September 2009. I’m in the main expo hall of the Penny-Arcade Expo (PAX), the country’s biggest fan conference for gaming. I’m talking to Robert Mull, the community-relations director for Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, a fantasy MMO released last year. WAR is doing okay on the market, Bob says – at 350,000 subscribers, it’s profitable; but it doesn’t have as many players as its developers had hoped for. Then he looks over at the Blizzard booth, which takes up an entire corner of the expo hall, 20-foot banners looming over 54 computer stations, each with 5+ players in line for their demos.
“At least we’re not the McDonald’s of videogames,” he says.
It’s an interesting metaphor, and it sticks with me. Thing is, it’s only partially accurate.
The scale is definitely right: WoW can’t claim “billions and billions served,” but compared to 350,000 players (which is totally decent for one of its competitors), its 11.5 million might as well be a billion. Every time a new MMO hits the market, the gaming media debates whether it’ll be the “WoW Killer.” None have come close.
On the other hand, the qualitative comparison is all wrong. True, the haters – curmudgeonly legislators, parents of addicted kids – would agree that like McDonald’s, WoW rots the mind and atrophies the body. But for those of us in the know, who have seen firsthand what WoW has to offer, it’s anything but junk. Like McDonald’s, WoW has something for everyone – but unlike McDonald’s, everything WoW offers is excellent. It’s smart and balanced and polished. It’s beautiful and fun.
World of Warcraft isn’t the McDonald’s of gaming; it’s the Disneyland of gaming.
Think about it: WoW, like Disneyland, is a privately created/controlled environment made for public entertainment. A good chunk of that entertainment comes from just taking in the scenery – of flying through wondrous landscapes, of strolling through crowded but immaculate cities. It’s a theme park. There are tons of things to do in this theme park, all of which are based around play. The people that come here have a lot of freedom to choose how and when they play, and there’s no one right way to go about it.
The parallels between WoW and Disneyland aren’t all positive, however. Both environments are cartoonish, over-the-top worlds, reproductions that leave out the unpleasant and mundane elements of the actual one. Both environments are pastiches of actual places, filled with pastiches of actual people. These pastiches, given their own fictional histories, seemingly obviate the real histories of the real places and people they’re based on. Ultimately, none of these de-and-then-re-contextualized, seemingly ahistorical representations can fully escape their pasts. Especially when those pasts are bloody.
In the end, both WoW and Disneyland claim to have “something for everyone,” but what they really mean is “something for everyone who identifies with the identities we’ve represented.” What identities are those?
Frankly, most are white. Not in terms of skin color – or not just in terms of it – but in terms of language, architecture, religion, ethics, morality. In terms of the sense of whiteness as the invisible, pervasive norm (Dyer 458). There’s some ethnic variation, but the ethnicities on display have either been historically subsumed into whiteness (i.e. the Scottish/Irish Dwarves) or have been counted as model minorities by whites (i.e. the Asian Night Elves). Some identity positions are portrayed as deficient or debased via other discourses: the addict/gay (the Blood Elves), the non-white woman (the Orc, Troll, and Undead females). One, the Draenei, stands in for the people for whom racism as we know it was invented, presented here in the most positive of lights. But even positive connotations can’t overcome the inherent condescension in the “noble savage” view of Native Americans that underlies the Tauren. And the Trolls – well, they’re just plain old-fashioned racism.
Why does WoW draw on the representations that it does, and why does it mix and match stereotypes the way it does?
Elizabeth Langer theorizes that the game’s non-“totalized depictions of racial attributes… possibly suggest[s] [Blizzard’s] awareness of real-life complexity and difference within races” (95). I’d buy this if the game didn’t otherwise present race in an essentialist way (see Chapter 1). Another possibility is that Blizzard wants to portray WoW’s cultures as multicultural or even transnational. According to Adel Iskandar, the concept of transnationalism “views culture not as a stagnant entity with nascent beginnings and a demarcated finitude, but as a ceaseless process of change and continual redefinition.” This reading does work if we look at WoW solely through its lore, in which the ten races have collided and mixed in myriad ways. Iskandar even suggests that the hybrid identities that emerge in transnationalism are “a symptom of the colonial venture,” which means that we could read WoW as a postcolonial text. This is how Langer sees it, especially on the Horde side: “the common thread linking the playable Horde factions is not a mutual moral compass but rather a shared experience of colonization and oppression and a shared project of resistance” (94). I buy the oppression and resistance bit, and the Horde are definitely portrayed as a band of survivors. But the colonization is a stretch: there are no real post-colonization narratives in the lore. And as I’ve shown, the Trolls and Tauren draw on representational contexts that are highly colonialist. Plus, even postcolonialism can be appropriated and commodified.
Of course, as I’ve shown, there’s artistic precedent behind Blizzard’s rhetorical choices: many of the representations that WoW uses are drawn from the narrative genre of high fantasy – a genre whose roots are a nostalgic, white-supremacist view of Western history. There’s also precedent in the broader games industry. In a 2009 study, Dmitri Williams and a cadre of researchers examined the top 15 games on each of the major game platforms between 2005 and 2006, comparing the distributions of their characters’ gender, race, and age to those in the real U.S. population. They found that whites and Asians are overrepresented in games, whereas Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are underrepresented. (Male characters also grossly outnumber female characters.) If we count the Tauren as 1/10 of WoW’s population, WoW bucks the trend on Native Americans (who comprise about a tenth of the U.S. population but only 1% of game characters). But otherwise it follows the industry.
Thing is, so do WoW’s players. Because it accounted for the popularity (in sales) of the games it was analyzing, Williams’ study showed that players perpetuate the white (male) supremacy of game representations through the games that they buy: “The most popular games are less representative than the typical game produced by developers, indicating that players also play a role in the cycle of creation and consumption” (828). If that’s true, WoW’s players are powerfully reinforcing the status quo, given their choices in their avatars’ races. The Warcraft Census, a report generated by a game mod that counts the race, level, and class of all of the players on a given WoW server (which is then combined with that of all of the other servers on WarcraftRealms.com) , reveals some interesting things about the relative popularities of each race. You can see the current numbers via the link above, but here is what they looked like on October 5, 2009:
Here’s the same data, taken on July 14, 2007:
How to interpret these numbers? As you might suspect, I’m inclined to read them through the lens I’ve been wearing this entire chapter: the ways that each race is represented, and the links between the game’s representations and the history of racism. This lens makes me raise my eyebrows at some of the differences in popularity between the game’s races. Viz.:
The Humans are the most popular race. They’re also the most representationally white, and the most in line with traditional fantasy heroes.
The next most popular race is the Blood Elves, who are not only very representationally white, but are also the only white race in the Horde faction. Introduced in January 2007 with the Burning Crusade expansion, the Blood Elves were designed to give the Horde an attractive race, presumably to boost the number of players in that faction, according to WoW’s former lead designer, Jeffrey Kaplan (Yu and Park). It seems to have worked. In fact, since I last looked at the Warcraft Census about a year ago, the Blood Elves have passed the Night Elves, who used to be the second-most-popular race. Thus, the conclusion that Nicolas Duchenaut et al. reached in a 2006 article has become only half right:
“The players’ apparent reluctance to play ‘ugly’ and ‘bad’ characters could indicate that despite the anonymity of virtual worlds and their potential for experimenting with different identities (Turkle, 1997), social and cultural norms still shape an individual’s choices in virtual worlds powerfully.” (294)
When this article was published in 2006, before Burning Crusade introduced the Blood Elves, players really were avoiding the “‘ugly’ and ‘bad’ characters”: the number of players with Alliance characters outnumbered those on the Horde by 2 to 1. That ratio has relaxed somewhat – the current census lists it as 1.2:1 – but the general majority/minority balance remains. So players are still avoiding the “ugly” characters, but “badness” isn’t as much of a factor.
All this being said, I have to acknowledge that players – including me – have any number of idiosyncratic reasons for picking their avatars’ races. Those reasons might intersect with the politics of race and historical representations of certain races; they might not. Ultimately, the question of what motivates players to choose their avatars’ races is best left to a sociologist (of which there are many working in game studies). My aim, however, is to point out that 1) the images and voices and stories that comprise the characters in World of Warcraft have identifiable rhetorical influences; 2) those influences are part of larger contexts in the actual world; and 3) many of those contexts relate to the history of racism, and its attendant distributions of money, health, housing, land, life. In many ways, WoW subverts or sidesteps racist representations, and in many ways, it plays right into them.