In My Tribe—Digital Elves

By Nathaniel Poor, PhD.

A while ago, when I was playing Dragon Age II, I was reading over some wiki entry for elves in the game. It went on about all of these parallels between DA elves and various “native” peoples and other minorities who had been oppressed by more powerful groups of people. I realized, “There is something to this…” and the light was on for a paper exploring the issues. I’ve been a gamer longer than I have been an academic, and used to know the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve read some Tolkien, played some Elder Scrolls and EverQuest 2, and in pretty much every fantasy setting you have elves—elves are often a marker for “Hey, this is a fantasy setting! See these elves over here? You can also expect magic, swords, dragons, evil, and maidens and all that!” (Space elves are rare or unheard of.) Elves are often treated the same across settings, like the wiki entry said, as a minority stand in. Elves aren’t literally human within the text (game, book, movie, whatever), but sometimes you have half-elves so they are kind of human, and in a fictional sense they are standing in for humans, even though there are humans right there with them. Elves are humans.

Merrill, from Dragon Age II, one as herself (left) and the other without her tattoos and ears. As you can see, elves are humans, and usually white, unless they are evil. (Click to enlarge)

But elves are usually white. They are usually white skinned (despite their description in D&D), which doesn’t mean Western white culture, since elves are usually portrayed as “natural” and non-technological (so, magic users and bows). Magic, bows, and poison actually go back to the root of elves (“elf shot”), but I’ll talk about that later. And, fantasy settings usually just have a bunch of white people running around (like the recent Tolkien movies). So, if you have a Western fantasy setting, you fill it with white people, some of which are human and some of which are elves, and the white elves act like non-white minorities. Very strange. Non-whites really get erased here.

Of course there are the dark elves, or in D&D parlance, the drow (however you want to pronounce it). They’re kind of black. So, you do have black elves, and they’re usually evil or at least their archetype (the drow) are, and the drow own slaves. And the drow are hyper-sexualized even more than women usually are in a fantasy setting. There was a lot to cover. And the Redguard in the Elder Scrolls, who “are” African-American in every way except there is neither Africa nor America in those games. What a huge set of issues all relating to elves!

So I realized there was a paper here. It could go a bunch of different directions, and I wasn’t a race scholar, nor do I usually do cultural studies. Initially, with all the history (D&D, Tolkien) and settings for digital elves (Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, World of Warcraft, EverQuest), the paper was on track to be 40,000 words. I wrote about 20,000 before pausing and thinking about publication. No one publishes anything like 40,000 words. So I targeted an appropriate journal, Games & Culture, which I am happy to say accepted it after a round of edits, and aimed for their limit of 10,000 words (I also presented it at PCA-ACA in Boston last spring).

There are a ton of sources for elves—elves are intertextual (a favorite new word of mine). And they all inform and influence each other. The two big background ones are, I feel, D&D and Tolkien, but there are older stories which some of the game and fiction people know about (see the afterword to Greenwood’s Dark Warrior Rising, for instance). Elves are portrayed differently in every setting, but they are always identifiable as elves (usually it’s the ears, and maybe bows and arrows or magic).

The “white-ness” of elves is prominent in many genres of popular culture, not just digital games. This has raised many discussion about racial issues.

High elves, dark elves, half elves, and wood elves are the most commonly encountered elf tropes. But some texts have only elf-elves, but they are like the high elves found elsewhere. Some elves are very race-conscious and are into racial purity. There are different versions of dark elves across different sources. Dragon Age and the Elder Scrolls both treat half elves differently from D&D, as does Tolkien, where people of mixed parentage have to decide if they are elf or human. WoW doesn’t have half elves in the online game (maybe one?) but allows them in the tabletop version. D&D has all its different editions and over time have gone nuts with different possible elf types—golden elves, aquatic elves, desert elves maybe. Grey elves? I had to make some choices.

There’s a lot of good literature about games and race, a lot of it by Lisa Nakamura. Not all of it, I was glad to see, is about the common white/black racial thematic we have in America. Elves are very Western, other cultures probably have something similar for their mythological and historical settings that parallel the Western “fantasy” setting, which one blogger called “McEurope”. Don’t for a second think that historical Europeans only knew about white people, the Moors conquered Spain and held it for a long time, Northern Africa is right there and the Romans were all over it, and trade with the far east is thought to have brought the plague to Europe. Even Alexander the Great went stomping around India. The Crusaders kept heading to the Middle East.

When you get into the history of elves, the person to speak to is Alaric Hall. He’s awesome, and sent me a copy of his dissertation, which is an amazing review of the ancient narrative construction of elves—this is what I was trying to do, but with video games as texts! And, the guy must speak like five dead European languages, like early medieval proto-Scandinavian or something. Everyone should read his book. He put me on to “elf shot”, which was that elves would shoot you with their magical poisoned arrows. Today we still see elves using magic (high elves, dark elves), poison (dark elves), and arrows (wood elves especially). It’s the same thing.

What’s also the same, as Alaric explained to me, was that elves used to stand in for an “other” or the “other” to the early pre-Christian Europeans. Elves weren’t from your village, so they weren’t you. But they were more magical than the local witch, but they also weren’t like the more non-human magical creatures like trolls or dwarves. So, they were humans, just not your humans, and thus, an other. People also didn’t see race or species in the same way we do currently, as we have Linnaean categories and such now. And, elves were real—socially real, like Santa Claus to children can be very real. You hadn’t seen them, but you saw something they had done, or you knew someone who had seen them.

Alaric also put me on to a piece by a Danish scholar, Tangherlini (1995), who wrote: “Nineteenth-century legends assigned the role of the ‘Other’ to supernatural beings. Contemporary legend tradition, apart from being characteristically shocking, shows a tendency to assign the role of the ‘Other’ to Greenlanders, Pakistanis, Turks, Palestinians, Iranians and other ethnic minorities and immigrants.” There’s a lot more in that article which describes that all in greater depth.

So, elves are still doing the same thing today. I realized the white/black analytical frame didn’t fit well, more of a Native American frame did, since elves are often portrayed as “natural” humans, they are more in tune with nature. One race scholar, Robert Entman (Entman & Rojecki, 2001), wrote how “Race classifies according to physical traits, primarily skin shade” (p. 241) or for elves it’s almost solely the pointy ears. Also, “Racial distinctions are heavily cultural if not arbitrary” (p. 242). The fantasy genre has its own rules for race—which of course isn’t race at all, it’s species. Elves, human, orcs, ogres, gnomes, and dwarves, are all different species in the fantasy setting (so, if there are dwarves that love gems and live in mountains, you don’t have human dwarves—that is, if there are dwarves, there are no dwarves). Yet, in fantasy we use the word race consistently—I think if a species can be a playable character, then there’s a human behind it, so it becomes a “race” somehow. It’s weird, and that explanation doesn’t fit well to books, but it’s about human or human-like agency. I read one of Salvatore’s Drizzt books, he talks about “race” a lot in there but it’s all different species (like giants and drow), but it’s a stand in for our real-world human racism.

Dark elves or elves that are evil are more sexualized and tend to be non-white.

One thing that I hadn’t thought about, since I don’t usually do race or gender, is that in the past elves were written about by educated white guys—the priests and scribes who wrote and copied manuscripts and such. Today? Same thing. Mostly educated white guys (there’s some work and some commentary on game devs and their demographics). In some ways, given Western culture, not too surprising, but it certainly can limit how elves are used in the narrative sense. Which is why, when you get something a bit different, like Elfquest which was written by a husband and wife team, it is really refreshing but hard to fit into the typical elf tropes.

Half elves are also treated rather oddly. No one likes them (although I always like playing a half elf ranger). Usually, in Western culture, if you’re half majority and half minority (i.e., half white and half something else), you are labeled with the minority label. President Obama has a white parent (from Kansas) and a black parent (from Africa). Kansas and Africa are thematically very white and very black. Yet, President Obama can say he is black and no one will blink. He can say he’s mixed race. He cannot say he’s white. As a math major, that makes no sense to me, it’s purely cultural. But, like Entman wrote, race is arbitrary. Of course half elves aren’t usually called half human, perhaps since they are labeled by a human narrator so in a meta-narrative sense are being labeled as a minority.

And all that just scratches the surface of digital elves and all of the related topics. And I didn’t even mention how we don’t know where Gygax actually got the idea for dark elves from, which is a whole other story with several false leads that you can find online.

Nathaniel Poor (@natpoor)  is a writer, researcher, and former professor of social, technological, and legal aspects of the Internet, mobiles, and electronic games. His article “Digital Elves as a Racial Other in Video Games: Acknowledgment and Avoidance” will appear in print in September in the journal Games and Culture. -Ed.

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Related articles about race and avatars:

Ecce Orcus! An argument for Humanizing the Orc by Mordicai Knode on Tor.com

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft – by Lisa Nakamura

Finally, a Black Female Protagonist in a game – in Play As Life

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