The Curious Case of Race in Guild Wars 2


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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!

Further reading:

  • innuendo

    From a lore standpoint, black norn would be odd. Black skin is a result of living in direct sunlight over many generations…the norn woulnt have done that in their history.

    Its not racist to make sense.

    • Anonymous

      So, do you think it dilutes the lore of the race to allow skin colours which might not make sense according to the lore?

    • Your statement about sunlight is true in humans, but other species may not behave the same way. Charr, for example, come in a wide variety of colors and patterns and we don’t know exactly what causes one charr to be light with dark spots while another charr is dark with light stripes. Humans and norn may appear similar at first glance, but something in their genes must make them different enough to be their own species rather than just “tall humans.” All kodan I’ve seen in concept art were white, but perhaps there is a region where kodan are pink or blue. We don’t know for sure unless the lore tells us.

      My opinion: ANet can give us as few or as many customization options as they see fit, so long as it makes sense with the lore. (Maybe that neon green asura got her color from a lab experiment gone wrong! 😉

  • Matic Kačič

    There is a lot we don’t know about geography (or maybe it’s just me). For example Arctic winters and associated pemanent night during it. I think norn are probably a lot out in the open, dunno why exposure to sun wouldn’t make them darker. That said, I would still limit how dark a norn can get.

    About the rest of them: I think we’ve seen darker asura and charr so far. I could see any of the rest of the races of any other shade (also red or blue sylvari).

  • BladenKirst

    Every variation of something in a fantasy world can be explained through story. Although it may not be the norm, there is no reason why it can’t be an option as it just adds to your personal story as a character to make you more unique.

  • Long response. Skip to the end for a summary.

    You have to take a couple of things into account with this subject. There is the game lore that has every right to restrict character creation options based on whatever is going on with that particular race, and then you have the reality of “fairness” in representing real world cultures and racial qualities within the game. I was excited about the character creation options for Nightfall. It was such that there were few options available for characters outside of the Elonian culture. It was difficult to create a character similar to real world Western white people (like myself) because that culture wasn’t prevalent in Elona. I appreciated that change.
    That being said, Prophecies allows for a variety of skin color, but cultural hairstyles are limited. It took one expansion before Asian hairstyles and facial structures were readily available and two expansions before we saw African character creation options. We all started out basically white with a skin tone slider. Sadly, that’s what you see in so many games.

    As for GW2, I would like to see lots of real life cultural options available for character creation. I think everyone should be able to make a character that looks like they do. It creates solidarity among the community, improves immersion, and shows that racial/cultural/etc issues are important to ANet. There is an opportunity to expand the human options as broadly as possible. THAT should be where we see so many real life options come into the game.

    As for the other races (e.g., norn, asura, etc), the sky’s the limit. We don’t know if charr are prejudiced over body type or horn angles. We don’t know what ears are pleasing to asura. We don’t know anything about sylvari. As far as skin tone is concerned, norn and asura are the most like humans, so we can argue that sun/environment play a role. Does living in the northern frozen lands mean that norn are more restricted in their skin tones from alabaster to light tan? You could make an argument for that. Just because they look the most like humans, doesn’t mean they are anything like humans, and arguably, they shouldn’t be treated like humans. You can make the same argument about the obsidian skinned Drow from the Underdark of Faerun (Dungeons & Dragons). I have no qualms about making a dark skinned human character over a lighter skinned one, but I prefer to make one that looks more like me. What makes me happy is that ANet cares enough to provide a wide variety of character creation options so that making a character that looks like the person behind the computer is not just a reality for all us privileged white folks.

    TL;DR

    Everyone should be able to make a character that looks like they do in real life. In game culture is not the same as real life culture, regardless of the similarities. Norn are not humans and their skin color, facial structure, etc. should represent norn culture (whatever that might be), not real life human culture.

    • Anonymous

      Well done, well said sir.

      Btw, very courteous of you to provide a TL;DR version for folks… for the record, the long version was well worth the reading time.

      • Thanks. I get to be long winded sometimes. Especially when I feel like I have something important to say.

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  • The Dream

    This issue with ‘race’ seems to be a very American obsession.

    I believe the author is confusing race with ethnicity.  As far as I understand it, in RL we are all one race, “The Human Race”.  Within this we are broken up into different ethnicities [ethnic affiliation or distinctiveness] based on our geographical location, breeding and culture which over time has changed the amount of melanin in our skins and altered certain external characteristics as we have spread across the globe.  We are ONE race and the dominant one on this planet.  The amount of naturally occurring melanin in our skin has nothing to do with which race we belong to.

    In GW1 we examined three different ethnic variations of the Human Race in Tyria, not three races.  In GW2 lore (as I understand it), all the Human Race has been forced through war and conflict to congregate and make their stand at Divinity’s Reach.  The other main races on Tyria are Charr, Norn, Asura and Sylvari.  The amount of melanin in their skins; the colour of their fur, the colour tone of their bark, etc does not change their race.

    Thus, it is quite acceptable to allow a full range of skin/bark/fur options for each of the races in Tyria and let the player come up with the reasons why.

    • I both agree and disagree with you, their is no “human race” as race is just a social tool create to distinguish one group from another, much like culture.  We are all from the human Species.

      Also it not that all of humanity is concentrated into Divinity’s Reach its just the ones stuck in the Tyria.  Since Cantha and Elona still have humans in them.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t think I am confusing ethnicity and race. I am well aware of the differences, but I would agree the colloquial definition of race has definitely become blurred with ethnicity (hence, when someone is discriminated because of their ethnicity it is often referred to as “racism”), however, there are racial differences which are distinct from ethnic differences.
      Skin colour is not an ethnic difference, it is a racial difference. Skin colour, as you rightly point out, is based upon a combination of environment and inherited characteristics. Ethnic differences are far more based upon culture; something which is socially created.

      I would agree with Xant, we are a species.

      I do believe, however, that I may have misspoke when I said “racial areas” when referring to the differences in GW1 (having just spoken about the culture), and I probably should have said “ethnic”. However, it is often the case that certain ethnicities are common to geographical locations.

      • The Dream

        I have to disagree. Race as a concept is unscientific. If I could use an example document Nadra Kareem Nittle as evidence of this: (all rights of the author are reserved)

        What is race?

        Negroid, Mongoloid and Caucasoid. These are the three races, right? Not so, according to science. While the American concept of race took off in the late 1600s and persists even today, researchers now argue that there’s no scientific basis for race. So, what exactly is race, and what are its origins?

        The Difficulty of Grouping People Into Races

        According to John H. Relethford, author of The Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, race “is a group of populations that share some biological characteristics….These populations differ from other groups of populations according to these characteristics.”

        Scientists can divide some organisms into racial categories easier than others, such as those which remain isolated from one another in different environments. In contrast, the race concept doesn’t work so well with humans. That’s because not only do humans live in a wide range of environments, they also travel back and forth between them. As a result, there’s a high degree of gene flow among people groups that makes it hard to organize them into discrete groups.

        Skin color remains a primary trait Westerners use to place people into racial groups. However, someone of African descent may be the same skin shade as someone of Asian descent. Someone of Asian descent may be the same shade as someone of European descent. Where does one race end and another begin?

        In addition to skin color, features such as hair texture and face-shape have been used to classify people into races. But many people groups cannot be categorized as Caucasoid, Negroid or Mongoloid, the defunct terms used for the so-called three races. Take Native Australians, for instance. Although typically dark-skinned, they tend to have curly hair which is often light colored.

        “On the basis of skin color, we might be tempted to label these people as African, but on the basis of hair and facial shape they might be classified as European,” Relethford writes. “One approach has been to create a fourth category, the ‘Australoid.’”

        Why else is grouping people by race difficult? The concept of race posits that more genetic variation exists interracially than intra-racially, when the opposite is true. Only about 10% of variation in humans exists between the so-called races. So, how did the concept of race take off in the West, particularly in the United States?

        The Origins of Race in America

        The America of the early 17th century was in many ways more progressive in its treatment of blacks than the country would be for decades to come. In the early 1600s, African Americans could trade, take part in court cases and acquire land. Slavery based on race did not yet exist.

        “There was really no such thing as race then,” explained anthropologist Audrey Smedley, author of Race in North America: Origins of a Worldview, in a 2003 PBS interview. “Although ‘race’ was used as a categorizing term in the English language, like ‘type’ or ‘sort’ or ‘kind, it did not refer to human beings as groups.”

        While race-based slavery wasn’t a practice, indentured servitude was. Such servants tended to be overwhelmingly European. Altogether, more Irish people lived in servitude in America than Africans. Plus, when African and European servants lived together, their difference in skin color did not surface as a barrier.

        “They played together, they drank together, they slept together…The first mulatto child was born in 1620 (one year after the arrival of the first Africans),” Smedley noted.

        On many occasions, members of the servant class—European, African and mixed-race—rebelled against the ruling landowners. Fearful that a united servant population would usurp their power, the landowners distinguished Africans from other servants, passing laws which stripped those of African descent and Native Americans of rights. During this period, the number of servants from Europe declined, and the number of servants from Africa rose. Africans were skilled in trades such as farming, building and metalwork which made them desired servants. Before long, Africans were viewed exclusively as slaves and, as a result, sub-human.

        As for Native Americans, they were regarded with great curiosity by the Europeans, who surmised that they descended from the lost tribes of Israel, explained historian Theda Perdue, author of Mixed Blood Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South, in a PBS interview. This belief meant that Native Americans were essentially the same as Europeans. They’d simply adopted a different way of life because they’d been separated from Europeans, Perdue posits.

        “People in the 17th century…were more likely to distinguish between Christians and heathens than they were between people of color and people who were white…,” Perdue said. Christian conversion could make American Indians fully human, they thought. But as Europeans strove to convert and assimilate Natives, all the while seizing their land, efforts were underway to provide a scientific rationale for Africans’ alleged inferiority to Europeans.

        In the 1800s, Dr. Samuel Morton argued that physical differences between races could be measured, most notably in brain size. Morton’s successor in this field, Louis Agassiz, began “arguing that blacks are not only inferior but they’re a separate species altogether,” Smedley said.

        Wrapping Up

        Thanks to scientific advances, we can now say definitively that individuals such as Morton and Aggasiz are wrong. Race is fluid and thus difficult to pinpoint scientifically. “Race is a concept of human minds, not of nature,” Relethford writes.

      • The Dream

        I have to disagree. Race as a concept is unscientific. If I could use an example document Nadra Kareem Nittle as evidence of this: (all rights of the author are reserved)

        What is race?

        Negroid, Mongoloid and Caucasoid. These are the three races, right? Not so, according to science. While the American concept of race took off in the late 1600s and persists even today, researchers now argue that there’s no scientific basis for race. So, what exactly is race, and what are its origins?

        The Difficulty of Grouping People Into Races

        According to John H. Relethford, author of The Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, race “is a group of populations that share some biological characteristics….These populations differ from other groups of populations according to these characteristics.”

        Scientists can divide some organisms into racial categories easier than others, such as those which remain isolated from one another in different environments. In contrast, the race concept doesn’t work so well with humans. That’s because not only do humans live in a wide range of environments, they also travel back and forth between them. As a result, there’s a high degree of gene flow among people groups that makes it hard to organize them into discrete groups.

        Skin color remains a primary trait Westerners use to place people into racial groups. However, someone of African descent may be the same skin shade as someone of Asian descent. Someone of Asian descent may be the same shade as someone of European descent. Where does one race end and another begin?

        In addition to skin color, features such as hair texture and face-shape have been used to classify people into races. But many people groups cannot be categorized as Caucasoid, Negroid or Mongoloid, the defunct terms used for the so-called three races. Take Native Australians, for instance. Although typically dark-skinned, they tend to have curly hair which is often light colored.

        “On the basis of skin color, we might be tempted to label these people as African, but on the basis of hair and facial shape they might be classified as European,” Relethford writes. “One approach has been to create a fourth category, the ‘Australoid.’”

        Why else is grouping people by race difficult? The concept of race posits that more genetic variation exists interracially than intra-racially, when the opposite is true. Only about 10% of variation in humans exists between the so-called races. So, how did the concept of race take off in the West, particularly in the United States?

        The Origins of Race in America

        The America of the early 17th century was in many ways more progressive in its treatment of blacks than the country would be for decades to come. In the early 1600s, African Americans could trade, take part in court cases and acquire land. Slavery based on race did not yet exist.

        “There was really no such thing as race then,” explained anthropologist Audrey Smedley, author of Race in North America: Origins of a Worldview, in a 2003 PBS interview. “Although ‘race’ was used as a categorizing term in the English language, like ‘type’ or ‘sort’ or ‘kind, it did not refer to human beings as groups.”

        While race-based slavery wasn’t a practice, indentured servitude was. Such servants tended to be overwhelmingly European. Altogether, more Irish people lived in servitude in America than Africans. Plus, when African and European servants lived together, their difference in skin color did not surface as a barrier.

        “They played together, they drank together, they slept together…The first mulatto child was born in 1620 (one year after the arrival of the first Africans),” Smedley noted.

        On many occasions, members of the servant class—European, African and mixed-race—rebelled against the ruling landowners. Fearful that a united servant population would usurp their power, the landowners distinguished Africans from other servants, passing laws which stripped those of African descent and Native Americans of rights. During this period, the number of servants from Europe declined, and the number of servants from Africa rose. Africans were skilled in trades such as farming, building and metalwork which made them desired servants. Before long, Africans were viewed exclusively as slaves and, as a result, sub-human.

        As for Native Americans, they were regarded with great curiosity by the Europeans, who surmised that they descended from the lost tribes of Israel, explained historian Theda Perdue, author of Mixed Blood Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South, in a PBS interview. This belief meant that Native Americans were essentially the same as Europeans. They’d simply adopted a different way of life because they’d been separated from Europeans, Perdue posits.

        “People in the 17th century…were more likely to distinguish between Christians and heathens than they were between people of color and people who were white…,” Perdue said. Christian conversion could make American Indians fully human, they thought. But as Europeans strove to convert and assimilate Natives, all the while seizing their land, efforts were underway to provide a scientific rationale for Africans’ alleged inferiority to Europeans.

        In the 1800s, Dr. Samuel Morton argued that physical differences between races could be measured, most notably in brain size. Morton’s successor in this field, Louis Agassiz, began “arguing that blacks are not only inferior but they’re a separate species altogether,” Smedley said.

        Wrapping Up

        Thanks to scientific advances, we can now say definitively that individuals such as Morton and Aggasiz are wrong. Race is fluid and thus difficult to pinpoint scientifically. “Race is a concept of human minds, not of nature,” Relethford writes.

        • Carpenter

          “I have to disagree. Race as a concept is unscientific.”

          If race was unscientific, then birth would be random: a black child
          could be born to Asian parents, an Asian child could be born to white
          parents, a white child could be born to black parents. It would only be a fantastic coincidence that Asian children happen to be born to Asian parents.

          No. You are thinking of ethnicity, which is a completely different thing. You are also confusing race with species. Homo sapiens is a species, with various races. Race exists in almost all species in the world: the races among cats, dogs, horses are most familiar to us.

          Race comes from the separation of the species in different areas for tens of thousands of years. There are three meta races – for centuries called Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid, and whether you find the names offensive is simply a result of your politics – and many subraces among those. Different skin color, different skull shape, different structure of the teeth etc are real and not imagined differences.

          The races even react differently to medication, a fact well-known to those in medical professions. There are entire classes on this. Certain medicines work better with blacks than whites and vice versa. For that matter, it is also well-known among nurses that it is harder to pierce black skin with a syringe, since the African skin developed a harder surface to defend against mosquitos carrying malaria.

  • I see no problem with not having “black norn” since they are a hardy mountains people i see no reason that they would need darker skin tones.  Since dark skin is an adaptation to protect against the harmful effects of constant sun exposure.  For full disclosure, im not white, im of African and Arabian descent, but i see no problem with limiting the playable races with certain physical parameter, an example would be height:  Norn and charr are by far the tallest of the five races, while humans are the “average” sized race, Sylvari being slightly shorter then humans and Asura being the shortest.  I don’t seen a need to add a 6 foot height option for the Asura, so i see no need for a darker a tan option for the viking inspired Norn.

    I apologize if this might offend some people but you have to admit that it would mess up the lore if other traits were more heavily influenced by the real world.  

  • Carpenter

    I would point out that what is called “race” in the game are actually different species. I suppose “race” is used in these kind of games because it is shorter and easier to say, that happens often in language.

    Anyway, I think all except a small minority would find it more realistic that the Norn, for example, don’t have African-looking appearances. They are clearly styled on the Norse/Vikings, not Africans. At some point Political Correctness has to take a backseat to realism. Have some courage in this and most gamers will applaud you. Only very few will call it “racism” and the rest will tell them to lighten up.

    Women are going to be just as strong as men in the game, right? Even though in real life men are on average 50 percent stronger than women, according to research. That should be enough sacrifice on the altar of Political Correctness to sacrifice that crowd.