Wizards of the Coast, publisher of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), has released a statement promising to change their depiction of “evil races” in the game, as part of a broader reevaluation of negative racial stereotypes in fiction.
“Throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game — orcs and drow (dark elves) being two of the prime examples — have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated,” Wizards said in a statement. “That’s just not right, and it’s not something we believe in.”
The subsequent changes to D&D will affect the role-playing game, as well as the wide range of novels inspired by the game. But dodgy racial stereotypes bleeding their way into non-human fantasy races certainly isn’t something unique to D&D – it’s hugely prevalent in the fantasy genre, from The Lord of The Rings to Harry Potter.
Video games such as World of Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls incorporate the different attributes of fantasy races into gameplay, the player’s chosen race often determining their gameplay experience. In the world of fantasy, weird racist pseudoscience is very much a reality, skull shapes and all.
You might be wondering why this is a problem, considering the fact that these are non-human races – did cancel culture finally come for the orcs?
Well, this isn’t a new conversation – it’s been brewing in the fantasy community for a very long time – unsettling racial tropes are so entrenched in fantasy fiction that most of us casually accept them, without considering the implications.
Orcs are almost always depicted as hulking barbarians, inherently stupid and violent creatures. Elves, on the other hand, are likely to be beautiful, shapely, cultured, physically and mentally superior.
While not intended to be hateful (and sometimes subverted into interesting narratives, like Warcraft’s sympathetic orcs), these fantasy tropes often echo the racist pseudoscience once used to justify colonialism. Whether or not this negatively influences fantasy fans, subconsciously or otherwise, is debatable.
But it certainly makes for some boring, repetitive stories. One faction being on the wrong side of history isn’t a bad story, but reducing two groups into “good” and “evil” doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance. By depicting certain races as inherently evil, we’re missing out on stories that reflect the horrors and complexities of war.
The space between orcs and elves is occupied by a varied spectrum of fantasy creatures, most intelligent enough to be defined as “people,” but not quite “human,” meaning that their actions are often defined by their race, rather than their individual choices. Humans, on the other hand, are free to be whatever they wish.
And in the vast majority of fantasy settings, “human” tends to be shorthand for “European,” regardless of skin color; it’s obvious from the aesthetic.
Think of how the Harry Potter films portrayed goblins – diminutive, hook-nosed creatures obsessed with gold – they wouldn’t look out of place on a Nazi propaganda poster. Tolkien’s dwarves hold similar characteristics, although not as nearly as negative. Tolkien, in fact, was the man who first conceived this categorization of fantasy races, even inventing the orc (although, he was most certainly not a racist himself).
Before Tolkien imbued fantasy creatures with specific attributes, fairies, goblins and gnomes were viewed as fluid entities, often shapeshifters, with unknowable intentions. Modern fantasy has drawn lines around these creatures, and severely limited their potential in the process.
D&D’s elimination of evil races isn’t a storytelling limitation, but a shift in perspective that can only lead to more interesting, complex narratives.