Today in his closing keynote at the Games for Change conference, Jesse Schell floated an interesting theory. Why, he asked, do we have Orcs? Or more pointedly, why do we have a pervasive cultural trope of dumb yet violent humanoid monsters that we kill without remorse?

We call them, variously, trolls, ogres, flesh eating zombies, lizard men, or a host of other names, but they are always pretty much the same. They are stupid, they are violent, there are lots and lots of them, and we create highly popular fictional entertainments around the premise of gleefully mowing them down.

We don’t do this with other species. There are no happy fantasies of killing hundreds of chimpanzees or bonobos (well actually, we do send the members of other species to outrageously painful and horrible deaths in large numbers, but we try to pretend we’re not doing anything of the sort). No, we only create entertainment fantasies around the killing of creatures that are sort of like us, distinctly human in their way, only more stupid and more violent.

Jesse’s theory for why this is so came as no surprise: That this drive to kill Orcs is a holdover from our instinct to kill off our real life near-human rivals — the most recent of these, of course, being the Neanderthals, who died out only around thirty thousand years ago.

There have been many theories as to why the Neanderthals died off, but Jesse’s theory is quite simple — we killed them. Why? Well, in his exact words: “I think we killed them all because that’s how we roll.”

It’s hard to judge these things, but to me his theory has the ring of truth. And this idea of an instinctive basis for antagonism toward “the human-like other who is different from my tribe” goes a long way toward explaining the extreme idiocy of racism.

After all, no human mind that is functioning rationally would sanction singling people out for completely nonsensical reasons, say because their ancestors happen to be from Africa, or from Italy or Ireland, or because they are gay, or Jewish, or some other artificially labeled marker of “differentness”.

And yet we know that it happens all the time. I find Jesse’s theory appealing because it explains the complete lunacy of racism. Whether they be antisemites, or homophobes, or just averse to people with red hair, people suffering from this sad affliction are simply playing out left-over survival instincts from long ago.

Deep down, on an instinctive level that their rational minds cannot access, such people think they are still fighting the Neanderthals.

7 thoughts on “Orcs”

  1. Ah, I like this. But what about the other theories for the disappearance of Neanderthals. Say that humans absorbed them through mating. Maybe there is a whole missing genre of games where we can feed the remaining human urge to “roll with orcs” in a whole different way ;-).

  2. Ah, brilliant Alec! The generalized theory of human/Neanderthal relations, as applied to computer games.

    Maybe that explains the appeal of sexier monsters, like vampires.

  3. In ancient mythology, trolls, ogres, dwarfs, elves and other un-humans, were not weak creatures to be exterminated. They were powerful and fearsome due to either magic or physical strength.

    The idea of orcs as cannon fodder to be mown-down by massively more powerful heroes is a more recent concept originating in role playing games and movies, IMO.

    Even Tolkien described Orcs as equally powerful to any human. One reason why I didn’t like the LOTR movies was when Legolas et al wander around dispatching hundreds of orcs by poking them with arrows. This is similar to most modern movies where the heros can easily take on hundreds of foes (e.g. the unfortunate StarWars stormtrooper who has been unable to land a shot in 6 movies).

    I agree that humanoid mythological creatures are probably based on race memories of neanderthals etc. I just wonder how old the the idea of exterminating them en masse is.

  4. Good points. Yet the concept of wholesale slaughter of one’s enemies — actual slaughter, not the simulated kind — definitely dates back to ancient times. Sadly, extermination of one’s enemies en masse seems to be an age old part of the human condition. I think the “Orc” part lies in the coupling of such slaughter with a lack of remorse or empathy.

    By the way, the manner in which the Orcs were portrayed in the LOTR films may just have been an artifact of the transfer from novel to action film, rather than the result of any thoughtful deliberation. After all, part of what Peter Jackson and company were “selling” was the most impressive large scale spectacle that a computer graphics budget could buy.

  5. “This is similar to most modern movies where the heros can easily take on hundreds of foes”

    But this is also an old, perhaps archetypal idea…

    And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men.

  6. Its marking theory. Humans form groups around characteristics (some of these are invisible to even us, but there when we form the group), those characteristics in particular groups are “unmarked” and what is different from the group is “marked” — HOWEVER, when we move groups to another group (and we move groups all the time) we might be marked in someone else’s unmarked group.

    in short, Neanderthals were super marked compared to all the other groups at the time…We might “roll that way” as a survival mechanism. “Different” can be perceived as “dangerous” to groups. Its a slippery stupid human slope…

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