Creative Commons License

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Games Day: LeCraft - Speciesism and Humanity in Fantasy worlds

(So, this was meant to be a shorter piece on the depiction of humans in LeCraft, but I got distracted thinking about how cultural prejudice and stereotypes have lead to various negative portrayals in fantasy games and stories of the 'other'. Along this line, there is an excellent book, "Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness" by Helen Young that writes on the subject much better than I can.)

Remedios Varo, Spiral Transit (1962)

Humans in fantasy are our link into the story world, as extraordinary and fantastical as it might be, even if we later discover that they aren’t like us, that is, perhaps they aren’t related to Earth-based culture at all. It gives us an immediate reference point and way into understanding how ‘we’ might fit into this fictional world were we there.

It seems that there is a distinction in treatment between humans in a Sci-Fi and humans in a fantasy setting that requires some detailing.

In science fiction, humanity is often more universal, that is, with their expansion into the galaxy older cultural distinctions have been left behind. The usual planet-wide cultural groups are not merely mapped out onto the stars (a Chinese planet, a Muslim planet, a Feminist planet) but are instead merged into a “united nations of humanity” or, at least, the Earth government itself with other human colonies; the Moon, Venus, Mars, and so on having their own cultural identities and new social groups. This is often even more the case in a setting with a prevalence of alien species.

Side note: Now, I’m saying species here (and this will continue for the LeCraft setting) because it seems more descriptively correct, but in most other game worlds humans and non-humans are described as races. In a sense neither is incorrect, but considering our contemporary historical usage and understanding of race, as a nineteenth century pseudo-scientific invention, this term seems ridiculous in its use even in a fantasy setting. Additionally, species more strongly denotes something ‘other’ and perhaps unrelated. Indeed, I am keen in my world to design the other sapient species not merely as ‘humanoids’ but as distinct beings themselves.

Humans in a fantasy setting, however, are distinct from the global Sci-Fi treatment of humanity in a manner that can be seen as troubling or surprising. For most settings (certainly in RPG’s) rather than an experimental depiction of what a human society could be like, the standard fantasy setting is of a romanticised European medieval culture, albeit one that is also especially ‘modern’ (anachronistic) and American in theme. When there are ‘other’ human cultures depicted, they tend to be fantastical variations of historic Earth cultures, i.e. Kara-Tur in the D&D Forgotten Realms setting is an Oriental human group, complete with ninja and so forth. Most other cultures get similar treatment, although it tends to be limited in influence to; Vikings, Aztecs, Native Americans, Egyptians and East Asian societies (mostly Japanese). Although contemporary fantasy games often portray non-white characters in rule-book illustrations and some of these are also women that are now dressed in sensible clothing and not the chainmail bikini of old! The tendency of grouping ‘ethnic’ parts of humanity into other lands is also dramatically decreased in the current literature. Thankfully.

No chain-mail bikinis please!

However, the tropes applied to the non-human ‘races’ seemingly still apply and have changed only a little. With Orcs and Goblins being given slightly more characteristics than simply the mindless evil cannon-fodder, which is mostly down to their availability as playable characters in video games World of Warcraft and things like Elder Scrolls, I would surmise. How these non-human races behaviours are handled can be a mask for other prejudices, for example, how the subject of slavery is dealt with can be especially distasteful and ignorant in the creator/writer’s description of how this fits into their setting. That is to say, that this isn’t something to be considered from our point of view, but is merely descriptive ‘fluff’ or a background ‘flavour’ to their setting. Compare this with unquestioned inclusions of; sexism, racism, religious intolerance, suffering, brutality and torture (I’m looking at you George R.R. Martin) in various fantasy settings as if this is what it was or would be like if we weren’t so civilised. This is the Hobbesian idea, pre-social man, with lives “nasty, brutish, and short” something that we would revert to. This idea of degeneration is eagerly seized upon by post-apocalyptic fiction, incorrectly, I surmise.

Society doesn’t civilise us, if that society has no need for those behaviours. Basically, we are made by the world about us and by our reaction to that environment. Our morality or lack thereof did not self-create in a vacuum. It’s my view that there is no ‘pre-social’ man, much in the same way that there cannot be a true objectivity, but all this is simply to state that the wish-fulfilment of fantasy tropes with the lingering bigotry and hate is not a ‘historically correct’ recreation, rather it is prejudice coated with a “it’s only a game/story” veneer. Stories and games too, can be very effective vehicles for the propagation and continuation of whatever negative bias you, willingly or understandingly or not, endorse. Fantasy ‘monsters’ based on the description of dehumanising stereotypes of non-whites that are linked with colonial prejudice of superiority, also known simply as racism. Fantasy cultures that have a “real basis in history” with their gleeful depictions of rape, torture and brutalising of women and minorities (such as the disabled, LGBT, and so on) that reinforce rather than challenge misogynistic or homophobic behaviours. This is the image of ‘white-washed’ fantasy worlds that is desperately in need of some redevelopment.

Possibly the most egregious example of D&D racism

So, what then of humanity and their depiction in LeCraft?

I have had many thoughts about the origin or arrival of humans on this fantasy world, but ultimately that is not the important factor. It does not affect the story or game whether these humans are meant to be from ‘our’ Earth or elsewhere unless it is to become something significant in narrative terms. The ‘realism’ of humanity being from Lemuria or Aztl├ín or even Shangri-La is also not needed, it merely provides a distraction, one that is ‘immersion’ spoiling, by taking one ‘out of the game’ to consider the validity of ‘actual’ writings of such-and-such a place.

What I do want to make clear is the relatively peaceful co-existence of humanity with other ‘alien’ species on LeCraft not as an analogy for something like multiculturalism in our contemporary world, but that humanity has a possibility for using reason and a strength for building societal bonds as the key attribute in humanity’s ‘worth’ in a communal future. That, further than that, the perceived ‘distinctions’ amongst humanity are of such little worth in this fantasy world that any concept we might have of race would be so unimportant, so ridiculous even to these people that it is entirely non-existent. For humanity to live alongside other species as equals effectively removes the ‘need’ for an aggressive classificatory description of humanity, sure some would seek to show that there is diversity among their own species, at the very least to explain that, “not all humans are like this!” However, the point is that it’s difficult to worry about skin colour and other differences when you live in a world with elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, dog-headed people and other stranger, more terrifying things too.

So, rather than depict racist versions of what we (the game dominate culture of whiteness) once thought of ‘other’ humans, the “non-human races” now to be referred to as the “sapient species” will highlight our own failings of; anger, obsession, pride, and so forth. Failings that we all share.

The problem still remains however of how to depict humans in fantasy worlds when we are the depicters. In a sense, this can only be solved by making ‘these’ humans (in LeCraft) also seem ‘other’ than ‘us’ and in a very real sense they are. This depiction of humanity is one completely at ease with their own diversity, with their place in the world, and with a commitment to rationality. So, this is a ‘social-fantasy’ version of humanity, but it will still (as ever) remain the short-hand for what we/I would want. After all, it is fantasy.