Mired in the Past

A continuous plague, not just in gaming, but in real life, is the continued use and belief in non-Mendelian genetic inheritance. This can be particularly hurtful towards, and irritating to, POC who identify as “Mixed-race” individuals. This is because non-Mendelian ideas of inheritance come loaded with social stigmas and pervasive stereotypes that we still labour under to this day, despite serious science’s rejection of them. This affects gaming by reinforcing negative impressions of the “half-breed” player races and by extension, actual people of mixed ethnicity. When Gregor Mendel did his work on peas, he immediately disproved the existing ideas about what we now know as genetic inheritance. If you need a quick crash course in Mendel’s work, and Punnett Squares, check out this video. Unfortunately, the more common sense sounding “Blending” inheritance model and the disastrous aftermath of the laws designed to classify ethnicity via blood quantum and one-drop laws continue to affect us both in reality and in game.[1][2] So buckle up, this one is going to be a bit science-y, and then I’m going to look at how fantasy races (species?) act as the other, and reinforce real world prejudices and beliefs. As previous, D&D will the fantasy gaming world I’m examining, as it is the most prominent and popular.

There are a lot of social issues faced by people of mixed-ethnicity, few of which have anything to do with their genetic background. The issues faced by POC of mixed-ethnicity are largely societal, and are exacerbated in societies with more binary views on ethnicity. In broad strokes, it’s society that determines whether a POC of mixed-ethnicity feels like they’re accepted and a part of the larger picture or if they’re alienated and feel as though they’re forced to choose between two cultures. In games, the game designers cling to classically racist ideas that everybody is separate, no one mixes, and when they do, the result is always tragic, rejected, or fits a very specific niche in society but never truly integrates into said society. So, what’s the first issue up? Genetics. I’m not going to look at Planar hybrid races, or other magical hybrids, as this is already applying real science to a fantasy game and I’m too lazy to try to factor in magical/planar DNA (super-dominant genes?). That said, genes come in two types, dominant and recessive. These are not descriptions of the superiority or inferiority of any one gene, just which ones will express over other ones. When you see something, or someone, that seems to be “blended”, what you’re seeing is co-dominant gene expression. These traits are not inseparable however, and do not pass equally to the offspring. [3] Using a Punnett Square, you can see that if an Elf and Human mate and have offspring, each result is a hybrid Elf/Human. (based on the assumption that “race” in game can be boiled down to two dominant genetic traits)

For these Punnett Squares: E = Elf, H = Human, O = Orc

Elf x Human Hybrid

Makes sense right? So, what happens when you get two Elf/Human hybrids to mate and produce offspring? All the same right? No. You’d get 1/4 chances of full Elf or full Human, and a  1/2 chance at hybrid offspring. Why? Because that’s how, in a very simplified manner, genetics work.

EHH x EHH Offspring

Were an Orc/Human hybrid and an Elf/Human hybrid to mate and have offspring, the results get even more interesting, with the potential for a new player race that is, as far as I know, officially undocumented in the D&D universe. That being a 1/4 chance of an Elf/Orc hybrid, along with equal chances of Elf/Human hybrid, Orc/Human hybrid, or Human offspring. I should point out now that I don’t subscribe to the idea that certain races in game cannot naturally interbreed with others. If an Elf or Orc can breed with a Human, logically they should be able to breed with one-another. Again, magical assistance doesn’t factor here.

OHH x EHH Offspring

So, that’s the hard science bit done, time for some social science. In the big picture, having a mixed-ethnicity background was not a huge issue until the 18th century or so, and it became a very big issue rapidly in areas dependent on slave labour, such as the USA and much of the Caribbean. Contrary to popular thinking, people got around in the old days, prior to aircraft and cars, and they did what they’ve always done. Hook up. It wasn’t until it became a moral panic, ushered on by the “science” of eugenics and in the case of the USA, the need to keep Whites in power, that it suddenly became a liability. Which ushered in a raft of assumptions and narratives designed to dissuade people from “making a mistake” and breeding outside their own kind.

The Tragic Mulatto is one of the most enduring story narratives that continues to be reused by lazy writers and game designers, and is part of why having a mixed-ethnicity background became a problem in the popular mind. [4][5][6] Essentially, it’s a story of fear, of losing ones place and acceptance in society because of ones secret heritage. It’s also all about discrimination against the individual for not being “one of us”. It’s also a fabrication based on racism and fear mongering, effectively a self fulfilling prophecy when presented, because the writer or game designer has decided that having a character who isn’t 100% something is immediately an outsider. A fairly severe sanction and reduction in the agency of the player. In its lightest form, it’s something like this: “Sorry mate, even though you’ve helped save the kingdom twice over, all the Elves at court are snubbing you for your Human heritage. You spend the night alone in the corner.” In its more severe form, a character risks lynching if the villagers find out his father was a Half-Orc. Either way, it does not accurately represent the experiences of a mixed-ethnicity person. By continuing to use tropes like the “Tragic Mulatto”, writers and game designers subtly reinforce the ideas that make it difficult for POC to integrate fully in society.

Moving deeper into perception, a common line in all of the D&D examples of Half-X races is that they are rejected by both sides of their family, and must choose between them. Or better yet, mediate between them. Some are even described as being smarter/deadlier/more talented than their full blooded kin, but are still looked down on. This is an immature, and frankly, overly simplistic view of the subject. Realistically, people of mixed ethnicity identify most with the culture that accepts them. By sticking to the American binary on culture and ethnicity, with all of its flaws and deep roots in racism, it doesn’t accurately portray the experiences of many POC, but it reinforces the idea that blood equals loyalty, and therefore, if you’re not “pure” you’re not to be trusted. It also pushes the idea that mixed-race (or their real world versions, mixed-ethnicity) individuals must try harder and simply accept that they will never be accepted, despite their efforts.

The last bit of social science I’ll lay out  is the brutal, BRUTAL commentary on mixed-race/multi-ethnic relationships presented by the Half-X player races in D&D. That being, they don’t work. Period. There are two standard Half-X races in D&D, Half Elves and Half Orcs. Half Elves are routinely described as being the result of one night stands, illicit relationships, or rape; Half Orcs are more or less always the product of rape. Classy right? The mother is almost inevitably abandoned, and raises an unwanted, unloved hybrid child. So, at a brisk pace, D&D establishes that mating outside your kind only leads to heartache, unloved children, and single parenthood. Unless you’ve missed it, these are stereotypes of mixed-ethnicity relationships in the real world as well; to be specific, ones between Blacks and Whites.

Science is over now. Lets talk Half Elves. On the old biracial scale, these are the “exotic coloureds”. Half Elves have evolved in dribs and drabs through editions, but a few things remain consistent. They’re physically attractive to Humans, make great entertainers (the Half Elf Bard is a well worn stereotype), and they’re simultaneously loners (living longer than Humans but not as long as Elves) and diplomats (because being biracial means you mediate a lot I guess). As portrayed in setting associated novels, they are proficient at their classes, but seldom form good relationships easily, and with the exception of the Eberron setting in 3.5e D&D, never form their own societies or cultures. Half Elves, as presented, reinforce the idea that mixed-ethnicity people are attractive, but can never fit in.

If Half Elves got the vaguely positive(ish) stereotyping about having mixed ancestry, Half Orcs got all the negative ones. To be blunt, where the Half Elf is the “exotic” eye candy entertainer or attractive loner, Half Orcs are the “niggers” of the D&D world. Dumb, brutish, violent, unattractive, devoid of culture and seemingly unable to engage in high culture; they pretty much got every negative stereotype applied to POC males all at once. A lot of this can be traced back to Tolkien’s works, and his portrayal of Orcs. Where game mechanics no longer support these ideas officially, they’re perpetuated by the gaming community. For POC in gaming, this is pretty awful stuff. In addition to all the nature over nurture stuff, it simply recasts old racism in a new light, and reinforces the idea that some POC of mixed ancestry are just going to be more violent and crude in every way. Again, I must add a caveat for Eberron, where everything Orc was turned on its head.

Moving outside of the core books, things get grimmer for the most part. Ogres can apparently breed with anything, as can their offspring, and their offspring and so on, and so on; which leads to a lovely creature called a “Mongrel Man”, the ultimate result of the blending theory of genetic inheritance. Nice eh?

Mongrel Man AD&DMoving to Dark Sun, we find another non-magical hybrid, the Mul (pronounced “mule”). These hardy, muscular, and oddly hairless hybrids are Dwarf/Human mixes. They’re bred(!) for slave labour, gladiatorial battles and so on. As a bonus? Sterile. This is an old racist belief, discarded in the distant past, but brought back for the Muls of Athas. Not only are they the only hybrid race I know of with an actual name (as opposed to a description of their component parts), they’re also one of the most racist things I’ve seen in D&D. Everything about them screams back the days of chattel slavery in the American South, and even their name is an easily perceived slur. 

Overall, D&D over the years has gone out of its way to portray hybrids in negative terms. Where this impacts POC gamers is that it effectively, if subtly and indirectly, reinforces the stereotypes and perceptions of real world mixed-ethnicity people. It furthers an unwanted, inaccurate narrative that stresses alienation and mental torment as the norm for people with mixed backgrounds. They also not so subtly reinforce the idea that not only are mixed relationships unworkable, but also undesirable. All the while espousing outdated genetic inheritance ideas. This is lazy writing. It’s lazy, hack creativity. I’m not saying that D&D should be a big love in, or that everyone needs to date outside their ethnic group. I’m not trying to hijack “Your” fantasy. I’m simply saying that these narratives are outdated and disproven, and that its time to leave it by the wayside and move on to a better, more nuanced and developed set of narratives. Maybe even ones where negative concepts aren’t relentlessly reinforced.

7 comments

  • This is an absolutely fantastic discussion of the old “hybrid=Bad” trope that is so common in many fantasy game settings.

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  • Curious Gamer

    I know it’s a few years late, but this was the appropriate article for my question.. though I do touch on some things in a recent Eladrin-related article.

    Are there positive (or at the least ‘acceptable’) uses for ‘half-breed’ archetypes and designations? For instance, my current idea for the creation of dwarves, gnomes, and humans is the interbreeding of the elves of nature (loosely based in norse myth) and the elves of magic (loosely based on irish myth). The elves of nature and magic themselves each have subraces, based on the climate they’re born in more than anything else, and there’s no inherent discrimination against the half-blooded races – save from the semi-obligatory Master Race sect of elves who sit in their corner empire and stew about not living up to their own hype. Humans, dwarves, and gnomes suffer a lessened lifespan from the incompatable magicks, but gain easier variety in skill and ability provided regional access to training if needed.
    Does this seem okay, or is the trope still harmful in this context?

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