Presentations of race are…problematic in Arena. This is so despite the ability to play as virtually anyone. I’m going to try to talk about that today. We’ll see how it goes.
To begin, let’s consider the playable races in the game. These are: Argonians, Bretons, Dark Elves, High Elves, Khajiit, Nords, Redguards, and Wood Elves. Argonians are blue-skinned and vaguely reptilian. Dark Elves are dark-skinned, red-eyed, and with red or black or white hair. High Elves are golden-bronze in complexion. Khajiit are fair-skinned people with a mythic association with felines (while later games would make them full-blown cat-people, they just look like lithe Nords, more or less, in Arena). Redguards are dark-skinned, typically dark-haired humans. Wood Elves have a slight yellowish tint to their skin and bright hair colors. And Bretons and Nords look like white people.
In other words, Bretons, Khajiit, and Nords are white; Wood Elves and High Elves, besides being elves, appear white or slightly tanned or tinged with a slightly “exotic” pigment; Redguards are black, and Dark Elves are dark-skinned but fantastic in appearance; and Argonians are blue-skinned lizard people. Additionally, orcs are a race of “evil” humanoids in league with monsters like goblins, and Imperials are not a distinctive race in the game.
Even more simply, humanity is represented as white or black, with no other representation in the game.
Obviously there are already troubling implications with the use of distinctive human races with defining general traits. After all, the difference between a Redguard and a Breton is not just skin color or culture; throughout the history of the games, there are hard-wired stats for each race indicating what a character of a given race is naturally better or worse at. While anyone can be anything in the games, certain races are better for certain play styles–whether focused on magic, combat, or stealth. This appears to have been truer with the earlier entries in the franchise, especially when class was more of a fixed identity and the combination of race and class was extremely important.
Not only do races have hardwired core attributes, but customization options in the early entries are very limited. In Arena, you’re basically swapping out different heads. That further accentuates the generic sameness of all members of a particular race.
Each race fills a fairly specific niche in the ecosystem of generic fantasy cultures. Argonians and Khajiit are beast-folk, or at least they’d eventually become that, even if Khajiit are basically just white people in Arena. Bretons are magical and somewhat Celtic. Nords are Vikings. Elves (Dark and Light) are as ancient as Old Norse mythology, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien had many groups of elves, including High Elves and Wood Elves and Dark Elves; more recently, the most iconic Dark Elves, or Drow, were developed for Dungeons & Dragons well before the release of Arena. Lastly, and most troubling to me, the Redguards represent a mishmash of Middle Eastern and North African cultures.
If you asked me to get more specific about which Middle Eastern and North African cultures, I couldn’t, especially for Arena, which paints cultures in broad strokes. When I first came to Hammerfell, I was in a border city, and the town and architecture in many ways reminded me of a generic “Imperial” look, with solid stone walls and courtly dress. But traveling to the south, suddenly the Redguard men were dressed in brightly colored, loose outfits, and the Redguard women donned fur bikinis. The walls appeared to be brick and adobe. There were architectural flourishes that seemed vaguely Middle Eastern, often with ornate reliefs. Desert sands and desert plant life dominated.
Now, as I’ve noted, all the races represent pretty generic fantasy cultures in Arena. It might seem weird that I single out Redguards in particular. But when the other “human” races are white, the black human Redguards seem especially Other. It is not helped that while we can pinpoint particular cultures as influences for Bretons or Nords, Redguards are just a generic fusing of southern and eastern Mediterranean societies. It would seem to be textbook Orientalism, using bits and pieces of other cultures as exotic flavor text.
I might return to this subject later on, as I explore more of the game and see more of how the Redguard culture is presented in contrast to the other in-game cultures. I just wanted to try to articulate some of my concerns that I have at the moment; I recognize that my views could continue to evolve with further exposure to the game.
But a final point for today: while not apparently an element of Arena, it should be noted that the Redguard are supposed to have a separate origin from all other humans in the world of Tamriel.
Addendum: Right after originally publishing this post, it occurred to me just how “normal” whiteness was in Arena. The blacksmiths, innkeepers, pub inhabitants, and nocturnal criminals are all white people. The Emperor and his bodyguard are white; Ria Silmane is white; the nobles in the cities I’ve been to are white (all the more bizarre when those cities are Dark Elf and Redguard). I get that it had to have been easier to use a single character model for a lot of the generic quest-givers and merchants, but did they all have to be white people?