Middle-earth: Shadow of War Orc Slavery Highlights LOTR’s History of Racism The new game just can't shake Tolkien's prejudices

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As reports and complaints about Middle-earth: Shadow of War‘s loot boxes abound, criticisms of the game’s core content are beginning to do the rounds too.

Monolith Productions’ fantasy RPG features ‘orc slavery’ as a key component of the game. Player character Talion (along with Celebrimbor, the wraith that cohabits his body) must bend and break the orcs’ will to subjugate them. Players can form a slave army and have them quite literally fight battles on their behalf.

The process is incredibly disturbing, with Motherboard‘s Matthew Gault detailing the horrific account of an orc who could not be killed. Each time he died or Gault left him for dead, the orc would come back and find Talion, eventually forcing the writer to humiliate the NPC, making him more compliant but destroying his mind in the process.

The A.V Club‘s Matt Gerardi also describes an instance of punishing a runaway orc slave, not unlike the real-life punishments dealt to human slaves in the United States. The orc’s mind is ‘crippled’ even worse than before “as a warning to other orcs who might deign to break from your grasp and seek revenge for the fact that you brainwashed and abused them,” Gerardi writes. Orc slavery remains a normalized and unpunished feature at least through to the game’s third act.

Both Gerardi and Gault note that the personalities of these orcs have been a key selling point of the game, but are also the reason why the orc slavery weighs so heavily on the player’s conscience. In Gault’s case, the orc slavery is also what led the reporter to stop playing the game.

Middle-earth Shadow of War orc army

Although most instances of slavery in games tend to be tone deaf, Middle-earth: Shadow of War‘s decision to include it seems especially short-sighted, given the Lord of the Ring‘s history of racism.

Troubled History

J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, first published in the 1950s, saw that the writer’s prejudices about people of color were woven throughout. In a 2002 article in The Guardian, John Yatt writes that “genetic determinism drives the plot in the most brutal manner. White men are good, “dark” men are bad, orcs are worst of all.” Many of the enemy factions in the books feature the same characteristics of people of color, being described as “dark, slant-eyed, swarthy, broad-faced,” Yatt writes.

It’s unlikely that Monolith included the subjugation of the orcs with malicious intent, but that makes it no less insidious. Plenty of games feature power struggles and characters of higher standing than others, but few of those lesser-regarded groups are clear stand-ins for people of color nor do they include ‘humiliation’ as a requirement to join your cadre.

Monolith Productions is not oblivious to the series’ racism because its game is set to feature the first black character in the Lord of the Rings universe. The developer recently discussed the introduction of Baranor, who stars in his own DLC, telling VICE Brazil reporter Pedro Falcão how important it was to include a character that reflects the not-so racist perspectives of modern day times.

A key first Baranor may be, but Middle-earth: Shadow of War‘s orc slavery and the presentation of the feature as anything other than totally unacceptable shows that the series has a long way to go until Tolkien’s racist ideas don’t carry over to new takes on the author’s work.


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Jasmine Henry

Staff Writer at New Normative
Jasmine Henry is a games and technology writer from the UK who has been playing video games since before she could tie her own shoelaces. She is also a serial games hoarder (thanks Steam sales!) and dreams of a day when the representation of women and minorities in games is no longer debated and is simply just the ‘norm’.

  • XBONED

    You haven’t read the book if you think it is racist. It’s not. It’s based around his experiences in WW1 and if you read through the whole book and understand it you’ll realise that there is no racism at all in the whole thing but that each race was based around places he had visited throughout his life.

    • Your mansplaining aside, the origins of his stories don’t make them any less racist. Racism in Tolkien’s work is something that’s been debated for many years, it’s not a recent conversation.

    • Nic Reuben

      “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” – Tolkien. Make of that what you will dude.

    • The fact that each race is based on Tolkien’s own experiences is specifically the point that the (linked) article from The Guardian is making. If Tolkien used characteristics of people of color (and Jewish people), basing the enemy races on these same characteristics, then that is racist.

      These enemy races were portrayed as grotesque and horrifying because of those characteristics – because that’s how Tolkien saw people of color and Jewish people. That’s racist.

  • Theewall

    In the games the Orcs enslave humans so…..not to sure if serious.

  • Ross Johnston

    While they certainly borrow racist descriptive tropes of fantasy writers of the time period as demonstrated in Tolkien’s own letters describing the orcs, I would disagree that they are directly racially representative of any group or ‘clear stand-ins for people of color’. Given their origin in his Legendarium and Tolkien’s own dedication to his Catholic faith its more likely they represent people who have turned away from faith in God or the Middle Earth equivalent but borrow racist descriptors. If they were meant to be racially representative then why include other more obviously racist human stand-ins like the ‘Easterlings’ or ‘Haradrim’? While you could say ‘attitude of his time’ I don’t think there is any way to say that the latter two and other non-good side weren’t racist in their portrayal.