At this point, we’ve spent a lot of time with WoW‘s representational elements  – the environments of the fictional world, and the characters and stories that inhabit it. As the game studies field’s narratologists have argued, these representational elements are essential parts of videogames’ meanings: they are the media through which players experience the games, and players have profound intellectual and emotional reactions to them. But the narratologists’ frenemies, the ludologists, were also right: videogames are games. Without the element of interactivity,[1. by which I mean explicit interactivity – “participation with designed choices and procedures in a text” – as opposed to cognitive, functional, or meta-interactivity (Zimmerman 158).] a videogame would be some other type of text – a comic, a machinima, or a movie.  The representational elements would mean very little without gameplay elements being there to guide the player’s experience of them. Jesper Juul, one of the most clear-headed theorists of videogames’ structures, uses this fact to label videogames half-real: they combine fictional stories and settings (called representational elements in my schema) with real game rules. Both, he argues, are crucial to the meanings the player can/will make from a game:

Even though fiction and rules are formally separable, the player’s experience of the game is shaped by both. The fictional world of a game can cue the player into making assumptions about the game rules… The way a given object or character behaves will characterize it as a fictional object; the rules that the player deducts from the fiction and from the experience of the playing of the game will also cue him or her into imagining a fictional world. (177)

In other words, a videogame’s total rhetorical meaning can only emerge by reading its representational and gameplay elements together.  That’s what my analysis of World of Warcraft needs to address now.

Here’s where Ian Bogost’s theory of procedural rhetoric becomes crucial. It begins with a definition of procedurality from the computer science field: the “ability to execute a series of rules” (4). Executing rules in sequence is the fundamental action of computer code, so a computer program is fundamentally a set of algorithms for running procedures. Lots of them. Users tell programs to enact procedures, and programs in turn help users enact procedures. As a program, a videogame presents a great number of procedures that its user can enact, and a (greater) number of procedures s/he can’t. All of these are contextualized within the goals of gameplay: press A to jump on Goombas and kill them, press A below question-mark blocks to get fireballs, jump across the chasm to reach the end of the level, etc.  And because the videogame’s gameplay is mediated through its representations, the representations are what give the procedures most of their meaning. Potentially, then, videogames can “invoke interpretations of processes in the material world” (5).

As a critic and a game developer, Bogost is interested in the persuasive potential of procedural rhetoric.  His book focuses on analyzing and creating videogames that have explicitly suasory purposes: games in the domains of politics, advertising, and education. Hence its title, Persuasive Games (which is also the name of the game development company Bogost runs), as well as his definition of procedural rhetoric: “the practice of using processes persuasively” (28). In other words, he’s most attracted to the classical model of rhetoric – rhetoric as persuasion. But he also acknowledges the contemporary, Burkean notion of rhetoric as the conscious use of symbols to achieve connection between individuals. Under this broad definition, rhetoric becomes something more like the way we define expression: Person A might want person B to think or act in a new way, but she might also (or alternately) have more general motives in mind – conveying her worldviews or identity positions, for instance. Here’s where my lens is. Whether or not they’re explicitly trying to persuade their players to think or do something, game developers consciously make every line of a game’s code, every line of its art. The procedures players enact, then, are “a manifestation of the developers’ rhetoric, each rule corresponding to a meaning-making or meaning-managing event” (McAllister 56).

The meanings that critics can draw from a game’s procedural rhetorics depend on the values those procedures are accorded within the game and their symbolic meaning outside the game. Because games are goal-driven (leading players towards some desired victory or at least termination condition),[2. These terms, and other useful definitions of videogame structures, are from Ernest Adams‘ Fundamentals of Game Design, page 8.] their procedures carry values. Some are positive, leading the player towards victory; others are negative, leading the player towards defeat. Some are more or less value-neutral in terms of the game’s goals; players can enact them, but they lead to neither victory nor defeat. Some are purely connected to a videogame’s narratives and deal less with winning and losing than with character development, as they shape the ways that NPCs respond to the player’s avatar in various ways.[3. BioWare’s first-person RPGs (Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age, Mass Effect) are extremely good at this.] At any rate, all of the procedures a player can enact in a game are meaningful in some way. That’s especially true when they symbolize procedures in the material world. Not all videogames do so, of course – the abstractness of Tetris makes any kind of symbolic reading of it a stretch (which isn’t to say critics haven’t tried[4. E.g. iconic narratologist Janet Murray, who read Tetris as “a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s – of the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught” (qt. in Juul 133).] – but every game with anthropomorphized characters in a fictional world will symbolize something we can connect to the world outside it, however fantastic it may be. “Procedural rhetorics,” Ian Bogost claims, “afford a new and promising way to make claims about how things work (29).

So now it’s time I talked about how World of Warcraft works in terms of procedural rhetoric – how some of the procedures that it allows (and prevents) invoke procedures that resonate with the material world, and how some of the representational features covered in the last chapter work with the game’s rules to make even more significant meanings than either could do alone.

Which means it’s time to look at the faction system.

But first, an imagined (but not totally fictional) conversation:

Blizzard Entertainment head offices, 2001. A meeting between Tom Chilton, Jeffrey Kaplan, and Allen Adham, a few of the lead designers of Blizzard’s recently announced MMO project based on the Warcraft universe.

Chilton: Boyos, the topic of the day is PvP. Should we have it? How’s it gonna work?

Adham and Kaplan, in unison: PvP! Yes!

Adham: I propose permanent teams for the players, like Dark Age of Camelot.

Chilton: That could work. You’ll have people who are friendly to you and willing to help you, who you could join up with – and you’ll know who the bad guys are.

Kaplan: What’s the point in splitting up the player-base?  Let’s do it like Ultima Online: no boundaries.

Chilton: But in Ultima, I didn’t feel like I was part of anything. I never knew who my friends were, who I was supposed to be fighting against, what I was supposed to do.

Kaplan: But people are going to want to play with, well, the people they want to play with!

Adham: But they also want to feel like they’re a part of something. Times like these, people need to know whose side they’re on.

Chilton: I agree. Plus, it’d be a piece of cake to work it into the Warcraft lore. We’ll just make players join the Alliance or the Horde.

Kaplan: I still think it’s a bad idea to divide players.

Chilton and Adham: Tough shit, noob!

A crucial rhetorical decision

About a decade ago, Blizzard’s wunderkinds, fresh off the staggering success of Starcraft (played as a professional sport in South Korea) and Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, were looking around for a new game idea. They were playing some of the new massively multiplayer online role-playing games – Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, EverQuest – and they thought they could make their own MMO, which would improve on these games’ mechanics and use one of their own intellectual properties. No fools, they knew that this game had to involve some kind of player-versus-player conflict – how could it not, with so many players running around the game world together? Plus, they knew how to make PvP games; PvP is the raison d’être of the real-time strategy (RTS) genre, which had been their specialty. How to artfully implement PvP mechanics in an MMORPG’s persistent world was the question.

Their answer was the faction system: the division of players into the Alliance and Horde, and the attendant rules governing their interactions (no cooperative play, trading, or dialogue; lots of incentives for PvP combat).  It must have been an easy idea to conceive, since the Alliance and Horde had featured prominently in all three of the previous Warcraft games. But a recent article in Eurogamer MMO called “The Making of World of Warcraft,” which features an extensive interview with Tom Chilton (and is the source of the only-slightly-fictionalized conversation above), reveals that the faction system wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Kaplan (who later held the title and promotional duties of Lead Designer) opposed it from the very beginning, and according to Chilton, some like-minded members of the development team fought it “right up to launch” (Fahey 5).

Where did this disagreement come from? Was it merely about splitting the player base in half, as Chilton says Kaplan protested? Is it possible that the designers discussed the significance of players inhabiting avatars that were in a permanent war with each other, its sides drawn across racial boundaries?

Maybe. I suspect that the ambivalence in the game’s representational elements – the semiotic pastiches I discussed previously – is a sign that some of Blizzard’s designers are aware of their larger connotations and want to diffuse some of their racist elements. Furthermore, in its expansions and patches over the last four years, the game has evolved in the direction of grand, sweeping narratives that endanger the whole world, and thus transcend the Alliance and Horde’s conflict.[5. As the upcoming third expansion, Cataclysm, will apparently do even more.] As I’ve mentioned, one patch added more emotes to the avatars’ repertoire, effectively enhancing their rhetorical potential in cross-faction communication. The major cities of the Burning Crusade and Rise of the Lich King expansions, Shattrath and Dalaran, have been faction-neutral, allowing all players inside and preventing them from fighting.  And now players can actually pay Blizzard to switch their avatars’ races and factions.

But maybe not. Keep in mind that when Blizzard got going on WoW, both EverQuest and Ultima Online – the most popular U.S. MMOs at the time – had maybe 200,000 players each. Blizzard hoped for a million at the outside (Elliott 4). (WoW‘s popularity took everyone by surprise, its creators included.) So maybe they didn’t think about how many players would be inhabiting their world, or how much time they’d spend there, or how they’d feel about their avatars. Moreover, the developers had already committed to a fictional genre (high fantasy) that reifies racist paradigms, which paradigms (especially biologism) they further reified by their choice of procedural genre, the role-playing game.[6. See Chapter 2.] Their new character and world art – of which they created a vast amount of original content for the new game – played into even more racist paradigms.[7. See Chapter 3.] Finally, as many changes as they’ve made to the faction system, as many ways as they’ve deemphasized it, they still haven’t done away with the Alliance and Horde altogether. Or let players do away with them, for that matter.

At any rate, the most crucial thing to remember about the faction system is that it was, and is, a rhetorical choice. As were the rules that Blizzard devised to manage players’ interactions across the factions’ lines. Let’s look at each of those in turn.

The procedural rhetorics of the faction system

Know thine enemy

As I mentioned in the first chapter, many elements of an avatar’s identity in the game world are established through its race. The introduction video situates the avatar’s geographical and political context entirely in terms of its race and faction. The starting zones for newbie avatars are unique for each race, and the first few quests that players complete are narratively tied to their race’s local problems. While the main elements of the faction conflict don’t appear in the early game, players aren’t totally insulated from it. In fact, the game uses NPC encounters in quests to teach players how to spot and kill the racial enemy very early on. For example, let’s look at an early quest chain for new Draenei. As I discussed in my profile of the Draenei in Chapter 3, their narrative explains that they have crashed on Azeroth after fleeing their home world in a spaceship. The first few missions as a Draenei avatar revolve around the recent crash and the people’s efforts at recovery: gathering food and salvaging ship parts, scouting out the alien terrain, reuniting Draenei who were scattered here and there in the crash. The first quest that involves encounters with more than just local flora and fauna, obtained at level 5, involves finding a Draenei scout that has disappeared in some nearby woods. It turns out that he has been snatched and murdered by a band of Blood Elves, who intend to attack the weakened Draenei while they regroup. The player has to solve this problem by fighting and killing the Blood Elves and their leader. This small quest line establishes from a very early point in the game that the opposing faction will kill you unless you kill them first.

Divide and contest

As “predefined sequences of events” (Juul 17), quests are usually the most significant procedural rhetorics of a given videogame. Jill Walker argues that quests are tremendously important in establishing ties to the narratives of the virtual world: they “build up a sense of knowing an area and making a difference to the people who live there,” and thus “flesh out the world, making it interesting” (309). They’re essential to all role-playing games, as they get players to explore the world and undertake adventures in it. Single-player RPGs use quests as their means of progression through a plot. MMORPGs do this too, but their plots can never conclude because their worlds are persistent. Therefore, in addition to quests, an MMO has a default environment, an “everyday” world in which players trade, form groups for quests, dance on fountains, and so forth.

W/r/t the faction system, the everyday world of WoW operates upon rules that try to prevent any player procedures related to talking, trading, and teaming up with the other side. The game software automatically converts all utterances by the other faction into gibberish, and the options for cooperative play that exist for members of the same faction – forming a party or guild, sharing quests and their rewards – simply don’t exist for members of the opposite faction.

Players occasionally [intlink id=”280″ type=”page”]subvert these rules[/intlink], and Blizzard has relaxed them slightly, but they’re generally pretty strict about them.  An interesting example of this strictness in action occurred in 2005, not long after the game had released, when players cracked the game’s algorithm for scrambling cross-faction language.  Some plucky hackers, who noticed that “lol” from a Hordie always got translated into “kek” for the Alliance, and vice versa, invented a mod called BabelFish that would translate the gibberish back into English. Blizzard quickly banned it, citing the  “Malicious UI Modifications” clause of their  “Exploitation and Client/Server Manipulation Policy.” Apparently, Blizzard regards cross-faction communication as providing an “unfair advantage over other players.” I can see how this could be true – groups could send moles into battlegrounds in order to spy on the other team’s tactical communication, for instance – but the fact that Blizzard is willing to punish or ban players for doing it says a lot about how essential cross-faction unintelligibility is to their conception of their game.

Setting Blizzard’s intent aside for a second, consider the effects of these rules on players – specifically, the procedures they allow and deny. Consider their symbolic translation to actual life. What would the relationships be like between people who could only communicate through gestures, who couldn’t learn how to speak or write to each other, who couldn’t share an economy or pursue similar goals? And who are prevented  from ever doing any of these things by repressive state apparatuses, or punished if they do? How do we feel about governments that constrain their citizens like this?

The most dangerous game

Although an enormous chunk of the WoW experience involves killing NPCs, it’s much more fun to fight other players. Videogames have yet to pass the Turing Test; AI opponents are simply not as challenging, unpredictable, or exciting as human opponents. There are several contexts and locales for PvP play in WoW, and each evokes a slightly different reading of its representational and procedural rhetorics. Therefore, I separate WoW‘s PvP into two categories – random and goal-oriented – which reflect their degree of formality as games.[8. My distinctions basically correspond to Roger Caillois’ paidia and ludus, which respectively mean spontaneous/unregulated play and premeditated/controlled play (12-14). Caillois envisioned paidia and ludus as poles on a continuum, between which all types of play exist, from spinning around in circles until you’re dizzy to playing in the World Series.]

Random PvP

Because the game world is really big, players are spread out all over it, even on a highly populated realm. But it’s fairly common to run across players of the other faction. On a PvE realm, players can only fight each other if they choose to turn their PvP flag on. On a PvP realm, players are constantly flagged and are at risk everywhere but noob zones and sanctuary areas. Either way, the idea is that you can be running around doing quests somewhere, and if you see a member of the other faction, you can duke it out.

Random PvP lends an air of chaos and danger to the often banal questing experience. There’s no telling when you might get pounced on by some opportunistic foes, or what their numbers or levels will be. In fact, I’ve always played on PvE realms because of this – PvP realms have reputations as notoriously cutthroat places, wretched hives of all manner of scum and villainy.  On a PvE realm (also called, significantly, Normal), the fact that the player is only vulnerable to attack by choice makes an enormous impact on her experience of the world: the other faction’s players are essentially rendered untouchable, annoyances rather than threats. The faction conflict doesn’t disappear – the other side’s hostile NPCs are still around, and the exclusive turf, and the segregation – but it’s less a persistent feature of the world than, well, a game .

Goal-oriented PvP

What I mean by “goal-oriented” PvP is that which is contextualized in some kind of game activity: assault/defend a base, capture the flag, kill as many rogues as possible before time runs out, etc. Mostly, goal-oriented PvP takes place in battlegrounds, which are instances made for team-based games. There are also world PvP areas, which have similar goals as battlegrounds but exist in the main game world; as well as arenas, which are last-man-standing battles between teams of two, three, or five players.

As my names for them suggest, the main difference between random and goal-oriented PvP is that the gameplay is more tightly controlled in the latter than the former. These encounters are games, in the classic definition of that term. [9. By which I mean Jesper Juul’s, from Half-Real: “A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable” (36).] Players elect to enter battlegrounds and arenas by queuing for them. There are level brackets in the battlegrounds, so players won’t get mowed down by anyone higher than nine levels above them.  Arena teams are automatically pitted against others of similar rank, so the fights will be fair. Goal-oriented PvP always has a definite beginning and ending, with explicit conditions for winning and losing. And it comes with its own sets of rewards.

A notable hybrid of random and goal-oriented PvP is the ability to attack the other faction’s population centers – their camps, towns, and cities. (I call it a hybrid because these encounters are random in their time and size, like random PvP; but they do involve goals and rewards, like goal-oriented PvP.) These kinds of assaults have the most potential effect on the main game world, because they can disrupt the services that the cities provide, from the auction house to transportation in and out. I say potential and can because these assaults are difficult and temporary: cities are always staffed by elite NPC guards (not to mention whatever players might be around), requiring large raiding parties to conquer them. Furthermore, the NPCs quickly and perpetually respawn, making it difficult to hold a city for very long and impossible to capture. Population centers can’t be destroyed, either. However, despite their difficulty, city attacks are the most significant manifestations of the faction war: there’s nothing like having your home town invaded to make you want to fight. I haven’t seen that many of these invasions, but they always draw big, energetic crowds. And the chat window is rife with jingoism.

The meanings of PvP

Other than the arena battles, which are contests of individual prowess and can be between members of the same faction, all of WoW‘s player-versus-player combat is couched within the narrative frame of the Alliance/Horde war.  Although they are technically instances, the battlegrounds are meant to be understood as parts of the main world: their landscapes correspond to those in the regular game world, and their main entrances are in the zones to which they correspond. More important, the battlegrounds are all presented narratively as skirmishes over territory between the two factions. For example, Alterac Valley, one of the most popular ones, is contextualized through a story of territorial incursion and resistance. According to the lore, a contingent of Dwarves, the Stormpike Guard, had entered the valley looking for ancient relics and natural resources, not knowing that it was already occupied by the Frostwolf Clan, a band of Orcs that had settled there long ago in order to avoid conscription into the demonic Burning Legion.  The Orcs had attacked the Alliance without warning, setting off a bitter struggle over control of the area. The area’s quests imply that  the Alliance sees the Horde as unreasonable aggressors that deserve retribution, and the Horde sees the Alliance as imperialistic invaders that have no right to the area. Both sides’ viewpoints are partially right: there are indeed some Orcs that want to eradicate the Dwarves without mercy, and there are some Dwarves (including their king) that are motivated by a Manifest Destiny-esque  “sovereign and territorial imperative.” Ultimately, both sides’ goals are the same: destroy the enemy’s defensive towers and bases, and kill every member of their army.

Of course, neither side ever permanently wins, in this or any battleground. The battle ends; the armies teleport back to wherever they were beforehand; those with their blood still up re-queue for another one that’s an exact copy of the last, all rebuilt and swept clean. The narrative runs in a perpetual loop. Such is the case in a world that evolves only when its gods, who value equal opportunity over change, want it to. If the battlegrounds were more like real battles, there would be a finite (and very small) number of winners; if the war ended, half its population would suddenly be losers. And let’s not even get into how un-fun it would be to play out occupation, colonization, nation-building, insurgency, etc. – from the losing side, at least.[10. Games that simulate colonization just from the colonizers’ perspective are actually pretty common; the Civilization franchise and Empire: Total War are good examples.]

There’s very little realism in the Alliance/Horde war, and there shouldn’t be: good game designers recognize the tedious or unfair or horrific features of the material world, and iron those elements out accordingly. WoW‘s designers made its battlegrounds something like ball fields, settings for games that occur whenever people want to play them. Which is all well and good, except for the way they chose to represent those games – as martial conflicts between racially defined armies.

Granted, the rhetorics of each battleground are nuanced, and their meaning often depends on whose side you’re on. If you’re Alliance, you’re playing out standard Western imperialism when you play Alterac Valley: never mind that these Orcs were here first; you have a sovereign right to loot this land, and anyone in the way must go.[11. Fun fact:  In most of the battlegrounds, the home base or starting point of the Alliance is in the north of the map, and the home base/starting point of the Horde is in the south. Yet another piece of the North/West-vs.-South/East positionality of the factions’ representational design.] If you’re a Hordie, Alterac Valley is about anti-imperialism: you’re just protecting your people, who were only there to escape conscription and corruption in the first place. Conversely, in Warsong Gulch, the Alliance takes the moral high ground, defending the Night Elf lands of Ashenvale from deforestation by the Horde. Oddly, the new expansion battlegrounds, Eye of the Storm, Strand of the Ancients, and Isle of Conquest, don’t even have narrative frames, other than being territory the factions are interested in mining or holding for their war efforts. As WoW has evolved, as its quest and raid narratives have generally extended and deepened, its battleground narratives have simplified or disappeared altogether. Whatever their reasons for doing this, the developers have, in a way, reduced the battlegrounds to their simplest, deepest raison and meaning: racist war.

Yes, the faction conflict in World of Warcraft is a representation of racist war. It’s a systemic fact of the game world, coded into the algorithms that comprise the world’s rules. And players are interpolated in this racist war, even if they don’t want to be. They can choose not to actively participate in it, and they can subvert it a little bit, but they can’t avoid it altogether, and they certainly can’t change it. The most they can do is not play.

“For the ______!”

Racist discourse is the primary vehicle for identification in the Alliance/Horde war, but nearly as important is the discourse of nationalism.

As I’ve said many times by now, an avatar’s faction is one of the most important elements of its virtual identity. The game’s procedural rhetorics make sure of that.  The representational rhetorics of the game emphasize this importance; e.g., banners with the Alliance and Horde crests on them are ubiquitous, as are the slogans “For the Alliance!” and “For the Horde!” (As my first chapter showed, “For the Horde!” is popular enough to transmediate from WoW onto random whiteboards. Hordies generally show more esprit de corps, for some reason.) I can’t help compare this chant to “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” or some similar nationalistic slogan.

But are the Alliance and Horde really nations?  Each of the ten racial groups is basically a separate state with its own ruler and its own form of government. They’re all monarchies with distinct modes of ascension, and cultural features of their ruling classes are different. The Humans, Dwarves, are ruled by hereditary monarchs; the Undead, Orcs, Blood Elves are ruled by military leaders; the Night Elves, Draenei, Trolls are ruled by theocrats; and the Gnomes are ruled by a democratically elected master engineer called the High Tinker. The Undead, Blood Elves, Night Elves, Draenei, and Gnomes are culturally homogenous, but the Humans, Dwarves, Orcs, Trolls, and Tauren are alliances of many smaller subgroups, called kingdoms, clans, and tribes, respectively. Like so much of WoW‘s design, the two factions’ governmental systems are pastiches of various histories, places, and mythologies; and the Alliance and Horde are more like confederations than states. Actually, they resemble the multinational alliances of the twentieth century’s world wars.

The strange thing about the races’ individual governments is that they exist almost entirely on the representational level and have very little to do with players’ procedures, especially in the everyday game world. In the first three Warcraft games, when the player controlled the heroes and heroines that were or would become the monarchs in WoW, those characters’ roles in the world’s structures were at least part of the games’ procedural rhetorics (though the procedures were just military tactics). In WoW, however, the monarchs are NPCs standing in throne rooms, little more than dolls. Players can occasionally go on adventures with them, or witness their dramas, but we simply can’t engage with these leaders or the governments they supposedly run in any significant way. They have neither authority nor influence. To some extent, that’s because of the genre; single-player games can simulate ruling a society, but MMOs are about being a citizen. More important, it’s because of WoW‘s purpose as a game. It’s not a simulation of a complete society, with different players taking on different jobs, because every player has the same job: warrior/adventurer/merchant. (The degree to which each player pursues each aspect of that job is up to him, of course.) Maybe it’s unsurprising, then, that the type of group identity the game emphasizes is the faction, not the state. If you’re a craftsman of war, you need to know whom to fight.

So even though the Alliance and Horde aren’t neat allegories for nations, their political relationships (both within and between them) share some connotations with our modern conceptions of real nations and their relationships. The most significant of these is the conflation of nation and race.

This is as old as the two concepts themselves.

Racism and nationalism: ideological siblings

The concept of ‘race’ is related to the axial division of labour in the world-economy, the core-periphery antinomy. The concept of ‘nation’ is related to the political super-structure of this historical system, the sovereign states that form and derive from the interstate system.  (Emmanuel Wallerstein, Race, nation, class, 79)

Wallerstein is a little classical-Marxist here on racism, for me – as I showed in Chapter 2, it’s not entirely the product of political economy – but I think he puts the race-nation relationship well. His collaborator does too:

[T]he connection between nationalism and racism is neither a matter of perversion (for there is no ‘pure’ essence of nationalism) nor a question of formal similarity, but a question of historical articulation.”  (Etienne Balibar, Race, nation, class, 50)

To understand the historical articulations that lead to WoW‘s nationalism and racism requires a peek at two historical periods: the period in which race and nation were invented and the period in which WoW was created.


The works of Enlightenment philosophers reveal that as they struggled with the emerging modern definition of nation, they often conflated it with the also-emerging modern definition of race. Kant, for example, argued that the “character” of a given nation was shaped by the purity of the race(s) within it; nations like England and France were respectively “insular” and “continental,” but Spain, Italy, Germany, and Russia lacked national character because they were mixtures of “original” races (Hannaford 222).

As for the U.S.’s particular race-nation relationship, critical race scholars [12 .E.g., in addition to the ones I’ve already cited, Gabriel Kolko, Howard Zinn, Manning Marable, Peter Carroll, David Noble, and E. San Juan Jr. ] consistently maintain that racism has been an essential part of the formation of American national identity from the beginning of European colonization onward. Balibar and Wallerstein argue that “the American ‘revolutionary nation’ built its original ideals on a double repression: that of the extermination of the Amerindian ‘natives’ and that of the difference between free ‘White’ men and ‘Black’ slaves” (qt. in San Juan, Jr., 35). Robert Jensen labels these acts genocides.

The agony of undirected agonism

I mentioned earlier that the Alliance and Horde resemble the multinational alliances of the two World Wars. In terms of WoW‘s genre pedigree, that makes a certain metafictional sense: the Don of fantasy was a veteran of World War I, and his magnum opus’s fictional conflicts have been compared to those of WWII. But in the context of the first years of the millennium, when WoW was made, the faction conflict represents a type of war that hasn’t existed in fifty years, a clash of nations that spanned the entire world. World of Warcraft doesn’t portray the WWII myth’s moral clarity, but it does have its clear lines. You know whose side you’re on, and can tell friend from foe. That must strike a contemporary nerve.

Incidentally, I don’t mean to suggest that WoW is an allegory for the real World War II, in all of its moral complexity [13. See the late great Howard Zinn on WWII in The People’s History.]; I mean the mythic World War II. The WWII of Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor. Horrific, yes, but also heroic. Unlike the proxy- and neo-imperialistic wars of the late twentieth century, it was a good war, a just war. For which we have come to feel another kind of nostalgia.

World of Warcraft‘s development was announced at the European Computer Trade Show on September 2, 2001. It was released on November 23, 2004, a few weeks after G.W. Bush was elected reelected. So it was developed almost entirely between 9/11 and the height of the second Iraq War. A time when our collective pain and fear were channeled into support for an invasion of a nation uninvolved with the crime. A time of great militarism and nationalism.  A time when overt racism hit fifty-year highs.

I think WoW soaked up some of the zeitgeist. How could it not?

The sneakiest aspect of the “War on Terror” is that the Enemy is amorphous. It’s not another nation; it’s an ideology with adherents all over the place, many of whom are loosely connected, if not antagonistic to each other. (It is a certain race, though, which is convenient.) WoW‘s clearly defined factions are pretty far from this element of material life, and this incongruity between life and art helps explain the art. Amorphous enemies are frustrating. They’re also bad for nationalism. Wallerstein claims that the manufacture of nationalism, the process by which it’s made, requires unifying citizens against external threats:

Once recognized as sovereign, the states frequently find themselves subsequently threatened by both internal disintegration and external aggression. To the extent that ‘national’ sentiment develops, these threats are lessened. The governments in power have an interest in promoting this sentiment, as do all sorts of subgroups within the state. Any group who sees advantage in using the state’s legal powers to advance its interests against groups outside the sate or in any subregion of the sate has an interest in promoting nationalist sentiment as a legitimation of its claims. (Wallerstein 81-2)

In other words, nationalism is born of powerful interests’ need for the people’s unity, and their methods of constructing that unity by establishing common enmity. External aggression works best if it has a clear object, which had to be invented in 2001-3 but not in 1941-5. There is the enemy. There is their turf; here is ours. They look like that; we look like this. They even put their names in red. Does this sound familiar?

WoW has no trouble preserving its society’s historical articulation of racism and nationalism because it’s still preserved in the society. However, it also preserves the ideal conditions for nationalist war. It’s a fantasy of war modeled on our society’s most esteemed war fantasy.

Maybe that’s why the Alliance/Horde war never ends.

Leave a Reply