Similar to the Humans, the Night Elves follow the classic fantasy paradigm: ultra-muscular men and ultra-willowy women. [6. Annie refused to play a Human or a Night Elf because their female models were, in her words, “slutty.”]
In fact, one of the female avatars’ jokes makes tongue-in-cheek reference to the bizarrely popular practice of putting one’s Night Elf somewhere prominent, like the fountain in front of the Stormwind bank, and having her dance in naught but her leathery underthings:
“Oh, look, I’m dancing again! I hope all your friends are enjoying the show…”
Blizzard could never be accused of ignoring their players.
The Night Elves also speak SAE, though they tend to sound more dreamy and enigmatic, which fits the whole Elfy tradition.
WoWWiki cites lead writer Chris Metzen as claiming Nordic and Japanese influences in the Night Elves’ buildings, particularly their main city, Darnassus, which apparently follows the style of the Pagoda at Yakushi-ji (薬師寺). There are indeed elements of Nordic and Japanese styles here, as this image shows:
However, there’s another influence: Classical styles, as in Greece:
They’re nature-lovers. Just like Tolkien’s elves, WoW‘s Night Elves are a druidic people whose power and fates are tied to the earth. Their historical conflicts revolve around preserving their environments, especially their World Trees (in which they build their cities), from various blights and corruptions from encroaching evil forces.
They’re in decline. The Night Elves were once immortal, but they became mortal in an ancient war. This element comes from Tolkien too: his elves are consistently presented as having already had their day, and by the events of The Lord of the Rings, they’re leaving Middle-earth in droves for the Grey Havens, their version of Heaven. In LOTR, the elves’ ubi sunt motif is a metonymy for the larger theme of ancient magical forces leaving the earth and being replaced by the much less magical and more industrial “Age of Men.” WoW shares this to an extent – you can see a lot Elf ruins laying around in various zones – but WoW‘s Elves don’t seem to be going anywhere, and the other races are just as handy with magic as they are.
They’re gender-neutral. The Night Elf government is run by the Sisters of Elune, a cabal of priestesses. The lore claims that Night Elves’ classes used to fall into strict gender separations: the men were druids, and the women were warriors or sorcerers. Now, apparently, those separations have disappeared – both genders can play all of the race’s classes. So the narrative might reflect the egalitarian design ethos of the game – avatars of both genders having equal gameplay abilities, even though their representational designs fall into standard gender stereotypes.
According to WoWWiki, the Night Elves were “originally based on the Drow from the various Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings” – “dark elves” that, in D&D, are essentially evil. (Slated for the Alliance, the Night Elves couldn’t be evil, but they’re definitely aloof.) [7. They live on an island off the coast of one of Azeroth’s continents, and they’re depicted as having only recently come into regular contact with the other races. Even this was a matter of necessity: the Night Elves were forced to ally with the Humans and Orcs to defeat the Burning Legion in the Third War. Now part of the Alliance, they’re still kind of standoffish and mysterious to the other races.] So their main source is ultimately Germanic – elves as the mysterious denizens of the realm of Faerie. Their other main representational influences, reflected in the architecture and the lore, are Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.
So what, right? Pagodas with Doric columns look cool.
Whether or not Blizzard’s artists consciously thought about it, they blended the Mysterious Elf with the Mysterious Asian. Why the two tropes fit together seems kind of obvious, now that I put it that way. And sure, it’s innocuous at the surface level. It makes for wicked scenery and so forth. Furthermore, it’s not like either of these tropes is new, or rare, or even popularly recognized as a problem.
I would say that one isn’t a problem but the other is. The Mysterious Elf is a totally fictional figure, and the Mysterious Asian is grounded in material reality. It’s been historically used, along with a lot of related tropes, not just to romanticize Asian cultures and people, but also to fear, exploit, detain, invade, and bomb them. WoW’s use of these representations is about as benign as possible, but it doesn’t change the fact that they have a grim history.