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On Elves and the Social Aspects of Disease

Published onJan 08, 2021
On Elves and the Social Aspects of Disease

In most strategy classics, from Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri to the Age of Empires series and the aptly named Command and Conquer, the player enjoys total dominion over the characters in their kingdom, army, or society: where they move, when they attack or retreat, whether they bunker down and rest. This is true even in games that allow you to implement more participatory forms of government; in Rise of Nations, implementing democracy provides statistical bonuses, but doesn’t give your citizens any leeway to push back on your commands or priorities.

In Majesty (2000), the roster of heroes that make up the primary offensive and defensive forces of your kingdom—knights and rogues, priestesses and druids—cannot be directly ordered around. With a few minor exceptions, the verbs that define the player’s interaction with the heroes are incentivize, cajole, and motivate, not order, command, and control. Rather than ordering your heroes to attack a werewolf-infested keep, explore a new area, or ward off a harpy attacking your city, you place bounties of hundreds or even thousands of gold coins, cross your fingers, and hope that their thirst for disposable income outstrips their instincts for self-preservation or desire to visit the pub, plant mushrooms, or join a jousting tournament.

Majesty’s market-based governance sometimes tips into Keynesian policies. If I spend my kingdom’s money to improve weapons and armor at the blacksmith, my heroes might spend more money upgrading their kit, thereby increasing my tax revenue. If I want my heroes to invest in rings of protection or healing potions, perhaps I increase the bounties on bloodthirsty rat-men from 100 to 400 gold. Government spending can pay huge dividends, both for the quality and survivability of your kingdom and the state of your kingly finances, but as a result, the game takes some of the Alexander-the-Great-style grandeur of other strategy games away from the player, putting them in a technocratic role. Playing Majesty often feels more like being the Secretary of the Treasury than King Arthur. And I don’t mean that as a criticism; playing a fantasy kingdom-management game as an anti-austerity political leader has its pleasures. But the game does naturalize a capitalist market paradigm, with scores of rational actors making micro-level decisions to maximize their well-being. It’s every wizard, ranger, or barbarian for themselves, and precious few heroes are programmed to act with any kind of civic pride or solidarity.

Rediscovering Majesty during COVID-19 particularly drew my attention to the elves who occasionally join your kingdom. Majesty shares with many European-inflected high fantasy texts an offensive set of racial assumptions: humans are complex and multi-faceted, but all dwarves are hardworking, slow-moving, and obsessed with building and repair, while all gnomes are dutiful, deferential, and live happily in squalor. The elves are all skilled archers, androgynous and blue-maned, fleet of foot, and irretrievably lazy. If welcomed into your kingdom, the elves will build architecturally beautiful lounges, and under certain conditions, gambling halls. The elves are the only heroic faction that refuses to pay taxes (even the Rogue’s Guild coughs up!), although their mere presence, for some reason, supercharges your economy by doubling the economic activity at your marketplaces.

Most nations and societies have mismanaged COVID-19 to some degree, leading to countless unnecessary deaths, untold suffering, and widespread lingering effects that can be debilitating. But the basic public health measures to control the spread are well understood: masks, hand-washing, social distancing, proper ventilation, limiting indoor gatherings. The plague is social and behavioral, not just biological and immunological.

In Majesty, the elves are carriers for two forms of social disease: indolence and gambling addiction. Their lounges and gambling halls pull your heroes away from their bounties, and even their habitual passions: your rangers might lose their zeal for exploration, while your wizards may neglect their time learning powerful new spells in the library.

This representational decision reflects a truism made overt by the pandemic: diseases are not pre-social or merely scientific phenomena, but products of social processes and norms. They are also, in part, microeconomic phenomena, reflecting the priorities, drives, and motivations of individuals. For many people, the consolations of commerce and social interaction, of a ballgame or a drink in a bar, outweigh the collective risk of contracting COVID-19, and of spreading it to others.

At the same time, Majesty’s depiction of elves and the social diseases they introduce chillingly reflects the violent xenophobia and racial and ethnic hate and division stoked by the pandemic. The elves are depicted as interlopers, an unfamiliar race, a powerful autonomous force inside your kingdom that refuses to contribute to the tax base, leading your mostly human heroes astray. The historical echoes of this representation, its genocidal logic of an enemy within, are too clear to ignore. In one “Let’s Play” video of Majesty on YouTube, a player attempts (unsuccessfully) to extirpate the elves from their kingdom by placing bounties on their dwellings, lodges, and gambling halls. The game doesn’t enable this particular form of violence, but even so, it refuses even the most elf-friendly monarch the opportunity to fully embrace the elves. They always remain at a remove, never integrated into the polis, always a potential vector for societal and martial unraveling. Although it’s your heroes who decide to while away their time and fritter away their earnings, Majesty makes it easy to blame the elves for all manner of social ill.

May Regan:

This is such an interesting piece! It’s complicated because this is about a few things at the same time, but they’re held together by the title. “Social Aspects of Disease”. This includes both the social norms and networking effect of an epidemiological crisis, and the xenophobia stoked by genocidal logic as you say. You manage to get so much out of the elves in Majesty, and I especially enjoy at the end how you say you notice more now than when you were a teen. One area of not so much confusion but I think at least a lack of clarity is the first lines of each of the last two paragraphs. You say “on one hand” and “On the other hand”. I’m not entirely sure what you mean. Are you juxtaposing these morally? Are they compounding effects? I think maybe there’s at least a sentence missing before or after these paragraphs that explains more directly how the two things you’re saying relate. I hope this makes sense, I’ll try to look back at this piece in some time and respond if you comment.