Definitions

Race is one of those terms that everyone uses on a regular basis and feels like they implicitly know, yet whose definition is hard to pin down. That’s because it’s been defined so many ways, by so many groups, with so many political interests. A lot of books have been written on those definitions, books that are thorough and brilliant, books that I’ll avail myself of here. But my task isn’t to analyze all of those definitions; it’s to parse out which ones World of Warcraft is using. And after I identify those definitions, to figure out where those definitions came from, historically – to trace them back to their political-economic and ideological roots. And finally, to see how those definitions have informed the cultural artifacts that have informed WoW.

So let’s look at how World of Warcraft defines race.

Definitions

Race = Species

The most obvious way that the game defines race is species, the sense of the term we use when we refer to “the human race.”  It’s the  “official” definition that Blizzard uses, and they’re pretty consistent about it.  There’s plenty of evidence that this definition is the one they want us to think of.

First of all, four of the game’s ten races – the Orcs, Trolls, Dranei, and Tauren – all look decidedly non-human. The Night- and Blood Elves could maybe pass for human, if not for the Night Elves’ blue skin and both races’ absurdly long ears. Then there are the Dwarves and Gnomes, both pretty much human in physique, but decidedly non-human in origin, according to the lore. [1. The term lore is a shorthand for the “official” narratives that Blizzard (or other companies that own a given IP) has provided in all of the officially licensed games, novels, websites, etc.] The Dwarves are descendants of Titans, ancient giant gods who used to roam the earth. The Gnomes’ origin is hazy, but one of the game’s quests, “The Mechagnomes,” suggests that they were originally robots that were assembled by the Titans and eventually somehow became organic creatures. Of course, the biggest proof that WoW wants us to regard race as species is that only one of the game’s races is labeled as Human. The rest are, by implication, not. [2. The significance of which w/r/t racism is analyzed thoroughly by Tanner Higgin’s “Blackless Fantasy: The Disappearance of Race in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games.”]

Here’s a gallery of the male avatar models of each race. You can click on each thumbnail to see a bigger version of the picture.

Just at the textual level, the problem with the race=species definition is that it’s muddied by the text itself.  The Blood Elves and Night Elves are actually the same species, separated by conflicts in their long and tumultuous history. The Undead are former Humans and Elves who were plagued, killed, zombified, and enslaved by the Lich King. So just in terms of close but literal reading, race in the Warcraft universe is not simply defined as species; it can also denote groups who’ve been separated by politics, culture, and sorcery.

So the species denotation doesn’t hold up by its own logic. The bigger problem with it, however, is that it fails under the most basic connotative reading. Like most fantasy and science fiction works, WoW‘s various species – and here I’m talking about the playable ones – are really stand-ins for humans. They’re all anthropomorphic, despite the occasional tusks, tails, bovine heads. They walk and talk and dance. When we control them, we think of them just as much as extensions of ourselves as characters in their own world. [3. Here I’m referring to James Paul Gee’s theories of projective and virtual identities. See What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, pp. 111-12.] So it rings a little hollow to claim in earnest that the term race only refers to species here. Especially if you consider the representational connotations of the races themselves. (I suspect it’s a dodge, the manifestation of cultural fear about admitting lingering racism. More on this in the next chapter.)

Race as biological difference between people

If we’re meant to see our avatars as human – or at least human enough to stand in for ourselves – then the differences between races in WoW become differences between human races. And so race starts to mean something other than species, yet something related: it corresponds to differences between people, biological differences. This is what Omi and Winant call the “biologistic paradigm.” And WoW is full of it.

As I mentioned in the introduction, WoW‘s avatars are not created totally equal: each race can only play certain classes, and each race has special abilities and talents called racials. Lore-wise, both the class options and racials correspond to values and skills that each race has developed over its history: cultural rather than biological differences.  From a purely narrativistic viewpoint, then, WoW‘s races fit within a social-constructionist framework. For instance, the differences between the Night Elves and Blood Elves – who are, remember, the same species – are the result of a several-thousand-year history. They were once castes within a single society, separated by their respective interests in druidism and arcane magic.  After the Blood Elves’ addiction to magic caused a massive war that destroyed their homeland, the Night Elves banished them, and the two eventually became enemies. Given all this narrative (which I’ve drastically summarized), you could read the Night- and Blood Elves’ racials in terms of the cultural values they’ve developed over time. The Night Elves’ racials, like Shadowmeld and Elusiveness, correspond to an ideological disassociation with the rest of the world that they developed over time. The Blood Elves’ racials, Arcane Affinity and Arcane Torrent, correspond to their addiction to arcane magic. So purely in terms of narrative, the racials are socially constructed.

However, the lore is only one part of the experience of playing WoW. The other part is the gameplay elements  – the rules that govern what players can and can’t do. From the player’s perspective, the racials are fixed entities; only Blizzard can change them. (The lore is fixed too, for that matter.) The first time a player encounters the racials is the character-creation menu, in which none of that lore even appears. So the racials are gameplay elements before they’re narrative elements, physical attributes of each race that the player must consider when she is deciding what she wants her character to play like.[4. In fact, in forums and conversations I’ve had with other players, I’ve noticed that players tend to refer to the racials – and often, the races themselves – primarily in terms of how they affect gameplay. E.g., my brother (an expert in both lore and gameplay if there ever was one) recently picked Draenei for a new warrior character because  other races’ warriors because their Gift of the Naaru gives him a healing spell (rare for warriors, who typically get healed by others) and their Heroic Presence makes him more likely to hit targets (and raise threat, thus keeping aggro on him rather than other party members).] This isn’t to say that they’re less important, by the way – I would argue that the gameplay and representational elements are both crucial parts of our understandings of videogames and their meanings. What I’m saying is that in the case of the racials and class options, the lore that depicts them as socially constructed is overshadowed by the immediate context of the gameplay, which depicts them as essential qualities of the character’s race.

And but so from the player’s perspective, WoW operates upon the biologistic paradigm of race.

History

The definition of the word race as species and the notion that human race is comprised of biologically distinct groups called races come from roughly the same historical milieu.  The word race entered Northern European languages between the 13th and 16th centuries, but it had a lot of meanings, from “rage” (Dutch razen) to “power” (Anglo-Saxon rice). The “species” sense comes from the Italian razza, which itself hails from ratio in good old Latin. According to the OED, both senses were in play by around 1500. But the biologistic sense – the more significant one for my purposes, since it’s connected to Western racism – really took hold in the 17th and 18th centuries, the product and legacy of modernism.

The 17th and 18th centuries were the period in which Europe “discovered” the rest of the world and learned how to profit from it. Our modern conception of race grew largely out of Europeans’ desires to rationalize the exploitation and destruction of the “Other” peoples of this “new world” under capitalism. If the peoples of the Americas, Africa, and the Indies were equal to the Europeans, it was a lot harder to exploit them. But if they could be classified as lesser beings – as “children,” “savages,” “benighted Christless souls,” etc. – it was much easier to exploit, convert, displace, enslave, and kill them. This was the “first – and given the dramatic nature of the case, perhaps the greatest – racial formation project” (Omi and Winant 62).

Political economy wasn’t the only factor. Operating from Gramsci’s theory that a given historic bloc contains sedimentations from older ones, Victor Villanueva argues that 18th-century racism was actually informed by a variety of discourses, old and new: “the ‘philosophical,’ theosophical, theological, and scientifical (not quite scientific)” (11). The major philosophers of the time, especially Kant and Hegel, penned treatises on the natural superiority of Europeans over Asia, Africa, even Spain. These works reinscribed in rational terms what religion had been doing for several hundred years, ever since various popes and monarchs had terrorized Jews, Arabs, and other “ethnics” (in the late Roman Republic, anyone without faith; narrowed by Paul to anyone without Christianity) (Hannaford 88). Furthermore, Enlightenment-era scientists, eagerly trying to classify everything and everyone they could see, gave the biologistic paradigm the justification and ethos of their increasingly respected field.  And so works like Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s The Natural Varieties of Mankind (1776) “illuminated” the “natural” differences between peoples, differences that explained and justified the depredations that Europe practiced upon those that got in its way.  After this, writes Villanueva,

The rest is a slippery slope: Darwin to Edmund Spenser to the British looking to be master races to the German creation of the Aryan as a Northern tribe that had invaded the lands of the South, where we know of the Aryans as Iranian and Indian, to the reinvigorated hatred of the Jews, along with Gypsies, to the attempted genocide of World War II. In the U.S. there is the Chinese Exclusion Act, Jim Crow, the forced expulsion of Mexican and Mexican Americans during the 1930s, and the continued colonization of American Samoa, Guam, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, the Northern Marianas, Palau, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico—to this day. (15)

According to Omi and Winant, the biologistic paradigm, maintained by social Darwinism, Spencerism, and eugenics, held sway in the US common sense from the end of slavery until the 1920s. Far too overtly racist to achieve mainstream status since the “great transformation” of the 50s-60s, it survives today in the expressions of the far right.

And in mainstream fantasy texts. Of which World of Warcraft is currently the most popular.

Context

What are WoW‘s immediate textual influences, and what does it take from them? Chris Metzen, the lead writer for the Warcraft games since the first one in 1994, admitted some of his influences in an interview. Here’s what he says:

It’s all about spin, right? We’re essentially sponges — especially artist types. If you’re a songwriter, a dancer, whatever — we’re sponges. We take in data. We take in things that we dig. In my case it’s likely comics or Star Wars or Dragonlance. I absolutely devour the stuff. Strangely enough, I devour the same stuff over and over. It’s really weird. I’m not very experimental. …

We put out a game called Warcraft III a few years ago, and one of the things I really wanted to do was take orcs, who are the perennial bad-guy race — the dark, subhuman, barbarous race in most fantasy — and I wanted to take our orcs and spin ’em. They’re still green and tusked and very brutal — the visual of them plays to the archetype, so it’s very familiar for someone coming to the setting. But we started to take them on a route where, what if they weren’t innately evil? They’re looking for identity. They’ve been roughed up, and now they’re trying to become this noble thing again. That was a decided spin on a pretty classic archetype that, well, time will tell whether it worked well. But that’s the trick, right? Keeping the archetypes in the foreground — because that’s ultimately what people want. It’s part of the magic of the escapism of these fantasies.

What did we do with the latest one [WoW]? You know, we’ve got elves, right? Everybody gets Legolas from the Lord of the Rings film. Ultimately what we decided to do with our elves in the Warcraft setting was make them addicted to magic. They’re like an entire race of crack addicts; they just can’t get enough magic. And they’re just on the brink of losing everything they’ve ever been, to this almost genetic addiction to something that may or may not be very dangerous to play with.

Looking at them, the visual archetype holds very strong. From Tolkien to D&D to where we are today, current fantasy — “I get it! The long ears, and they’re graceful, these other-worldly creatures.” But inside there’s a reflection of something that might be relevant to today. How often do we see stories of addiction in our extended families? None of this is stunning; none of it’s super innovative. But again, it’s not coming up with a new race — it’s finding a way to make the older archetypes sing again. (1)

There are several fascinating things about what Metzen says here. One of them is his admission of his influences, which are very specific and apparently very important. I’ll come to that a little later. The other thing that’s interesting here is his use of the word archetype, a significant and telling term. Its standard definition, according to Dictionary.com, is “the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.” It’s possible that Metzen was thinking of this sense, thinking of his influences as merely models. But the second definition – the one that’s most well known – is the one from Jungian psychology: “a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.”

Jung’s theories were based on the notion that all people shared the collective unconscious, regardless of cultural differences. Archetype also featured prominently in the works of Joseph Campbell, another universalist, whose The Hero with a Thousand Faces articulated the essential structure of the “hero journey” and identified this structure in myths of cultures in many times and places. A student of Jung, Campbell believed that “the mythic story would be a clear form of access to the mysteries beyond conscious knowing” (Young).

As a social constructionist, I tend to squirm at Campbell and Jung and their ilk, but my point here isn’t to debunk them. However you feel about universalist theories, something nobody can deny is the (somewhat ironic) fact that they’ve had massive cultural influence, particularly on artists. One of Campbell’s most prominent followers – apparently, he claimed, his best student – was George Lucas. Lucas carefully emulated the hero journey in Star Wars, working with Campbell on the script. Star Wars then became the most successful movie of its day, the turning point in American cinema and the granddaddy of the now-ubiquitous Summer Popcorn Flick. [Cite empire of dreams]. [5. Reproduced in hundreds of novels and games, the Star Wars universe also became one of the most popular shared universes of the last generation, a feature it shares with the other influences that Metzen cites as informing WoW. The Dragonlance novels, for instance, actually take place in the Dungeons & Dragons universe.]

So there are two points here. One is that there are clear influences behind the Warcraft universe’s narratives and other representational features. The franchise’s lead writer admits them openly – Star Wars, Dragonlance, the Lord of the Rings films. Star Wars‘s stamp on Warcraft isn’t noticeable on the surface – Warcraft very much fits within the romantic medieval setting of high fantasy; other than the intergalactic exodus of the Draenei, it steers clear of space flight and lasers and whatnot. The influence is more tonal and thematic: grand narratives full of melodramatic characters with supernatural powers. In a word, fantasy. [6. In fact, in its list of fantasy subgenres, Wikipedia even lists Star Wars as science fantasy, delineating it from science fiction, which is more grounded in realism.] Which brings me to my second point, and the reason I’ve seemingly digressed on Chris Metzen’s use of the word archetype: the rhetorical milieu from which Metzen has drawn – the “archetypes” he borrows and spins – is itself based upon the idea that there are archetypes to be found in the first place. Of rediscovering/-inventing who and what existed “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”; and, depending on the story, reentering that world, fighting for its survival, reviving it, or lamenting its loss. Of celebrating the ancient and pure.  In high fantasy, archetype is both a trope and an ideology.

What is fantasy?

Novelist and critic L. Sprague de Camp defines fantasy stories as any that are “based on supernatural ideas or assumptions, such as demons, ghosts, witches, and workable magical spells” (6). That’s a broad definition indeed: if the presence of the supernatural is the only requirement for a text to be called fantasy, we’re talking about massive swath of literary territory. Tom Shippey claims that , given this definition, the fantastic is “the dominant literary mode of the twentieth century” (vii). I would argue that his claim is actually an understatement: if all we’re looking for is supernatural elements, fantasy is the dominant mode of the last several millennia.  The Greeks had the Odyssey and Iliad; the Anglo-Saxons had Beowulf (in both cases,  the written versions being late transcriptions of much older tales, the only survivors of lost oral cultures). In Christian Fantasy: From 1200 to the Present, Colin Manlove notes that there really aren’t that many “differences between Christian ‘truth’ and ‘fantasy'” (5), because fundamentalist viewpoints notwithstanding, the Bible is full of fantastic elements – “a mythic paradise, talking beasts, gods, dragons, angels, visions, many miracles, accounts of other worlds” (2).

According to Manlove, the early Church kept a tight lid on any works that dealt with anything other than the “miraculosus – that is, issuing from God and Christ” (12). But in the twelfth century, the allowable scope of the miraculous widened, and legends of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail started appearing, most notably the Queste del Saint Graal (1215-30).  Similar tales of knightly derring-do flourished through the Early Modern period in romances like Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Faerie Queene.  Cervantes dealt the romance genre a blow by satirizing it in Don Quixote, but fantastic tropes survived in the works of Jonathan Swift and Cyrano de Bergerac. The Enlightenment was especially hard on fantasy, though: the realistic novel got really popular, and the prominent thinkers of the time – Hobbes, Locke, Cowley, Dryden – vilified fantasy as the opposite of the rationality they loved so much (though they gave Christian stuff a pass) (Manlove 2). But fantasy didn’t stay down. According to de Camp, three things kept it alive in the 18th century: The Book of Thousand Nights and a Night was translated into English, The Castle of Otranto initiated Gothic fiction, and the Grimm brothers published their collections of Germanic fairy tales.

By the nineteenth century, the supernatural was coming back: Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickens, Verne, Kipling, Conan Doyle, and Henry James all dabbled with it to varying degrees.  More importantly, this was when authors began looking back to medieval Europe with nostalgic eyes. Sir Walter Scott’s “romantic medievalism” inspired medieval-revival tournaments and buildings all over Britain. And near the end of the century, mixing “the antiquarian romanticism of Scott and his imitators with the supernaturalism of Walpole and his imitators,” William Morris brought sword-and-sorcery fantasy into the modern age (de Camp 13-14).

Nowadays, there are dozens of sub-genres within the broad generic rubric of fantasy, and they diverge so much in content and form that dealing with them all here would be both daunting and pointless. Instead, I’ll trace the ones that matter most: the ones that lead to World of Warcraft.

WoW owes its roots primarily to the subgenre called high fantasy, which is what most of us think of when we say “fantasy” in the first place. It’s sort of the quintessential form – stories that take place in parallel worlds and concern epic battles of good and evil. The progenitor and epitome of high fantasy is Lord of the Rings. LOTR‘s influence on WoW is indirect – Chris Metzen claims to have been much more interested in the Dragonlance novels, which take place in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. But D&D drew from Tolkien, as did the videogames that Metzen and his friends at Blizzard were playing when they made their Warcraft games (like the Ultima series, another long-running franchise that has leapfrogged influences with the Warcraft games). All roads lead to Tolkien. So let’s figure out where his roads lead.

Tolkien admired William Morris’s work, as well as Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian books. But what he really loved was ancient European languages: Old English, Old Norse, Finnish. As a professor of philology at Leeds and Oxford, Tolkien was a student of language and literature together. But the former always came first. He said about his novels,

“The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.” (qt. in Shippey xiii)

Tolkien believed that history and identity are embedded within language, even if we’re not aware of it. Just as “languages could be intrinsically attractive, or intrinsically repulsive” (Shippey xiv), their attractiveness or repulsiveness reflected the character of the person or group that used them. So when Tolkien began inventing his own languages and stories, remixing the ones he loved, he gave his narratives’ heroes beautiful tongues and his villains ugly ones. For example, his elves’ Sindarin and Quenya, based on Welsh and Finnish, reflected their virtue; but his orcs’ Black Speech reflected their evil.

The high fantasy genre is characterized by its entirely fictional worlds.  But just as Tolkien had remixed real languages to create his fictional ones, he also remixed the real world to create his fictional world, Middle-earth. The term itself, from the Old English Middangeard, just means “the world men inhabit” – the space “between ice of the North and the fire of the South” (Letters 211). Its famous geography is made up, but its general layout – particularly the locations of its good guys (west, north) and bad guys (east, south) – is very Eurocentric.  According to Tom Shippey in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century,

However fanciful Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth was, he did not think that he was entirely making it up.  He was ‘reconstructing.’ He was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination. (xv)

Lord of the Rings was a fictional story in a fictional world, but Tolkien wanted it to “make a body of more or less connected legend” encompassing English language and literature, the equivalent of Finland’s Kalevala and Germany’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales, both myth-reconstruction projects published in the 19th century (Shippey xv-xvi). England still didn’t have a national mythology by World War I, when Tolkien began writing the mythologies of Middle-earth, and he wanted to give it one.

Tolkien always coyly denied allegorical readings of his work, but they’ve been easy enough to make: the Riders of Rohan are Norsemen with horses, the Shire is England, Sauron is Hitler(ish), and Saruman is an environment-hating industrialist.   Tolkien’s love of Old Norse and Old English cultures is sincere and obvious. But so is his antipathy towards people east and south of England, people who would be very recognizable foes for an Englishman in the early twentieth century. So Tolkien’s heroes are fair-skinned and North European, and his villains are “swart” and Oriental. L. Sprague de Camp, writing in the 70s, calls this positionality “traditional”:

Traditional […]is Tolkien’s making the swarthy southern Haradrim and the nomadic Easterlings villains, sent by Sauron against Gondor. Europe has a long tradition of invasions from the East and the South, by Persians, Carthaginians, Huns, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks, to whom the attackers of Gondor roughly correspond. (248)

Tolkien’s definitions of race are “traditional” too: the senses of “different species of beings” and “different breeds of men” are both here, and there are definite hierarchies. As Tof puts it,

Good breeding retains its old meaning: capability and manners are inherited and can be diluted though mixing with inferior bloodlines. One potential is determined by one’s breeding: Aragon is of the lineage of Kings, whereas Boromir and his father, Denethor, are stewards and the descendants of stewards – when they seek to rise above their station, they become corrupt. … Also in accordance with the old racial and eugenic model, it is possible to fall (there is no shortage of evil or low men in Middle Earth, and Elves and even the semi-divine Wizards are not immune to tempatation; but it is not possible to rise. There are no redeemed Orcs in Middle Earth, nor even any Southrons who see the light. Virtue as well as strength is in the breeding, and while it can be lost, it cannot be regained.

So Tolkien, an early-20th century Englishman with an intense love of Old English and -Norse who published in the wake of 19th-century medievalist revivalism, wound up inscribing modern racism into his pre-modern myth. Is this surprising? Nah. What’s surprising is how popular he got, and why.

Whose fantasy is it?

LOTR had been first published in 1954-5, but it didn’t get really popular in the U.S. until it was reissued in paperback in 1965-66. Other reprints of old fantasy novels followed, like Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, as did a whole slew of new works. A decade later, Tolkienistic fantasy jumped media from books into games with Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s tabletop wargame Chainmail, which quickly morphed into the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (1974). D&D was heavily inspired by Tolkien, and it did for gaming what Tolkien did for novels: it sold a bazillion copies, and it inspired a bazillion imitations.

Why did fantasy get so popular in the 60s and 70s? According to Lin Carter, the genre “created a unique neomythology” in the U.S., “a nation too young to have a mythology of its own” (xii). L. Sprague de Camp chalks it up to the reemergence of the Hero: “He strides through landscapes in which all men are mighty, all women beautiful, all problems simple, and all life adventurous.” Contrast this, he argues, to the often-bleak realism of the period’s literary fiction, and even the “anti-hero[ic]” and “sentimental” sci-fi and fantasy just after World War II.  The world of a fantasy story is a highly dramatic place – “the fate of kingdoms is balanced on the bloody blades of broadswords brandished by heroes of preternatural might and valor” – but everyone it knows who they are, what they stand for, and why they fight. It’s “the purest escape fiction there is,” de Camp writes; “the reader escapes clean out of the real world” (5). De Camp’s description of the Hero of sword-and-sorcery fantasy is telling. Notice the macho element: the Hero is male; he and every other man are “mighty,” and women are simply “beautiful.” Gender is simple, stable. So is race.

To understand the rise of fantasy texts (by which I mean books, comics, and games) in the 60s-70s, let’s look at the broader social landscape. After World War II, The U.S. had experienced a what Omi and Winant call a “great transformation,” a paradigm shift in definitions of race and an upsurge of social movements that challenged the prevailing racial politics. The paradigm shift to which Omi and Winant refer, begun in the early 60s by the civil rights movement, challenged overt racism and segregation in the South by advocating individual equality over “race-thinking” (96). The black movement (and, following its lead, movements by other minority groups, as well as student, feminist, and gay rights activists) also challenged political systems’ racisms on a variety of fronts:

The struggles for voting rights, the sit-ins and boycotts to desegregate public facilities, the ghetto rebellions of the mid-1960s, and the political mobilizations of the Latinos, Indians, and Asian Americans, dramatically transformed the political and cultural landscape of the U.S. (Omi and Winant 95)

The effects of the “great transformation” were massive and, to this day, indelible; but they’ve never been completely progressive. Almost as soon as the civil rights movement had begun to rearticulate notions of racial equality, conservative whites began fighting it. There were the obvious reactionary elements – the KKK, “Bloody Sunday,” George Wallace – but the far right has never had much mainstream sway; far more effective (and insidious) have been the efforts of the new right and neoconservative movements. One of their most effective and lasting efforts has been the counter-rearticulation of racial equality, one of the best examples being the labeling of “equality-of-result” endeavors like affirmative action as “reverse discrimination” – a phrase I still hear about once a week.  (Neoconservatism, still a major force in U.S. politics, plays an important role in WoW, and I’ll discuss it in Chapter 4).  Ultimately, Omi and Winant argue, the conservative reaction came from fear:

The appeal of the new right is based on the way many people experienced “the great transformation” and the transformations and dislocations of the 1970s and 1980s. These shocks inspired fear. They portended the collapse of the “American Dream” – the apolitical, perpetually prosperous, militarily invincible, and deeply self-absorbed and self-righteous “mainstream” American culture was, we think, shaken to its foundations by developments over this period. Commonly held concepts of nation, community, and family were transformed, and no new principle of cohesion, no new cultural center, emerged to replace them. New collective identities, rooted in the “new social movements,” remained fragmented and politically disunited. (121-22)

So it’s in this climate of social and economic upheaval, of crises of identity on a variety of fronts, that high fantasy starts to get really popular. That popularity has continued throughout the 80s, 90s, and 00s [7. That abbreviation sounds weird. Have we come up with a better one for the current decade, now that it’s almost over?]; fantasy novels continue to be a major component of the publishing world, and fantasy games, following their transmedial shift from tables and cards into computers, are a major component of an $41.9 billion dollar industry. (Especially MMORPGs, in which WoW, with its 11.5 million subscribers, is just the leader of a well established trend.) I’m not suggesting that these texts are purely attractive for their conservative racial representations – there are lots of other elements in them that gain traction with audiences (as my work here will reveal with WoW). And every text is unique, of course. But it’s no coincidence, I argue, that stories that hearken back to a romanticized medieval Europe, in which men are men and orcs are orcs and everybody knows who and what they’re about, hold a certain attraction for people living in a society that’s challenging their notions of identity.

See, high fantasy is all about nostalgia, and nostalgia is a powerful force indeed. Susan Stewart defines it well: a “sadness without an object, [a feeling that is] “always ideological: the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, that past continually threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack” (qt. in Nakamura 26). According to Lisa Nakamura, the racial constructions of virtual worlds (which she calls cybertypes) are frequently nostalgic in this sense. They’re tied to “precisely the idea of race itself,” particularly in imperialist societies: “Cybertyping works to rescue the vision of the authentic raced ‘native’ that, first, never existed except as part of an imperialist set of narratives, and second, is already gone, or ‘destroyed’ by technologies such as the Internet” (26). World of Warcraft is thick with racial nostalgia – including, as I’ll show in the next chapter,  varieties of nostalgia that are right out of European and American imperialism – but it didn’t invent that nostalgia. Nor, like the cybertypes Nakamura identifies throughout her book, did racial nostalgia originate with the Internet. In WoW‘s case, it originated with Tolkien, proliferated with his followers, like Gygax and Arneson, and found its way to their followers: Chris Metzen and the rest of the guys at Blizzard that designed the Warcraft games. High fantasy really is a fantasy, and it belongs to Western whiteness. It’s a fantasy in which this culture’s historical ideas of morality – loyalty, bravery, perseverance – are essential, clearly recognizable qualities. Unfortunately, so are its historical ideas about race – that it’s biologically determined, and thus the determining factor in that morality.  In WoW, this fantasy is accessible all day, every day, a simulation of a world rather than just a story about it.

One comment

  1. […] If you want to read more about the erasure and representation of race in WoW, then CJ Ritter’s dissertation is a great place to start, as are the comments on his Topography section. There is a lot of work […]

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