Three Changing Stereotypes of Writing and Game Design

Gaming and writing, they both have their stereotypes. A lot of the time
those do overlap, and these days it comes out a lot in the great big MMO
since those have huge audiences and well, that’s what I most commonly
play at the moment anyhow. http://gametheoryonline.com/2010/09/17/women-gamer-stereotype-girl-grrl-ladies-female-gaming/ (with the occasional veering off into
Oblivion” or “The Incredible Machine” series) But what’s changing, for
better or for worse? Today I’ll look at a couple major stereotypes of
gaming, and writing, that are moving from beyond the old ideas.

1) WELL-ENDOWED FEMALE CHARACTERS – They still exist, though Lara Croft
from “Tomb Raider” has gone down maybe a cup size from when I played it
in college. Lol, anybody seen a “World of Warcraft” female orc? Or a
Guild Wars 2” female norn? (or a female human, for that matter)?

It’s a holdout from long ago – both in writing and in game design. Let’s
face it; sex sells. Big-breasted women were once a staple in pulp
fiction, going back to the 1950’s (most “pulp fiction” would have been called “sci-fi” at the time, no matter what it was: http://ejas.revues.org/9872 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_fiction_magazine for ref). You can find a ton of it from that 

era through the 1970’s with covers full of some impossibly-well-endowed
woman wearing a tight corset and wielding a sniper pistol, stun gun,
sword, dagger, etc, etc, etc. “The sexy fighter”, let’s call her. To be
fair, males of sf/fantasy were generally “ruggedly good-looking” (and
they generally seemed to know it).

The well-endowed female spread over to game design once people discovered
that could be done; hell, I still remembered impossibly-curvy Lara Croft
in “Tomb Raider” of the late 1990’s, and big-breasted women were on the
covers of a ton of arcade games well before that, especially pinball
cabinets which are well, older than dirt lol. “World of Warcraft” poked
fun at the “Fabio” type of male character following their Cataclysm
update several years ago now, with a hilarious paladin they stuck out in
the jungle, who’s constantly obsessed with “maiden-saving”, looks like
he’s never fought in one battle, is perfectly coiffed and has shiny
armor.

The curious thing is that the “well-endowed female” does still exist but
a lot of the time, you are now given options as to what amount of
“endowedness” you want. I know that in various MMO’s you can now choose
cup size, from what I recall at least you can choose “body type” (like
GW2 does) . I believe even LOTRO allows for this to some extent.

2)THE TOLKIEN FORMAT – In writing, this was impossible to ignore.
EVERYBODY wanted to be Tolkien. Make up languages, save the world, have
an anti-hero and/or some nobody save things. So then, we end up with
Dungeons and Dragons” in the very late 1970’s (in fact, 1978 – the year
I was born – was when the first boxed set came out). Anyone can be a
knight, sorcerer, etc, there. In writing, this idea continues to this
day – sometimes to a good result, sometimes to a badly-done one.

In gaming, the ideas of Tolkien live on there too. All-fantasy world?
Check. Languages? Check. (MMO’s tend to do this more, granted)… Joe
Schmo-who all of a sudden can change the world (and save it) ? Check.
One big bad guy you can’t ignore? Check. Having to destroy something to
save the world? Check (not often seen). Having to save the world in
group (you can’t possibly do it byself)? Check. Good characters are
specifically identified and so are Evil characters? Check. Etc, etc,
etc…

I’m leaving all the actual “Lord of the Rings”/”Hobbit” games out of this
for obvious reasons. Though, I will note that “LOTRO” does it the most
true to the books.

Anyway…

Games that stuck to this old format are wayy too numerous to count. They
date back to “Dragon Warrior“, you see, in the 1980’s. Yeah, that old –
and that’s a looong time. If you played “Ultima Online” or “Everquest
you saw it in that game, too, when the great MMO started. Suddenly,
there were a TON of “Joe-Schmo”‘s all fighting together – sometimes with
each other, granted, but they fought side by side too. A tiny bit of change has happened here, specifically due to WoW, though Joe Schmo in general does still save the world with his friends. Even though WoW does indeed go for that too, for instance, and 

the various races show snippets of their own languages, there’s also some
interesting changes: For one thing, the “fantasy” in “World of Warcraft”
has changed a bit to include more “speculative fiction” things, more
“what-ifs”. You can see it as far back as their inclusion of Forsaken as
a character, the people of former Lordaeron who were unfortunate enough
to be poisoned and then reborn.

You can also see it in the inclusion of orcs, goblins, tauren, and trolls
as playable races. Horde vs Alliance. Alliance-side are recognizable
Tolkein-esque peoples, from gnomes (replacing hobbits) to dwarves to
humans to elves. But – the Horde? Yeah, that was another matter. Who
went and thought “hey, what if you could BE an orc?” as opposed to “orcs
are evil”? Back then, nobody, in either writing or game design. So
yeah, it was pretty ground-breaking for its time. (It should be noted
that in writing this is still a fairly new concept, though back when I’d
started to consider it – well before I discovered WoW – there were one or
two other authors thinking of the same thing). So, ok, we now have it
possible for you, the player, to experience “Good vs Evil” from the other
side of things. (or from both sides, if you want – I was always one of
those WoW players who not only yelled “For the Horde” but “For the
Alliance” as well).

“World of Warcraft” also dared to try out including a space-born race in
their Burning Crusade expansion, further broadening their speculative
look at fiction. The draenai were from a whole different planet, in
fact, the blown-up remnants of which you could visit via a portal. Blood
elves, also introduced in that expansion, were not from space but they
were equally different; players discovered fairly fast that they were the
sexier cousins to regular elves of the game, and they ended up more
popular (actually the real reason for that one is just drawing-based, I
think; to this day I still don’t think Blizzard has fixed the artwork for
the humans or the elves, so they look all blocky).

Elder Scrolls” games also went for something different than the generic
formula. They start the player out as a prisoner, every time, for one
thing. And that prisoner (you) has to go through the world, try and find
out who he/she is, and in the end fight a big bad guy. But the prisoner
idea – that’s pretty interesting, if you ask me. (They also say that
when they start “Elder Scrolls Online” they’ll continue with that format,
so don’t worry, ES fans:)).”Guild Wars2” changed this even further. While in “Guild Wars” you have only humans available (though it’s noted that they didn’t come from 

Tyria, the GW world http://wiki.guildwars.com/wiki/Species), in GW2 
 there are various races that aren’t even specifically “good” OR
“evil”. There are also the asura – these little guys were introduced in
“Guild Wars” but made playable in GW2, and they’re a highly-intelligent
race, who can build amazing things and make inventions superior to
everyone else. The charr peoples on the other hand used to be at war
with the humans, and as of GW2 they aren’t. (The charr currently seem to
just be at war with their old gods, or fighting civil wars of their own).
So you can now see a lot of futuristic influence in games.

I for one am glad of this branching out beyond the old Tolkien-esque
ideas.

3) RACIAL/ETHNIC STEREOTYPES

Everything, from “Grand Theft Auto” to WoW has these.
GFA is about gangsters, for instance. There’s some fantastic writing in
it. I don’t deny that one bit. However, an Eastern European who comes
to America and learns about gang life here from his cousin is a fairly
generic stereotype. So, too, by now is “troll talk” from Wow – which is
actually more like Jamaica, (mon).

Or, there’s the idea that humans in MMO gaming are generally bland. I
don’t know why this keeps on happening but it does; humans in “World of Warcraft” have the most boring, generic “someone screwed us over” story
(as opposed to the trolls who got kicked off their island by this band of
naga and end up refugees, then to take back the same islands later on, or
the gnomes who end up irradiating themselves by accident and so are
refugees to the dwarves… or the tauren who are a fairly neat knock-off
of native american culture…). Humans in “Guild Wars 2” – same thing.
You deal with bandits. You are at war with the world. You’ve got a
queen/king/whatever, etc, etc, etc… AION doesn’t even have specific
humans, so they kind of got past that neatly. LOTRO is NOT free of this
idea; I still don’t like even their humans and they are my favorite MMO
to date. But the humans all come from Bree (no matter if they’re
originally of Gondor), and they’re all just kind of – well, boring to me.
It always gives me a “been there, done that” feeling playing a human in
an MMO, to tell the truth. And that one really hasn’t changed.
Personally, I got past it in WoW with what ended up being one of my
favorite characters: the self-named Ysabeta the Great (del Norte), a
“Spanish” ret paladin who would scream in Spanish every time she went
into battle (which was every five minutes), whose mission in life was to
beat the crap out of every single “persona roja” (what she called the
crimson crusaders) or “huerco” (orc)… I had another human, Bregola, who
was only a little bit as successful, a mage who was kind of a
profiteer/archaeologist (it worked somewhat better after you could
actually do archaeology). Even so, I’d like it if we were given ideas of
that kind or better instead of “generic human”. Someone please change
this???!

And then there’s elves. Ohhh, elves. In some ways they’re stereotyped
worse than humans are in gaming. RPGs have them, yeah. In writing, they
go back to the 1920’s actually, with “The King of Elfland’s Daughter” by
Lord Dunsanay. Tolkien, though, again had the most influence on how
elves are perceived – in both writing and gaming.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elves_in_fantasy_fiction_and_games) In a lot 

of ways, it’s too bad; personally I’d love to see something for elves
other than tree-worshipping, nature-loving people who both do and don’t
do “magic” but are superior to others just because they ARE superior.

It’s one of the things I actually loved about WoW. Some
people didn’t like Burning Crusade, but I do specifically because that
expansion gave us a whole different kind of elf: blood elves. These
guys are addicted to magical energy, they’re constantly fighting undead
elves of their area which has been a bit poisoned by their own actions,
and they even have a kick-ass enemy of their own (hey, I almost prefer
going through to kill Kael-thas Sunstrider to going after Arthas). Oh
yes, I also realize the concept of the “Drow”, or “dark elves”, has been
around for a long time in both fiction and gaming. You can play
something like drow in “Elder Scrolls” games, and there’s drow in “DDO
as well. AION seems to have a combination of drow-humans vs elf-humans,
if I look at it clearly enough, though that MMO is rather a different
animal anyway. But the blood elves of WoW remain my favorite.

One thing I REALLY don’t like is what I feel is a half-assed attempt at
changing something, and elves is one of those places where I feel “Guild
Wars 2″ fell flat. The characters you can play in that game include
“sylvari” – but let’s face it, they’re elves. Whoever designed them took
the undead people the blood elves were fighting, stuck them in the world
along with generic tree-loving elves, called them by a different name,
and that’s it. The idea of elves coming from a tree is not so cool and
different. I think if it had been done in a somewhat different fashion
then I might have accepted it as such, but as it stands – nope. I don’t
like humans in any MMO including GW2 but I just recently managed to
create one I could deal with. But – elves? “sylvari”? Nope. I want
someone to change it properly – I guess this is an ok first step.

So, these are three major stereotypes. Writing is moving slowly with
changing them, but it’s going faster than game design, to be sure. Some
of them, I’d like to see change faster in design, but so far – well, it’s
going slowly.

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One Response to Three Changing Stereotypes of Writing and Game Design

  1. All three of these stereotypes have one thing in common: They sell. That’s why they’ve been around for so long.

    The only area where I think I’d disagree is that I rather liked the Sylvari characterization in Guild Wars 2. For starters, they’re not nearly as old as the Tolkien-style tropes would dictate. Even the oldest Sylvari are, according to lore, 23 years or so old. Second, you don’t have that usual elven xenophobia. My impression was that the Sylvari were all rather curious about the world despite having 250 years’ worth of knowledge to study from. Third, and by far my favorite trope-breaker, they’re not nearly as patronizing. They certainly suffer from being the token environmentalists, but overall, that’s really the only stereotype they seem to share with elves.

    Additionally, I really think the Elder Scrolls universe did the best job with their use of races. You’ve got FOUR distinct races of humans — Imperials, Bretons, Redguard and Nord. Even the Imperials, perhaps the most generic of the four, have enough Roman and Germanic influence to keep them too bland. Then there are the elves, the Altmer, Dunmer and Bosmer. The Altmer and Dunmer certainly match both stereotypes of high elves and drow, though interestingly, the Dunmer behave rather differently in Oblivion than Morrowind. While more traditionally xenophobic and drow-like in Morrowind, the trappings of Imperial culture seem to turn them into straight-up bigoted jackasses in Oblivion. There aren’t a lot of games that event attempt to simulate that degree of social influence.

    With all that said, I agree with your main point that many of the big names in gaming have gone to the well one too many times. With concepts like Kickstarter enabling the market to fund games directly, rather than corporate backers looking for an easy profit, I think the dominance of these tropes are indeed declining as AAA game developers face a similar decline. They will always exist as long as there are proven ideas worth stealing. But at least you can rest assured that the next stereotypes to exploit, profit from and run into the ground aren’t far behind.

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