Fantasy Racism: Gaming's Broadest Stereotypes

If orcs existed, you'd be wildly offended

It's one of the longest accepted and least discussed topics in almost every entertainment medium: if a race doesn't actually exist, it's perfectly all right to stereotype them. Fantasy is one of the worst offenders: big, dumb, savage orcs, lithe, effeminate elves, sneaky, thieving halflings. The types and tropes are well established, and only recently have writers (like R.A. Salvatore in his Hunter's Blade trilogy) and games (like Dragon Age and Skyrim) begun to expose this issue. But what are the most glaring examples of this kind of prejudice, and how did they come into fashion? Join us as we investigate some of the worst examples of fantasy bigotry, and debunk some of gaming's worst stereotypes.

Elves are Total Magic Junkies

You've seen them in the taverns and guild halls of your favorite RPGs. The sunken, glowing eyes, the pointed ears that wriggle at even the most basic cantrip, the lilting voices moaning "just one more arcane crystal shard, bro, just to get me through the night." Elves have a long established reputation in games for being mystical creatures who can't keep their slim, dexterous hands off anything with a magical aura. As races most likely to have a bonus to intelligence go, elves are king of the heap, and even non-mage elves are often portrayed practically bathing in runes and eldritch light.

The myth that all elves crave magic the way Snooki craves relevance stems from their origins, which are often clouded by mystery. Elves tend to descend from isles cloaked in mist or from other planes of existence, which lends them a mystical otherness that many automatically associate with magic. But don't be so hasty in judgement, friends. The elf before you is as like to swing a mighty great axe or rebuke the undead as blast his foes with a wand, and in any case, deserves your respect.

Orcs Can't Dance

Long reviled as brutes and savages, dropped into games simply to provide meaty targets to hew with our swords, orcs have a deeply troubled history marred by bigotry and intolerance. Even now, when orcs are starting to find some mainstream acceptance, the old preconceptions are strong, among them that our green-skinned friends suffer from "two left feet syndrome".

The insensitive observer, conditioned to expect orcs to be be brutal and aggressive, might be startled to find them crowded like wall flowers in the corners of our modern digital dance halls. Orc dancing, once a noble art of worship or an expression of tribal unity, has become the object of ridicule because of clumsy animations and hurtful /dance memes. But don't be surprised if, after a couple tankards of ale, that orc you thought was a stumbling goon is suddenly cutting the carpet right out from under you, and not with his great sword!

Dwarves Crave "the Rock"

While the stones dwarves purportedly crave may not be rock cocaine, the stereotype is nevertheless just as insidious. Think back: when was the last time you played an RPG or MMO in which the dwarves didn't originate from some craggy mountain, stone quarry, or deep mining network in some dark pit of the earth? While we may think of this perceived predilection for hewing rock as admirable, tell that to the dwarf that dreams of a simple life of botany, or the ballet.

While the dwarven race has certainly produced its share of master masons and accomplished smiths, to think that an entire race would be satisfied hiding from the sun in dark caves is laughably simple-minded. Many of our dwarven friends much prefer the grassy plains and a nightly blanket of stars to these musty cupboards of the earth, and you'd do well to remember that lest you invoke that other notorious stereotype, the hot dwarven temper.

Published Aug. 15th 2013
  • Kazz in space
    Featured Contributor
    Intersting point. A lot of this comes from fantasy stories rather than gaming persay though. Orcs/Trolls are dumb brutes, Dwarves love stone, Humans are mortal and born to lead, Elves live forever and posses magic. I quite like the Orcs in The Elder Scrolls as they are not quite as "stupid" as elsewhere and have proper stories not just "me smashysmash!". Also they have different styles of elf kind - High Elves (tall and snooty) Dark Elves (mysterious and secretive) Bosmer (Short and a bit like the annoying kid at school).
  • Alan Bradley
    Columnist
    Yeah, I like how the Elder Scrolls games deal with the Dunmer particularly, with their complicated history of oppression and subjugation, and how that corresponds to contemporary perceptions of them. Dragon Age also did an excellent job of making fantasy races feel like real races, with all the attached history and baggage of difference

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