The cultural ubiquity of The Lord of the Rings has shaped our contemporary assumptions about what the fantasy genre looks like, and these assumptions have in turn determined to a great extent what video games look like both historically and today. The Lord of the Rings and video games are, sadly, both well known for their lack of diversity, and this article argues that that is no coincidence. Focusing on the impact of the life and work of J. R. R. Tolkien, it traces fantasy media from the birth of the genre to the present day to discuss how exclusion is remediated, normalized, and justified. It challenges the racism of the “historical accuracy” fallacy and details how very old sexist literary tropes are continually remediated into contemporary fantasy video games. It asks: What can past discourses surrounding diversity in fantasy media tell us about the resistance to diversity in video games in the present?
“As if people wanting to play a historically accurate medieval sim are racist for not wanting women or PoC - particularly in medieval Europe. This is no different than role players who want accuracy. JFC.”—Anonymous gamer on the neo-medieval video gameMordhau1
“Well gamers aren't identified as a race yet, but he's still thrash [sic] talking a whole community and spreading prejudice to harm the public image of us true gamers, So kinda racist”—Anonymous gamer on “racism” against gamers2
It has become increasingly common in recent years to hear gamers, and nerds generally, lament that their favorite media have become “political” by including characters that are not cis, straight, white, and male. A lack of diversity has become so normalized in “nerdy” media, especially in fantasy worlds and video games, that any sort of inclusion starts to feel radical or politicized for many consumers. The call to “keep your politics out of my video games” is so frequent that it has become an ironic joke, and for years critics have pointed out the frustrating tension between gamers who simultaneously want video games to be taken seriously as art but also get angry when anyone critically examines their content.3 Furthermore, there is a serious cognitive dissonance between actually political content and themes (militarism, terrorism, revolution) in games (which developers will often also insist are not political) and what gamers in angry online discussions consider political content in games (queer people, people of color, women, trans people).4
While media is slowly and surely diversifying, the popular “political” stance comes from the belief that this is happening not to accurately reflect the people consuming it, or to tell more interesting stories, but because of a nefarious agenda of so-called political correctness.5 The poor treatment of women, queer people, and people of color in video games (when they are even represented in the first place) is seen not as something to be challenged or remedied, but as a status quo to be upheld. Furthermore, and sometimes hilariously, any public attempt to discuss these issues of inclusion and exclusion within games and games culture is quickly met with accusations of discrimination against gamers. If the idea of racism against gamers weren't so ridiculous, it would feel remarkably similar to the North American white supremacists who fear the “great replacement” and believe that white culture and the white race are “under attack” via the diversifying population. In both cases there is a simultaneous blindness to privilege and fear of that privilege being taken away coupled with an overwhelming desire to be seen as the victim and not the oppressor.
As a gamer in favor of diversity myself, I recently tweeted about this exact issue (fig. 1) and received two types of reactions: either people agreeing with my sarcastic take (hence the 50,000 retweets and 130,000 likes) or people insisting that by talking about gamers in this way I was committing an act as bad as, if not worse than, racism.6 Many of the latter also told me that they believed games are being ruined by political correctness. I heard countless times that it's not that they are against diversity, it's just that if diverse people are included in games they want it to be for a “good reason” and not simply to please or “pander to” people like myself. Of course there doesn't have to be a “good reason” for a game to star a cis straight white man—this is normal—and it is this expectation of the cis, straight, white, and male as still default in video games that is of primary interest in this article. Where does that expectation come from? How far back does it go? Why does it persist?
My above tweet was responding to hundreds of comments I had seen gamers make (both on Twitter and in livestream chats where games are announced) during the week of the 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo, in which a character's hair length, skin tone, sexuality, gender, or body type (primarily “small” breast size) made them instantly “political.” Many insisted that these upcoming games, which for the most part are not very progressive at all, are clearly “pandering” to “social justice warriors.”7 The two tweets in my epigraph above express sentiments similar to the comments I indicate as representative of this discourse. These two players are 1) insisting that there is nothing wrong with not wanting women or people of color in your games as long as it's in the name of “accuracy,” and 2) insisting that any discussion of gamers perpetrating or facilitating this exclusion is a type of “racism” against gamers. These attitudes, as silly as they may seem, are rampant and especially common surrounding any video game that takes place in a neo-medieval or fantasy setting.
While these attitudes and arguments surrounding diversity in games may seem relatively new, in this article I will argue that they are as old as nerdy media itself. I will look closely at discourses about diversity surrounding J. R. R. Tolkien's book The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) to demonstrate how politics of exclusion have been reproduced and remediated throughout media cultures and media history. The lack of women (as well as people of color, queer people, people of diverse genders, et cetera) in both LOTR and video games are well established academically and popularly.8 Thus, this article is not establishing or discussing the lack of diversity per se but instead examining the continuing reproduction and remediation of this lack of diversity under the guise of a market-based industrial logic about what video games and fantasy media “should” look like. Arguments justifying a continued lack of diversity in our media need to be exposed and attacked so they do not continue to reproduce through popular discourse and popular media.
Like women in LOTR, female characters in video games are few and far between. When they do appear, they are generally portrayed as love interests to impress or obstacles to be conquered.9 This underrepresentation is no surprise given that so many games take place in fantasy settings, and that the fantasy genre was built on a text with a deficit of women. Since LOTR's initial publication in 1954, its cultural ubiquity has shaped our contemporary assumptions about what fantasy as a genre looks like, and these assumptions have in turn determined to a great extent what video games look like both historically and today.10 When I started to dabble in the deep well of Tolkien scholarship in 2013, I noticed right away how many of the discussions about its depictions of gender, race, and sexuality feature almost the exact same topics now afoot regarding diversity in video games: racially coded villains, “historical accuracy,” the marginalization of women, the roles of the few “strong” female characters, the presumed masculine audience. Critics of video games continue to level these critiques today, against a very resistant audience, in what feels like an endless cycle of discourse in which those protesting discrimination in the media at hand are in turn accused of discriminating against that media's enthusiasts.
In this article I draw connections between Tolkien's work and culture and contemporary video games and video game cultures to demonstrate that so many of the arguments against diversity within contemporary video game discourse are not just wrong, but also downright old. And these exclusions echo through popular texts much further back than Tolkien through different media forms via genre, norms, and tropes. This exclusionary system is now so well established, so prevalent, and so popular that it's quite unsurprising that cis, straight, white, male bodies are seen as completely normal and neutral in video games, whereas the inclusion of “othered” bodies is perceived as a forced political agenda. While we should be far past this problem and on to representing more diverse characters and stories, we are held back by long-held expectations of both the fantasy genre and the video game medium and market.
Tolkien is well known for having few women in his texts, but many don't know that he and his contemporaries also excluded women from the formative subcultures surrounding the science fiction and fantasy genres in the 1930s and 1940s.11 This article also discusses the early exclusion of women from the cultures surrounding fantasy texts and games that predate the digital in order to situate the historical roots of game culture and its exclusion of women. By providing a media history of discourse about diversity in fantasy media, using Tolkien as my anchor, I will expose the age, fallacy, and ridiculousness of many contemporary arguments against diversity (or as they are now more popularly known, “politics”) in video games in the hopes that these justifications will not continue to be taken seriously. Arguments against diversity in fantasy media, from Tolkien to contemporary video games, have never been and will never be anything more than cleverly disguised attempts to justify imaginary worlds in which white male dominance and the cis-heteropatriarchy are perpetually maintained—with the addition of a few “strong” thin and beautiful white ladies, for flavor, of course.
MEDIA ARCHAEOLOGY AND GAMES HISTORY
This article takes a media archaeology approach to look at the pre-digital roots of games media to address questions regarding contemporary games culture and discourse. In their introduction to Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (2011), Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka explain that when studying new media, the past can assist with the “untangling” of complex “challenges posed by contemporary media culture.”12 Similarly, I look to Tolkien and early fantasy subcultures to untangle the knot of contemporary video game discourse. At the same time, there is no singular reason, from history or otherwise, why white cis-heteropatriarchy is so dominant within geek and nerd culture. There are instead a multitude of layering and compounding factors that cannot be covered in a single paper. Thus I do not want to present the remediation of fantasy media as the sole cause of contemporary bigotry in contemporary games culture. Many other researchers have examined the history of games for answers about contemporary cultural issues. For example, Graeme Kirkpatrick's article “How Gaming Became Sexist” (2016) looks at discourses in 1980s and 1990s gaming magazines to explain the “conditions under which games and gaming were coded as exclusively masculine.”13 Alternately, Carly A. Kocurek's book Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade (2015) performs a media history of the arcade to explain how video games became forever intertwined and associated with boyhood and masculinity.14 This article is informed by these histories, and in the fashion of media archaeology, looks at alternative, previous, and concurrent histories that do not contradict these other accounts. Parikka explains in What Is Media Archaeology? (2012), “Media archaeology sees media cultures as sedimented and layered, a fold of time and materiality where the past might be suddenly discover anew.”15 Media archaeology, while generally resisting definition, has been described by Huhtamo and Parikka as a “reading of the ‘new’ against the grain of the past, rather than telling of the histories of technologies from past to present”—the act of “‘excavating’ media culture phenomena” by “rummag[ing]” within “textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections of artifacts, emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestations of culture.”16 In line with this description, I am not attempting to draw a linear history of cause and effect from Tolkien to exclusion in contemporary video games. I am instead holding up and examining bits of the past as a method to understand their possible impact on the present and to hopefully help others see just how little change has taken place between then and now.
Lastly, Siegfried Zielinski has described the media archaeology process as a way to “dig out secret paths in history which may help us to find our way into a future.”17 This perspective aligns most closely with my desire to look to the pre-digital past of games and games culture to better understand how to move forward the discourse about diversity in video games, as it currently feels extremely circular and cemented in the past. My agenda, as an academic and an activist within games culture, is to determine how to break what feels like a never-ending cycle of advocacy for diversity and backlash against diversity and “find our way into a future” in which games as a media can grow beyond these ancient constructs of race, gender, and sexuality that are being perpetually remediated. Also obviously methodologically important to this article is Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin's concept of remediation—the idea that video games “derive their narrative structure” from “earlier textual games” that “come from fantasy literature such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.”18 My analysis builds on this work to examine how Tolkien's politics of exclusion (and more generally neo-medieval politics) were, and still are, remediated into video games and games culture. In the spirit of “rummaging” in the past I will look at an odd assortment of media objects, historical events, and cultures—the works of Tolkien, war games, Dungeons and Dragons (Wizards of the Coast, 1974–2017), neo-medievalism, the Inklings, the Hugo Awards, the Valkyrie figure, Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1986–2019), and the vagina dentata myth—to meditate on how they impacted the current state of diversity in games and games culture.
TOLKIEN'S INFLUENCE ON ROLE-PLAYING GAMES AND VIDEO GAMES
While role-playing games, video games, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and comics all have their own distinct subcultures, they substantially overlap, which is why we often use umbrella terms like “nerd culture” or “geek culture” in an attempt to cover all “nerdy” interests.19 Games culture, as the newest of these, will forever be rooted in sci-fi and fantasy culture, and therefore the larger genres and cultures of science fiction and fantasy cannot be ignored when examining the culture surrounding video games.20,LOTR, in many ways, created the fantasy genre, and thus the contemporary fantasy video game as we know it.21 As Helen Young explains in her book Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness (2015): “Middle-earth has had more influence on Fantasy games, both digital and non-digital, than any other Fantasy world.”22
Contemporary video games evolved from war and military strategy games that were popular from the 1930s through 1970s as well as fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, which themselves evolved out of works of fiction in the science fiction and fantasy genres.23 In fact, Dungeons and Dragons was so heavily based on LOTR that the creators faced a lawsuit from the Tolkien estate, forcing them to change the names of multiple types of characters: “hobbits” became “halflings,” “ents” became “treants,” “balrogs” became “balors.”24 Video games like Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Origin Systems, 1985) also contained Tolkien's balrogs before likewise changing one letter, making them “belrons” in the later games. Many fantasy games still rely on the races, classes, and monsters that were established and popularized by LOTR and later reinforced through Dungeons and Dragons, including dwarves, elves, halflings, rogues, wizards, rangers, knights, wights, spider monsters, and orcs.
Once digital graphics were capable of rendering rudimentary settings and environments, many early video games looked for inspiration to science fiction (Spacewar! [Hingham Institute, 1962], Space Invaders [Taito, 1978], Galaga [Namco, 1981]) or neo-medieval fantasy worlds (Adventure [Atari, 1979], King's Quest [Sierra Entertainment, 1980]). This trend has only increased: countless genres of games, many of them today's most popular games—from Clash of Clans (Supercell, 2012) to Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011), Dragon Age (Bioware, 2009–2014), and The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1987–2019)—still take place in these Tolkien-esque settings. I imagine that without LOTR, the conventional aesthetics, narratives, tone, and themes of video games would be extremely different. And it stands to reason that since so many of these titles borrow from Tolkien's worlds and are inhabited by monsters and heroes indebted to Tolkien's imagination, they are of course likewise influenced by the complete absence of women and people of color in the LOTR texts. Eighty-three years after the publication of The Hobbit and forty-six years after the initial release of Dungeons and Dragons, with few exceptions not much has changed about those we see depicted in fantasy video games. One such notable exception is the Dragon Age series, which has included many POC, trans, and queer characters in a variety of roles and indeed frequently comes under attack by reactionary gamers for its inclusion of this content.25
Sarah Stang and Aaron Trammell established in “The Ludic Bestiary: Misogynistic Tropes of Female Monstrosity in Dungeons & Dragons” (2019) that Dungeons and Dragons, like Tolkien before it, depicts women through a patriarchal lens as either sexual object or monster. The authors argue that the Monster Manual, the bestiary at the heart of Dungeons and Dragons written by Gary Gygax, “functions as a tool of patriarchal control by defining, categorizing, and classifying the body of the female other as evil, abject, and monstrous.” The monster manual and the creatures it contains are “related to [Gygax's] cultural positionality” as a “40-year-old, married, Christian, White male insurance underwriter with a passion for wargames and science fiction,” which is, you may note, similar to Tolkien's cultural positioning as a married, Roman Catholic, white male Oxford professor with a passion for European legends, mythology, and classical philology.26 The sexist tropes and norms set forth in these two texts by these two men, built from a position of white male privilege, came to establish the norms of the fantasy genre for years to come and were remediated into contemporary video games. In other words, there is a shared lineage and culture of hegemonic masculinity that has trickled down through these texts and their surrounding cultures that has contributed to the current culture of entitlement, gatekeeping, and outrage that surrounds games and other fantasy media. Trammell explains that norms about gender and race in fantasy video games are not simply reinterpreted across media but in some ways directly reproduced; many fantasy tropes quantified into statistics in Dungeons and Dragons became “a boilerplate” that has been “stamped” into contemporary games. While depictions and statistics will all fluctuate, there is an “industrial logic that is reproducing this trope of sexism and misogyny throughout games.”27 Beyond the actual content remediated in these texts, it is important to consider the culture in which they were created. LOTR was a text authored, shared, and edited by the Inklings, a “male culture” founded by Tolkien and his contemporaries that purposely excluded women.28
LOTR IRL: THE EXCLUSION OF WOMEN FROM PRE-DIGITAL NERD CULTURES
LOTR focuses intensely on connections among men and the white male experience, and Tolkien's upbringing likely predisposed him to write such stories. Between his all-boys-school education, his deceased parents, his time serving in the military, and years at male-dominated Oxford, Tolkien mostly associated with men.29 He had many male friendships that he considered of extreme importance, including most famously a coterie of writers and academics he met with regularly, the Inklings, a group of approximately thirteen white Christian men who gathered to talk about and read from their writings (often of a fantastical nature) in the 1930s and 1940s.30 These men were the first audience to consume LOTR, and have even been referred to as The Fellowship by their biographers.31
The Inklings, I would argue, were an early manifestation of one the most prevalent fixtures of contemporary nerd culture: the all-male clubhouse.32 Such groups of “nerdy” male friends who meet to play Dungeons and Dragons, watch sci-fi and fantasy films, or talk about science fiction and fantasy are a trope we're all familiar with, not only from our media but also from our own childhood experiences of segregated play.33 The Inklings were, as Candice Frederick and Sam McBride observe, an insular male culture who debated for sport and functioned as an “intellectual circle” for “male companionship” for those who felt “alienated [from] … the culture of [their] times”—aka nerds. We know that successful female detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers was friends with multiple members but never attended any meetings, despite her desire to. Sayers “had much in common with Lewis and Tolkien's circle, including a love of orthodox Christianity, traditional verse, popular fiction, and debate,” but was “excluded in principle from membership in the group by virtue of her sex.” She could have “introduced a different perspective on gender,” Frederick and McBride rightfully point out, because she frequently “argued that women and men are both equally human.”34 Her many essays about feminism included “Are Women Human?” which was anthologized in the 1947 volume Unpopular Opinions.35
While Sayers is the first documented example I've yet found of a particular woman being excluded from the cultures surrounding the science fiction and fantasy genres, she was obviously far from the last. For example, women in the background of the war-game playing culture of the 1950s and 1960s were largely wives pulled in to play when no male opponents were available. One wife was even sufficiently interested in the games to write articles for War Game Digest in the later 1950s and early 1960s, even though her role in the game was ultimately, as she put it, to stay out of the way and “ascertain if tea, coffee, or biscuits are required.”36 Later on, the women who played and even wrote parts of Dungeons and Dragons were similarly overlooked and treated poorly. In a 1980 issue of Dragon Magazine (the official magazine of Dungeons and Dragons) editor Kim Mohan and Dungeons and Dragons writer Jean Wells penned the article “Women Want Equality and Why Not?” arguing that women who played the game had to “cope with discrimination and prejudice as they seek the satisfaction and fulfilment they are entitled to receive from playing a role in an adventure game.” The article points out many of the same issues still present in games culture today: a lack of exposure and access to games for women, different play styles, being forced into sexual situations, issues with sexualized representation, and unfair limitations put on their characters because of gender and “realism.”37 This clearly locates the politics of exclusion that women in gaming currently face at least as far back as the 1950s, and (as we just saw) much earlier in the cultures around science fiction and fantasy.
Moving forward a few decades, in 2014 the online fantasy and science fiction magazine Lightspeed published a special issue of women's writing as a reaction to the continued exclusion of women from the fantasy subculture.38 One contributor, Kameron Hurley, explicitly linked that exclusion back to Tolkien himself, explaining that he “was epic fantasy, defined,” and that everything since had “needed to be put outside that frame or somehow be mangled to fit within it.” In other words, Tolkien was popularly regarded as the yardstick against which all other fantastic literature was measured. Hurley went on to explain that fantasy has been defined in the narrowest way possible, to the exclusion of almost all women authors: “I've seen a lot of women writers struggle in the epic fantasy field, facing reader and publisher expectations that assume their work must be something else, anything else, besides epic fantasy. Epic fantasy is Tolkien. Epic fantasy is men.”39 These expectations mirror issues in the games industry regarding what counts as a “real” video game.40
Part of the problem lies in an explicit assumption that women should be excluded because they will change (or are changing) the culture for the worse—what we now call gatekeeping.41 Inklings member C. S. Lewis was passionate about this, claiming that “the decay of friendship, owing to the endless presence of women everywhere, is a thing I'm rather afraid of.”42 Lewis adamantly believed that “full intimacy with another man was impossible unless women were totally excluded,” as “women's minds were not meant for logic or for great art”; Tolkien believed women could be educated, but only in a “receptive” sense, in which they took in knowledge created by men (which they would soon forget): “it is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male.”43 While these statements will seem dated to most, they are actually quite similar to sentiments I've encountered from Gamergaters, or men's rights advocates in the present day. For example, in a thread from 2017 entitled “Why do women have a problem with video games” one user of MGTOW Central (a forum for the “men's rights” movement Men Going Their Own Way) explained: “The average woman is simply too unintelligent and uncoordinated to play video games. Therefore they can not control you in that realm. So they become jealous, both because of their own inferiority and the attention taken away from them.”44 Another user wrote that women hate video games because they “talk s~~~ and make fun of a guy for playing video games. Until they decide to take over by becoming ‘gamer chicks’ and go online to get male attention.”45 These are just two of the countless comments on this forum indicating that some men's thinking about women has not changed since the 1930s and 1940s.
These views might not have been shocking in Tolkien's and Lewis's day, but the assumption that women have less of a “natural” attraction to science fiction, fantasy, comics, computers, and video games is a stereotype that is unfortunately still dominant.46 I compare the words and actions of the Inklings and the words and actions of contemporary men here specifically because how little these groups of “nerds” have changed is the most important takeaway from this article. The popular idea that progress is natural, that things will get better on their own, is absurd. These cultures will only become more inclusive if they are challenged, and clearly they have not been challenged enough. Because of continued remediation of fantasy norms and tropes, the texts that these groups idolize and create have barely changed—likewise the behaviors of exclusion. The texts and the cultures that support them are two sides of the same coin.
THE HUGO AWARDS AND THE CONTEMPORARY BACKLASH TO REPRESENTATION IN FANTASY
As the representation of minorities in media is increasing, however slowly, we are seeing an increasingly vocal sexist, racist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted backlash to that diversity. As established above, while many regard the representation of minorities in media as a positive, it has also been negatively characterized by some groups online as a forced agenda of political correctness. This problem infiltrates most “nerdy” media. For example, while Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) or the Ghostbusters reboot (2016) may seem like traditional nerd fodder, many consumers were quick to boycott these films in which women, and especially nonwhite women, were cast in what in earlier installments had been white men's roles. Kelly Marie Tran of the former and Leslie Jones of the latter were so viciously targeted with sexist and racist harassment that they left social media.47
Another example of this backlash in the culture surrounding the fantasy genre is the ongoing “activism” surrounding the Hugo Awards. The Hugos are the longest-running prize for writing in science fiction and fantasy, dating back to 1955. They are voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, which includes both authors and enthusiasts. Recently some writers and fans were unhappy that more diverse authors and works were winning awards, and started two campaigns: Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies. The two groups took advantage of the Hugos' democratic online voting system to fight “a perceived bias towards liberal and left wing science fiction and fantasy authors” by nominating and block voting for those they felt were more “deserving.”48 For example, one book that made the short list and was voted on in 2016 was Rabid Puppies leader Vox Day's SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police, a book-length nonfiction epistle about how so-called social justice warriors have “plagued mankind for more than 150 years” and have “invaded one institution of the cultural high ground after another.”49 The nomination of books such as this led fifty-eight previous Hugo winners, such as Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, to encourage members to vote “no award” in a category in which there were no deserving nominees.50
It is no wonder then that so many described the Hugos controversy as some variation of the Gamergate of science fiction and fantasy.51 Sci-fi author and publisher and Rabid Puppies leader Vox Day (who was an early and active supporter of Gamergate) claimed that he created Rabid Puppies to fight “the left-wing control freaks who have subjected science fiction to ideological control for two decades and are now attempting to do the same thing in the game industry.”52 The Hugos more than anything else demonstrate how nerd cultures are connected, and are engaged in a common struggle with misogyny, homophobia, racism, and general anger because of their white-male-dominated roots. So much of nerd culture still sees itself as perpetually oppressed and marginalized and is therefore blind to the ways in which their much-loved texts, and they themselves, actually perpetuate oppression against the marginalized. Adrienne Massanari has explained, “Suggesting that geek culture can also be oppressive and marginalize certain populations may create a sense of cognitive dissonance for these individuals, who likely view themselves as perpetual outsiders and thus are unable or unwilling to recognize their own immense privilege.”53 In a similar fashion, fantasy media, including games, has recently been stuck in a debate about diversity in which “historical accuracy” is used as a justification to exclude diverse characters.
NEO-MEDIEVALISM AND “HISTORICAL ACCURACY” IN FANTASY MEDIA
Contemporary video games “complicate the notions of ‘medieval’ and ‘medievalism’” because they associate the Middle Ages so strongly with the genre of fantasy.54 They manifest a tension between fidelity to the Middle Ages as an actual time period and fidelity to what we imagine as medieval thanks to source texts such as LOTR and Dungeons and Dragons. If intermediate sources like LOTR manifest, in Daniel T. Kline's words, “little regard for medieval realities,” then why are fans so attached to the idea of “historical accuracy”?55 Trans people, queer people, and people of color did indeed exist through much of history. In July 2019 the neo-medieval game Mordhau (Triternion, 2019) found itself at the center of this ongoing controversy when its makers announced that they would be adding women and people of color to their currently all-white-male game. When some fans expressed outrage, the company stated that they would be adding a toggle so that players who were mad about the inclusion could press a button and only see white men, preserving the “accuracy” of their fantasy. The company later tried to claim that they never said they were going to do this despite the existence of multiple interviews and a forum post claiming such a feature was needed, as the “realism complaint is valid.”56
The historian known on Tumblr as MedievalPOC regularly posts depictions of people of color from pre-Enlightenment art and fiction in order to correct “assumptions that works of fantasy based in ‘re-imagined’ worlds of Medieval or Renaissance Europe that omit the contributions and presence of People of Color are made with ‘historical accuracy’ in mind.”57 In 2014 MedievalPOC faced substantial and sustained harassment for discussing the possibility of having people of color in the neo-medieval video game Kingdom Come: Deliverance (Warhorse Studios, 2018).58 The harassment this historian faced for simply pointing to evidence that shows that people of color existed in history is typical of the backlash many have experienced when stating online that neo-medieval or fantasy media should be more diverse.59 This backlash has posed a challenge for medievalist academics, who are struggling with the ways neo-medieval texts and “history” have been fetishized and hijacked by the alt-right and other racists.60 Medievalist David M. Perry explains: “White supremacists explicitly celebrate Europe in the Middle Ages because they imagine that it was a pure, white, Christian place organized wholesomely around military resistance to outside, nonwhite, non-Christian, forces.”61 In other words, the “historical accuracy” that some cry out for in the world of neo-medieval video games and fantasy media is a cry not for accuracy, but for white supremacy.
Usually, the reality that these detractors are so attached to is not our lived reality or even our historical reality, but a simulacra of realities that writers like Tolkien created—realities that included dragons and other mythical creatures but excluded women and people of color. Or included people of color, but through racial coding, as Sue Kim explains regarding the LOTR films, where “goodness correlates to whiteness, both racially and as color scheme,” and “evil is invariably black, savage.” This is important because while LOTR isn't real, it is “created, read, and viewed by people in the world, and … reflect[s] the languages and signs, desires, actions, and values of our world.”62 The representation of the characters has real importance, even if the world itself is not real, because it contains more of our world and affects our world more than we might assume. It is remarkable how often people lean on phony “historical accuracy” claims when defending and justifying the white maleness of the LOTR franchise and other fantasy texts and games.63 In Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, Helen Young investigates internet debates surrounding diversity (or lack thereof) of neo-medieval texts and notes how those who are against it will often use real historical trade routes to argue that two races would not have encountered each other as evidence as to why a text should contain only white characters—while never questioning the reality of magic and dragons. Young concludes that “in the light of these approaches the desire to construct medieval Europe as exclusively White is easily read as nostalgic longing for a never-extant time when the world was not just Eurocentric, but simply was White Europe.”64 The attachment to a false idea of fidelity boils down in practice to a desire to see all fantasy settings as havens where people of color and women are still “in their place.”
The same debates about historical accuracy versus political correctness bleed into non-fantasy games as well. In May 2017 many gamers were outraged when it was revealed that Call of Duty: WWII (Sledgehammer Games, 2017) would contain playable female soldiers and therefore no longer be “historically accurate.” This pushback was somewhat ironic given that no one questioned the Nazi zombies also present in the game. Many gamers claimed that the inclusion of women, and the “pandering” it represented, would affect their enjoyment of the game.65 Yet again here, an attachment to supposed historical accuracy becomes a convenient way to justify excluding diversity. The attachment is not to history, or even to the fantasy genre, but to an established white male world without women, queerness, or people of color—much like the world Tolkien created. It is thus not surprising that some have defended the lack of women in Tolkien's work as an attempt at historical accuracy to medieval times, despite the fantasy setting, once again demonstrating just how old these debates and justifications about inclusion and exclusion are. And the debates are so old in part because these tropes about marginalized people in media are so old—much older than Tolkien's work.
VALKYRIES AND VAGINAS: TOLKIEN'S TROPES, AND CONTEMPORARY VIDEO GAMES
There are countless tropes about women from Tolkien's work that we could focus on, from the relegation of female characters to the background as beautiful assistants, to the eventual relegation of even female warrior characters like Tolkien's Eowyn to healer roles, to the way female characters are motivated by love.66 But to conclude this article I would like to focus on two specific tropes that are much older than Tolkien's work—tropes that Tolkien helped popularize, and that persist in contemporary video games today: the Valkyrie figure and the vagina dentata.
In her 2015 article “The Valkyrie Reflex in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings,” Leslie A. Donovan traces various scholarly opinions on the female characters in LOTR. Edith L. Crowe, for example, argued that Tolkien's depiction of women “was only reflecting his sources and his times.”67 Donovan explains that many share the opinion that “as women played central roles in few medieval texts, it would have been inappropriate for Tolkien's modern reweaving of traditional materials to emphasize or substantially expand female roles.”68 Others have argued that while there are very few women in Tolkien's texts, the ones who are there are powerful and strong.69 While it may be true that these characters were progressive for Tolkien's time and for the “medieval” time that they “lived” in, we are now problematically still stuck with these limited gender roles as the tropes are continually remediated and upheld as accurate.
Donovan connects the women in Tolkien's text to their “female analogues in medieval Germanic literatures”: Valkyries. These have divine or semi-divine origins or ancestry; noble social status; superior wisdom, intellect, or acumen; and exceeding beauty, and common themes surrounding them include “light, prophecy, physical prowess, self-sacrifice, cultural leadership, unwavering will, public ceremony as a binding commitment, and the support of a chosen hero.”70 These tropes align with many contemporary female video game characters, the most obvious being Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda, who since 1986 has been the noble, intelligent, beautiful, divine, self-sacrificing, light-arrow-wielding supporter of the hero Link. While Zelda's character has fluctuated slightly throughout the series, she has hewed closely to the Valkyrie trope throughout. Without Zelda the world would not be saved, but she is forever the helper and not the hero, even when, as Chris Lawrence points out, she is demonstrating herself as more capable than the hero himself.71 It is not that the Valkyrie is a pejorative depiction of women; it is that she has become one of very few acceptable roles women are allowed to play in stories of adventure and heroism. The trope dates back to Beowulf, a work so old we don't know exactly how old it is. In 2019 we might expect Zelda to finally take on the role of hero, not supporter, as “historically inaccurate” and “political” as that would be, but I'm not holding my breath.
To look at a more clearly harmful example, the worst depiction of a woman in Tolkien's work forwarded another very old myth that has now become one of the most common sexist tropes in contemporary games: that of the abject vaginal monster (figs. 4–10). One of the most unsettling female characters in LOTR is Shelob, the giant female spider who is described with very specific vaginal imagery. While the vagina dentata myth long predates Tolkien himself, its persistent relevance is apparent in the monsters we see in video games today.72 Shelob's hunger for men, as Brenda Partridge points out, follows “a tradition [of] portraying woman as a threat, with implied sexual overtones.”73 Tolkien repeatedly brings attention to Shelob's gender both by using she/her pronouns and through detailed and graphic bodily descriptions. To give only one example, Shelob is described as having a “huge swollen body” that is “soft” and “squelching” with “hideous folds” and a “pale belly” that “gave forth a foul stench.”74 These myths are deeply linked to a specific type of fear of women and women's bodies.
I would argue that depictions of both the vagina dentata and the monstrous feminine are inescapable tropes about women in contemporary video games. The cliché carries forward into games so well in part because of the assumed male audience, but also because so many games draw upon figures from classical mythology, in which gendered monsters abound.75 The popular game series Castlevania (Konami, 1986–2014), The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2007–2015), and God of War (Sony, 2005–2018) all rely on classic narratives centered on male heroes and female monsters.76 Sarah Stang has specifically examined female spider monsters in games, including Lolth from Dungeons and Dragons, first seen in 1978, and the Arachne “species of spider women” from the 1999 Castlevania, and observes that they are often depicted as a bait and switch—they at first appear helpless and beautiful from the waist up, only to be revealed as grotesque spiders from the waist down. Stang concludes: “The ludic female monster does not exist because she chooses to—she is designed, coded, and rendered (usually by male developers) to be confronted and slain…. She is, therefore a misogynistic construct that is designed to reinforce hegemonic ideology and uphold the primacy of normative bodies, behaviours, and gender dynamics.”77
The vagina-monster trope is so ubiquitous in video games that Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen, 2011) designer Edmund McMillen parodies it in his free browser-based game Cunt (Edmund McMillen, 2008, fig. 11), which does away with the typical metaphor—man with sword fights giant monster who shoots things at him out of giant dark orifice—in favor of a literal penis shooting various substances at a giant vagina that the player orbits. Such male depictions of monstrous vaginas emphasize a simplistic core metanarrative: men are heroes, and women an evil to be attacked. Or, to bring it back to the fantasy genre, as Terry Pratchett explained in his 1985 essay “Why Gandalf Never Married”: “Wizards get to do a better class of magic, while witches give you warts.” Later on in the essay Pratchett asks rhetorically: “Can you imagine a female Gandalf?”78 Probably not. If a movie came out in 2019 in which Gandalf was played by a woman, the internet would lose its mind!
The Valkyrie and the vaginal monster are just two of many ancient tropes continually remediated in contemporary video games, serving to make medieval gender norms seem positively normal. Women and women's body parts are continually treated in fantasy narratives as either sexy, funny, terrifying, or something to be gawked at—a variety of versions of the male gaze for women to feel alienated from.79 Female bodies and characters in fantasy, in games, and in fantasy games are simply not treated with the same respect and importance as male bodies.80 I am not arguing that women cannot or should not be depicted as villains or enemies, but rather that their villainy shouldn't be rooted in their femaleness, such that their sexuality deepens already-deep gender divides in games culture.
The hero narratives we consume today, with their white male protagonists, female healers, and mythic monsters, are remarkably like the fantasy narratives we consumed sixty years ago and even earlier. It's high time for fantasy narratives that reflect and respect their current audience, even in video games. The creators of all these media should recognize the frequently sexist and racist tropes and norms that they are remediating and popularizing. Beyond representation in the games themselves, these tropes and norms enforce the already existing us-versus-them dynamic of men and women in nerd culture, going back to at least Tolkien's time. While this may initially sound like a stretch in logic, gamers already see their opposition to feminist work (and feminists themselves) in games as a sort of game in which they are the heroes who must defeat the feminist enemies attempting to invade their hobby.81 It is difficult to fight for inclusion and diversity when feminists working in games find ourselves the targets of constant harassment.
There is so much political weight in the assumptions surrounding the fantasy genre: that women don't go on adventures, that there can be countless races in the world but all the “good” ones will be white, that there can be dragons but there can't be queerness, and, most importantly, that only men want to consume these stories. Despite continued feminist activism at least since the 1980s, popular fantasy media is still as hostile as ever to marginalized people. At the time he was writing his Middle-earth stories (1937–55), Tolkien likely assumed he was speaking to an almost entirely male audience and perceived little need to appeal to female readers. This in itself is not so remarkable; what is surprising is that this is still how most people imagine the audience of contemporary video games. This assumption feeds the existing entitlement of male gamers, justifying the gatekeeping of games culture and perpetuating its inaccessibility to girls and women.82 Of course the lack of diversity in games or games culture is not Tolkien's fault. Rather I wish to point out that the discourses around Tolkien's texts demonstrate that the expectations and standards for representation in fantasy media have barely risen since the 1950s. As long as the straight cis white male experience remains at the center of these narratives, privileged above the inclusion and development of more diverse characters and narratives, the expectations for this media will stay the same, as will the entitlement of those who want more of the same.