Race In Fantasy\Sci-Fi Games


Race in sci-fi and fantasy games is weird. Especially RPG games. Picking a certain race defines what the character you play as is good and not good at. Some races just being naturally smarter, some stronger and some faster is a trope in sci\fan games that I have never really liked.

Michael Kirkbride, who was one of the principal writers for Morrowind, advocated for the game not to have a generic racial character creator but instead have a cultural one. You create the character you want, making it any race you like and then you select your culture and that determines the stats. So, it’s not that the Altmer are genetically better at magic, it’s just that the people raised in Alinor have a culture based around magic ect.

This is what he said he would like for future Elder Scrolls games (and just games in general).

I’d like to also point out (again) that I would strongly, strongly remove “Race” from any kind of character selection menu in a videogame or a tabletop game and replace it with “Culture” based on region. So: Elinhir Bretons, Satakal Jiit Nomads, No-Tambu Yoku, etc. would be part of the Hammerfell culture. There would be no “bell curve Redguard” unless you, the player, decided that.

How do you feel about race in sci\fant games? Is this a better idea for a character creator?


I like the idea that regardless of race, your stats are randomized, and the game plays to that. Like a dumb kind of the smart race or vice versa, the petit race character who is buff as. Obviously wouldn’t work for some games, but could be a great subversion.


Elder Scrolls has kinda been trending that way anyway. Skyrim doesn’t actually give +/- intelligence/strength etc, just +/- various skills and a special power. I agree that it’s a largely outdated concept, and games have been slowly moving away from funnelling players into stereotypes and allowing more freedom of expression for a while.

This conversation also crops up a lot in tabletop games, for instance Dungeon World (the system they play in the fantasy episodes of Friends at the Table) has a weirdly restrictive system where certain classes can only be certain races for seemingly no other reason than “because D&D did it”. Jack’s Orc Bard, for example, isn’t actually supported by the system, he just ignored it and picked the Elf or Human bonus and called his character an Orc. Later third party expansions for the game haven taken that idea and run with it, replacing race choice with “choose any race, and then choose a background” and having “I used to be a sea captain” determine your starting bonuses instead.

Weirdly a bunch of games have stuff like that right now, but they add them on top of racial stuff. Like Pillars of Eternity, which I’m playing at the moment, has you pick your homeland and former profession, which could easily take the brunt of character creation and make race purely cosmetic/roleplaying based.

Also generally speaking, I much prefer using the term ‘species’, especially in a sci-fi setting.


I don’t know. Elves are inherently more magical because in lore they are. Elves are not just humans with a different culture, they are an entirely separate species.

Granted, any group of people are born with varying degrees of any given physical characteristics. Some elves are less magical and some humans have more affinity to magic. That said, to use an irl example, no human is as strong as even a middle of the road chimpanzee, despite their genetic similarities and sizes. Different species, different ranges.

Those species differences don’t bother me. It also doesn’t bother me if they’re not. Every fiction would be different based on how it is written and intended.

It’s an interesting question OP and I like thinking about it but maybe my ultimate answer is that I kind of don’t deeply care either way as long as it is written as part of an interesting world and fiction, and the mechanics for character creation and development are fun and interesting.

I guess my real issue is that the choice is called race when in fact, you are choosing a species. Altmer or asari or Romulan aren’t races, they’re species. They are entirely different types of being and in fact are inherently different, unlike a racial choice between white or black or South Asian or whatever. Those are all humans and fundamentally the same thing. Aliens or eleven so dwarves are not.

I don’t know. Interesting topic. Thanks for posting. I don’t feel I stated my point well but it was fun to think about.


It would be pretty hard to roleplay.


Skyrim still has racial bonuses and each race having different starter stats, it just matters less beacuse of the way the leveling works.


Like you said, each lore can be different but it’s not always the case that elves are inherently more magical than humans. They are all always either created by gods or descended by gods.

It isn’t always differences between elves and humans either. To bring it back to Elder Scrolls, there are Nords who are stronger, Redguards who have higher stamina and Imperials who are smarter and yet they are all humans ad having the black culture having higher stamina while the white culture is smarter is also kind of bullshit.


You are taking umbrage with one series’ implementation. I was talking overall and generalizing across sci-fi /fantasy.

I agree it’s a bit weird in the case of elder scrolls, at least insofar as the human options go. People are people.

I also don’t think it’s some secret racially motivated political choice and just at some point arbitrary choices were made to create a character system the team could live with given budget and time constraints. Given the mechanical brokenness and myriad issues of Bethesda games, I don’t necessarily blame them for not making a character creation overhaul their first priority.

But I agree it would be nice if they did change it to not play to harmful stereotypes quite like it does.


Probably the worst example of this is Shadowrun. In the videogames it’s especially egregious, where the description of trolls states that the idea of them being less intelligent than humans is just an ugly stereotype… and then on the very next screen where you allocate stats, the maximum intelligence score for trolls is lower than for humans. So by the rules of the world itself, the stereotype is justified and all the people who try to say the intelligence of humans and trolls is equal are 100%, objectively, full of shit. Great. It’s for game balance, but Shadowrun tries so hard to map real world racial inequality to it’s fantasy races that it ends up being a real ugly look.

I guess that’s the bigger problem for me. I like fantasy worlds full of weird, wildly diverse, non-human people, and I like it when that character choice is reflected in mechanics where appropriate. Of course my Thri-Kreen in Dark Sun should have extra attacks per round, she’s a giant mantis lady with four arms.

But most fantasy/sci-fi species are basically just human, both in mentality and physiology. Dwarves are buff humans. Elves are nimble humans. The fact that they’re constantly used as stand ins for real-world peoples, and have real-world prejudices mapped onto them while also having objective differences in mental and physical capabilities is… not good. Especially when you get shit like half elves, which means elves and humans are 100% part of the same species.

I guess my solution is to make fantasy species that have physical characteristics that are 100% inhuman in some way, and base any mechanical differences off of the ways in which they’re clearly inhuman, like a chitinous exoskeleton to improve physical defense or a anglerfish antenna to hypnotize enemies.


I never know how to position myself in conversations about races in fantasy. Like Ladedadeda is saying, I think a lot of confusion could be avoided by just thinking of fantasy-races as species, but I think that this approach also avoids the history of using fantasy-races as proxies to express actual race-theory that has some reference in the real world. Part of the reason I’m torn is that I doubt many people under the age of 30 would ever associate orcs in fantasy with white views of black folks. So sometimes I feel like the focus on the origins of these things can completely change the contemporary understanding and usage of race in fantasy. I’m not sure which is more anti-racist, should we be dismissing the use of fantasy races due to their racist origins? Should we be using the history of fantasy as more evidence of how our culture has been built with white-supremacy? Or should we encourage disassociation of the contemporary usage from its historical implementation? Idk


The Elder Scrolls example is a good case study. It’s easier to accept the Mer (elves) having distinct affinities, given that they are actually a different species. The Redguard, if I have my lore right, actually are not quite as closely related to the other human races as those races are to each other. But this still doesn’t stop it from being a tough pill to swallow that the only humans of colour in the game are effectively the game’s track-stars, especially since the game does categorize them them as being human.

I’ve always wanted to roleplay things like biracial characters in games, because I myself am of a complex, mixed ethnic heritage. Disparity is a terrific mod for Skyrim that allows thorough customization of your character’s class and race, even if the one purpose of the mod is to create distinctions. This opens up possibilities for roleplaying characters that don’t cleanly conform to the typical stereotypes of Bosmer archers, Altmer mages, Imperial knights, and so on. Nevertheless, it does often feel like the ideal approach from a gameplay perspective is simply to min/max according to your character’s race’s stereotypical strengths, and that is a troubling mechanic.

While others may not like it, I actually quite enjoy the lite RPG elements in Fallout 4. If you ignore or mod your way around the main quest, you can create whatever character you want in terms of race, background, headcanon, etc, and your character’s development is based on the perks you picked. I find that this also helps get around issues in games where some skills that you find most effective–whether that be the result of personal preference or inherent effectiveness in the game design–become dominant at the expense of underleveled secondary skills which fall behind the curve of the enemies encountered. You wont start a character hoping to do certain things, and find you’ve accidentally fallen into the trap of the races natural tendencies merely because they were the most viable early one. Now, Fallout of course does not have races or similar things. But I would be very curious to see what effect that sort of character development mechanic might have in an Elder Scrolls game in regards to opening up roleplay possibilities and preventing character stereotyping, both racially and otherwise. Sure, some would complain about the game becoming even lighter on the RPG elements, but personally I have no problem when RPGs effectively streamline themselves into immersive sims.


Sorry, I base everything in my life off of Elder Scrolls. Specifically Morrowind, as it is the greatest game ever made. This thread was inspired by Kirkbride’s comment, that’s why I’m kind of relating back to Elder Scrolls. I quite like his “make a character, pick a culture” because it allows for cool roleplay by diversifying cultures.


No worries. I too love elder scrolls. Neve played Arena but every game from Daggerfall on I have loved and spent minimum hundreds of hours in.

Off the race topic and onto morrowind, it’s definitely my favorite in its day and in nostalgia but I went back to it last year and I found it almost impossible to enjoy playing now. The systems seem so dated. The world design and everything held up marvelously and with mods it was still passable graphically but wow did I have issues with the combat and mechanics. Just didn’t work for me anymore. How have you felt about recent playthroughs and handled some of the less gracefully aging systems? Any mod suggestions or good tweaks I should try if I go back again for the 15 year anniversary?


I’ve never really stopped playing Morrowind so I’m that used to it now that it doesn’t bother me but I totally understand that it is a hard game to come back to. Like you said, the world building and storytelling hold up great but the dice-roll hit mechanics can be infuriating (I hit the bloody cliff-racer, I saw it with my own eyes!) and even though the graphics are super old looking, I think that the art style they went with makes it kind of charming. Not like Oblivion, which I think looks terrible. I have actually never played modded Morrowind. Not because I’m a purist or anything (what is Elder Scrolls without a c0da?) but because my crappy laptop just could not handle it.

I am looking forward to the ESO: Morrowind expansion tho.


I dunno. I feel like there’s a spectrum here where you’ve got Kirkbride on the one end (treating everyone as essentially just historical tribal groups) and then you’ve got… sci-fi on the end where you run into a race of sentient slugs with whom communication is essentially impossible (or deeply different. Mieville’s Embassytown is a good, recent exploration of this idea).I feel like we don’t really get all that much of either in games. Like the latter shows up plenty in 4x games, but, by virtue of the genre, that tends to be a pretty shallow sort of interaction between disparate peoples. The former shows up from time to time, but is also handled not that well (Horizon Zero Dawn comes to mind). Like, most of the time, it’s some gooey mix of trying to enable as much player choice on the one hand (you can be one of three kinds of elves, or one of four kinds of elemental people) and trying to make those choices meaningful on the other (usually with stat bonuses, probably because that’s easy to do, but also probably because I don’t know how else you make that decision an interesting and worthwhile one without making a ton of the game about those sorts of differences. Like, Dragon Age Orgins comes to mind as an example of a recent, flawed attempt at doing this). Like, I’d love to see more of both of these takes explored in a really thoughtful and meaningful way (and to some degree the recent Nier touches on this), but I really doubt elder scrolls is going to be where that happens, unless we see a dramatic change in how those games are made.

M John Harrison touches on this a lot. His really excellent On Pale Wings is largely about fantasy peoples being completely unable to cope with an encounter with an alien species and the whole Light, Nova Swing universe has alien peoples living in post-tribal, deeply capitalist, grotty, slum societies, beneath the shadow of an alien people or presence that they cannot understand or explain and which may be existentially lethal.


Tbh I also find “Elves are perfect magical idealised humans” very dull anyway. I tend to find the more cultural fantasy distinctions the more interesting ones.


This is why Morrowind is so good. The Dunmer are basically ancient Canaanites living in a Lovecraftian volcanic desert with Dwarves who are steam-punk Babylonian objectivists.


I agree, but that’s kind of the point. In real life, we play the hand we’re dealt, and barely ever does a person fit in to the exact role they are “supposed” to be. This system could put certain restrictions on you and open up avenues that you wouldn’t think of normally because you don’t get a choice.


I just really dislike the idea of “oh yeah this entire race of people (who often are uncomfortably close to stereotypes of brown people) are just naturally genetically less intelligent”

Like. Y’all realize that’s fucked up right? And even when it is justified as “well it’s a fantasy race” I kinda just roll my eyes cause like. Nah the metaphors there are real real obvious.

I also take issue when a game tells me “oh all goblins are evil” but then in the same fucking breath tells me they have religion and culture. Like. Nah? Fuck that


It’s deeply weird to me that fantasy games needed to create these ‘always evil’ races presumably because they were morally uncomfortable with just fighting someone who was attempting to kill you and take your stuff. Like dude that’s already a good enough justification, you just made it a way worse one.