In the last chapter, I argued that between its gameplay and representational elements, WoW evinces two ways of defining race, both of which come from white western racial formations that arose in the last couple of centuries. The intersection of gameplay and representation is essential to this reading, because the ways those two broad elements combine or separate in a given instance strongly influences the meaning we can draw from the videogame as a whole. I stand by that position, but in this chapter I want to diverge slightly from it and focus solely on representational elements: the narratives told about each of WoW‘s races, as well as the way each is designed visually and aurally.
The narratologists may have been overly narrow in their focus, but they were right to point out that analyzing a given videogame’s representational design is crucial to understanding its meaning. In the broad arena of U.S. pop culture, videogames stand easily beside movies and TV as agents of The Spectacle: the slick and beautiful parade of images and sounds meant for our entertainment and consumption. That definition has its roots in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, though I don’t share Debord’s pessimism about The Spectacle’s inverse relationship to reality – that it comprises some kind of false consciousness, “an image of happy harmony surrounded by desolation and horror, at the calm centre of misery” (31). (Most of the time, anyway.) I do, however, think Debord was right about the relationship between The Spectacle and political economy – that it’s “the materialization of ideology brought about by the concrete success of an automized system of economic production (116). In other words, The Spectacle reifies ideologies, which are tied to distributions of power and wealth; therefore, The Spectacle is tied to distributions of power and wealth. It’s not “just entertainment.”
At any rate, videogames are complicated combinations of rules and representations; but sometimes, those representations are significant enough to study on their own. That’s what this chapter is about. WoW‘s representational designs – the way its avatars look and talk, the styles of their architecture, the narratives that are told about them – are fascinating in terms of racism, because they convey all manner of racial paradigms. Some of these mesh with the racist paradigms I discussed in the last chapter. Some are decidedly more progressive. Altogether, they illustrate the sheer complexity of WoW‘s racial design: my thesis that every major racial paradigm that’s ever existed in the U.S. appears in WoW in some form.
WoW‘s racial representations aren’t uncharted critical territory. At least three scholars – Alexander Galloway, Tanner Higgin, and Jessica Langer – have published analyses of them, and I’ll refer to their good work a lot here. I’ll try to push beyond them too, and get at some historical connections they don’t touch on. I’m also going to take advantage of my digital format and show you these representations in ways the print-based scholarship hasn’t been able to do.
What follows, then, are profiles of each of the ten playable races in WoW. Each profile contains the following information:
This is the video that new players are shown when they create a new avatar. In each, the “camera” flies cinematically over the starting zone of that avatar’s race, presenting its unique landscape and architecture, [1. Or at least their home base – within the diegetic history of the Warcraft series, there have been significant migrations and displacements of the ten races.] while a patrician male voice narrates the race’s history and describes its temperament, allegiances and conflicts. Finally, the camera zooms in on the new avatar, who is standing in front of the first NPC who will give them a quest and begin their adventures in the game. These videos situate each avatar within their geographical and political context in the game world, and the fact that this context is entirely focused on the avatar’s race reveals how important it will be to the avatar’s identity and the player’s gaming experience.
This section analyzes the ways that the avatars’ bodies look and move. I analyze both male and female avatars – gender of course intersects with race in all kinds of important ways. I also include the dances that they perform when a player presses ‘/dance’ in the game. All of these dances are pop-culture allusions, so they’re significant parts of the avatars’ representational gestalts.
Each avatar can produce an array of pre-recorded phrases – salutations, cheers, and jokes that the player can have them utter whenever she wants. The jokes contain the most recorded speech, so I display video clips of each avatar cycling through them.
A caveat about the jokes: I know they’re jokes. I know they’re supposed to be funny. I know I will be “ruining” some of them. About that, I quote Robert Jensen, from The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege:
Jokes are funny only in context. There is no such thing as abstract clever word play. Words have meaning in the world in which we live, not in the abstract. Take away the politics, and there is no joke. The joke wouldn’t make any sense. If the [racist and/or sexist] joke is funny, it’s funny precisely because it’s racist and sexist. (xvi)
At any rate, the jokes the player characters tell in WoW, which are unique to each gender of each race and are the longest pre-recorded utterances the avatars possess, are just too important to pass up, analytically. They reveal a lot about the representational design of each race, because each voice speaks a different variety of English. And sometimes they say things that line up with racism.
The artistic design of WoW’s world is one of its most prominent and impressive features: Azeroth, Outland, and Northrend are beautiful, even though the game engine is almost five years old. WoW’s artists have gone to great lengths to give each race its own turf with its own style, so analyzing the real-world influences of that architecture becomes important. This is tricky, because many of WoW’s buildings don’t (and couldn’t) exist in the actual world, and WoW’s artists have no qualms about mixing styles and inventing their own. But influences are there, and many of them are quite significant vis-à-vis race and racism. [2. Many thanks to Jeff Hatch for the assistance on the architectural styles.]
The final section contains my summaries of the narrative history and culture of each race – known in role-playing games as lore. I’ve gotten the vast majority of my lore from WoWWiki, an online compendium of all things Warcraft. It’s a great resource: its information is culled from all of the official sources in the game and outside of it, and it’s maintained by fans that take their work very seriously. I don’t summarize all of each race’s lore – you can follow the links and read it yourself – but I pull what I see as the most rhetorically significant elements out of it.
Here, then, are links to each of the subsections of this chapter.