The typical demographic divisions are an oft-examined subject in gaming. Gender and sexuality are the most regularly explored (usually fuelled by the ubiquitous scantily clad portrayal of the female form in MMOs and fantasy RPGs in general). Race, however, is an altogether more difficult concept to grasp in games. The stereotyping isn’t quite so “in your face” – for example, games which dictate that all female armour must look like there was a dramatic shortage of leather and plate are a dime-a-dozen, but I don’t think there are many games which say that if you’re white you have to wear one armour and if you’re black you must wear another. It’s certainly a strange dichotomy – why should your gender dictate your armour style, but your race shouldn’t? Or, more succinctly: why should either? The upshot is that race is usually expressed in character creation processes through choosing “skin colour” or “facial structure”.
In the original game the three campaigns were very blatantly culturally split – Prophecies (for the most part) seems to be European/Western, the Canthan domain in Factions is obviously of Asian influence and Elona from Nightfall is more African/Arabian. These influences are expressed through the architecture, enemies faced (often influenced by the RL mythology of the culture), NPC style and dialogue as well as the character creation options you receive when you create a character in that particular expansion. It was a relatively brave move; when you start to build an in-game culture which has influences in certain real-world racial areas you have to be careful to dodge stereotypes and for the most part ANet managed to do this perfectly – I don’t think you could ever claim that the game even edges towards being “racist”.
The new game, however, throws up a whole new set of questions as to how they are approaching the subject of race. Humanity has become just one section of a whole menagerie of differing phenotypes – charr, norn, asura, sylvari - how do we express race in these new forms? Do we even have to?
The pressure to express humanised races in charr and asura is certainly not as great. Somehow the charr span the boundary between man and beast and are so not bound by our rules of skin colour, bone structure etc. Perhaps, even, they might have recognisable ethnicities built into their own culture. Perhaps these could be expressed through fur pattern/colour. Conversely, are norn subject to the same racial distinctions that humans are? Being far more humanoid than the other races we can already see the option of having black skin tones being a feature in order to widen the character creation options. I would say, however, that you could just as easily leave the option out and argue that no norn has ever been born with anything other than pearly white skin shades. But that’s a very risky business.
It’s a difficult subject for developers to engage; they obviously want to accommodate all of their players; whatever race, gender, sexuality etc, but they also run the risk of diluting the lore of certain races if they try to amalgamate humanised racial characteristics into the non-human forms.
To the readers: Do you think it would be acceptable to exclude black skin-tones from norn, asura, charr or sylvari?
About the author: Distilled (Will) has been playing Guild Wars for almost 6 years, he works as a clinical researcher in the UK but has aspirations of getting into social research. In his spare time he enjoys misfiling documents, completing invoices for pointless office equipment and causing global financial meltdowns. He writes regularly on Guild Wars and gaming over at Distilled Willpower. You can also follow him on Twitter at @Distilledwill!