Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fantasy and Racism

...or, "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Goblin".

This is something that's been rattling around in my tiny li'l brain for a while now.

You know what bothers me about a lot of fantasy fiction? The way "goodness" or "badness" is often conflated with how something looks. If something is "beautiful", it must be good; if it's "ugly", it must be bad.

This goes back all the way to mythology, of course, but in modern fiction I think The Lord of the Rings is the ur-example. The elves are beautiful by the author's standards, with lily-white skin and shining eyes; of course, they are the good guys. Conversely, the orcs and trolls are vile monsters, and their evil manifests outwardly with lumpy countenances and coarse, dark skin. You can see the undertones of racism there. Tolkien was a good writer, though, and he managed to subvert this idea within his own mythos. In his backstory, some of the elves were murderous kin-slayers. The heroic Aragorn was scruffy and looked "foul" to the hobbits, while the Dark Lord Sauron was described as achingly beautiful before he was reduced to a disembodied spirit who only appeared as a red eye in people's minds. No luck for the orcs, though: they remain downright demonic, every one.

Tolkien was a good writer, but flawed. Needless to say, most of his successors have possessed his flaws but not his talents. Dungeons & Dragons is a perfect example: elves and dwarves are inherently "good" and even nameless non-player characters are valued (i.e., mourned for roleplay XP), while goblins and orcs are inherently "evil" and just there to kill for XP unless the DM goes out of his/her way to give a goblin NPC a personality. This extends even to their game stats: elves, dwarves, gnomes, and halflings all have abilities that can be used both in combat or in roleplay; while goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, ogres, and other "savage" humanoids have stats that are purely combat-oriented. (The exception is kobolds, who have a bonus on mining and trapmaking; perhaps for this reason, D&D went out of its way to push kobolds as a viable player race toward the end of 3rd Edition's lifespan.)

The thing that prompted me to write this post is this page on the subject of goblins in D&D, written half tongue-in-cheek from the position of a goblin advocacy group. In the 3rd Edition Monster Manual, the combat tactics of goblins is described thusly:

“The concept of a fair fight is meaningless in their society. They favor ambushes, overwhelming odds, dirty tricks, and any other edge they can devise . . . goblins have a poor grasp of strategy and are cowardly by nature, tending to flee the field if a battle turns against them.”

Meanwhile, in the same book, we have the elves' strategy:

“Elves are cautious warriors . . . maximizing their advantage by using ambushes, snipers, and camouflage. They prefer to fire from cover and retreat before they are found, repeating this maneuver until all of their enemies are dead.”

Exactly the same thing as the goblins, but described in more glowing terms while the goblins are portrayed as cowardly and craven. It's a total double standard. This dichotomy reminds me of two news articles I saw side by side in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, with one showing a black "looter" and the other a white guy who "found some supplies". I'm not comparing goblins to black people, nor do I think that D&D is worthy of the same kind of outrage as the news articles. I just think that both are symptomatic, to very different degrees, of the institutionalized prejudice in our culture.

Perhaps because they're the designated antagonists in most fantasy, I find goblins and orcs much more interesting than elves and dwarves. Surely there's more to them than mindless violence. What if they have some moral justification for their aggressions against humans and elves besides just being inherently evil? Or, heck, what if they're not all that violent at all and their reputation is just propaganda from books written by humans? (Yes, I have been reading Goblins: Life Through Their Eyes, why do you ask?)

In the D&D campaign I'm very sporadically working on, I try to go out of my way to give goblins and hobgoblins and ogres actual cultures and a place in the setting that goes beyond violence. There are still evil goblins, but they have reasons for their actions. There are also quite a few good goblins, and evil dwarves, and so on. Basically, no race is tied to one moral alignment. They're people, not monsters.

So, yeah. This post turned out a bit longer than I intended, but it feels good getting my thoughts out of my head and onto the (web)page.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

When Cosplay Goes Right

Cosplay - dressing up as fictional characters, usually at fan conventions - is not something I'm into. I don't engage in it because of the negative associations that most people hold toward the hobby, because I just don't have the body type to pull off most characters, and because I just hate being in front of a crowd. That said, I recognize that while most cosplay is crap, some of it is actually pretty good. There's bad cosplay, and then there's good cosplay.

And then there's pikminlink.

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Without a doubt the best cosplayer I've ever seen, pikminlink brings Link from The Legend of Zelda to life. Thanks to the intricate detail of the costume (which must have cost a small fortune to make), you can really believe that everyone's favorite elf-boy has stepped out of Hyrule and into reality. It's not just a costume, it's art.

And guess what? She's a girl.

Check out her deviantART gallery for her in several variations on Link's costume and as several other characters, plus some original art.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Gray Gamers

This is a very interesting article on the subject of senior citizens who play video games.

I'm not much of a gamer - I haven't spent much time with a video game since I beat The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask almost ten years ago. I have lots of friends who are into gaming, though, I enjoy watching gameplay videos on YouTube (ProtonJon is awesome), and the gaming subculture is pretty much ubiquitous online so it's not like it's a foreign concept to me.

Anyway, one of the things that bothers me about the gaming subculture is the constant undertones (and overtones...) of ageism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and general smallmindedness. There's an assumption among a lot of gamers that the only demographic that matters is the 18-to-25-year-old straight males and that anyone who doesn't fit in there has to identify has a "girl gamer", a "gay gamer", and so on. Games that are marketed specifically towards women are insulting in how stereotyped they are. When games include strong female characters who aren't eye candy, male gamers complain about the lack of T&A; if a game ever included a strong gay character, there'd be rioting in the streets over "the fags" ruining "our video games"; and as of today the only transgendered video game character I'm aware of is Birdo.

It's good to know that there's a place for senior gamers - according to the article, 19% of gamers are 50 or older, and that was in 2005. It's proof that games aren't a fad, but have become a legitimate, mainstream form of entertainment just like movies and sports, and as the current target demographic ages, the percentage is destined to keep growing. For my part, I look forward to the day when I can sit down with my nieces and nephews and grandkids and play some Final Fantasy XXV while waxing nostalgic about the halcyon days of A Link to the Past and Super Mario World.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Winter Anime Thoughts

Happy New Year, folks!

I'm not as into anime as I used to be. It's mostly a result of having less free time than I used to - I can barely keep up with comics now for the same reason and I've just dropped RPGs as a hobby. I also feel like my tastes have matured a bit, such that I need more than wicked sweet action to keep me entertained for more than five minutes. Even at the height of my interest, though, I never followed the anime "scene" and actively kept an eye on upcoming schedules. I did get sucked into a few series because of their popularity (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Ouran High School Host Club in particular) and ended up watching each episode as it came out, but I don't have the energy to do that nowadays.

That said, I'm looking forward to the coming anime season for the first time I can remember solely because of Axis Powers Hetalia, a webcomic-turned-anime that I was turned onto by chance on TV Tropes Wiki. In a nutshell, it's a series of gags about world history in the last 200-odd years starring various nations anthropomorphized as handsome young men, mostly revolving around the relationship between Germany and Italy, hence the title. It's potentially very offensive in how it skips over all the blood that's been spilled in the World Wars and other conflicts, not to mention the various national stereotypes, but that's mitigated by the fact that the author really knows his history and geopolitics and gives every country his fair share of ribbing. I'm a bit of a history buff so I'm sure I'll get quite a bit out of it, but for various reasons I can't get into the manga, so I'm hoping the anime will give me something to latch onto.

Anyway, I've also taken a look at the rest of the 2009 winter season, which is laid out in this image (which Photobucket has regrettably shrunk). The only things that particularly appeal to me are a remake of the underappreciated mid-90s superhero action anime Birdy the Mighty and a new season of The Slayers, the perennially popular fantasy comedy that's been going strong for nearly two decades. Nothing else jumps out at me as something I'd watch, but one show does stand out for just how utterly braindead its premise is:

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That is quite possibly the stupidest idea for a TV show I have ever seen.

I can only wonder how the planning phase of this waste of ink went...

"Hmm. Who's our target demographic, again?"

"Sex-starved male shut-ins with no understanding of women whatsoever!"

"Gotcha. So we need a whole mess of gorgeous, submissive young girls who are inexplicably head-over-heels in love with a nerdy loser and an excuse to shove them all into a contrived romantic plot. What've you got?"

"Okay, so, like, the girls are all actually soda cans, and they need carbon dioxide to survive. And how do they get it? By kissing this guy. It's scientific!"

"Uh... pardon the pun, but are you sure they'll swallow that?"

"As long as we flash some panties every five minutes, they'll swallow anything!"

"...Give this man a raise."