Posted Tue, Jan 20, 2009 by Ethec
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Today is an auspicious day in the history of the US, though if you're a alien landing here once every four years for inauguration day you might wonder what makes this one much more special than the other five I can remember. Though you'll find words like "grandiose" and "historic" in our press, you'll have to look to a foreign publication like Bild.com to tell what makes this one earn those words - race. Racial politics in either a positive and (of course) a negative light was streng verboten for the campaign season, and that race makes Inauguration Day for #44 super special tells me just as much about how far we have to go in race relations as well as how far we've come. I hope that someday that all skin-deep distinctions will be a complete and total non-issue for all matters not purely aesthetic. With apologies to Bono, I think that was MLK's dream, not getting one man elected.
Without making light of the substantive racial issues in the real world, I thought today might be a good day to examine the treatment of race in modern MMOs. Some of the discussion is moot - while none of us chose our real-life race, you can choose your race in a game. Thus you choose any racial assymetry (strengths or weaknesses) that the game represents, and its incumbent upon the game developer to make sure you can't gimp yourself and that imbalances will wash out when your character comes into its own. It's all a part of the story you choose, in other words, not the one that's handed to you.
Owing to their RPG heritage, race is one thing that MMOs have just about always gotten right. And by right I mean differences are important elements in your character's story - even occasionally to your detriment (take the hostile treatment of Sarnak in EverQuest or Death Knights in WoW). Your early days as an EverQuest wood elf in the treetops of Greater Faydark felt fundamentally different than as a ogre in Oggok, in Dark Age of Camelot playing as a Norse Skald in Trondheim felt far different than as a Lurikeen Eldritch wandering the streets of Tir Na Nog. One reason I believe EQ2 lost out to WoW in the early days was the the pronounced distinctions between WoW's races compared to the meager two-cities with myriad races approach from EQ2. Racial - or I should say cultual distinctions between races, even superficial ones, draw you into a game's story and worldiness and of course add big-time replayabilty, which only draws you into the story further.
WoW actually prompted a spate of articles on race preferences and a serious look from Nick Yee's Daedalus project a few years ago, owing to the obvious bias toward the sexier, more humanoid Alliance races pre-Burning Crusade. Then came Blood Elves for the Horde and Draenei for the Alliance and as a result, today's more natural 55-45 split was established.
Whether you could care less about your character, your in-game race and gender preferences cause you serious identity questions, or you simply take your livable fiction in stride as a kind of neo-baroque opium dream escapism for the masses, it's all a part of the storytelling and the fun. This is one area where I truly wish real life could imitate art.
6 new MMOG hand-crafted articles today! 77 in January! 77 in 2009!
New MMOG Articles At Ten Ton Hammer Today [Thanks Phil Comeau for links and Real World News]
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-Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle and the Ten Ton Hammer team