Race Bending

One of our readers, George Lara, sent us a question that is interesting, provocative and on which, no doubt, the hivemind has views.

George writes:

"In the past, I've read articles from various sources about "Gender Bending" players who take on opposite genders while online. I wonder if and of your authors has dived into the subject of playing someone of a different race or skin color? I play a human character in WoW that has dark hair and skin and I notice that my character really was a true minority among human characters (I'm Latino in real life) who were overwhelmingly Anglo. It lead me to wonder if there are players out there who "Race Bend", and is it as common as those who gender bend. Are offline persons of color choosing to play Anglo humanoid players and vice versa and why?"

I can think of Jerry Kang's early piece about race in online spaces, "Cyber-race" and there must be more recent analysis of the issue. Other thoughts, examples?


Comments on Race Bending:

Jeff Freeman says:

My DDO character is a black guy. As for why...just 'cause he looks cool, really.

Posted Mar 14, 2006 2:07:03 PM | link

Nabil says:

I know a few people who are white and female in real life, but play black males in WoW. I asked one about it, and she said "the dark skin just looks better on the mesh."

Posted Mar 14, 2006 2:39:04 PM | link

Chas says:

I experimented with what might be considered alternate "human races" in star wars galaxies: My first (a squad leader) was considerably dark skinned and bald, and I modeled his behavior off of memories of two former squad mates (Connor and Itson, wherever they may be today...). Initially, it was fun to draw up old memories, and I noticed some assumptions regarding my RL race, but for the most part, I felt respected for my merits.

An alt was a bio-engineering lass intentionally made to look asian- I was disappointed at how difficult it was to really make facial features closer to those I experienced in Korea. ( My first attempt was taken as "hispanic" for whatever reason, so I went back to the drawing board ). I was awkward at roleplaying a female, so I was notably silent and deliberated on every answer... which I guess reinforced the stereotype of a silent, shy asian girl.

-first I received compliments on how well I handled English as a second language...
-then, when i clarified I was American, I was invariably asked questions that made it clear they assumed I was asian-american and asked about my family.
-more than gender bending, I received more comments asking why I'd intentionally play an asian when I'm not. Often, the answer back would be, "and you're a wookiee?"

Posted Mar 14, 2006 3:03:03 PM | link

DJ says:

Race bending can sometimes be effected by the back stories provided by the game, or different abilities given to different races.

In Asheron's Call, being an unarmed fighter was desireable because, if you were a "Sho", you would save skill credits on the Unarmed skill, because the back story of the Sho included basic knowledge in the way of unarmed fighting. The three races are Sho, Gharun'dim, and Aluvian, they correspond with Oriental, African-American, and Caucasian respectively.

If appearance has nothing to do with gameplay, I think it boils down to a simple matter of aesthetics, and what "fits" the ideas you have in mind for each particular character. In my opinion, dark skin looks more menacing, so my male characters often turn out quite dark. However, if my character is a healer, or a female, that character typically has light skin, because it better suits their personality (in my mind).

Posted Mar 14, 2006 3:08:39 PM | link

gus andrews says:

I'm most interested in the veiled ethnic stereotypes in WoW, particularly the Trolls with their jarring mishmash of references to voodoo, capoeira, Jamaican speech patterns, tribal doctors, and what sounds like African drumming in their villages. As someone (a white female American who grew up in suburban Southern California) who has taken up African dance in Harlem, I was pretty well horrified by the way symbols of the African diaspora were lumped unthinkingly in with crude /emotes (what's that male Troll /flirt again? "I like my women fat, ugly, and brutal?"), drug references, etc.

As it turns out, the (white male American) younger brother of a friend of mine runs a Troll guild which has developed a backstory which gives heritage and cultural unity to a "distinct" group of diaspora Trolls, the Tooska: http://www.tooskatribe.com/ . They've developed a passable pidgin which they request guild members use: http://www.tooskatribe.com/tak.html . So though we're most of us white kids, we've got a sort of movement afoot to claim "Troll pride." Me, I argue that Troll females are the most lovely of the Horde races, angry looks, cyan skin, wild sculptural hair and all. You can't tell me they're not the most statuesque women in the game, and -- though this conforms to stereotype -- the best dancers!

Posted Mar 14, 2006 5:32:53 PM | link

N. Ng says:

I do believe that Second Life's New World Notes had just such an article. This is a "preserved" one from some time back, but it sounds like it fits the bill:

http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2003/10/white_like_me.html

Actually, now that I think about it, there are two. The other one, which is in some ways the flip side:

http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2006/02/the_skin_youre_.html

Posted Mar 14, 2006 8:15:30 PM | link

Ben says:

I frequently choose different race combinations when creating characters in City of Heroes; I just pick a theme for a hero, and go with what I think works best with it. The bored African-American millionare, who decides to build himself a high-tech suit of armor; the Indian spiritualist; the Anglo former farmhand turned magician... honestly, it's mostly just random.

Gender, however... almost all of my characters are male.

Posted Mar 14, 2006 8:26:33 PM | link

Tess says:

I frequently race-bend. I have done so in WoW, DAOC, EQ, and ATitD. For me, choosing brown skin is not one bit more radical or strange than choosing blue eyes.

Interestingly, I have found that the skin color of my avatar seems to have absolutely no bearing on how people treat me in games. While there are almost certainly a few racists around, anecdotally, it seems to me that people are largely colorblind to avatars.

Posted Mar 14, 2006 10:02:10 PM | link

Mikado says:

Hm... I only play games where I can be a non-human. I'm not interested in elves, dwarves, or [insert generic resized human 'race' here]. Tauren, catfolk, frogloks, etc. fire my imagination and make me want to play them... but I'm bored to death and completely disinterested in having a human avatar. What does that say about me? :)

Posted Mar 14, 2006 11:23:08 PM | link

Peter Edelmann says:

There was recently a request for refs on race in videogames on Academic Gamers, with some useful articles suggested. I posted a quick and dirty list of refs on race in virtual worlds there, for those interested. Many of them deal with the type of identity play described in the OP here. In particular, Beth Kolko and Lisa Nakamura have written insightful pieces on race and identity tourism in (text-based) MUDs.

Posted Mar 15, 2006 12:36:02 AM | link

Brinstar says:

I race-bend as well. I typically play caucasian/white characters both in table-top games and online, though once or twice I have played Asian characters -- however they were not of my nationality.

Posted Mar 15, 2006 10:14:32 AM | link

Heather Sinclair says:

While I enjoy playing human characters with a variety of appearances and races (one of my favorite character 'looks' was my saracen in daoc) the reason I don't do it nearly as often as I would otherwise is twofold:

- Alternate 'races' almost always default to white. Dwarves are white, Elves are white, halflings are white, gnomes are white. Every so often someone will put a different spin on it and make someone blue or purple, but that's about the extent of it. I'm really happy that DDO broke that mold and gave a full variety, but that wasn't without some resistance from certain fans.
- It's often very hard to make a good looking non-white character in most games. I spent forever in SWG trying to come up with one, before finally giving up and making a twi'lek. Eyes will default to blue (my problem in cov), hair color never matches, skin colors often don't look natural. It's fairly obvious that not as much time is spent on those appearances, and my desire to look good outweighs my desire to be different.

Posted Mar 15, 2006 10:46:33 AM | link

Jefffrey Bardzell says:

There is in fact a very well known book on the subject of race in virtual worlds, though much of the research was done in MUDs and MOOs. It is Lisa Nakamura's book, _Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet_. The thesis (if I recall correctly) is that the Internet enables the proliferation of racial stereotypes on a scale hitherto unseen, creating a whole new qualitatively differeent category of race-based stereotyping.

One of the most interesting (and cited) concepts in the book is her notion of "identity tourism," in which people put on another race or ethnicity as if it were a costume, with no attempt to explore or understand the experience of that ethnicity or race. An example is the white guy who puts on a geisha outfit, so he can become his own Asian-stereotyped male fantasy. Samurai warriors would be another example of identity tourism.

This summary of course is a simplification of Nakamura's argument, but I hope it reflects the gist of it. I recommend it highly to anyone seriously interested in matters of race and ethnicity in online worlds.

A question I have been thinking about for a while and hope to write about soon is how one can responsibly put on another race or ethnicity in the hopes of developing a richer, more nuanced understanding of another race. If anyone else has been thinking about this, too, feel free to contact me offline.

Posted Mar 15, 2006 11:23:00 AM | link

Jeffrey Bardzell says:

I can spell my own name. Seriously. There's just two Fs.

Posted Mar 15, 2006 11:24:25 AM | link

JHD says:

I was going to mention Cybertypes, but I'm glad to see other people are already familiar with it. I highly recommend it not just for its treatment of race and ethnicity, but for its broader treatment of identity online.

As Nakamura says, while people speak of the Internet as being a place where bodies are transcended, bodily identity is actually very present online. Gender, race, and ethnicity exist online, but instead of being instantly "obvious" the way they are offline, these identities instead get automatically ascribed by Internet users to the people they interact with online. ("Obvious" is in quotatation marks because a lot of these obvious classifications aren't actually that obvious - a lot of people could be black or white going just by skin colour alone, for example).

Anyway, Nakamura found that in the online social spaces she studied, white and male were the default identities that people assumed you were, and you had to go out of your way to tell other people you weren't. Doing so, of course, reminded people that race and gender existed online, and also therefore the accompanying inequalities that went with them. She discusses at least one case where participants in a forum reacted in a hostile way to attempts to bring racial self-identification in, calling it socially divisive.

Of course, Nakamura was working with textually-based online spaces, but I think the visual nature of online games just adds another dimension to her essential point.

Regarding identity tourism, it's not just about race-bending, but claiming another identity at all online, such as passing as gay, for instance (not to criticize Jeffrey Bardzell, but I just wanted to make that point clear to people who hadn't read the book). I think using this term instead of more specific and ad-hoc ones such as "race-bending" would be better for ludology, not least because there's already a lot written about identity tourism and there's no need to go about reinventing the wheel.

Posted Mar 15, 2006 1:04:20 PM | link

Naomi Clark says:

I've encountered several thoughtful WOW players at this point who said they chose characters based in part on subtle cues in story and visual art that they perceived as indicating that the Alliance is mostly "white" or "European" (despite the fact that you can make dark-skinned human characters on the same mesh as light-skinned ones) and the Horde is mostly "indigenous" or "ethnic minority" in some ways. Some of the people I talked to about this were white players, some were not, some played Alliance and some played Horde, etc.

Here's a little list of interesting things about Azeroth... a lot of this also shows what a previous poster was saying about cultural mishmash:

- the first continent to be explored by the Warcraft games is the "eastern" one; like so many fantasy-world continents it has a huge ocean on the west, tropics in the south and arctics in the north, and a body of water in the middle (in this case a channel). (compare: Middle Earth, Faerun)

- the second continent shows up in WC3, and is across the ocean to the west, protagonists sail over there and found colonies

- humans, elves, and dwarves traditionally get along with eachother in the Warcraft universe and with the exception of the dark-reskinning option mentioned above, have pretty much been depicted as light skinned. The darkest are the night-elves, who are blue or purple and dusky, have buildings inspired partly by asian architecture and ocassionally sell korean traditional clothing and food (hanboks, for instance) in World of Warcraft. Night elves don't get along with the other parts of the Alliance as well and night elf players start out with less reputation with the other races, and vice versa.

- orcs, trolls, and tauren are all organized into tribes or clans. The dwarves also have clans, which basically splintered into three clans that didn't get along, and now one clan pretty much runs everything.

- The orcs were formerly controlled by demon overlords who addicted them to demon blood, which made them fierce and warlike, but also easily manipulated. They invaded the human lands in WC1 and WC2, were defeated and were then enslaved and forced to live in slave internment camps (one of which can still be found in WOW). The current leader of the orcs, Thrall, was a slave of a human noble who was trained to be a gladiator and an smart "pet orc." He rebelled and reclaimed his birthright, liberates his people from slavery at the beginning of WC3 and they set out across the ocean, following a prophetic vision.

- On the way the orcs rescue the Darkspear trolls, one of the many tribes of trolls from all over the world. Trolls are the "oldest race" according to some sources and are found in various tribes in all sorts of different climes -- ice trolls, desert trolls, forest trolls, island trolls, jungle trolls, etc. The darkspear trolls are island trolls and have very jamaican-sounding accents, do capoeria-like dances, and practice "voodoo." Their islands sink into the sea due to an evil villain and a catastrophe, so they join Thrall. (Orcs and other kinds of trolls had joined forces in earlier warcrafts.)

- On the new continent, the orcs find that the humans are setting up outposts. The orcs also meet the tauren, nomadic tribal people who look like minotaurs and whose architecture and accessories involve totem poles and teepees. They also teach the orcs about shamanic magic, which draws on natural/elemental powers. By WOW the trolls, orcs, and tauren can all use this kind of magic. The Tauren worship an "Earth Mother." They all team up together to help the Tauren migrate to a greener, less devastated area of the new continent, away from their racial enemies, the centaurs.

- The new continent, Kalimdor, is portrayed as a wild place less touched by civilization, but where nature is being corrupted/destroyed both by evil supernatural forces, but also by the technological/industrial force of the goblins. The goblins are from the eastern continent and are canny merchant types, they're green, short, have squeaky voices, have big ears, and the guys have big noses too. (see also: Ferengi) A bunch of quests in Kalimdor in WOW have to do with resisting this industrial destruction of nature (mostly given to you by the pro-nature druids).

- Back on the eastern continent, the humans worship "the Light" in big cathedrals with stained glass windows and archbishops and so forth. There's also a heretic offshoot, the Scarlet Crusade, which fanatically fights against the undead Scourge but against everyone else too, and is (spoiler) secretly being controlled by demons.

You can definitely accuse me of "looking for stuff" but all of this stemmed from creative decisions by Blizzard writers and artists, of course, who don't live a vacuum. They live in Northern California!

Posted Mar 15, 2006 2:58:40 PM | link

Brandon Salinas says:

I'm a white guy who pretty much always plays a black guy in these things. I didn't realize that was the case until I made my recent EVE character. I'm not sure why I do that. I certainly don't role-play them. I don't try to put on my idea of a "black" persona. And I never start up a new game thinking "All right, time to make a black guy!" But when fiddling with the character options, that's invariably the type of character I create.

Additionally, I haven't encountered any type of overt racial prejudice. People seem to treat me the same as everyone else.

Posted Mar 15, 2006 3:32:18 PM | link

JHA says:

I'm a tall blond white chick and I've played EQ, EQ2, WoW and L2. I've had one white main and 2 that were medium to dark skinned and one blue. And lots of various alts of different races.

The reason? I hadn't really thought about it until now when asked. When I create a character I want to create an avatar that looks good and is an ... expression? ... of my personality so that I'm comfortable playing. I consider 'femaleness' a distinct part of my personality and don't play males. I guess I never considered 'whiteness' as such.

And I've never been treated differently as an avatar based on skin color or perceived race.

Posted Mar 15, 2006 4:05:33 PM | link

illovich says:

I tend to make characters that bend racially, although I tend toward asians rather than africans--which might, on reflection, have something to do with internalized value systems of racism.

My main race bending char is also a gender bender, a paladin I played all the way to 60 based on a friend of mine who is female and Indian. I have some others of course, but I'm assuming the Night Elves don't count. I will say that I've never come across any racial crap in WoW, although I was called a nigger in Everquest a number of times when I would play my Erudite necro or paladin. Sometimes I reported it, others I just shrugged it off.

But really if you want to be called any number of colorful racial epithets, log into a FPS multiplayer server (you know, quake, half life, etc) with a black skin on. That'll put some hair on your proverbial chest.

Posted Mar 15, 2006 4:34:27 PM | link

mountb says:

I just started playing WoW at the suggestion of two friends who have been at it for a while. The three of us are all white males. I asked my two friends why they always play female characters and one reason they cited was that they get a lot of help (buffs, etc.) from other players when they do. This (whether characters of certain races/genders induce different from strangers) should be empirically testable.

Posted Mar 15, 2006 4:43:01 PM | link

illovich says:

asked my two friends why they always play female characters and one reason they cited was that they get a lot of help (buffs, etc.) from other players when they do. This (whether characters of certain races/genders induce different from strangers) should be empirically testable.

I certainly can't give empirical data, but anecdotally I would say that they speak the truth. In Everquest I once made a female wood elf to use as a mule, with the intent of simply running her to a druid circle and camping her there. I hadn't even made it out of the newb area before various people had given me about half my slots worth of equipment that I shouldn't have received for many levels (the braided ivy cords stick out in my mind, mainly becasue a friend had camped those for weeks).

I've never had it that good again (a testament, no doubt to the sheer sexual potency of the female wood elf model /shudder), but I've definitely been treated differently whenever I've played a femalew character.

Recently, as my 60 WoW Paladin was helping a level 20 Paladin do the Verigann's Fist quest, and I swear to god he was trying to keep mobs off me, so they wouldn't hurt my frail little level 60 Paladin, lol. (he told me later he was a guy, when he was about to try to cyber me I think -- he was crestfallen when I broke it to him I was a 36 year old man =)

Posted Mar 15, 2006 5:14:56 PM | link

almagill says:

I created a short, blonde 'cheerful' female character in SWG a while back to test out a theory (having previously played long haired, beardy males) that she'd at the very least get more help from other players and she did. From stepping in to help out when she was getting mauled by thugs in Eisley to giving her gifts of whole outfits, credits, weapons... Honest, I didn't encourage them, just played my toon like I normally would.

I later made her into a black female character, same skill set (MID/Ent/MPistols) and same physical attributes other than skin and hair colour. She'd get totally blanked when looking for help, has only ever earned credits from gear sold on the bazaar (ie without the buyer being able to see what the seller looked like) and generally got the bums rush.

She's now back to being tanned blonde and at least gets spoken to tho I can't make other comparisons, ie, how well she gets on selling stuff or how much help she gets in combat due to changes in the game mechanic.

Posted Mar 16, 2006 7:06:17 PM | link

Chas says:

I also found that my female character was more frequently invited and was much more often engaged in conversation than my male in SWG.

It wasn't all positive, however. In my own guild, alts weren't a secret, but also not largely advertised, so many people forgot that one of the respected officers in battle (my black male squad leader) was also the medic/bio-engineer that often (it seemed) was thrust in the role of guild shrink.

Not only did people NOT open up to my combat-oriented leader like they did with my other one, but when we'd get raided while I was playing the female, I wasn't taken seriously when I tried to organize a defense... often, the same advice they'd follow unwavering with one toon, they'd brush off when my lady said it.

Posted Mar 17, 2006 12:10:07 PM | link

Juan Incognito says:

One of my mains is a white human warrior, and while I am white IRL I'm not bald, nor much of a warrior. My two other mains are NE (purple) and troll (green).

Dammed if I know why I chose white, but I suspect it was default mode for me: I'm white so I went white. I'm more worried about why I chose a bald character, is this some sort of future quake from Juan 2020 or what?

Posted Mar 19, 2006 11:55:35 PM | link

Jason says:

Back in the days of UO, some friends and I created a guild designed specifically to "get things" for our other characters. We were all men, but all the characters in this guild were female and wore only black boots, a red cape and a skull mask. Every where we went, men just gave us stuff. We funded our other guild, bought castles and a great many other things just out of the things people gave our female characters.

Hm... I only play games where I can be a non-human. I'm not interested in elves, dwarves, or [insert generic resized human 'race' here]. Tauren, catfolk, frogloks, etc. fire my imagination and make me want to play them... but I'm bored to death and completely disinterested in having a human avatar. What does that say about me? :)

I'm actually the opposite. I prefer to play characters as close to myself in most games (my previous UO story as a glaring contradiction). I play human males because I am one, and I would prefer to be exploring a strange land than to be a part of the strange land others are exploring. A group of people I played EQ with jumped ship to WoW and formed a guild there... on the Horde side. I tried to join them, but after a couple of months I just became so completely disinterested in my characters that I joined the Alliance and now fight my old friends. The inhuman hunchbacks of the horde were just too much for me.

Posted Mar 22, 2006 9:42:11 AM | link

Adam Nash says:

Also of great interest is Professor Kali Tal's review of Nakamura's "Cybertypes".

Professor Tal never flinches. Her work is essential reading in any serious examination of race online.

Posted Mar 24, 2006 2:55:29 AM | link

The Drizzit says:

I used to play UO and had 3 chars. there, 2 white males 1 white female, and my thinking was exactly as the above: take from other males with female, give it to males. I played the male because am male and white.

But there is more to it. Some play some races because they feel like it and some play it because it is more practical or stronger. For example in many pen&paper games I witnessed players want to play as Drow; one of them had recently read the Dark Elf Trilogy by Salvatore and became a fighter/rogue, one of them read it but also read monsters' manual and knew drow would make cheese wizards so gave in to power, some wanted it because they really liked elves but, like many people, wanted to carry their skin colors to the game for better identifying with it and performance, yet some wanted to roleplay the whole drow thing as it was in the setting. The point is that all those players constitute only a very small percentage. When it comes to being dark skinned or playing a half-orc you find very few players. Consciously or unconcsciously they want to be "pure" humans, being a humanoid, or passing for human is not enough and is a matter to be cleared.

I remember my paladin that became evil through magic and how I refused to play it anymore. When they say "Evil is a point of view." I should say, I was blind then, and that is worse than having an evil view. I wasn't flexible enough to be bent to play with an evil character back then. The same passes for Alliance-Horde, Order-Chaos, Elf-Drow,etc... I guess the important thing is to respect the other side's wisdom however different or strange.

"You can definitely accuse me of "looking for stuff" but all of this stemmed from creative decisions by Blizzard writers and artists, of course, who don't live a vacuum. They live in Northern California!"

I wholly agree with the above thoughts. Noone is living in a vacuum, especially one that is not constantly bombarded with "this is good/powerful, this bad/weak."

P.S.: I'm writing a thesis on something like: being a dark elf in Faerun. any helping thoughts are appreciated.

Posted Jun 15, 2006 6:38:27 AM | link

Kittie says:

It's a game. A place of fantasy. I get cranky when I have to play a human and don't particularly care one iota what "colour" she winds up being when I make her. It has to suit the colour schema, the bio I give her and the intended result of her play.

Yes, I always play a female. Tried to play a male once....lasted all of one day. *shudders*

I am almost always a kobold or an elf simply because I tend to like the backstory on those races and find I enjoy them. 99% of my characters will be such, unless I want to make a class that is not allowed to one of those races. Then I will, upon necessity, make a change to that, of course.

Then there are my games that I play that are not fantasy, but sci-fi based....even those wind up being as far out and as "in character" as I can make them...they have to fit the class, the story and the intent.

Colour only plays a part in so much as a light skinned, pale haired assassin has MUCH more difficulty hiding in the dark than a dark skinned, dark haired assassin. And, when you play PvP - you /want/ to hide well. AI's might overlook your glowing in the dark behind.....another player will see you as a pretty target begging to be taken out (the reason I hate glowing weapons, as well).

My avatars vary wildly from deep, midight blue to glow in the dark alabaster. Green to orange. Tall to short. Where weight can be adjusted: slim to overweight. Where facials can be adjusted, frowning to laughing. Where hair can be adjusted, bright pink to midnight black. Short to long.

It's all about the character. The fictional character that needs a place in the evolving story. It is not about how I view myself, it is about how I view the character I am creating for a particular part I wish to see filled in a particular world in a particular story.

Sometimes I wish this whole world would just wind up in a vat of purple dye, put in a shaker and poured out all over the world in places other than where they are so deeply entrenched and be forced to open their minds.

Posted Jan 3, 2007 11:16:53 AM | link