This article is in its entirety inspired by a conversation with Jessica Price on Twitter, and i’ll try to explain what’s going on. The basic gist of the conversation revolves around writers for fantasy games and projects inserting the word Race when describing cultures or species groupings. For Example “The Merfolk race” The question asked is why do we do that? It’s functionally unnecessary, and in most cases, Merfolk (or in other examples, the race actually being described) should suffice as the descriptor.
So why do we do that? I’ve done it a lot in the past when i’m writing things, and i’m sure others have done the same thing. What’s the driving force that has us using an imprecise term to describe a character’s life form of origin? Well, there are a couple of ideas i can extrapolate from. These aren’t the best bases for these arguments, but i think they’re the ones most of us use.
It’s Tradition Damn It!
There are a host of fantasy authors (notably Tolkien, but also Howard, Moorcock and more recent folks such as Goodkind, Jordan, and Martin) who describe a character’s species as Race, rather than species. Why? Well, i personally think that fantasy does not like scientific terms and explanations (If they did, we’d understand how magic works a lot better than we do in various worlds). The people who laid the foundations of our stories used this term, (and they likely pulled the terms from the folklore and myths they drew inspiration from), and it’s just become an accepted turn of phrase.
This one’s more on the Gygax/Arneson shoe, but Race has been one of the most common terms in fantasy (And other genres) role-playing games. It’s a shorthand descriptor for a discrete group of abilities, traits, and cultural values that are recognizable from a gameplay perspective. There are other more definite terms for this “Species” is Jessica’s preferred term, and i personally prefer “Culture”, because it takes into account variations within a given species.
Why do we use these terms even when we know they’re imprecise? Well, there are a couple of thoughts.
First, Race is a shorter word that describes the same things as a “species”, and it covers a lot of the preferred ground covered by “Culture.” Fantasy rejects science as much as it can, and Species is just too Scientific for a proper fantasy experience.
Second, It’s got inertia on its side. It’s survived a few hundred years of fiction, and about 40 years of gaming without a major change. It’s a culturally accepted part of fiction and gaming, and it’s a topic that some people will blow past without giving a second thought.
Third, because of its source, it’s covered by an idea that it’s sacrosanct, and we’re incapable of changing it because of the voices that brought it to us. It was good enough for our intellectual ancestors, so it will suffice for our needs.
(Just so you’re aware, I’m inclined to think that number 2 and number 1 are more logical explanations, but i am sure there are proponents of number 3 out in the world)
So, how do we change this? Do we need to change this? Is this really a problem? Aren’t their bigger problems to solve in the universe than overusing an outdated term? Well, my thoughts on this end of the topic are pretty straightforward.
If this is bothering people then we should probably work as a community to fix it. There are better terms that are more universally acceptable for everyone in the larger gaming community. Words can convey a lot of meaning, and we can certainly find more better gooder words to describe what we’re talking about. For Example:
Species (Species Name): the life form with all of its singular characteristics and the physical and mental capabilities that separate it from every other life form in creation.
Culture: The social characteristics that define how a species interacts with itself and external forces.
Between these terms, we can very clearly identify what we’re talking about and eliminate a lot of confusion.
“We speak of the Elven Race in broad terms and cover much information.” All right, but what does that actually mean? We could have omitted Race and just said Elves, but we’re still not actually saying anything important.
Compare to “The Elven Culture encompasses a love of art and magic, and they encourage personal freedom and individual responsibility.” That’s moderately informative, and talks about the social perspective and other elements of Elves.
“The Elves are an athletic people, known for their agility and superhuman grace.” That’s a physical description, and works off of our operational definition of how species is a better term than race.
Thoughts and Ideas
This is a changeable topic, and it’s as simple as identifying better terminology and consistently using it. If the gaming community at large accepts this and moves towards swapping out terms, it’s an easy fix. If you have folks in your gaming group that don’t like the term, then ask them what term the prefer and use it. In all likelihood (unless their term is astonishingly more offensive than race), it’s not going to hurt you. If it’s an issue that becomes a larger issue, you could consider talking to each other about it, so you can continue to have fun and play games.
Anywho, those are my thoughts on this topic, and they’re just thoughts. I very rarely write “Rules” or “Laws” of good behavior, and i suspect that most of you can figure out how to get along without being massive jerks to one another. Or be massive jerks to each other, that’s up to you and your gaming friends.
Game on, Game Fans