This is the complement to my previous article, “Orcs, Britons, and the Martial Race Myth, Part I: A Species Built for Racial Terror.” In the previous article, we learned how racist myths from the British academy and army fueled JRR Tolkien’s creation of orcs as an analogue for Asian people. Today I want to look at what happens to orcs as we follow Lord of the Rings’s influence into modern media. When Dungeons & Dragons and its descendants introduced orcs to the United States of America, orcs gained new ethnic dimensions and encountered new and visceral depths of criminalization and dehumanization. In the conclusion to this piece, I suggest several new directions in which gamers of all ethnicities might take the orcs they design or play, to rework this symbol of racist degeneracy into the vanguard of decolonization.
Last time, we started out on the Mongolian steppe and traveled from there to England. This time, we’ll start out with the journey from Britain to America.
This article includes descriptions of racism, colonialism, imperialism, racist violence, sexual assault, and fools tryna gaslight you telling you what you’re sure is racist isn’t racist.
Because I just got a comment on Twitter that said, “Sorry, you lost me when you claimed repeatedly that non-white people cannot be racist,” let me clarify some definitions.
Racial prejudice is unfair treatment because of your race.
Racism is unfair treatment because of your race which feeds systemic race-based oppression. Dominant cultures’ members experience racial prejudice, but not racism. Also, we may classify similar incidents of prejudice as one or the other of the foregoing based on where and when they happen.
For example, here in the USA, people of color can be racist towards other PoC or even ourselves. We can also be racially prejudiced toward white people. We cannot be racist toward white people.
Some people use the terms “racism” and “systemic racism” for the previous two terms, respectively; but I don’t, and I’m tryna stay consistent.
Reverse racism is a term which I mostly hear used as a joke; like, if you actually believe white people can experience racism in America, wouldn’t you just call it “racism”? According to this Vox article, “[r]everse racism refers to the idea that dominant racial groups (typically white people) experience discrimination based on their race in the same way that people of color do.”
This blog is not about deciding whether one or the other of racism or racial prejudice is morally worse. It is, however, about recognizing that divergent dynamics drive different systems of oppression.
Coming to America
During the late twentieth century, social and economic change following from several major wars centered world popular culture on the United States. Here, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax developed the tabletop role-playing game as we know it today, combining Tolkienian fantasy’s flavor with traditional European tabletop wargames’ systems. The ideas contained in their Dungeons & Dragons underpin not only tabletop gaming but also the entirety of nerd culture. You can see D&D’s influence in Japanese comics like Magic Knight Rayearth and video games like Final Fantasy. But how did this migration affect portrayals of orcs? Let’s look at late twentieth-century American race relations, which saw a new Asian stereotype develop: the Model Minority. Lily Du and Franchesca Ramsey on Decoded will get you started here.
The model minority myth is a sort of backhanded compliment writ large. Call someone on it, they’ll tell you they meant it with kindness. Even so, it defines a state of being which rewards Asian adherence and submission to white standards and values. Many Asian Americans in my mother’s generation consciously emphasized European values and folkways over our own, such that millennial and younger Asians now struggle to recapture our sense of belonging and identity. When my mother was a child, her father told her always to check “white” if asked her race on a form, even though both her parents were Filipinx and no member of my family could possibly pass as white until my birth.
The model minority myth also presses us into battle against other ethnic minorities on whites’ behalf.
Fear of a Black Planet
As white America worked on transforming Asians from yellow perils into non-threatening model minorities, its fear of Black Americans grew. America has always treated Blacks as only conditionally human, lacking even the self-damaging path to acceptance the Model Minority myth affords Asians. It justified the slave trade as a civilizing influence on Blacks who were little more than animals—three fifths of a human being, you might say. The newspapers couldn’t help but describe Blacks in terms of primitive violence, even when describing Black heroism. Like, did this illustration come from the New York Herald or the D&D Monster Manual?
During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, just before the first editions of D&D, white Americans identified armed, organized, assertive Black Americans as the greatest threat to their position of privilege. Even the National Rifle Association championed gun control laws lest Black Americans exercise their Second Amendment rights. Then, in the early 1970s, came D&D, which made “race” and “class” mean new and different things.
Dungeons & Dragons
Tolkien’s decision to reify racism in the concept of fantasy races made it into D&D largely unchanged. This article by Paul B Sturtevant goes through many of the same concepts I’ve previously discussed on this blog in the context of D&D, and also includes one of my favorite illustrations ever: the first edition cover of RA Salvatore’s The Crystal Shard, which features a human barbarian, a dwarf fighter, and … who is this Latino guy with white hair?
D&D, like Tolkien, makes race literally real in-game by applying immutable modifiers to character ability scores, skills, and other characteristics. The in-game fiction justifies these character traits as absolute realities; they also just happen to be the same cruel and untrue things racists say about different ethnicities, which I am frequently told is a coincidence or makes sense in the game or something. We’ll come back to those points.
What I want to focus on right now is the way D&D defines and categorizes both race and personhood. Every edition of D&D has populated its worlds with myriad intelligent species, but identified only a short list as appropriate for players to embody as their characters. Here’s the Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook on page 17:
And the people themselves … represent many different races, from diminutive halflings and stout dwarves to majestically beautiful elves, mingling among a variety of human ethnicities.
This first paragraph introduces the most common player character races: halflings (D&D’s hobbits), dwarves, elves, and humans. The text elevates elven beauty above other races’, which has some racial and gendered dimensions we discover on p. 21, where we learn under the heading “Slender and Graceful” that “[w]ith their unearthly grace and fine features, elves appear hauntingly beautiful to humans and members of many other races. They are slightly shorter than humans on average, ranging from well under 5 feet tall to just over 6 feet. They are more slender than humans, weighing only 100 to 145 pounds.” They also “have no facial and little body hair.” Well, it’s definitely someone’s standard of beauty, and I’m pretty sure I know whose.
This description also distinguishes between race as a D&D term and ethnicity as a human concept, which will provide us with some cognitive dissonance. As we saw in part I, D&D races occupy a weird liminal space in which they resemble different human races in some ways and different species in others. This paragraph brings up human ethnicity but not elf, dwarf, or halfling ethnicity, even though we see in the game art that elves, dwarves, and halflings have as many skin tones as humans. Nonhuman races often have two or more subraces, which may or may not have phenotypic differences; but unlike human ethnicities which all have the same stats, nonhumans’ subraces actually get some distinct stats and traits.
Scattered among the members of these more common races are the true exotics:
a hulking dragonborn here, pushing his way through the crowd, and a sly tiefling there, lurking in the shadows with mischief in her eyes. A group of gnomes laughs as one of them activates a clever wooden toy that moves of its own accord. Half-elves and half-orcs live and work alongside humans, without fully belonging ato the races of either of their parents.
a fun and assuredly entirely true fact: we biracial people spend 75% of our time feeling like we do not belong to either of our parents’ races, of which 66% occurs when white people ask us if we feel confused about our identities.
And there, well out of the sunlight, is a lone drow—a fugitive from the subterranean expanse of the Underdark, trying to make his way in a world that fears his kind.
I know how you feel, man.
So we got the normals: humans, elves, dwarves, halflings. We got the “exotics”: dragonborn, tieflings, dark elves specifically, gnomes, and … wait, humans and elves are both normal, but race-mixing results in an exotic? Great. Also, half-orcs are up in here. Where are the orcs? What happened to half-orcs’ other parent race? Maybe we’ll find the answer in half-orcs’ description on p. 40 …
Whether united under the leadership of a mighty warlock or having fought to a standstill after years of conflict, orc and human tribes sometimes form alliances, joining forces into a larger horde to the terror of civilized lands nearby. When these alliances are sealed by marriages, half-orcs are born.
THAT’S where half-orcs come from? Orcs and humans decide to be evil together and have babies?
Some half-orcs rise to become proud chiefs of orc tribes, their human blood giving them an edge over their full-blooded orc rivals. Some venture into the world to prove their worth among humans and other more civilized races.
“more civilized races”? Who wrote this, Jordan Peterson?
Many of these become adventurers, achieving greatness for their mighty deeds and notoriety for their barbaric customs and savage fury.
Horde. Terror. Tribe. Barbaric. Savage. I’ve heard all this before. These are the words colonizers apply to natives everywhere. In an American context, now that Asians are a model minority, we usually hear these terms applied to Africans and Native Americans.
So half-orcs are already uncommon and exotic. Orcs aren’t even in this book. They appear instead in the Monster Manual, where monsters generally only acceptable for use as non-player characters under the Dungeon Master’s control live. To roll an orc PC, you need Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a peripheral sourcebook your DM might not even allow. There, we discover that orcs get bonuses to Strength and Constitution, a penalty to Intelligence (they’re one of a tiny number of D&D races which even have negative modifiers in 5e!), an alignment that’s usually chaotic evil, the ability to see in the dark, and the traits Aggressive, Menacing, and Powerful Build. Now, instead of being smaller than humans like in Lord of the Rings, they’re swole—presumably also because of that migration from Asian stereotype to other racial stereotypes.
I’m not going to copy in all the rest of the text in Volo’s Guide to Monsters that describes orcs, because I don’t want to extend this article with too many quotes, because you can probably imagine it based on what you’ve already read here, and because I need to maintain the emotional fortitude to finish this article. But it’s not okay. It’s really not okay.
By default, orcs are unplayable monsters. Even their offspring with humans are exotic and strange (not to mention the result of circumstances of dubious union). They’re othered, marginalized, and characterized with great athletic ability but poor mental faculties. That’s where this story comes from.
It’s 2012. Sam Pious and I arrive at an art gallery to playtest Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, at this point still called D&D Next. The Dungeon Master assumes I’m there to play and she’s there to watch. Even after she incredulously tells him, “No, I’m here to play,” he passes out non-disclosure agreements to everyone except her; instead he hands me two, “one for me and one for the girlfriend.” Does he think he needs my permission to interact with her? Does he expect me to sign on her behalf?
There are at least four other players—I don’t remember precisely how many. They’re brusque and rude to me and Sam. There’s a gate, it seems, and we’re on the wrong side. The DM tells us he’ll make everyone decide in-game actions quickly given the number of players, but when we start play, he only pushes Sam.
I roll an elf rogue with the spy background, which gives her a non-player character contact. I hear orcs occupy the caves we’re exploring, so I declare my contact is an orcish secret agent named Laertes, embedded amongst the bad orcs. “Heh heh, I think you mean *half*-orc,” says the DM, and I give him a death stare and say, “Fine, but he identifies as an orc, like how Barack Obama just identifies as Black.” When players roll critical hits or kill monsters in combat, this DM goes ahead and describes the nature of the attack unless they interrupt him and insist on doing so themselves, which I do.
Late in the session, one player stands to head for the men’s room and I realize a revolver hangs off his belt in what can’t be more than a one-point holster. What if a little kid had been there? I find out later he’s an off-duty cop and the DM asked him not to bring his weapon, but he did anyway.
At the end of the adventure, we invade the orcish warrens and defeat some evil orcs. We find juvenile orcs cowering in the back of the caves. One player describes his elf fighter walking over and killing an orcish child.
I’m like, “What the hell?”
And he’s like, “But orcs aren’t people.”
And I’m like, “Roll for initiative.”
The DM ends the game.
Are orcs people?
Not so very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million men, and one thousand five hundred million natives.
—Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth
How do you decide what is or isn’t a human?
How do you decide what is or isn’t a person?
Humans excel at answering these two questions in ways which surprise, delight, and/or disgust our fellow humans, whatever those are. We identify natural phenomena or abstract concepts with deities. We declare our electronic pets our biological children, pack-bond with domestic robots, and turn velveteen rabbits real (cw: heartbreakingly sad).
This activity, personification, drives and defines role-playing games. But we’re equally capable of excommunicating beings, or categories of beings, from personhood. This complementary activity, dehumanization, also features prominently in both role-playing games and real-world atrocities.
Strictly speaking, fictional characters are neither humans nor people. But were you to approach someone on the street and ask them whether they think Princess Leia is a human or a person, they’d likely say yes to both.
What about Master Yoda? No, not a human, but probably a person.
What about a TIE fighter? Neither human nor person.
What about the droid R2-D2? Huh. Good question.
We shift automatically into this mode when we suspend our disbelief and engage with fiction, to the point where we feel intense joy or sorrow when, for example, television shows end in satisfying or unsatisfying ways. Role-playing games, especially analog ones, begin and end with this process. We invest our humanity as intensely as any method actor into spoken words, messy scribbles on paper, and costumes. If you’re a game master, you might realize dozens or hundreds of characters. We constantly define and redefine personhood, mediated by the game’s system and the specifics of what goes on at the table. When we play video games, we don’t usually embody the character we’re playing in the same sense, although it can come close—I’m thinking of the helicopter crash scene from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, or the moment you decide to harvest or rescue a Little Sister in BioShock, or the way we characterize Commander Shepard through her dialogue choices in Mass Effect.
So that’s how and why we personify, in role-playing games. But what about the other thing? When, how, and why do we dehumanize? When we dehumanize someone or something, we sort it into a different box from ourselves and our fellow persons. We do so when
they’re different from us, usually in a way that rates them worse than us in some estimation, and
(sometimes, but far more often than we like to admit) dehumanizing them would be convenient, somehow.
Often, on some level, we’ve previously personified the thing we subsequently dehumanize. We don’t usually bother to dehumanize, say, the guard rail beside the highway, because we never personified it in the first place (until now, when you are suddenly thinking about what to name that guard rail, so you’re welcome). In D&D, the activity of role-playing, of merely describing orcs as intelligent beings with four limbs and speech, starts to humanize and personify them. Lest we begin to afford the same respect and compassion as ourselves, we must dehumanize them, and aggressively—in a way that blows back even on half-orcs.
Speaking of which.
We Need to Talk About Half-Orcs
By and large, what they were saying was this: “You are making us into monstrosities; your humanism claims we are at one with the rest of humanity but your racist methods set us apart.”
—Jean-Paul Sartre, again
This is the part of the article which talks about sexual assault. Please proceed with care.
As an orc fan and a multiracial man, I should like half-orcs. I don’t, though, primarily because when I explain them to children, this conversation happens.
What’s a half-orc?
It’s someone with both human and orcish ancestry.
Can I play an orc?
Because orcs are usually evil monsters.
So that means …
OKAY LET’S MOVE ON TO CLASSES
If we start from the axioms “humans can be good or evil” and “orcs are almost always evil monsters,” no explanation really gets us out ahead of the implication that orcs sexually assault humans to create half-orcs. D&D 5e and several other role-playing games make valiant but doomed attempts to explain that half-orcs occur instead when humans decide to become evil and marry orcs, which is a slightly less horrifying but still ugly way to describe the origin of your game’s mixed-race characters. Page 25 of the Core Rulebook for an older game built on D&D 3.5’s framework, Pathfinder, doesn’t even bother to obscure that idea:
Half-orcs are monstrosities, their tragic births the result of perversion and violence—or at least, that’s how other races see them. It’s true that half-orcs are rarely the result of loving unions, and as such are usually forced to grow up hard and fast, constantly fighting for protection or to make names for themselves.
In contrast, because both humans and elves are playable, their unions are implied to be consensual. Besides, they adhere to dominant beauty standards, unlike the gray-skinned, slope-skulled orcs with their protruding teeth. So their children are still uncomfortably exotic, just not tragic.
It’d be bad enough even without orcs’ racial coding; but the half-orc narrative evokes Chinggis Khagan’s mythical promiscuity and the Yellow Peril stereotype of Asians stealing away superior white women—remember those from Part I? White America visits similar stereotypes upon American Indians, Black Americans, and Latinos. When a race coded with racial stereotypes acts out defamatory stereotypes associated with those races, real people suffer.
So how is this dehumanizing structure okay to print in books?
If you find a way to scrub an explicit signifier from a racist expression, but keep the expression intact, you preserve the racist dynamic without the explicit identification. It keeps the content the same, but transforms an aggression into a microaggression—which, in polite society, is actually worse than an aggression, because it flies under the radar. Intentional racists get to spam it unchallenged. Unintentional carriers pick it up and repeat it, normalizing and propagating it.
Do you see what’s going on here, over decades and generations? First, colonizers come up with this theory of humans and not-quite-humans in order to justify narratives and policies of violence and dread towards natives. Then JRR Tolkien reifies these narratives in Lord of the Rings, granting via Middle-earth a sheen of fantasy and respectability by swapping out “Oriental” or “Mongol” for “orc” or “goblin.” These tropes cascade to a new generation of fantasists whose joy is to embody their setting; and while they may not consciously understand or acknowledge from which deep-set biases their embodiment springs, nevertheless they practice—in one of the realest senses available to polite society—to dehumanize intelligent beings. Imaginary beings. In fiction. That’s harmless, right?
Could anyone really learn behaviors from games which they express in real-life racism?
Well, yes; and if you spend any time on the Internet, you might already have an idea who. From the people who brought you the NPC meme …
Edit: Orcs as an Alt-Right Dog Whistle
When I first posted this article a few days ago, I got several messages on Twitter expressing incredulity that anyone would draw any connection between a fictional monster and a real-world ethnicity. Who in their right mind would do such a thing?
That incredulous reaction is, in fact, what makes orcs such a dangerous signifier in the wrong hands. Most people transmitting racist baggage by way of orcs have no idea they do so; I certainly didn’t before the past couple years. But do y’all know what a dog whistle is?
A dog whistle is an expression which means one thing to the general populace, but has a second (and often politicized) meaning to a select group. Sometimes this secondary meaning is unintentional, or perhaps originates from unconscious bias: for example, if you tell a person of color they “speak so well,” are you subconsciously expressing your surprise that they aren’t an illiterate troglodyte? That phrase is a kind of dog whistle, because those of us who have heard it used as a backhanded compliment feel differently when someone says that to us than when someone who’s never heard it before in their life might feel. Many of you are experiencing this split reaction right now, to hearing about orcs: I’ve never thought about it this way, so why should it matter that this guy on the Internet says orcs have to do with racism? That’s how microaggressive racism works, though: only the harmed notice it, but when we try to tell others about it they tell us we must be crazy, so it keeps happening.
There’s another kind of dog whistle, though, which is a substitute term members of an in-group intentionally use to communicate an offensive idea to one another, or to their enemies, without polite society noticing, like “globalist elites” for Jews. Sometimes they make attempts at subtlety. Other times they don’t try nearly as hard … such as in 2017, when the alt-right began to spread the #orcposting meme. Orcposts are screenshots from the Lord of the Rings films with modern headlines overlaid on them and “orcs” replacing “refugees,” “immigrants,” “Muslims,” and similar groups the alt-right accuses of attacking and destroying Western civilization. So hey, even if you don’t make that connection? These guys, whom I dread running into at Renaissance faires and gaming conventions, do. They’re using “orc” as a cipher for people who look like me and people I care about. Now they can freely imply brown people are savage hordes who deserve to die. If someone calls them on it, they get to say, “How dare you make the connection between orcs and people of color when I was merely talking about fictional monsters! You are the real racist!”
So when people start angrily defending Tolkien to me? Now I don’t know whether they disagree with my analysis, or they disagree with my analysis and they also think I’m not human.
So I need to apologize to many of y’all out there who want to debate the points in this article with me. Imma respond to some of you. I really want to talk about this subject with you, although I generally prefer to do so in person with coffee at a convention or something. But I’m not gunshy because I think you disagree with me. I’m gunshy because I’m afraid you’re not safe to talk to about race—which isn’t fair to some of you, but I can’t always take that risk.
It’s not your fault. You didn’t tell them to do this. But they’re out there, and so now we can’t have nice things.
Also, I gotta tell you about something that happened at Balticon.
It’s question-and-answer time at “Racism in Fantasy Gaming,” a panel I moderated with Misha Bushyager and Mildred Cady as panelists at Balticon 2019. At the very beginning of the panel we stated that, among other things, we would not take questions until the dedicated Q&A phase at the panel’s end; and that we would not be discussing reverse racism, which was not real. The audience, which is entirely white as far as I can tell, has not been great at following these rules. But then an older white woman in the audience raises her hand, and we call on her, and she explains that when she’s at work, Black men disrespect her even though she’s in uniform as a security guard. And the thing she really wants to express, she tells us, is that those Black men “aren’t human.”
Misha drops the hammer. “We don’t do that here,” she says, following exactly the procedure she described earlier in the panel for shutting down oppressive behavior. The woman in the audience keeps trying to interrupt and restate her point as Misha explains that denying Black people’s humanity and personhood—yes, even if they’re mean or cruel to you because of prejudice—is racist. Once she stops with the inhuman thing, Misha asks the woman what her question even is about this topic. She says she didn’t have one. She just wanted to say her thing. About Black men’s inhumanity. At a panel entitled “Racism in Fantasy Gaming,” to a Black panelist, when she was explicitly instructed not to do so.
Never mind Orcs being people or not. Are Blacks people? This woman is out here claiming some of them aren’t.
That isn’t the really heartbreaking thing, though. The really heartbreaking thing is the hour-long conversation we have with two white ninth-grade girls who attend a majority PoC school and want to talk to us about the “racism” they experience because they’re white. We explain to them that yes, they may well experience racial prejudice as a rare white minority, but that they need to understand that prejudice in the context of larger societal structures which enshrine systems of oppression which elevate them. We explain the difference between racial prejudice and systemic racism. But like the security guard, like most people who have had personal experiences which generate racist attitudes, they have a hard time.
Later, I try to tell this story to a friend in the elevator. A stranger interrupts me as she gets out: “Well, reverse racism is real. It happened to a friend of mine.” Fortunately, as the elevator doors close, I hear someone telling her, “That’s not racism, that’s prejudice ….”
“It’s Not What It Looks Like”
There’s this idea we’ve been discussing, that different races of people have different inherent qualities. Some races are stronger or more athletic. Some are smarter or more beautiful. Some are inherently more inclined toward good; others, toward evil. Races’ natural attributes make certain lifestyle and career choices superior for them, and others are worse. It also means some of them are inherently better, in a general estimation, than others.
When I point out to other nerds that the word for the foregoing idea is “racism,” I tend to get some pushback, even after I trace those ideas’ ancestry to Tolkien’s explicitly racist agenda. Oftentimes, when I’ve brought up my misgivings about orcs in a piece of media to other nerds, I’ve noticed some patterns in the responses and pushback I get. If you bring up this subject, you probably will too. Just like in my favorite Jay Smooth video, you’re tryna say “hey, this thing right here sounds racist,” and in response you get a rundown of the reasons why it isn’t actually racist, in the form of in-universe justifications, descriptions of the author’s intentions or both. But you’re not talking about the reasons why. You’re talking about how it actually sounds.
You may or may not want to engage and argue the point, but in case you do, let’s go over some common objections to the ideas we’ve been discussing since Part I.
“It’s a commentary on racism”
I wish I could believe you. I really do. But speculative fiction frequently tries and almost as frequently fails to satirize or criticize real-world power structures using analogues like aliens, wizards, or fantasy races. I want Cleverman, but I usually get Bright instead. A believable, effective criticism must
represent in its fiction real humans and their struggles as well as their analogues; if not, it erases those humans.
not only portray, but also challenge oppressive power dynamics; if not, it reinforces those dynamics through replication.
open the way for analogous real-world groups to take possession of the narrative; if not, it appropriates their experiences.
Personally, I think it also helps if the work is good.
“They’re the victims”
Sure. Marginalized people often engage in societally condemned behaviors because people in power victimized them, and I’m glad you’ve noticed. But if that’s all you say, are you helping?
I usually hear this line in the format “an evil wizard did it”—the situation in Tolkien—or “God did it”—the situation in a common creepy headcanon about the Book of Genesis. So if all you care about is absolving orcs of responsibility for acting out a negative stereotype … okay, they’re off the hook, but all the negative stereotypes still play the same in practice. But as in the “commentary” situation, if you still kill and other them, if you still portray them in line with racist stereotypes, if you don’t center and empower them, you are not helping. The aforementioned headcanon, after all, justified slavery to many of its proponents.
Never let victimhood eclipse personhood, lest it become yet another mechanism of dehumanization.
“The guy who wrote/designed it also did some progressive things”
Neat! I’m not talking about those right now. I’m talking about these orcs. Good things and bad things someone does don’t add to or subtract from one another. If you volunteer for the NAACP for five months, you don’t get five racism credits you can spend on uses of the n-word and then call it square.
“In this game the orcs are noble savages”
They won’t actually say “noble savages.” That would make your job too easy. But the noble savage myth, like other “positive” stereotypes we’ve discussed over the course of these two articles, only helps out those natives who conform to white society’s romanticized notions of what gives them value: frozen in time, too simple or benighted (rather than materially disenfranchised) to develop technology, rare credits to their technological state … unlike the other savages, who deserve only violence. Blizzard’s Warcraft games have come a long way, but they still apply this stereotype to several playable races. Please don’t normalize this stereotype either.
“You could be the one good orc who’s a credit to their race”
“It’s been like this for five editions already”
I understand the difficulty and controversy involved in changing something die-hard fans have loved for a long time. But these dynamics were racist five editions ago and they’re racist now, whether or not people know it. Well, now they know. I told you, NK Jemisin told you, and if you think these ideas’ racist origins are in the past, unable to affect the present, I need you to watch Ta-Nehisi Coates rebuke Mitch McConnell at the United States House of Representatives hearing on reparations. I need you to read over the anecdotes I’ve posted in this article.
“In this game they’re a stereotype of white people”
… okay, you know what? I don’t hate this one. I think Warhammer 40,000’s Space Orks are one of the only viable large-scale efforts to reframe orcs away from Tolkienian racism. 40K Orks reproduce via weird spores, thus disengaging from uncomfortable sexual narratives. But Games Workshop’s true masterstroke was to code space orks as English football hooligans. Unlike many efforts to rehabilitate orcs by stripping out culture or inventing it wholecloth, GW leans into a completely divergent cultural association, solving orcs’ cultural problem actively rather than passively.
Space Orks still have lots of problems. They’re all coded male, they still run on stereotypes (especially class stereotypes, which can blow back onto some of the same ethnicities as garden-variety orcs), and British football hooligans overlap heavily with far-right nationalists. Also they’re really expensive to collect. Still, I think we can all learn some fascinating lessons about proactively changing fraught narratives from this weird little choice GW probably made because it was funny.
“We need imaginary non-people we can fight and kill for fun”
Our soldiers overseas, rejecting the universalism of the mother country, apply the “numerus clausus” to the human race: since none may enslave, rob, or kill his fellow man without committing a crime, they lay down the principle that the native is not one of our fellow men.
—I feel guilty repeatedly quoting Sartre instead of Fanon but I’m not that far into the book yet
There it is: the most dangerous game. Points for honesty.
I sympathize, although I prefer to fight people I like and respect. Trouble is, as we’ve discussed, othering legions of human-like creatures so you get to kill them and take their stuff has a bad history on this planet. That’s colonialism, and some of us can’t shake that association no matter how—no, especially because of how thoroughly you other these orcs. Because that’s what’s really going on, isn’t it? The orcs aren’t just Like That in the setting. A creator sets them up, personifies them just enough that they look like they’ll put up a fight, and then dehumanizes them, folding racial signifier after racial signifier into them in the process; and if you think you’ve made them raceless? If you think they have no cultural signifiers? You played yourself.
Dehumanization is never uncomplicated. If you want unproblematized violence, you won’t get it from orcs unless you’ve never been the orc to someone else’s human, elf, dwarf, or hobbit.
The Flinch Reaction
Trouble is, even if I believe you? Even if it really isn’t what it looks like? It still looks like that.
Let’s work with a counterfactual here: let’s say their reasons are valid, and it’s cool to take something which looks exactly like racism and put it in your game because a wizard did it/it’s a satire/there’s this one good half-orc who was president or something. None of those reasons negate the visceral reaction of fear, pain, and panic I’ll suffer as a person of color who experiences racism. It’s like flinching away from a blow even if I’m certain it’s a feint. I don’t decide; my muscle memory and subconscious do.
If you don’t feel that fight-or-flight flinch, either you’re blessed with resilience, or you haven’t experienced those racist stimuli in the context of racism before. In the moment, if I’m with strangers and we’ve never discussed the topic before, I don’t know who means well and who’s a real threat (cw: sexual assault discussion). The flinch reaction doesn’t factor in the reasons for a racist-seeming expression or the knowledge that we’re pretending. It lives in the same realm of unconscious bias where my own racist preconceptions live as well. It’s a thing racism does to us which we cannot undo, any more than we can cease to be racist. So even if I believe the setting’s author didn’t intend orcs to read that way … it doesn’t matter. I play, I flinch.
Under the circumstances, many people of color will simply bow out. “No hard feelings. It just isn’t for me,” we’ll say after the game. Maybe we won’t realize what happened or why until we postgame the incident with other PoC later on. Maybe we never will.
Reclamation and Rehabilitation
You probably know several people of color who love to roll orcs, though. If you didn’t before, you know one now, and it is I. But why would I volunteer to play as an offensive stereotype of myself?
The impulse comes from empathy. I see the way the game describes orcs and, as sure as I flinch, I empathize. “I’m sorry they did you like that,” I say to them, in my heart. “I don’t believe you’re evil or ugly or stupid. They said that about me too. Maybe we can work together to prove them wrong.” That last sentence, that action, comes from experience. I know how it might play out if someone who doesn’t care plays that orc (or, for that matter, a person of color). So I make myself vulnerable to this racist signifier and take it upon myself, because now I control the narrative around that signifier. I reclaim it.
Beyond reclamation, though, I believe gamers and game designers of all races can characterize orcs—either as individual characters, or as a species—who fight, rather than propagate, racism in fantasy fiction. Some of these steps apply to game design specifically; others, to fiction as well. You may recognize some of these principles from my previous articles about race and history. The guiding rule is: Since we cannot reliably extricate orcs from racial associations, we must characterize them with the same compassion, respect, and attention to stereotype we extend to people of color.
In other words, we must personify and humanize orcs.
Center Their Stories
Allow orcs to star in the narrative, as main characters or player characters. Give them the complexity and likability due to main characters. Give them rich relationships, messy and loving families, diverse cultures, and cute pets. Give them religions or schools of thought which knit their society together and help them strive to be better people. Give individual orcish heroes distinct narratives from one another that sometimes are and sometimes aren’t about their orcish nature. Give orcish antagonists inner lives and compelling causes. When they die, give their deaths meaning and pathos apart from their relevance to non-orcish main characters.
Diversify Orcish Culture
This is that planet of hats we talked about in “Less of a Question, More of a Comment.” There should be different kinds of orcs with different cuisine, different clothing, different weapons, and different languages. Maybe they even look different or have different skin colors. You’ve read “May I play as a character of another race?”, right? What about “Best Practices for Historical Gaming”? Check those out. Bring that knowledge here. I’m not saying it’s gotta be rainbow orcs all the way down (although I do sincerely hope someone writes a minigame called Rainbow Orcs All the Way Down), but you can handle two or three distinct orcish cultures, right? Of course you can.
Orcish Culture Hard Mode: Lean Into Real-World Cultural Signifiers
Okay, Tolkien. You want Orcs to look like Asians? Let’s do this. Associate orcs explicitly with real-world human cultures. Represent those cultures positively, accurately, and respectfully. You want some Mongol-types? Give them nomadic settlements, sturdy tents, herds of livestock, gigantic floofy dogs, and throat-singing virtuosi. When you have your nonviolent signifiers down, then give them some martial culture: visionary generals, eagle wrestling, horse archery, and a weird overrepresentation in the traditional wrestling league of the orcs who live on the island to the east.
Eschew Ability Score Modifiers
When you cap orcs’ intelligence or charisma below humans’ or elves’ but give them bonuses to strength and constitution, you feed the narrative that orcs are a martial race. They’re inherently better suited to jobs or classes focused on physical violence, while other races or species outperform them at intellectual or social classes and pursuits. When I run D&D, I drop ability score modifiers from every racial traits listing and give all characters three bonus ability score ranks (either +2 +1, or +1 +1 +1) after point-buy. In Burning Wheel, I remove caps to Perception and Will for orcs and kerrn. Next time you play one of these games, mention these racist dimensions and ask your GM to implement this variation for this reason (and pay real good attention if they say no). Now, every race has a wide diversity of choices with regard to character class, and we don’t have some races who are inherently better soldiers or athletes or musicians than others. The system won’t fight you when you roll up genius orc wizards, unstoppable gnome barbarians, and incomprehensible goblin performance artists.
EDIT: I’ve gotten some excellent questions on social media and elsewhere asking how I feel about weirder racial abilities like breath weapons or poison resistance. I consider many of those traits less fraught because they’re harder to tie to human characteristics which show up in racial stereotypes. Some exceptions exist: for example, a species with a prehensile tail sounds pretty dope, but if you code them as African you’re recreating the monkey stereotype. Remember, we’re not concerned with orcs’ martial prowess in and of itself; we’re concerned because it maps to real-world systems of harm and misinformation. So as you create, remember to step back and check whether you accidentally replicated real-world signifiers and stereotypes.
Present Real People of Color as Well as Their Fantasy Analogues
Are you presenting fantasy races as analogues for real-world racism? Okay, cool, but don’t just have it sit there. Actually say something helpful about racism, like maybe start with “racism is bad” instead of just leaving it to your players to decide they do or don’t like it. Also, make sure your world also has real Black and Asian people in it in addition to fantasy monsters who represent us. No greenwashing, OK? Scarlett Johansson is already getting our parts, don’t make us compete with orcs as well.
Deny Inherent Moral Character
Look, at some point in the future we can argue about demons and evil spirits or whatever, but until we do: never invent groups of sentient beings who are born evil and destined for villainy and its violent, cruel wages. Just like how no one’s born a warrior, no one’s born evil. It’s boring, unrealistic, and encouraging of similar attitudes toward marginalized people.
Tie Characteristics More Closely to History and Environment
If you’re going to generalize about a group, don’t just say “this group has this trait.” That framing takes the trait out of context and makes it feel inborn and absolute rather than a product of history and environment. If this orc is good at fighting, why is she good at fighting? What happened in her upbringing that led her to the martial arts? She learned them from her parents? Okay, what historical and cultural factors influenced them? All the orcs in this family are good fighters? What global forces and outside attackers caused them to value physical fitness and martial heroism? Content needs context.
Decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.
This is the really important one.
There’s this nagging voice in many of our heads right now, mine included, that we don’t know whether or not to heed. It says, “But violent orcs are fun and empowering to play sometimes.” Fine. Don’t say Mendez never gave you anything.
We’ve established that giving orcs inherent, inescapable violent advantages perpetuates histories of harm; but an orcish pacifism would still highlight violent stereotypes through conspicuous negation. We may have orcish martial traditions, as long as we avoid setting those traditions above and beyond other peoples’, thus regressing orcs to the martial race myth. We must give orcs the agency, the choice to opt into or out of violence, in moderation as well as extremes.
When we play as orcs and we opt into violence, then, let us do so to upend imperialist instruments of subjugation. If the colonizing mind’s predatory, dehumanizing tendencies created orcish violence, let us redirect that violence into liberation. They tried to give us orcs who were uncivilized; we will return to them orcs who are decolonized. If orcs originate in settler-colonial fantasies, who better than orcs to comprehend the following:
Orcish violence is the violence necessary for decolonization.
Orcish anger is the righteous indignation of the downtrodden and unheard.
Orcish hatred is the hatred of systemic oppression.
As orcs, let us understand violence: how to fight, why to fight, when not to fight, how to attack, how to defend, how to hold the line, and how to sneak and sabotage. We know the toll battle takes on mental and physical health, and how to support the wounded and traumatized. We study war’s technological and logistical dimensions. We teach the physical and intellectual skills they know to others—to anyone who would take up arms against the oppressor. We fathom the moral weight of what we do. We may strike our enemies down, but we will never dehumanize them as the imperialist dehumanized us.
We’re done with orcs as inhuman natives. We’re done with orcs as chattel-gladiators and animated punching bags whom we drive ahead of us so we can kill them. Every orc is a person the way every human is a person. Orcs can get it wrong and go too far and fall to evil just like humans can and do. But the orc as a symbol of decontextualized violence is over. The horde is the community. The axe is the tool that breaks chains.
Orcs punch Nazis.
Thank you for joining me on a long and emotionally arduous journey across several continents and hundreds of years to explore the racial ramifications of imaginary green humanoids. Mad respect to my crew on Patreon for supporting this post; if you liked what you read, get at me over there and make sure there’s more to come.
If you roll up an orc based on these articles, or write a game which draws on my recommendations, tell me about them! Comment here or post on social media and tag me. I want to know whether it worked—and if it didn’t, how I can refine my approach.
Maybe there’s an Orcish game jam in my future? I got an idea for a game about orcish dating profiles. I’ll call it OrKCupid or something. We’ll see.