The Problem with Elves

I like roleplaying. I always did, as far as I can remember, ever since childhood make-believe games. At the very least, it’s pleasant and relaxing entertainment that’s not only interactive, engaging of imagination, and also has variety to it, as no RP experience is exactly like others. At its best, it’s also an opportunity to connect to people and seek to understand them, and in doing so, learn something about the real world through analogies in the imaginary one. In fact, this seemed so natural to me that when I first touched World of Warcraft, I found it surprising that “RP” was a separate server category worth special mentioning, that in fact most players were not roleplayers and approached the game from a purely game-mechanical perspective, without immersing themselves in the lore-rich, lovingly crafted fantasy world around them!

Specifically in WoW, I have a long history with the roleplaying community, having played multiple RP characters of different races over time1. And recently, I had one of those “what can roleplaying tell me about people” moments that I always appreciate.

It was a weekly event, a sermon in the Temple of the Moon led by a surprisingly open-minded priestess (surprisingly by the average standards of night elf RPers) who was basically Leliana, belief-wise. She was arguing from an “Elune loves you all” perspective towards greater acceptance of arcanists and foreigners, extending a hand towards people of other races who worship Elune, against the common accusations that such lines of thinking erode traditional night elf values, and echoing the reasonable statement that the culture needs to change with the times.

And then, one of the listeners raised her hand and asked something along the lines of:

“But then how am I supposed to feel superior to outsiders?”

And then something clicked in my head. This was perhaps the first time I heard someone express that unspoken motivation this bluntly and explicitly, but it was evidence in favor of some of my suspicions.

I hold it self-evident that players gravitate towards RPing fictional cultures that appeal to them personally, which results in players actually reinforcing stereotypes of cultures they portray. Compared to the real world, where they may not necessarily fit into their native culture, through the arcane and mysterious power of Character Creation, players can make the retroactive choice of where to have been born and raised, and they tend to select something that echoes with them. It’s why you don’t see many pacifist orcs: players who aren’t sold on “WAAAAGH BLOOD AND THUNDER!” are less likely to choose orcs in the first place.

And that there is the problem with night elf roleplayers that, upon reflection, is not unique to night elves in WoW (and I expect the situation to be the same with blood elves on the Horde side), but with pretty much any post-Tolkienian fantasy race that fits the broad elf archetype — that being, ancient, long-lived, aesthetically pleasing, and in possession of ancient wisdom. Pointed ears and living in woods are, in fact, entirely optional here.

Heck, in WoW RP, even draenei don’t get the same amount of scorn and resentment towards them from other races as night elves do, despite lore-wise being even more ancient, more long-lived, and generally virtuous and having the moral high ground. Players may still be sour about Blizzard’s heavy-handed retcon of the draenei backstory, but they’re generally not resentful towards draenei players themselves. I suspect that part of it is the “funny foreigner” associations that the draenei evoke, with their accents and decidedly alien appearances, and part of it is their status as refugees and underdogs, someone we can sympathize with. Their entire history, ever since their schism with the eredar, is one of suffering. Yes, the night elves have also suffered from two Legion invasions, but they haven’t had to constantly flee one world after another with the Legion in hot pursuit for 25,000 years…

Based on my observations, it seems a lot of people play elves — any elves — to feel superior. Acting out a desire to feel superior by virtue of merely existing. To be awed and respected without actually doing anything to earn that awe and respect.

It’s especially ironic in Warcraft, which is generally careful not to portray any race as inherently more capable than others, unlike other fantasy works that portray elves as basically “better humans” and establish that anything humans can do, elves can do better.2 In Warcraft, there is no indication that any race can reach heights that literally no other race cannot; at most, we can say that longer-lived races have more time to practice their craft, which is often offset by them having narrow and culturally prescribed interests. In fact, every single society in Warcraft has obvious, glaring flaws and blind spots, and neither kind of elves are an exception.

That, too, is nothing new, but what really made me think deeper about it was how… unironic that sentence seemed. How the player, like the character, seemed to really be sold on the idea of elven superiority. Before, I thought that most RPers who acted out racial stereotypes did so consciously. That they analyzed and noted the blind spots in the fictional culture being portrayed, and chose to consciously replicate them from their impartial position in the real world. (It’s what I do, at least, when my characters do match their racial stereotype in some ways and don’t in others.) Now, though, I wonder… what if they not only don’t notice the flaws that were explicitly put there by the original writers, but think of these flaws as virtues, something desirable, something that drew them to playing that race in the first place?

A worrying thought.

1 All Alliance, though. Never had much interest in Horde RP.

2 Tolkien, in my opinion, committed the grave mistake of trying to have his cake and eat it too. The race that he by his own admission “called mistakenly Elves” were an idealized metaphor of certain aspects of human nature that he respected, free of some limitations that humans have in the expression of their creativity. Unfortunately, in the actual text it often translates to “elves are just better, whatever you do”. It would be fine if they stayed on the sidelines as a sort of “NPC race”, mysterious and ineffable, though I don’t think portraying a fictional culture as inherently alien promotes understanding of real cultures in real life. But even that flies out of the window considering how many elven characters in Middle-earth are protagonists whom we’re supposed to identify with — as opposed to walking mysteries like Gandalf, whose real nature is only revealed in supplemental materials. Cue the predictable resentment from the all-human readers: they hang out with us, they’re a lot like us, we can find common ground with them, but they’re just unfairly gifted in virtually every way!

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