Race in RPGs

“Blacks Deserve Bodies Too” mentions, in passing, the notion of different races in World of Warcraft (WoW) (Kafai, Cook, & Fields 2). Contemplating the notion of choice of race in video games piqued my curiosity. Wildly popular titles such as WoW and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim include multiple playable races for players to choose from; should we be paying more attention to the dynamics of racial selection in such games?

World of Warcraft features a variety of playable races ranging from fantasy staples such as humans, elves, orcs, and dwarves to outlandish choices like the Pandaren, anthropomorphic pandas. A player can select one of these races during character creation. WoW funnels each player into one of two overarching factions, the Horde and the Alliance. Each faction has a unique set of races not available to the other faction, the only exception being Pandaren, who can be selected by players of either faction. Players of the factions are immediately pitted against one another by the nature of the game’s design; the factions often oppose one another in the story, and  Player vs. Player (PvP) gameplay mechanics enable players to battle those from the other faction for in-game benefits. WoW thus immediately creates a clear distinction between the game’s two sets of races, as Horde players will always fight alongside other Horde races against Alliance races, and vice versa.

WoW further divides the in-game races with a gameplay mechanic called racial traits. Each race gains unique abilities specific to characters of that race. Racial traits are very interesting in that they attach quantitative gameplay advantages to selecting a certain race. A race’s traits may come to be seen as unfairly powerful by the playerbase. While such a perception of strength makes the race a more attractive choice to newer players, being “overpowered” carries a disadvantage, for players of that race may be disparaged by others for their choice of character. WoW thus in a sense institutionalizes a form of racial discrimination in its playerbase. Of course, given that the races in question are wholly fictional, the impact of such discrimination on real-world issues is entirely questionable. Humans are lumped together into one playable race, with no distinctions made between skin color.

Such is not the case in The Elder Scrolls (TES) series of RPGs. The Elder Scrolls is famous for its in-depth character creation system, in which racial selection plays an important part. Players of The Elder Scrolls games are able to choose from several different races of humans in addition to fictional races such as elves, catfolk, and lizardmen. Much like WoW, each race in The Elder Scrolls grants players unique abilities and traits. The Elder Scrolls differs from WoW on a very fundamental level, however, in that TES games are single-player only while WoW offers an intrinsically multi-player experience. Players may still find a particular playable race more effective or useful, but the absence of the adversial conditions fostered by a PvP multiplayer game dramatically affects how a community might perceive character races.

Character race is a very real concern for gamers due to the existence of race-specific gameplay bonuses. Questions of character race permeate most RPGs which permit the player any kind of freedom at all during character creation. However, given the fictional nature of these races and the influence of gameplay benefits driving player awareness, is there any form of real-world significance attributable to player selection of race in such RPGs? I’m certainly curious.


Cook, Melissa, Deborah A. Fields & Yasmin B. Kafai. ” ‘Blacks Deserve Bodies Too!’  Design and Discussion about Diversity and Race in a Teen Virtual World”. University of California.

Image from the Wikimedia Commons used under public domain.



One thought on “Race in RPGs

  1. You bring up a lot of interesting aspects of video-game character creation here. I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts about the differences between community assessment of player-character races as templates for self-expression culturally or racially, or whether or not they serve as merely a vehicle for an additional aspect of difference in characters of the game. Does it matter that you chose lizardman over Imperial, or does it matter that you chose water-breathing over increased charisma? Do you think the players view these benefits separately, or as part of the same package?

    I’d also be interested to hear your thoughts on games which have extensive character creation engines (Saints Row, for example) but without any quantitative in-game benefits. Do you think players would be as incentivized to make use of the engine as a means of expressing their personalities and race within the game moreso or less so than in a game where it offered a tangible benefit? Personally, I’d be curious to see the numbers on how often the engine is heavily utilized in one game type compared to the other.

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