Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Evil Orcs and Real-World Racism...

Now and again, I stumble upon an idea that percolates in my old man's brain until I can formulate a position.  This week's post is about one of those; namely, the idea that presenting certain monsters as inherently evil is somehow racist.  I'm talking about orcs and related humanoid baddies, the stock villains of the games we play and a convenient way to populate our dungeons with things to kill or possibly die at the bloody hands of...

Now, to be crystal clear, I understand the sentiment.  Dwarves, elves, and even orcs are intelligent and therefore effectively persons.  And the idea that orcs are inherently evil is one step away from deciding that Jews (for instance) are greedy or that native Americans are unwashed savages.  Offended?  You should be, because RACISM IS WRONG.  The very idea that some intelligent beings are, by virtue of genetics and nothing more, inherently evil (or inferior) lies at the misguided heart of racist ignorance.  

My great grandfather married a Jew and was disowned by his family.  Happily, they loved one another more than their German homeland and fled to the United States in 1903, roughly thirty years before a villain with a stiff arm and a tiny mustache came to power (and yes, my genes went through the gates of Auschwitz).  Even in my comfortable American existence, I've been shoved and called a filthy Jew by the children of parents who almost certainly would have approved.  Racism is nasty baggage we need to lose at the airport...

But in our zeal to do good, to be good, we maybe forget what fantasy is and lose something of its power and beauty.  Nothing less than the power of myth, in fact.

The power of myth is that abstract concepts are given material form.  Monsters haven't just chosen evil.  They are evil.  Literally, evil incarnate.  The power of myth (and fantasy in general) has always been to take ephemeral concepts and drag them into the light of human consciousness.  After all, evil is easier to pin down dressed in scaly hides... 

But worlds, especially game worlds, still require service to cause and effect and, especially, some notion of free will.  Not a problem.  The gods of evil don't value free will and prefer breeding slaves to siring loving (and willing) children.  Orcs were made evil by a Godhead who imbued them with only one perspective.  Dwarves and elves enjoy free will because their gods value it.  They want children who can love them back.  Not so for the selfish Lords of Darkness, who took from the worst parts of themselves and made a craven, wicked race (all the better to control through fear) reflecting their darkest natures.

In short, orcs might not be persons, per se, but merely physical extensions of the dark minds that made them, imitating human agency within the narrow boundaries of evil.*

But humans aren't automatons.  No way.  Moreover, the alleged "races" of humanity are nothing of the sort.  We're all just human beings.  Homo Sapiens.  Free agents who deserve to be treated by the content of our character and not the color of our skin (or any of the superficial differences between us).  This is self-evidently true.  Inherently evil orcs are only racist when we don't understand that humans (who really exist) aren't orcs.

Sure, we can give orcs free will.  This can be fun and interesting (the ones in my own campaign are nuanced), but we don't have to.  We only need to know the difference between fantasy and reality and to specify the conditions under which evil manifests in a universe operating under different rules (nowhere present in our own reality).  And really, most of us know the difference.  Fantasy orcs need say nothing about how actual humans should relate to one another.  In short, orcs aren't real.  People are, so let's be honorable ones...

*So kill away, you lawful murder hobos.  You're just smiting evil in one of its many guises!


  1. You addressed this far more eloquently than I could. I've really wanted to talk about this as well. The notion that fantasy monsters being inherently evil leads to real world racism is just a reskinning of the old fear that fantasy spellcasting leads to real world witchcraft and summoning of devils.

    It's the old idea that all recreational activity is supposed to be propaganda to train people for some greater purpose, and cannot be enjoyed for what it is. It's an idea I reject.

  2. I agree. Sane people can play D&D with racially evil orcs without it propagandizing their brains.

    I remember hearing, anecdotally, that a lot of Neo-Nazis like Lord of the Rings because it sort of fit their narrative. White dudes fighting to protect their ancient homeland from the dark-skinned hordes and their scimitars. Racially-evil orcs aren't racist, but it's the kind of story that racists like.

    1. People will twist things to their ends, sadly...

    2. Which is rather funny given how hard Tolkien trolled the Nazi censorship bureau in 1938 when asked to prove his Aryan ancestry.

  3. Very nice article, thank you!

    Just something I'd like to add because your orc/fake monster picture reminded me of it: In university I was writing something about (classic) fairy tales and their characters and cliches. The fact that orcs are most often portrayed as ugly reminds me of the bad fairy tales characters. It's basically about how children see the world, and (even if it seems unfair) ugliness goes together with wickedness - there are no beautiful monsters in classic fairy tales. The good guys have the good looks and the bad guys have the bad looks (e.g. the witch has a wart to "mark" her).
    I believe it's the same in RPG's. Evil creatures are most often monsters, easy to identify because they look like monsters. No thinking needed, they're evil, you can kill them, it's good.
    It's probably helpful to make it easier for the players to make the "right" decisions and live with it, especially when we're younger and tend to see the world and morals more as black/white.
    Example: We just played a Dark Eye adventure where we attacked ("We could talk to them!" - "What?! They're orcs, they'll just attack us anyway!") and killed a group of orcs in our way without even asking, only to find out that they had their women and children in the next room. Some players started to feel really bad about that and what had been a hard fight with a good victory for our group, suddenly turned sour. It took away the fun for some of the players who enjoyed the black/white view and their characters being the "heroes", which was what they expected and came for after a day of work. They didn't want to have to think about morals.

    1. Fantasy is an escape from reality for sure, but we probably need to prepare people for a more nuanced campaign...

    2. Agreed.
      By now I make sure folks know ahead what they'll get when I offer a game at a con because some are not open for moral dilemmas or deadly dungeons anymore. Sadly.