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Fair Game: When Evil = DNA

Column By Lisa Jonte on August 23, 2013

We’ve all encountered them, that race of Evil Creatures of Evil™. They’re born evil! No, really, they emerge from the womb (or laboratory) thinking evil thoughts of evil in their evil swaddling clothes. Sometimes they’re dressed up in fantasy garb, and sometimes they’re decked out in tech, but it’s always the same, it’s evil via DNA.

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Why is this a thing?

From the Marvel Universe (Skrulls) to the many chapters of Star Wars (Tusken Raiders) entire races with a genetic bent for evil abound. The reason why isn’t all that hard to understand: they make the writer’s job so much easier. Unfortunately, it’s also really, really bad writing.

When one is writing a book, a series, or, for our purposes, an MMO, it’s pretty darned difficult to come up with justifiable reasons why our Hero can cut a bloody swath of destruction across the landscape and still remain a Hero. But not only does our protagonist manage to remain a Hero, but a Hero who gains strength and wisdom (in the form of XP) and wealth (from looting the bodies) as a reward for all that killing. So, how does one spend one’s days spilling intestines and still wear a white hat? I mean, they can’t all be murderous bandits, can they? Easy, those spilled entrails were the entrails of evil. Excuse me, EEEEEEVIL!

One of the most widely known modern purveyors of this trope was J.R.R. Tolkien. Orcs, most trolls, Uruk-hai, all evil all the time. (Please note, that I said most trolls. I’m only talking about sentient races here, and there’s an argument to be made that at least some of Tolkien’s trolls were little more than really cranky animals.) But even Tolkien struggled with the idea of racial evil.

Tolkien, however, was neither the first, nor the last (obviously) to designate entire races as evil. Mythology and religion, fairy tales and politics, all are rife with examples, if one cares to look.

Why it’s a problem:

Simply put, it makes both racism and bad behavior more easily justifiable. Now, before some of you get your knickers in a knot with the whole, “I can tell fantasy from reality!” argument, remember, we are influenced by what we take in, even if we aren’t aware of it. If the prevailing culture tells us a thing, and tells us often enough, we internalize that thing, often holding on to it as a given until we are forced to examine it consciously. Don’t believe me? Take a trip through 20th century history sometime and see for yourself.

So, when we play through game after game (or read book after book, watch movie after movie) that tells us that an external trait can also be a genetic trait, unconsciously, we begin to accept that idea. Hence, we begin to believe all kinds of things that have no basis in fact, e.g. that races/societies like the Drow could exist, (despite all basic common sense*) or that all men are sex-crazed, (despite mountains of evidence to the contrary) or that pink is for girls and blue for boys, (despite the fact that that’s just stupid.)

Bringing it back around to Tolkien** again, he didn’t just create entire races of evil beings, but also assigned a series of characteristics to his evil races, that have been used as justification for real-world racism. (Whether those characteristics were a sign of intentional racism, or were simply an unfortunate byproduct of the culture at the time, is a discussion for more learned scholars than I.

So, yeah, what we see, read and hear (even fiction) creates the culture in which we live. The culture we live in shapes our attitudes.

What to do about it:

First, relax. Acknowledge that we are flawed creatures, but that we are learning. Then, learn something! Be more discerning and more critical of what you consume and what you create. As I said, one of the reasons the trope of racial evil is still so common is because it’s easy. Don’t take the easy (or rather, lazy) path when you write, read or game.

Are the elves in your world a remote and dying race? Why? If the only reason you can think of is, “Because that’s how elves always are,” then start over. If the only reason your favorite game gives you for hosing down hundreds and hundreds of Vetruvian Mind-melders is, “Because, EEEEVIL!” demand more.

Is your game world filled with Evil Races of Evil? Then insist that the creators of the game give a believable reason for those races to be evil. Are the Trogdors of Burnination under the influence of a corrupting force? Were they always so? Can they be redeemed? How do they reproduce,  through the capturing and corrupting of non-evil individuals? (Which would indicate that there are non-evil groups out there) or do they just make little Trogdors the old fashioned way? If so, when do they take time from their evildoing to raise those evil offspring? Also, insist that there be exceptions to the All-Of-X-Are-Evil rule, because even a fantasy must be internally logical, and the idea of orcs tenderly raising infants isn’t that.

In the end, the idea of an Evil Race of Evil has had its day. It’s a dinosaur, a lazy cliché. And while I’m not saying that we can’t enjoy our entertainment if it contains the occasional lazy cliché, I am saying that there’s no reason why we have to accept lazy clichés in place of actual world-building. Demand better, it’s the only way to get it.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

And now, a few responses to last column’s comment thread:

Elikal said:  “No, for me Sims 3 was a catastrophe and I swear I won't buy Sims 4 until I am very very sure EA learns from the Sims 3 debacle.”

Same here. I’m still playing Sims 2, myself, and I’ll keep playing it until I hear the reviews of Sims 4. No way will I early adopt an EA title ever again.

Ozmodan said:  “Don't even know anyone that even bothers with this game, why MMORPG should even talk about it is beyond me.  Just a piece of trash that EA puts out to shill customers.....”

Are you kidding me? Please. MMORPG doesn’t write this column, I do. And if I really were a shill for EA, I’d be a lot less critical and I’d make a lot more money.

 Vocadi said:  “The way that EA nickle and dimes the sims player base is pretty atrocious.”

Agreed. That’s another reason I hucked Sims 3 after trying the base game.

 Until next time, may your escort missions be few and your drops plentiful.

*Seriously, don’t get me started on how unutterably stupid the concept of the Drow social structure is. Not because it’s matriarchal, (please) but because it’s all based on betrayal and murder within a race of creatures with long lives and low birth rates. The way most Drow scenarios are written, they’d all be dead or surface refugees inside a year.

**Many apologies to the Professor, but he’s just so convenient as an example here.


For more of Lisa's thoughts and insight try:

Lisa Jonte / Mother, writer, artist, editor. One time (print and web) comics creator, and former editor of the fem-centric GirlAMatic.com; now a secretive and hermit-like prose writer, (and not so secretive nor hermit-like blogger.) A gamer since way back, (no, seriously, waaaay back) her collection of gaming paraphernalia is older than most game store clerks.

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