Elder Scrolls: Oblivion Has A Surprisingly Nuanced Approach to Race
“Why do Khajiit lick their butts? To get the taste of Khajiit cooking out of their mouths! Hahaha! A real thigh-slapper, that one, eh?”
It was a joke told to me by Dar Jee, an Argonian man—a reptiloid race from the Elder Scrolls series—and an unapologetic racist. Khajiits, you see, are a cat-like race who are often scorned by many, due to their unsavoury reputation for being thieves and burglars, which is only exacerbated by their innate ability to see in the dark. Even playing as a Khajiit wouldn’t give Dar Jee any pause, as he will still gleefully regale you with his off-colour jokes about Khajiits.
But it’s also one of the more pronounced instances of racism in the series. Unlike many high fantasy games that deftly steer clear of depictions of bigotry, the Elder Scrolls games have a peculiar relationship with it. Racism is definitely central to the affairs in Tamriel; instances of racism manifests through microaggression (some characters will taunt you in encounters depending on your chosen race), even setting in motion the civil wars that plagued Skyrim, but it is, by and large, barely acknowledged or experienced by the player themselves. In Skyrim, you can buy a house in the city-state of Windhelm even as a Dunmer—the game’s grey-skinned elves—which would be unusual given that Windhelm is also the stronghold of the Stormcloaks, a xenophobic clan that is notably antagonistic towards your kind.
But in Oblivion, racism has a more pronounced effect through one of the series’ now long-lost features: disposition. It’s an attribute that determines how much an NPC likes you, which can affect your game in several ways. With a high disposition, merchants will be more susceptible to your haggling charms, which will allow you to fetch a better price for your goods, or characters may be more willing to share specific information with you. In some instances, you may even avoid being thrown into jail by the guards. As expected, your base disposition can be affected by race.
In fact, the Oblivion wiki even has a handy racism chart, which is kind of mind-blowing in its clarity:
That means if you’re playing as an Orc—the much-maligned whipping boy of the high fantasy genre—you’re more susceptible to being thrown into jail, because every other race is predisposed to hate you. Conversely, if you are an Imperial, a race that’s the very image of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, you won’t get any negative modifiers to your base disposition. In other words, you don’t really suffer from racial prejudice. Disposition is a surprisingly clever nod to the subtleties of racial microaggression in real life.
Unfortunately, that’s not to say that Oblivion fully comprehends the intricacies of race. At times, Oblivion’s treatment of racial nuances can ring hollow, even as it tries to expand on them through its lore: dark-skinned races are often discriminated against, and there are entire in-game books with encyclopaedic entries on the race relations in Tamriel. But various races have specific biological traits that offer penalties and bonuses to their stats, which points to differences in race as biological, rather than cultural—a trope that’s tied to the extremely shady and long-debunked belief of scientific racism. One of the most egregious examples is Redguards, a race that’s clearly modelled after perceptions of African tribal warriors, who have a -10 penalty to their Intelligence, Willpower and Personality trait, alongside a +10 boost to their Strength and Endurance stats. This isn’t unique to Oblivion and Elder Scrolls of course—it’s, by now, a convention common across most fantasy RPGs featuring a diversity of races.
Yet, removing the disposition trait in Skyrim feels like a disservice to the series’ discussion of racism. Few fantasy games are bold enough to discuss racial politics like Oblivion did; in one instance, you can even engage in a conversation with an Imperial racist who suggests that Khajiits should simply “get over” the fact that their land was stolen and given to the Imperials. But the nuances of race should go beyond conversations and bits of lore in Elder Scrolls. Bringing back disposition in the next entry in the series is probably a good start.
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