Orcs are a staple bad guy of fantasy role-playing games. Conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien as an existential threat to humanity in The Lord of the Rings, the Greenskins have become embroiled in the culture war.
Much like orcs, social justice-in-games activists, with little actual interest in fantasy RPGs, are now attempting to colonise the space with claims that the depiction of orcs as inhuman monsters is racist against people of colour. It’s projection at its finest.
The complaint against the supposedly “problematic” depiction of orcs first originated on Twitter as an activist named Quinn Welsh-Wilson complained about their description in the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
Welsh-Wilson argued it was “blatant racism” to refer to orcs as having been “indoctrinated into a life of destruction and slaughter.” Race realism, apparently, has no place in the realm of fantasy.
The complaint made waves on Twitter, prompting “orcs” to trend on the social media platform. Comicbook.com and other publications followed with write-ups of their own in support of the complaint.
“While you're meant to step into a fictional character's role in Dungeons & Dragons, it still gives agency to the player by assuming that a character is both unique and is capable of making its own choices,” writes Comicbook.com’s Christian Hoffer. “And thus, it's problematic to assume that a creature with both self-awareness and intelligence will act a certain way simply because they come from a certain culture or look a certain way.”
Unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, Hoffer is calling on RPG makers to think twice about their depiction of non-human races and to do away with such forms of stereotyping, arguing that the dehumanisation (heh!) of orcs translated into a form of “othering” non-white people in the real world.
One might pause to ask why anyone would conflate fictional creatures like orcs and people of colour together. Why are they being compared? Who, indeed, are the real racists?
The complaint is just the latest example of Twitter culture warriors attempting to interject themselves into video game and nerd culture by trying to make it “woke” instead of allowing fantasy to play out as, well, fantasy.
As a group story-telling game, Dungeons & Dragons allows players to make their sessions as politically correct or as politically incorrect as they choose. The beauty of the malleable fantasy setting is that players can shape their worlds as they wish.
Unfortunately, these are not one-off complaints. The marginalisation of D&D and gaming enthusiasts from their own scene is an on-going effort. In 2019, the BBC ran a campaign against “bearded nerds” for gatekeeping tabletop gaming, arguing that Dungeons & Dragons has issues with diversity and inclusion.
How exactly is the game un-inclusive when you can literally roleplay as an intersex queer orc who loves rainbows and goes against its own nature, if you really want to do so? In the realm of fantasy, you can be absolutely anything you want to be.
If anyone is being ostracised from the space at all, it is the outcasts and nerds who play Dungeons & Dragons.