanese. They could be Native Americans to the 18th and 19th century United States. . .they could be the Europeans to the Ottoman Turks, or the Spaniards to the Moors.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
D&D has medieval trappings but it's really set in the Wild West.
Is it? I don't know that it is. I think it draws on lots of genres, which includes westerns for sure. But fantasy definitely has strong medieval and ancient history traces. I think there are lots of other historical sources of inspiration here beyond westerns. It is just part of the mix I think.
 

pemerton

Legend
While yes, many of the classic fantasy and pulp authors reflected the casual racism of their eras, how exactly are you supposed to create a monstrous, villainous humanoid race that cannot in any way be seen as any kind of racial or ethnic metaphor?

Unless you make them look utterly inhuman, you're working with the established palette of human skin tones, hair types, facial features, builds ect.

You're trying to create something that will convey menace and threat to the audience, to be that dangerous, primitive and different-looking and strangely acting outsider/foreigner that has been an element of human culture since antiquity.

<snip>

So, how exactly was Tolkien, or any other author, supposed to convey the idea of a bestial, foreign, hostile, barbaric people that are recognizably similar to humans, yet alien, without being anything that could be construed as potentially offensive to any real-world race or ethnicity?
Well, it's not a given that wanting to create a monstrous, villainous humanoid race can avoid the sorts of political overtones that are being discussed in this thread.

And when you do it by making that race (say) Turkic, or East Asian, or whatever, in appearance, broad cultural tropes, etc - well, I'm not sure that's a defence against suggestions of racism.

I've watched the LotR movies with people of colour. They have noticed that all the protagonists are white (I don't think all here is an exaggeration) and that the Uruk-hai are played by people of colour (Maori in particular). That didn't stop them enjoying the films, but it didn't facilitate it either!
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
How much truth is there to this assumption?
There are actually three questions here.

1) Did the author *intend* for orcs (or any other race) to stand in for a real-world race group?
2) Did the author unconsciously mold orcs to be a stand in for a real-world race group?
3) Are there sufficient similarities that, regardless of the author, is it reasonable for us to see them as a stand-in for a real-world race group?

To answer (1), we must ask the author.
To answer (2), we must play armchair psychologist. Imho, it would not really be fair to the author to do this unless you can cite multiple disparate elements in their works over time that suggest they have an unconscious tendency to such.
To answer (3), we must look inside our own minds.

(1) and (2) are really about trying to figure out what kind of person the author is/was like.

(3) is more about whether we should use these elements as-is in our games.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
There are actually three questions here.

1) Did the author *intend* for orcs (or any other race) to stand in for a real-world race group?
2) Did the author unconsciously mold orcs to be a stand in for a real-world race group?
3) Are there sufficient similarities that, regardless of the author, is it reasonable for us to see them as a stand-in for a real-world race group?

To answer (1), we must ask the author.
To answer (2), we must play armchair psychologist. Imho, it would not really be fair to the author to do this unless you can cite multiple disparate elements in their works over time that suggest they have an unconscious tendency to such.
To answer (3), we must look inside our own minds.

(1) and (2) are really about trying to figure out what kind of person the author is/was like.

(3) is more about whether we should use these elements as-is in our games.
If we are getting introspective about our own settings, I use Ronnie James Dio as my model for barbaric orcs---just something about that hair (and I use the Romans as my model for the civilized orcs). But I tend to run fantasy settings with more of a Mediterranean feel to them.
 
The responses so far have proven very educational. Thank you.

So this sort of, I don’t know what to call it, race building is very disturbing to me. You are writing a race whose sole purpose is to be killed by the heroes, and justly killed at that rather than the heroes being vicious psychopaths. I prefer to avoid that if I can.

I did some thinking about how to reclaim the savage humanoid horde trope and in my opinion to comes down to two extremes. On one end, you can depict them as people with the same depth as humans and demihumans (i.e. elves dwarves, halflings, tieflings, dragonborn, etc), although that often unfortunately results in replacing negative stereotypes with positive(?) stereotypes (e.g. all elves are beautiful, all dwarves are good workers, all halflings live in the shire, etc). But I digress.

On the other end, you could strip away any semblance of humanity and write them as essentially aliens or bioweapons. Warhammer 40k does this: the orcs are an invasive ecosystem engineered to fight robot space Egyptians. In 13th Age, orcs are apparently born as adults holding weapons from rifts in the earth; they’re sterile and half-orcs are caused by environmental conditions.

What do you think?

P.S. Whether D&D owes more to westerns or not varies by campaign setting. Settings with big frontiers to explore dotted with occasional towns (or crashed alien spaceships) are clearly channeling westerns (or post-apocalyptic) with pseudo-medieval window dressing.
 

wingsandsword

Villager
If we are getting introspective about our own settings, I use Ronnie James Dio as my model for barbaric orcs---just something about that hair (and I use the Romans as my model for the civilized orcs). But I tend to run fantasy settings with more of a Mediterranean feel to them.
Personally, I go with Orcs having skin in various shades of green, from forest green to deep olive drab, and large framed bodies (either muscular and gorilla-like for warrior orcs, or more flabby and porcine for civilian orcs) with faces that are vaguely piglike, with snouts and tusks and rough, almost bristle-like hair that's sometimes in long, shaggy manes and sometimes in short mohawks.

Given that Orcs have been depicted as both LE and CE in various editions, I split the difference. . .Orcish society itself tends towards CE, but Orcish armies are very LE, very regimented and have downright brutal discipline and the most lawful element of Orc society.

If I've needed an Orcish language for anything, I've always used Klingon as a stand-in for it. I always figured Klingons are basically sci-fi Orcs anyway.

What little of Orc society ever shows up is loosely based on vikings, or at least cliches of them.
 
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.
Regardless of context...pretty sure they would be darker than that...even if they were European's living in Egypt...simple sun tan would have darker those two!
 

Celebrim

Legend
I have no orcs in my setting.

The role of orcs in my setting is held by 'goblinkind'. Goblinkind is one of the six races of mortal free peoples. Their chief Maglubiyet the Flame-Eyed God is the eldest deity, and is in a sense the senior deity of all creation. Certainly he thinks himself the rightful king for the universe.

After the gods-war, which was started by a quarrel between the god Uman and his son Usurl, and basically erupted into a cosmic family feud, the surviving deities met to discuss a truce and what was to be done with the now wrecked universe. One of the things that was purposed as a solution is that the gods would abandon Sartha, the World, and that in their place the gods make for themselves a servant, after the fashion and stature of the lesser fey but mortal, who they would be responsible for repairing Sartha in the absence of the gods. None of the gods trusted the other gods to allow their existing servants free access to Sartha, and so this new servant would be given the right or power to freely choose which of the instructions of the gods it would obey. The problem was that the gods could not agree on a design for this new creature, and so ultimately they ended up adopting six different designs - one each roughly corresponding to the six families of gods. These six designs are goblins, elves, humans, dwarves, orine, and idreth, and along with fey are collectively referred to as the 'free peoples'.

Sometime after this plan was adopted, goblins withdrew from the world. When they returned, they were 'changed' from the original design, and were creatures of horn and hide and fang. Goblinkind remains to this day a species which is the product of selective breeding and perhaps magical manipulation. They are divided into physical/social castes in a way that the other species are not. They've pretty much openly dropped any pretense of existing to carry out a purpose of repairing the world, and have the purpose of conquering it.

a) The new 'changed' goblins are carnivores, and they greedily will devour the other free peoples.
b) The new 'changed' goblins are less free, in that they only worship Maglubiyet's clan or else are generally impious. They basically show no interest in deities that don't show fealty to the Flame Eyed God.
c) The new 'changed' goblins are repulsive, even to themselves. They don't show a lot of concern for aesthetics, but to the extent that they do, they don't like the way they look.

There are philosophical quarrels among scholars as to whether the new goblins are really 'free people' at all, and are instead frequently viewed as 'lesser servitors' in as much as they seem to be loyal to only one deity. I have my own view of this as the story creator and game master, but I prefer to let the players come to their own conclusions and animate their own characters without word from on high as to what right and wrong are.

Goblins are earth toned, and their skin can take basically any shade that rocks can - from limestone white, to feldspar yellows and pinks, slate blacks, to sandstone red. Jade like green skin is rare, but considered attractive, by other goblins at least, in as much as they find each other attractive at all.

On a meta level, in no fashion are any of the races or ethnic groups of my world intended to be allegories for any real world ethnic group. While I can't avoid there being cultural influences in the architecture, dress, and other cultural trappings of a race, I do not intend these associations to be allegorical. For example, the prominent human Har ethnic group are not meant to be perceived as inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent nor as Hanseatic Europeans, despite drawing influences from medieval India and the Hanseatic League of Europe, and their North African appearance is meant as no more than a representation of their diverse ethnic roots located at the center of many cultural influences and not as commentary on any Mediterranean people. If some commenter tried to connect goblins or Har or Idreth to any real world people group, I'd consider it a failure of either their imagination or my own - either for them not being able to understand that I had more to talk about that real world racial conflicts or for me not conveying how distinctive and I intend all this to be. I resist any attempt to insert your experience of reading my work and use it to supplant my intentions. One of us is failing to communicate in that situation.

While I do think racism is a worthy topic of exploration in a fantasy setting, I consider racism in the abstract a much more interesting topic than any individual real world ethnic conflict. If I wanted to talk about European colonialism I would do so directly in world where Europe and European colonialism actually existed, and not talk about it via analogy by creating a fantasy world. What I wish to talk about is the infinite number of ways humans justify their hatred and inhumanity toward each other, but that's only one thing that I wish to talk about.

As for the 'uglies' like goblins, they exist for numerous reasons. First, as a nod to traditional fantasy tropes as conventional bad guys and to let me reach into all that prior creation and mythic archetypes when I want to. Secondly, to subvert traditional fantasy tropes, which I can only do if they appear to be one-dimensional 'orcs'. Goblins as I present them let me explore an alien concept, of a not quite free people conditioned to expect tyranny. As I explained by giving the backstory, many of the objections to the concept of 'orcs' depend on the assumption that orcs have a parallel backstory to humans, but by making that not quite true I can explore concepts that I couldn't if everything was just different sorts of people with bumps on their forehead.

Contrast also something like gnolls and minotaurs, which in my setting are 'lesser servitors' and are races without free will - they can't choose to overcome their instincts. They are essentially mortal demons, in the service of monstrous beings.

Finally, all of this is hugely subjective and I'm annoyed by how much subjective assessments seem to override the author's obvious intent, much less that some groups think their subjective impressions are objective fact. I'll risk an example, despite the controversy it will likely cause. I recently watched 'Black Panther' with my daughter. She is not 'woke'. She's not trained to see color. For the first half of her life she was raised in a predominantly black neighborhood. She goes to a church that is probably 1/3rd African American. One of her best friends is black. She's not by inclination someone who is sensitive to racial issues, by design. About 3/4s of the way into the movie 'Black Panther' she made a devastating one sentence observation about the movie that absolutely stunned me:

"These people can imagine black people with advanced technology and education, but they can't imagine black people who don't act like animals."

That's a direct quote. She made it, not offended, but laughing at what she perceived as the silly irrational behavior of the characters - this was just after T'Challa is confronted by Killmonger. You see, what's devastating about that quote is how it penetrates the veneer of the movie to get to its underlying assumptions. Technically sophisticated sure, but still having politics that are locked in a notion of leadership and that basically exactly matches a bull animal fighting over a harem. Tribes that see themselves as animal analogies, and who behave accordingly. It's devastating because when T'Challa is first confronted by Killmonger in the throne room, it's actually the climax of the story. The conflict the movie sets up is primarily an intellectual one, and so we expect that conflict to be primarily resolved in an intellectual space - that is in a debate between the protagonist and the antagonist where the vision of the two is actually examined and held up to appropriate criticism. T'Challa's main duty here is to explain why Killmonger is wrong, and there are a ton of things he possibly can say using only the information he has at hand. But T'Challa does not engage Killmonger in the intellectual battleground that is present, and instead retreats to a physical battleground where might makes right. From then on, we have only falling action and a long wrap up where we show T'Challa after some set backs defeats Killmonger in a battle of might.

Imagine how different the story would be if it wasn't just one about animals fighting, and where the topic was given the intellectual seriousness it deserves. Of course, this is itself a subjective impression. Fill free to be appalled that I didn't "get it".

Does that mean 'Black Panther' is racist or demeaning to dark skinned people? No, of course not. Quite obviously the intention of the writer is quite the opposite of that, and quite obviously most people recognize that and respond positively to it. On the net, even I agree it's more positive than negative. And despite the flaws lots of things to admire about the script and the production, including truly strong female characters that aren't tokens plugged into those roles and some initially strong writing setting up the conflict (to say nothing of T'Challa even if it isn't with much explanation taking what I perceive as the correct course in the end). What it means simply is that it perhaps doesn't serve the purpose it was created for as well as it could, or as well as the ideas involved deserve. Bad writing doesn't make a movie racist, and in general the writer's intent should always be viewed charitably.
 
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S'mon

Legend
I've watched the LotR movies with people of colour. They have noticed that all the protagonists are white (I don't think all here is an exaggeration) and that the Uruk-hai are played by people of colour (Maori in particular).
Jackson's Maori Orcs are definitely quite striking! I suspect an English director would have gone more for JRRT's original classist theme, mirrored more recently in the Games Workshop cockney orcs.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I did some thinking about how to reclaim the savage humanoid horde trope and in my opinion to comes down to two extremes. On one end, you can depict them as people with the same depth as humans and demihumans (i.e. elves dwarves, halflings, tieflings, dragonborn, etc), although that often unfortunately results in replacing negative stereotypes with positive(?) stereotypes (e.g. all elves are beautiful, all dwarves are good workers, all halflings live in the shire, etc). But I digress.
There's nothing wrong with certain amounts of stereotyping. After all, these are supposed to be different cultures/races from our current norms. Without some kind of difference, there's not much point to them being from different cultures and you need some way to communicate how they differ from us as players. All you have to do is say that these things tend to be averages or cultural values - not that every individual needs to conform to them. Halflings may generally be confined to a particular enclave or set of enclaves (remember that there were also Hobbits in Bree, outside of the Shire). Elves may tend toward being more beautiful in the eyes of humans. Dwarven society may put a high value on hard work and the self-esteem it brings. None of that mandates all individuals are like that any more than saying that Mongols tended to be nomadic people dependent on their horses for getting around (which is true even if not all Mongols fit that profile). Nor is it in any way reductive or racist. You just have to be aware of how you frame the description.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
So this sort of, I don’t know what to call it, race building is very disturbing to me. You are writing a race whose sole purpose is to be killed by the heroes, and justly killed at that rather than the heroes being vicious psychopaths. I prefer to avoid that if I can.
Well, remember that we are playing a game, not building an actual world. The elements in the game world do not actually have a purpose other than to serve the game, and the plaery's goals for the game. If their goals do not include particularly deep consideration of the morality of violence, then yes, the bad guys are just going to be bad, and we are not supposed to feel much for them when they come to harm at the hands of the PCs.

You have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, right? The bad guys are there to be a difficulty for Indiana Jones to overcome, often by punching or shooting them. And they come to a bad end, because they are *bad*.

If, for example, you want a deeper consideration of the morality of violence in your game, then yeah, this doesn't work for you. If the PCs are supposed to worry about whether it is okay to stab the enemy, you need some deeper consideration.


What do you think?
 

Aldarc

Adventurer
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.
From what I vaguely recall reading, even Tolkien in his later life began backing away from his own depiction that orcs were inherently evil creatures. The moral quality of it increasingly grew at odds with his Roman Catholic faith that redemption and goodness was possible for everyone. Though this says nothing about whether Tolkien employed, whether intentionally or not, casual racism in his depiction of the orcs, only that he recognized that one aspect of his depiction of orcs was morally problematic.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
You're trying to create something that will convey menace and threat to the audience, to be that dangerous, primitive and different-looking and strangely acting outsider/foreigner that has been an element of human culture since antiquity.

If you make it too inhuman, you lose that metaphor, if you make it something that has no resemblance to humanity, that allusion is lost and it becomes just a generic monster race.

So, how exactly was Tolkien, or any other author, supposed to convey the idea of a bestial, foreign, hostile, barbaric people that are recognizably similar to humans, yet alien, without being anything that could be construed as potentially offensive to any real-world race or ethnicity?

The only alternative would be to make Orcs that were totally inhuman. I've seen it done, with orcs treated in some sources as having green skin and pig-like features with snouts, treating them as greenskinned anthropomorphic pigs/boars. . .but that tends to lose the more "realistic" aspects of fantasy.
(Emphasis mine.)
Step one: when describing your antagonists, don’t use any of the language used in the negative stereotypes of real-world races or ethnicities.

Step two: see step one.

By the time JRRT and most of the other early giants of genre fiction were writing, humanity was well aware that Earthly evolution had produced cousins that either died out naturally or were wiped out by our species. Remember, most of these writers were very educated people. Giving them a pass on perpetuating hurtful attitudes towards their fellow man is a bit...lame.

A simple description based on Neanderthals would have done just fine. Add in a bit of the biblical “there were giants in the earth in those days” (from Genesis) and maybe a simple skin color/texture change and you’re there without stepping into the quagmire of real-world inhumanity to humans.

Hell, look at H.G. Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau: actual animal-men- while only being the creation of the ACTUAL antagonist- were less stereotypical than some of the foes penned by REH and others. Even some writers for certain comics showed better sense when they followed HGW’s example and had the High Evolutionary be surrounded by his Ani-Men, or created a species of hyper intelligent gorillas as the source for The Flash.


Personally, I never read those stories and thought they were an obvious stand-in for ANY specific real world race or ethnicity, simply that they were meant to look brutal, barbaric, and hostile to the intended audience. Depending on the audience, they could be the Philistines to the ancient Israelites. It could be the Celts or Goths to the ancient Romans. They could be Mongols or Manchus to the ancient Chinese. They could be the Ainu to the ancient Japanese. They could be Native Americans to the 18th and 19th century United States. . .they could be the Europeans to the Ottoman Turks, or the Spaniards to the Moors.
(Emphasis mine.)
I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s because you’re not a member of any group that has been negatively stereotyped in such a way.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Regardless of context...pretty sure they would be darker than that...even if they were European's living in Egypt...simple sun tan would have darker those two!
I was just saying I couldn’t remember what book they were in with 100% certainty. The image was definitely asssociated with some take on Egypt within the game.
 
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