What is an Orc?

It is difficult for me to engage effectively with the representation of characters in video gaming, online or off, for the simple reason that I have engaged with gaming almost not at all. The gaming apps I use most are different implementations of Sudoku and Solitaire, with the occasional diversion of a word game or another card game, like Euchre or Cribbage. No characters in those. I’ve never had any interest in the multitude of first-person shooters and, despite my enjoyment of ‘table-top’ role-playing games, I have never really engaged with their massively popular online equivalents. The closest I’ve come is some early, desultory, but happily-remembered play of SimCity, SimEarth, and Civilization. It comes down to not wanting to spend so much time playing. Yet, to appreciate just how unusual this seems, even to me, it suffices to note that my brother makes online games.

But if I have no real exposure to the games themselves, I do have considerable background with their character types, having fallen in love with fantasy and science fiction at the tender age of 8, via exposure to Greek and Norse mythology, and having played RPGs since age 12. And it’s in that respect that I’d like to take up a question posed by N.K. Jemisin, “what are orcs?

In fantasy novels, games, and films, orcs are pretty much the definition of “the Other”, the stigmatized, existentially threatening, genocide-is-not-just-appropriate-but-mandatory Other. Their modern incarnation begins with Tolkien and enters gaming with Dungeons & Dragons and later Warhammer. GiantBomb lists some 221 games featuring orcs including the entirely unsubtle Orcs Must Die! but topped by the biggest game of them all, World of Warcraft.

Orc screenshot,

World of Warcraft is long been the #1 ranked MMO. While one site suggests it has an estimated total player base of over 114 million and in excess of 4.3 million players per day, the more frequently cited number is Statista’s modeled estimate of 4.88 million subscribers in 2020. Activeplayer estimates in the order of 600,000 players per day and some 5.5 million in the last month (while warning that these not be taken as ‘factual’ reports). The last official player count was apparently released in 2015, when the number of subscribers stood at 5.6 million, after peaking around 12 million in 2010. I found a comment on one site that asserts that the majority of its players are in China, but the commenter was not one who inspired confidence in their assertions.

The Warcraft orc, as displayed above, is a pretty typical instance of the contemporary image of one, across games. Green skin. Hugely muscled. Pointy ears. Small eyes. Flat nose. Underslung jaw. Pointed teeth and tusks. Angry disposition. This image is actually quite distinct from the original D&D one, which imagined orcs as humanoid pigs (right image, below), though D&D has since adopted it (left image). From the looks of what I can find online, it would seem that this particular image originated with Warhammer.

D&D Orcs, 5th edition (left), 1st edition (right)

Tolkien infamously described orcs, physically, as “degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” While that alone is a pretty conclusive case for the character type having a racist core, it will be noted that the Warcraft orc has none of the stereotypical markers of Asian identity. To the extent it bears a resemblance to any real-world creature, it seems more to suggest a gorilla or the reconstructions of neanderthals:

Of course, asserting a resemblance to apes or pre-homo-sapiens hominids are themselves typical racist moves.

There are a variety of points that could be made in thinking about this comparison, but I’d like to stick to just one. The usual debate about the meaning of orcs turns on questions of race. It seems to me that there’s an equally interesting question they raise around gender. Elves are notoriously feminized, with dwarves usually represented as their masculinized opposite. But, keeping in mind that the classic Tolkienian orc (though not the Warcraft one) was conceived as a horribly mutilated elf, it seems perfectly plausible to read the orc as an image of toxic masculinity: all anger, brutality, violence, and ugliness, all the time. The green skin here is actually an important signifier, recalling an earlier “giant green rage-monster”:

This seems to be an important qualifier to Jemisin’s own construal of the orc as “human + bad magic” – the orc is more specifically a male human + bad magic. Fantasy has no shortage of female horror figures – medusae, sirens, harpies, banshees, hags, i.a. – but orcs seem hard to construe as other than male, even when nominally female.

To end by returning to WoW itself, the more recent iterations of the game, as well as the poorly-received film version, have made a point of trying to round out orcs: “A peaceful people with shamanic beliefs, they were enslaved by the Burning Legion and forced into war with the humans of Azeroth. Although it took many years, the orcs finally escaped the demons’ corruption and won their freedom. To this day they fight for honor in an alien world that hates and reviles them.” While the theme of corruption has always been a cornerstone of the orc-imaginary, here we have an image of orcs that seems to be not so much as an imperialist, ravening Horde, but as brutalized, colonized anti-imperialists and anti-racists. WoW seems to want to offer both “Orcs Must Die!” and Orc Lives Matter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *