Dennis Jansen is pursuing a Research Master’s degree in Media Studies at Utrecht University. His research focuses on power dynamics in online fan-made archives of the Elder Scrolls franchise. He has also collaboratively published papers on the epiphany in digital games, and on alternative narrative structures for interactive digital storytelling.
Video games have politics. With many developers insisting that their games are not political in any way, and with recent games desperately trying to say as little as possible about their subject matter, many critics find that there is once again a need to stress this point. The ability to be political stretches across genres and settings, though some genres and settings lend themselves to being seen as more overtly political than others. For instance, criticising racialised depictions in games set in the ‘real world’, like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, is often quite straightforward, especially given the shallowness and harsh stereotyping these depictions usually entail (Dyer-Witheford & De Peuter, 2009, p. 164-70; Gray, 2014, p. 24-26). This is hardly surprising in an industry in which creators are expected to use established media types for their characters, such as “gangsters, rappers, martial artists, and the like”, without reflecting on the fact that these types are often racially coded, even if the game in question seeks to avoid “real races and cultural moments” (Isbister, 2006, p. 60-61).
In a 2013 Gamasutra blog, Sidney Fussell points to the well-known lack of racially diverse characters in Western-made video games, with marginalised groups being heavily underrepresented as in-game characters (cf. Leonard, 2006). He argues that “an actual conversation on race in games isn’t simply about adding X number of Y-colored people. It is about acknowledging that social acceptability is linked with people’s racial identity, with whiteness being the ideal” (Fussell, 2013). Interestingly, Fussell posits fantasy RPGs as the games that “most closely reflect this reality” through their fictionalised representations of what Melissa J. Monson calls “race-based societies” (2012, p. 49). This contrasts starkly with the notion that playing “races of beings from fantasy literature [helps] avoid localization issues” because they supposedly would be “equally alien to all” (Isbister, 2006, p. 61), denying any sort of connection to real-life races altogether. So, which one is it? How do fantasy video games deal with race and racism through their supposedly ‘alien’ representations, and what can we learn from them about the way race and racism operate in real life?
This essay explores these questions by analysing several aspects of one of the most popular and acclaimed fantasy RPG series: Bethesda Game Studios’ The Elder Scrolls. These games draw noticeable parallels between the races and racism depicted in-game and similar phenomena in ‘real life’. They mostly do so indirectly and unintentionally, but I argue that it is precisely this indirectness that makes fantasy games important objects of study in this context. They provide an excellent demonstration of how certain deep-seated prejudices and stereotypes about racial minorities and marginalised groups in the West can express themselves in ostensibly innocent ways, thereby allowing their players to avoid confronting the actual racism behind those prejudices.
The Races of Tamriel: A Study in Biological Essentialism
It is predictably difficult to find games that engage with real-life race and racism directly (meaning: intentionally, explicitly and critically) in the fantasy genre, and the Elder Scrolls series is no exception. Plainly put, fantasy games can avoid such overt engagement because of their setting, and instead provide us with indirect reflections of real-life worldviews. It is therefore worth looking at the playable races that inhabit the continent of Tamriel, as they are the most obvious representation of how ‘race’ works in the world of The Elder Scrolls. First of all, I must note that race in Tamriel, as it is in other Tolkien-inspired fantasy realms like World of Warcraft’s Azeroth, “is not understood as socially constructed, but rather to be a biological fact” (Douglas, 2012, p. 280). In these fantasy settings, the modern distinction between race and culture—intended to prove ‘race’ to be a scientifically invalid and obsolete concept—is often collapsed and nullified, meaning that each racial group also comes with a set of near-immutable cultural qualities that flow naturally from their “racial heritages” (p. 286).
The Imperials in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda Game Studios, 2006), for instance, are a mix of Ancient Roman and North American White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) cultures. The in-game description pictures them as: “Natives of the civilized, cosmopolitan province of Cyrodiil, they have proved to be shrewd diplomats and traders. They are skilled with heavy armor and in the social skills and tend to favor the warrior classes.” These cultural traits are then literally hard-coded into the Imperial player character, who receives a +10 bonus to attributes and skills like Personality, Mercantile and Blade, in addition to an exclusive skill that allows them to ‘charm’ an enemy into submission once per day. Given their inherent combination of ‘hard power’ (military prowess) and ‘soft power’ (cultural dominance), it is only natural that the overwhelmingly white Imperials should be precisely that which their name suggests: imperialists. On a more subtle level, Imperials are the only race in the game that does not have any modifiers that affect the disposition of NPCs towards the player character, which serves to further establish their racial group as hegemonic, superior, default.
Unlike most Tolkienesque fantasy universes, The Elder Scrolls features multiple human races: Nords, Bretons, and Redguards. However, this apparent diversity does not even come close to encompassing the full spectrum of human culture: Nords are portrayed as brutish Vikings; Bretons are most closely associable with medieval France; and Redguards are ostensibly an amalgamation of African tribal warrior stereotypes. Other cultural traditions are relegated to the Elves (cf. Poor, 2012) and the ‘beast races’: for example, the Ashlander tribes of the Dark Elves live on the plains of Vvardenfell in tents clearly inspired by those of North American Indigenous peoples, and the cat-like Khajit are framed as desert-roaming ‘gypsies’. The Redguard playable characters are burdened with a -10 penalty to Intelligence and Willpower (the men take an additional -10 to Personality), making them in effect “too stupid to use magic” (Sargent, 2012). Their in-game description in Oblivion once again demonstrates the collapse of the race/culture distinction in the Elder Scrolls universe: “The most naturally talented warriors in Tamriel. In addition to their cultural affinities for many weapon and armor styles, they also have a hardy constitution and a natural resistance to disease and poison.” That second sentence is also expressed by the in-game statistics as a +10 bonus to Athletics and a racial skill called “Adrenaline Rush.” No wonder, then, that the discussion page on Redguards of the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages prominently features a discussion about racism.
How The Elder Scrolls Games Discuss Racism
This practice of “ethnic mapping” (Monson, 2012, p. 61) can quickly show how racial stereotypes from real life can bleed into fictional worlds, but it also becomes painfully clear how this added level of detachment makes it easy for players to avoid discussing those striking parallels, as long as there is a diegetic explanation for the game’s biological essentialism. The discussion page I mention at the end of the previous paragraph, for example, features one contributor who argues that the Redguards’ penalties to Intelligence and Willpower are “only a statement about the human race’s negligence of magic”, citing the fact that the Nords have similar attributes as justification. Another commenter there claims that “[r]eal life aspects do not apply here, as do in-game aspects not apply in real life”, thus recycling the familiar ‘it’s just a game’ argument. Views like these seem to be a vocal minority (at least on the page in question), but they are problematic nonetheless. As a genre, fantasy games are stuck in a curious split: one side posits them as the prime example of games that present us with a ‘complex understanding of race’, whereas the other claims that both their fantastical and their ludic nature make them entirely impenetrable to real-life politics.
Given my analysis in the previous section, I am not so sure that fantasy games truly embody a complex understanding of race. While the Elder Scrolls lore and some in-game narrative elements (which I discuss in the next paragraph) certainly present race relations in Tamriel as nuanced, historically laden, and highly political, the cultural differences that bring about these histories are still rooted in unchangeable biological traits according to the rule system of the Elder Scrolls games. This implied understanding of race is not complex in any sense of the word, but rather old-fashioned and, frankly, racist. Subsequently also being able to virtually inhabit and play with these racially constructed bodies is equally dubious, and warrants more discussion than I could devote to the topic here (see Leonard, 2003; Nakamura, 2002).
Even when the games actively try to comment on the racism depicted in them, I question how effective they are at exposing and challenging the racial hierarchies they construct. Fussell names the segregation and poor living conditions of Dunmer (Dark Elf) refugees in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) as one example of how games “discuss race in connection with history, oppression, privilege and power” (Fussell, 2013). My own experience with that situation, as someone who always plays these games as a female Dunmer, was not one where I felt that the issue was explored with any depth at all. Upon entering the city of Windhelm, where the segregation and discrimination are most obvious, I was indeed confronted with racist Nords harassing Dunmer and cursing about “gray-skins” who needed to “go back to Morrowind [their homeland, destroyed by a volcanic explosion two centuries ago].” However, not once did I experience any barriers to participating in Skyrim society, and my race did not prevent me from doing business with Nord traders in Whiterun or from buying a mansion in Solitude. My grey skin did not even prevent me from joining the Stormcloak rebellion, despite the fact that this rebellion was led by the jarl of the aforementioned city of Windhelm and was for a significant part driven by xenophobia and anti-Elf racism. (To briefly illustrate that last point: the Stormcloaks’ battle cry, “Skyrim belongs to the Nords”, eerily echoes nativist/racist slogans like “America First” and “Russia for Russians.”) A superficial discussion of Nord racism against the Dunmer people was certainly present, but if the story that is being told has no impact on the player’s range of possible actions, when logically it should, the game is not actually dealing with the subject matter—it is merely stipulating it. This way, Skyrim runs the risk of turning its depiction of racism into little more than narrative window dressing.
The concept of race in fantasy games is so full of contradictions and fictionalisations that it may become difficult to see any connection to real-life issues of race and racism. I will agree that few genres discuss the socio-political implications of racism as extensively as fantasy games do, but they also often fall back on common tropes of biological essentialism that were scientifically disproven decades ago (Douglas, 2012, p. 285). Viewing video games as apolitical, something that fantasy games allow for quite easily, prompts mostly white gamers (and developers!) to comfortably deny that there are any racist elements within their favoured medium. For any kind of direct, undeniable engagement with issues of race, I would sooner look to titles such as Mafia III (Hangar 13, 2016), which is set in a fictionalised version of New Orleans and deals extensively with racism in the United States during the late 1960s. The development of fantasy games which do keep up the race/culture distinction, such as the new edition of tabletop RPG Pathfinder which uses “Ancestry” instead of “Race”, is also imperative to facilitate new discourses around the use of race as a concept for differentiating between character types.
Unfortunately, games like that are few and far between, and the steps required to change video games for the better—more game developers of colour, better awareness of racial stereotyping among white developers and critics, et cetera—will not happen unless criticisms like these persist. Racism and video games still frequently go hand in hand: marginalised groups in the West are under- and misrepresented as playable characters (Williams et al., 2009), and racism in gaming culture is ever-present (Nakamura, 2017). In the face of such adversity, however, it is important for game studies and critical race scholars to continue to point to the obvious and not-so-obvious ways in which video games are perpetuating harmful images through misrepresentation and stereotyping.
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