Monday, September 17, 2012

Ultimate Fantasy Escapism: Choose Your Race, Choose Your Class.

You're starting a new game. It may be a table-top RPG, or the latest MMORPG. You create a character.

Your very first choice: Race. You can be a human, elf, dwarf, halfling, orc, lizardman, or cat-person. Some games even offer different kinds of elves (light vs. dark elves), and in still others you can be mixed-race -- say half-elf.

Your choice isn't just cosmetic. Your race will provide you with a starter personality and an ethnic background you can expand upon. Based on your race, your character will be given inborn advantages and disadvanges: differences in intelligence, strength, dexterity, charm, health, and ability to buy and sell at a discount.

Next you choose gender, which usually provides no difference in gameplay, other than how cute the ass is you will be staring at for the next eighty hours.

Then you choose your class. Do you want to be a fighter, or thief? Monk or mage? Archer or knight? Will you rule your foes with magic or might? Your birthright is yours for the choosing.

Of course we know fantasy is escapism. The real question is: What are we escaping from? The doldrums of life, certainly. Who wouldn't want the chance, through hard work and many hours of rolling dice and clicking mice, to eventually become a king? Or a powerful mage? (Alongside thousands of our peers.) It's the perfect blend of aristocracy and meritocracy: A world ruled by invincible hereditary dominance, with all the upward mobility of modern society.

But is there something deeper we're escaping from? It has bothered me somewhat, as David Brin has put it well, that fantasy glorifies a non-existent golden age. A medieval time when benevolent kings and mages (aka religious priests) kept the kingdom in a perpetual state of peace so the happy farmers could live out their simple pastoral lives, never having to worry about rush hour, corporate mergers, and Manager Rob.

That is, until Evil McOverlord comes along to stir up the joyous peasant's otherwise idyllic lives. This is the time when that one special peasant takes the chance every peasant has, to climb the serfdom ladder and, by luck of destiny and/or secret birthright, exercise his right to become a king or mage himself. Through his well-rewarded efforts, the countryside can go back to blissfully herding sheep.

If only...

So what is it that attracts us to that specific time? Why the middle ages? Why not the Enlightenment, when the class system began to change and people began to demand freedom and equality? What is it about the values of one of the lowest points of Western Civilization, sandwiched between the glory of the Roman Empire and the Enlightenment, that attracts millions of fans?

Could it be those worlds are acting as a surrogate for something we all crave? Could the clues to this craving be in the very words we use to describe our first choices in character creation -- "race" and "class"?

Violence is another nasty little element we idolize in our entertainment. When we look at history, we realize why the past wasn't so idyllic. Violence has been a part of regular human experience of nearly every individual on earth until very recently. Men were sent to war not once a generation, but once a year, with cattle raids and such happening more frequently. Even in peacetime, dinner came from the pasture or the forest and it was something you had to kill and dress with your own hands. No one had to wonder if blood had a smell, because it was more than just a smudge of red pixels on your computer screen -- blood was simply a part of life.

Violence is written in our genes. Now that we are more civilized, we have a historical privilege we all take for granted. We rarely commit or are victims of violence. Fiction is our outlet. We give life to imaginary phantoms, only so we can take it away with the slash of a sword. We can watch death, read about it, and even act it out, in a way that hurts no one.

Likewise, tribalism is writ in our genes. Racism, classism, religious hate. There was a time when the majority of our ancestors believed there were tangible physical, moral, and spiritual differences between peoples of other races, cultures, and castes. People outside the familiar group were not human, they were "other". And those groups were generally very small, limited to families, tribes, small kingdoms, or local religions. Killing someone outside your group came easily and without regret. Like violence itself, these were survival tools in a world where letting go of limited resources or undefended territories could mean your death.

Here in the United States in 2012, we have new values to live by. These values are luxuries we enjoy in a world with abundant resources, and in part, we have abundant resources because of these values.

Among them:
  • All humans are created equal. 
  • All humans have the same capacity for achievement, regardless of gender, race, or class. 
  • The playing field should be level so that hard work can lead to success. 
  • We all deserve equal reward for equal effort.
  • Those at the top who do not contribute should fall to make room for those who do contribute.
Not everyone holds these values. (Just go read the comments section on news articles and YouTube.) But they are our cultural standard. It is what we strive for.

We take for granted that even mere decades ago, majorities held opposite values. During those medieval times, races were considered fundamentally superior and inferior. Members of the upper class were divinely chosen by birth. Knowledge was reserved for those privileged enough to join the clergy. Enslaving others, be it through ownership or serfdom, was considered noble. Forcibly robbing whole nations of their cultures was thought to be an act of moral goodness.

As our society slowly outgrows our base instincts, we have replaced real hate with playful outlets. We've built political groups, religious factions, sports teams, and subcultures, and most of the time, tribalism is harmless. More or less.

Racism and classism still very much exist, even in "civilized" America, just as violence still exists. People still die because of their race, and upper classes still believe themselves better and use power to maintain position. We are always poised on the brink of some terrible mob-mentality disaster.

At heart, we are still tribal. "Us vs. Them" is wired in the very nature of the human spirit. It is manipulated by politicians and religious leaders to keep us committing guilt-free acts of violence, large and small, real and metaphorical, against other human beings.

The important thing is that our society now strives to overcome it. Our fiction reflects this: The "underdog" movie is ever popular. The little guy works hard, and in spite of the odds, in spite of the intolerance and hate directed at him, he rises to the top. This is our culture's idea of a happy ending.

Yet our culture makes violent films as well. An outlet. A way to pretend.

Unlike violence, depictions of justified hate can actually reinforce real hate. How can we feel the satisfaction of superiority, without it being at another's expense? How can we foster a sense of equality while at the same time, satisfy our intolerant urges?

We log in, we choose our race, we choose our gender, and we choose our class.

Oh, we may not realize it. We don't set out to play at racism anymore than we set out to commit play-violence. All we know is that it's fun to fight goblins and orcs and lizardmen. Everyone knows goblins are ugly and genetically inferior. They aren't human. We can kill them with glee, secure in the knowledge that they don't deserve to live. Secure in our knowledge that no one in the real world is hurt by our hate.

It's taken for granted that elves hate dwarves, and everyone justifyably hates goblins, and there's nothing wrong with that; no harm done. Dwarves can go on cracking elf jokes and having a good time, at no one's expense. 

(That's not to say fantasy is entirely free from real-world parallels to existing cultures who are harmed by stereotypes. I frequently see culture appropriation that goes a little too far. Likewise, violence in media is not completely free from influencing violence in real life.)

We have the privilege to play at being underprivileged. If we decide we don't like life as an Asura Thief, because the Asura are too short and everyone thinks we look like children and we're big nerds, and we find out the life of a thief really stinks, we can start again, as a giant Norn guardian with a big sword, who doesn't have to take orders from anybody.

A new life and new destiny is just a re-roll away.

Most of the time, fantasy fiction is completely unaware of its own themes. Sometimes, much to my delight, a game or novel becomes aware, and uses uses fantasy intolerance to hold a mirror up to our society.

Dragon Age springs to mind. In this fantasy world, elves are considered inferior to all other races and have been segregated into "Alienages". The game explores themes of racism and segregation. Most non-elves accept this reality. Some don't think it's fair. The elves themselves react sometimes passively, sometimes actively, and some have formed into groups to change things, sometimes using violent means. Your own character gets to make choices, and those choices have real consequences.

We play this game through our own culture's eyes. Unlike the dehumanized goblins of other games, where the world is bettered by the hated-group's demise, the elves have personalities. They are humanized. We know the elves' suffering is unjust.

Even when we commit genocidal acts against the elves, we know they are the "evil" choices, and we make them with a sick kind of glee, (just like when the game gives us violent and sadistic choices), because we are not allowed to feel that way in real life. Unlike our ancestors, we know these choices are wrong. And you get to see exactly how those choices play out.

Even when we're playing at being evil, we see how the virtual elves are hurt.

This can't be said of real-world hatred. Those who wrap themselves up in racism or religious hatred or other forms of tribalism, do not see their enemies as human. They see them as "the other". They feel no more moral crisis at the deaths of black people, or Mulsims, than I feel getting an achievement for slaughtering my 1,000th green-skinned goblin.

Fantasy gives us pretend racism and classism, and when we're done, we can return to our privileged and moral lives. I choose to see it for what it is, and rest easy knowing that, just as I wouldn't wield a sword against a real human being, I also wouldn't really want to live in a world where inequality, injustice, intolerance, and genocide are glorified.

Games provide an acceptable outlet for make-believe hate. And the more people who redirect their hatred away from real human beings, towards virtual races, the better.

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