Late 2005/early 2006.
My best friend Dan and I are in our 40s with our first characters, and we’re in the Hinterlands. One group of quests in this zone involves fighting up a Troll city called Jintha’Alor. It’s a nasty area for a level 40ish character because it’s big – comprised of seven or eight tiers that have to be navigated linearly – and because it’s densely populated with elite mobs – NPCs with higher-than-average hit points. (Or it was – it’s been nerfed now, as part of Blizzard’s ongoing effort to make the game easier; but more about that elsewhere.) So they’re very hard to kill. Which means that the area isn’t soloable – it forces players to group up. Dan and I, playing our hunters, are doing okay in here, operating more or less at the edge of our competence.
And then we see a lone Orc. He’s* the same level as we are, but alone, he’s going to have trouble in here. We regard each other silently, since that’s pretty much our only option, and he follows us for a little while, kind of waiting behind us while we kill the Trolls. This doesn’t bother us – like I said, we’re doing okay, and we’re getting the XP and loot from these mobs, while the best he can do is follow us through the city. The problem for him is that the main quests for the area involve fighting an even tougher boss at the top of the city, and there’s no way he’s going to be able to do that alone. [1. The male pronouns refer to the character, which was male. Of course, I have no idea about the gender of the player.]
At a certain point, we notice that the Orc (whom I’ll call Olive; I never wrote down his real name) is helping us kill our mobs. This is an unusual act, because it does nothing for him by way of XP/loot: once one of us pulls the mob, he gets no credit for it, even if he helps us kill it. After a couple of these assists, we walk up to a live Troll and stop and wait. I wave at Olive. After an awkward pause, he pulls the mob, and we help him kill it. Effectively, we’ve done for him what he’s been doing for us: helped him kill and get XP/loot for a mob without any gain to ourselves.
For the next hour, the three of us fall into a pattern in which we trade off pulls, splitting the rewards. We fight all the way to the top of the city, to the boss. He helps us kill it, and we wait around about 5 minutes for it to respawn and help him kill it. Then the three of us exit the city the way we came, fighting back down through the mobs that have respawned behind us.
Outside the city gates at the bottom, Olive bows to us. We bow to him and part ways.
Early April 2007.
A weekday evening. My wife, Annie, is logged on, selling herbs on the Auction House in Stormwind. I’m at my desk, 90 degrees to hers, writing a seminar paper. It’s about WoW and race – the prototype of this chapter, actually. I’m fascinated by what I’m seeing when I look closely: that WoW is not only full of what I’m pretty sure I can reasonably confidently call racist stereotypes; but that the whole Alliance/Horde thing is some kind of racist war. It’s really obvious to me, anyway. I’m very curious about whether other players see it too.
And so I’m typing away about the Humans being white and the Trolls being black and so forth, and Annie mutters, “Stupid Mehet.”
Mehet, our guild’s obligatory 17-year-old dipshit, is mouthing off in guild chat. “Such a tool,” I answer. “What’s he saying?”
I turn around, scoot my chair two feet, read over her shoulder. Mehet and Killa, one of his like-minded buddies, are typing to each other in sloppy African American Language. Here’s the part of the conversation I’ve preserved:
Killa: Can someone run me through stocks?
Mehet: HELL NO.
Killa: Not u ur only 43 [Mehet’s level – too low to escort Killa through that dungeon]
Mehet: YOU dont EvEN know who I be
Killa: nope, u don’t know who i be
Mehet: I KNOW who u be
Killa: who do I be?
Mehet: Zingo [the name of Killa’s main]
The composition theory class I’m taking has introduced me to the linguistic practices of code-switching and -meshing, so the first thing I notice is that these guys are doing both. Killa’s first question, and perhaps Mehet’s reply, seem to follow the conventions of Standard American English. Killa’s second remark, and a couple of later remarks by both of them, use the features of Netspeak: “u” for “you,” “ur” for “you’re.” Then they use some African American Vernacular English, both in their vocabulary and emphasis. In Internet discourse, capital letters usually connote shouting (as with Mehet’s “HELL NO”), but they can also suggest emphasis on certain syllables. In this case, both players attempt to transmit the spoken rhythms of AAVE in their use of caps. They also substitute “be” for “am,” aping the habitual “be” of AAVE grammar. But they don’t do it right, and Mehet’s attempt to convey shifting emphasis with “EvEN” doesn’t make sense if one tries to say it aloud (though it might just be a typo). To me, their mistaken usage of AAVE suggests that neither of them really know that code, and they’re mimicking it as a racial (or racist?) joke.
At this point, I want to know more about Mehet and Killa’s real-world identities vis-à-vis their projective ones. (I’d like to think, looking back, that I wanted to find out how, based on their cultural and racial identifications, they identified with SAE and AAL, since everyone in WoW speaks some degree of Netspeak. Get a sense of whether they were speaking home discourses or appropriated ones. However, new as I was to this race theory stuff, my thoughts were probably something like, find out what race they are.) So I commit what I’m sure a sophomore sociology student would consider a rookie ethnography mistake: I slap the Academic Credentials on the table first. Leaning over Annie to reach her keyboard, I whisper to Mehet:
Me: Hey Mehet – I’m a student, and I’m studying linguistics. I couldn’t help but notice that you and Killa were just now mixing some conventions of Standard American English and African American English. Would you mind telling me what race you are in RL?
Mehet: [Fifteen-second pause.] It was only a kid.
Me: No – I’m not criticizing you guys at all; I’m just interested for academic reasons. Promise.
Mehet: [Another pregnant pause.] I be a troll in RL, mon.
Killa ignored me, so that was as far as I got with either of them. But my poorly conducted interview wasn’t a complete bust: Mehet read the Trolls the same way I did.
Late April 2007. I show up at my office one morning and discover a message on the whiteboard by my door:
“For the Horde!”
An expression of esprit de corps for the other side. The anonymous wag – a student waiting in the hall for an end-of-semester conference? – must’ve noticed the screenshot of my Night Elf hunter, Hemingway, on my door. I laugh and leave the message up, even though the kid stole my marker.
October 2008. My brother Dave has somehow talked our sister, Betsy, into trying out WoW. He’s been playing for about nine months, and he’s walking her level 14 character through Westfall with one of his 70s. I’m somewhere else with Hemingway, but we’re all in a party, so I can see what they’re typing to each other.
During some downtime, she starts asking him about various gameplay details: how could she repair her armor, add people to her Friends list, find a class trainer, etc. He’s answering them calmly and patiently, being a good teacher and older brother.
Out of questions for the time being, she tells us that Peter, our youngest sibling, has also started a character, but that it’s on the Horde. He wanted to play with some friends from school.
Dave’s immediate response: “Tell him he’s dead to me.”
We all laugh.
January 2009. I’m at the Job Talk of a visiting rhet/comp candidate. It’s a rhetorical analysis of the National Museum of the American Indian, a space whose representations of America’s indigenous cultures are under constant scrutiny and debate. It’s good work on a serious subject, the kind I sometimes feel guilty for not studying.
However, I find that the candidate and I have something in common. Discussing her digital life, she cites her tendency to work WoW‘s Auction House while she’ s writing and grading papers. And the writing sample she’s brought is a rhetorical analysis of “Leeroy Jenkins!”
After her presentation, I approach her with a question that reveals my own insiderdom:
“So, what server do you play on?”
This means we can’t play together. But there’s no surprise or disappointment from either of us: there are 243 servers, so the chances were low.
Then she asks the inevitable next question in conversations like these: “Horde or Alliance?”
Now she looks disappointed. “Too bad,” she smirks. “The Horde is better.”
The separation of players into ten races, and the rules that govern their interactions, are some of the most significant regulators of identity in World of Warcraft. They are also intimately tied to racism as it’s been represented and enacted in the U.S., from its “discovery” to the present day. What’s interesting about this is that nobody seems to notice or care. Including me, until a single act by a friendly Orc made me start to see the system in a new way. This project tries to figure out why it’s so easy to see only part of what’s right in front of our faces, or more appropriately, what’s right in front of the faces we put on.
First, some formal exposition. An avatar’s [2. Avatar is the common term for the little figure a player inhabits and controls and speaks through. WoW players also use character pretty often, and you’ll occasionally see me use it. The problem with character is that it suggests that the player is a character in a narrative; and to very quickly summarize the result of the game studies field’s famous ludology/narratology debate, videogames may contain narratives, but they also host play activities, and play and narrative are fundamentally different things. So avatar is a more appropriate term than character, and it’s favored by game studies scholars.] place in the Warcraft world is mainly governed by three identity markers: class, level, and race [3. There are others, like gender, title, achievements, guild affiliation, and guild rank. They’re second-tier identity markers – not as fundamental to the gameplay as class, level, and race.] Like all RPGs, class in WoW means “profession” rather than “social standing.” A character’s class has enormous effects on the player’s experience with the game, since it is the most important factor in how the character fights; it also affects how the player interacts with other players, since it determines her role in raids and guilds. The character’s level determines what levels of enemies it can kill, what zones it can enter, and to some extent, how good and/or dedicated the player controlling it is. And the character’s race governs its political place in the world – its predetermined and immutable allegiance with half of the world’s races and enmity with the other half. I.e., its membership in the Horde or Alliance faction.
Race is the most important identity marker for a WoW character early in the game, its importance emphasized in the first thing a player does: create her character. The character-creation process takes place in a menu screen in which the player chooses the character’s race (and by extension, faction), gender, class, facial appearance, and name. The ten race options – Humans, Dwarves, Night Elves, Gnomes, Draenei, Orcs, Undead, Tauren, Trolls, and Blood Elves – appear at the upper left of the avatar-creation screen, a visual placement that suggests that the player should choose her avatar’s race before choosing its other attributes. Actually, it’s more than just a suggestion, because race governs all of the other attributes. There’s the fore-mentioned faction membership, of course. Class is also dictated by race, because each race can only play certain classes. Even though gender and facial appearance are purely cosmetic attributes (they have no effect on gameplay), they’re also affected by race, because each race/gender combination looks and sounds dramatically different. Only an avatar’s name is totally customizable, though if the player can’t think of a name, she can hit a button below the name form that generates a random one. If the player were to hit that button a bunch of times, she’d notice that the names fall into phonological and graphical patterns, patterns that follow each race.
Race continues to be the most important element of the avatar’s identity when the player enters the game world. After finishing with the avatar-creation menu and hitting the “Enter World” button, the player is shown one of ten short introductory movies, depending upon her avatar’s race. In each movie, the “camera” flies cinematically over that race’s starting zone, presenting its unique landscape and architecture, while a patriarchal narrator describes the race’s history, 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 it a quest and begin its adventures in the game. These videos situate each avatar within his geographical and political context in the game world, and the fact that this context depends entirely on the avatar’s race reveals how important it will be to the avatar’s identity and the player’s gaming experience. When the new player begins playing, she finds her starting zone almost entirely populated by NPCs of her avatar’s race, and her initial quests circulate around that race’s local problems. Furthermore, the starting zones geographically insulate new avatars from the outside world, so that they are unlikely to see many differently raced avatars for the first ten levels. This is partly a clever design feature that lets new players acclimate to the enormous, complex game world a little at a time, but it has the double effect of foregrounding avatars’ races as their primary identities.
The most important way an avatar’s race governs his identity is that it ties him to the Alliance or Horde faction. The Alliance and Horde are permanently engaged in a low-intensity conflict, in the sense that each faction occupies exclusive cities and fortresses (although there are a few “sanctuary” cities, which they can both enter), which they can attack without being able to permanently hold or destroy (as the cities’ NPCs will always respawn). The conflict’s permanence is one of its most significant features, especially because it’s contradicted by the mythology of the Warcraft universe. According to this mythology, which players get little chunks of in the game and big chunks of in officially licensed websites and novels (not to mention the three Warcraft RTS games that preceded WoW), the Alliance/Horde conflict is anything but inevitable or -alterable: the ten races have competed and collaborated in myriad ways, swayed by all manner of cultural clashes, charismatic leaders, and the occasional demonic possession. Sub-factions have formed; splinter groups have split off. Both sides have committed and suffered genocides. It’s a long and tumultuous history indeed (and few players have the patience to absorb all of it). A lot of the recent narratives, like the Rise of the Lich King, have overshadowed the faction conflict by threatening every member of the game world. But on the ground, from the players’ perspective, the faction system remains, insurmountable and unchanging.
So it’s possible, as Act 1 above shows, to communicate with the other side, albeit in a limited way. But talking and trading aren’t WoW‘s primary raison d’être. That would be combat. The player-versus-player (PvP) combat system in WoW is almost entirely couched within the war between the Horde and Alliance, with numerous opportunities for players in the two factions to fight each other. There are five instanced battlegrounds in which opposing-faction teams can fight, these fights following typical PvP videogame structures of deathmatch, capture the flag, and base-holding. There are also several world PvP areas (especially in the new expansion zones), in which players fight over bases that, when won, give their faction some kind of buff to damage or experience points (XP) for the next several hours. Finally, well organized raiding parties can invade the opposing faction’s cities and deprive them of their trade and travel abilities for a while by killing their NPCs. The game provides numerous and significant rewards for all of this PvP combat, from titles that broadcast players’ prowess, to powerful armor and weapons that players buy with the special currencies they earn from PvP play. [6. Even if they don’t fight each other directly, Alliance and Horde players can quarrel in subtler ways by competing for resources and harassing each other. In our encounter with Olive, Dan and I could have hit the area’s NPCs before Olive and gotten all of the rewards; we could have also pulled mobs toward him and feigned death, which would have made them attack and overwhelm him. Or we could have ignored each other, which is what tends to happen in the big cities of the two expansions, Shattrath and Dalaran.] Fighting the other faction, then, is not just about competition; it’s about earning power and wealth and respect – the real fantasy that undergirds WoW or any role-playing game.
Looking at the level of influences – ideologies that are reified in WoW as a text – I see four at work behind WoW‘s manifestations of race: agonism, racism, equal opportunity, and nationalism.
The field of game studies is still casting about for a coherent theory of videogames, but one thing everyone seems to agree on is that videogames almost always involve conflict. That’s because most videogames are games – games in a shiny new medium, but games nonetheless. Johan Huizinga, writing in the late 30s about why games exist in just about every human culture, argued repeatedly that play and conflict are essentially the same thing: “Play is battle and battle is play” (41). Revising Huizinga twenty years later, Roger Caillois identified three other categories of play – alea (chance), mimicry (simulation), and ilinx (vertigo) – but he acknowledged that conflict (which he called agôn) was the most common type, especially in formal games. Current game-studies theory has continued emphasizing the importance of conflict; Jesper Juul, for instance, puts it at the very center of his definition of game, which revises not only Huizinga and Caillois’ definitions but five other theorists’ as well. Here’s Juul’s definition:
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) [7. This definition is what Juul calls the “classic game model,” the archetype for all games in all media. Videogames, he shows, don’t always fit this model, and may in fact be transcending it. MMORPGs, for instance, are pervasive worlds that continue existing when individual players log out of them; therefore, they defy the notion that a “game is bounded in time and space” that’s inscribed in the “negotiable consequences” part of the classic game model. For other examples, see pp. 53-54 of Half-Real.]
In explaining the six parts of this definition, Juul says this about the fourth part, “player effort”: “Player effort is another way of stating that games are challenging, or that games contain a conflict” (40). The conflict might be between the player and the computer, or between one player and another player. Different videogames manifest conflict in all kinds of ways: get to point B before anyone else, hold a base from invasion, target the other guy before he targets you. Within a given videogame, conflicts might vary from the banal (eat white balls, avoid ghosts) to the hideously complex (kill Yogg-Saron). But conflict is inevitable.
WoW is a complex enough environment that it contains games that fit every one of Caillois’s categories. WoW players engage in alea every time they roll for loot from defeated mobs. On Role-Playing servers, players take mimicry very seriously, acting In Character at all times when communicating with each other. And WoW players alter their perceptions – Caillois’s ilinx – by zooming around on flying mounts and by making their characters drink virtual booze (which makes the screen warp in a surprisingly realistic way). But most of the games that take place in WoW are of the agôn variety. And like most videogames, the most common way that WoW’s developers decided to manifest and represent agonistic play is martial conflict.
WoW players fight computer-controlled opponents from level 1 to level 80 – from their very first quest to the toughest endgame raid. And they fight each other in arenas, battlegrounds, and world PvP encounters. Consider the game’s title: war is a craft. Something you practice regularly, hone your skill at, progress from apprentice to master. Most of WoW‘s gameplay modes are set up for agonistic play, especially the faction system. It provides numerous opportunities for contest and a consistent pool of opponents. It tries to ensure that each side will always see the other side as their opponents. It fixes the teams, fixes their rivalry.
This is all completely obvious, by the way, this observation that play is conflict and videogames represent conflict as war. Obvious to the point of not being worth saying, really, unless you’re an extreme pacifist and/or a parent/lawyer/legislator involved in the ongoing brouhaha over violent videogames’ effects on kids. As an ideological influence behind WoW‘s design, agonism alone is uninteresting; what is interesting is how it articulates with race and racism, in the myriad ways WoW represents them.
A hard truth to accept about WoW is that it’s full of racism: there’s racism in the ways the avatars are classified, in the ways they’re represented, and in the ways the game allows them to interact with each other. It’s really obvious, yet it’s also somehow invisible. Or maybe, everyone wants to believe it’s invisible.
There are two influences behind the racial coding in WoW – influences that are historically related.
The first is an essentialist definition of race. A character’s race is a permanent facet of its identity, fixed when the player first creates it. As I’ve mentioned, each race can play only some of the classes, and these limits are described within the contexts of each race’s essential interests and temperament. A player can’t be a Dwarf Druid, because Dwarves are just not interested in nature. They are, however, into treasure, so all Dwarf characters have the ability to sense nearby treasure chests. This ability is called a racial, and each of the ten races has a set of them. For example, Gnomes, who are said to be obsessed with machinery rather than magic, are given a bonus to the engineering trade skill. And Trolls, depicted as barbaric warriors, are able to turn “berserk” and increase their attack speed. The fixity of the unique class options and abilities that distinguish each race reifies racial essentialism, playing into the “biologist paradigm” of race: the notion that different races contain “distinct hereditary characteristics” that explain “differences in intelligence, temperament, and sexuality (among other traits)” (Omi and Winant 15).
The second influence is that the representational design of race in WoW – the way the characters look, move, and sound; each race’s architecture, history, and temperament – draws upon identifiable racist stereotypes. These are what I first noticed when I started to think about WoW and race, especially in the Horde races. The Trolls representationally draw upon modern Western stereotypes about Caribbean, South American, and African blacks: they live on islands and jungles in thatched straw huts, they’re into cannibalism, they’re shamanistic. They speak in Caribbean English. Their architecture is a mishmash of South American and African stone ruins. One gets the sense that in the diegetic history of Azeroth, the Trolls used to be pretty advanced peoples, but have for some reason descended into relatively barbarous versions of their former selves: their cities are in ruins, and the huts they’ve erected within them are always in various states of disrepair. According to their introductory video, they are “vicious,” “barbarous and superstitious,” and “renowned for their cruelty and dark mysticism.” It’s basic Orientalism.
The Tauren, which walk erect like humans but have bovine heads and hooves, also evince a pan-ethnic semiotic, theirs being American Indian (their villages, for example, include both longhouses and totem poles). But they are depicted more positively than the Trolls, or any of the other Horde races, for that matter: their introductory video marks them as “peaceful” and “noble.” In many ways, the Taurens’ representation parallels that of the Erudites in EverQuest, who, according to Taylor (2006b), were “the only representationally ‘black’ avatars in the game.” EQ’s developers gave the Erudites high intelligence to in order to avoid “the familiar path in which black game characters are positioned… either as rappers or athletes,” yet “this kind of move can slip easily into the formulation in which the “other” is the exceptional, the model (minority), or the noble” (p. 114-15).
Ultimately, almost all of WoW‘s races draw upon racial stereotypes of one sort or another. Game studies critics have caught onto this and have produced a couple of excellent readings of it. One is Jessica Langer’s “”The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post)-Colonialism in World of Warcraft,” which reads the Horde races as a hodgepodge of Western stereotypes about the Other. Along with the Trolls being Caribbean and Tauren being Native American, Langer sees the Orcs as representations of Western notions of ugliness (especially Orc women, who are both “unattractive and hypersexualized” (98)), the Blood Elf males as gay white men, and the Undead as the total Other, in terms of Kristeva’s theory of the abject. Langer also points out that all of the Alliance races are more or less white, influenced as they are by Tolkien. However, in “”Blackless Fantasy: The Disappearance of Race in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games,” Tanner Higgin contends that the most representationally White characters, especially from an American perspective, are the Humans. Players can make a Human character’s skin dark brown, but all of the prominent Human NPCs are fair-skinned. Their architecture clearly draws from medieval and early modern Europe, combining castles and Tudor-style buildings. Their programmed voices speak in Standard American English. And their introductory video establishes traits that are quite different from the Trolls: a “resilient breed,” “They stand resolute in their charge to maintain the honor and might of humanity in an ever-darkening world.” Higgin stresses (and laments) the rhetorical power of equating humanity with whiteness, which reinforces Eurocentrism and white supremacy. I agree.
The confusing and tricky thing about interpreting stereotypes in the races’ designs is that they’re not what Northrop Frye would call “naïve allegories” (Lanham 4-6) – that is, they don’t have perfect, 1:1 connotations with real-life cultures. Why do the Tauren have both longhouses and totem poles? Why do the Humans live in English castles but speak Standard American English? Both Langer and Higgin note that this semiotic mixing is par for the course in the fantasy genre, from Tolkien onwards. Langer gives WoW‘s designers the benefit of the doubt and posits that they might be trying to convey their awareness of real-life complexity and difference within races (95). Higgin is more critical:
Fantasy worlds are populated by re-imagined signs with real and significant meanings outside of the fantasy. Thus, a fantasy world’s products cannot be solely regarded within the internal logic of that world because the various meanings of its parts still have an originary meaning that cannot be discarded without losing the decipherability of that product. (10-11)
In other words, fantasy worlds rely upon the very semiotic connotations they’re supposedly escaping from. They might attempt to avoid racism by shuffling their racial signs around, but those signs depend on racism to mean anything in the first place.
I’m not the first critic that’s connected racial essentialism to representational stereotypes in WoW. Both Langer and Higgin mention it, and they both connect it to Lisa Nakamura’s concept of the “cybertype.” Alexander Galloway puts an interesting spin on how the biologist paradigm combines with the mixture of representational stereotypes in fantasy settings:
That the game pleads innocence by placing the narrative in a fantasy world of fantasy races (trolls, gnomes, elves) does not absolve it from foregrounding a systemic, “cybertype” logic of naturalized group definition and division… The “innocence” of the sublimation is in fact apropos because it illustrates the neoliberal, digirati notion that race must be liberated via an uncoupling from material detail, but also that the logic of race can never be more alive, can never be more purely actualized, than in a computer simulation. Apparently one must leave this world in order to actualize more fully its mechanisms of management and ascendancy. Let me stress, the most interesting thing to observe here is not that World of Warcraft is racist. That would be absurd. The interesting thing to observe is precisely the way in which racial coding must always pass into fantasy before it can ever return to the real. (93-4)
So according to Galloway, the game doesn’t have to (or want to) deal with the messy, complicated realities of race in actual life; instead, it can depict race as a simple, unchangeable, hard-coded part of a character’s soul. A Dwarf will always be a little better with guns than a Human. A Night Elf could never pass as a Blood Elf.
The only argument I have with Galloway is the last few sentences in this passage. I would contend that it is interesting to observe that WoW is racist, because nobody seems to really notice or care. The most interesting thing is that the connection between game race and “real” race is severed just enough that racial segregation and war arouse not only no anger but no notice whatsoever, that we players can choose to see the sides as teams or nations that we root heartily for, even outside of the game. That is what’s absurd. And that’s what we start to see when we look at how racism works alongside two of WoW‘s other ideological influences: equal opportunity and nationalism. [7. You may be wondering here (or perhaps you were wondering a bit earlier): what about sexism? WoW’s avatars are gendered, and the representations of those genders follow patriarchal stereotypes: steroidal males and Barbie-esque females. I will indeed discuss gender in Chapter 3, as many of the game’s gender representations are not only sexist but also intersect with the varieties of racism on offer in a lot of interesting ways. However, gender won’t get a ton of play in this work overall, for a couple of reasons. First, as I mentioned above, gender is not as important to an avatar’s (and thus a player’s) experience of WoW as race is, since it has no impact on gameplay. Second, the subject of gender in videogames has already engendered some excellent critical work; if you’re interested, I suggest Diane Carr’s chapter “Games and Gender” from Computer Games: Text, Narrative, and Play; T.L. Taylor’s Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture, and of course Henry Jenkins’ From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games.]
It may sound counterintuitive, but the stasis of the game world w/r/t the Alliance and Horde’s relationship is a manifestation of the ideology of equal opportunity. As an environment in which thousands of players exist together, an MMO presents a unique design problem: if one player is able to permanently change the game world (say, by harvesting all of the herbs in an area, or by destroying a town), another player will not have the same opportunities for navigating and advancing through that game world. Faced with the decision about how much to let players affect the world, most MMO designers choose “little to not at all.” They want everyone to have a good time, the rules to be fair. This is a utopia, after all. So equal opportunity must exist. Eric Hayot and Edward Wesp identified the same ideology in WoW‘s direct predecessor, EverQuest, attributing it to a desire by that game’s developers to create “an idealized vision of American, and more broadly capitalist, culture” (par. 27). Caillois argued that equality is a fundamental ideology behind all games, even though it requires constant effort to maintain (e.g. handicaps) and may in fact be an impossible ideal (14-15).
At least, most MMOs go this direction; EVE Online is a notable exception. Set in a massive simulation of interstellar space and housed in a single server that contains all 250,000 of its players, EVE gives more or less free reign to its players to exploit the game world and each other however they see fit. Its player-made corporations engage in Shakespearean power struggles, their rises and falls appearing occasionally in gaming news sites and feeding forum discussions for months afterward. It’s been analyzed as an example of Hobbes’ state of nature. I, however, see it as free-market capitalism at its toughest and most volatile.
EVE offers an interesting counterpoint to WoW because it highlights the ways that equal opportunity influences most of WoW‘s design decisions. [8. It also highlights their effects: EVE is notorious for being tough to start playing, because its dog-eat-dog atmosphere is hard on new players, whereas WoW has long been considered noob-friendly. This is sometimes hailed as one of the reasons why WoW is so popular. According to the current numbers, it has 46 times more players than EVE.] Everyone starts at level 1 and has to work their way to level 80 themself. [9. Unless the player buys a character from a leveling service or another player who wants out of the game. The disreputability of such acts of cheating is widely agreed upon, though they seem to persist. A subject for another study.] The environment constantly replenishes the flora and fauna that players harvest. A player can, through shrewd trading, get extremely wealthy and buy a lot of flashy stuff. But nobody can own land, and no single player or group can monopolize a good or service. It’s capitalism at its friendliest.
The third ideology influencing WoW‘s faction system is nationalism. According to their narrative histories, territories, and governments, the Alliance and Horde easily meet the OED’s primary definition of nation: “A large aggregate of communities and individuals united by factors such as common descent, language, culture, history, or occupation of the same territory, so as to form a distinct people. Now also: such a people forming a political state; a political state.” Each side is actually a conglomeration of five distinct groups (depicted as races, about which more soon), each with its own history, culture, language, and territory. But the history of the Warcraft universe – a Silmarillion-level epic whose plots are far too detailed to summarize – has united them under the two banners, which are more or less states. Supposedly, each race speaks a different language, but the game’s communicative rules make everyone in the same faction understandable to each other, and only each other. Each race possesses its own territory in the game world, and those territories are shuffled amongst each other around the world (so they’re states, but they don’t look like the United States); but the territory of any one race is considered the turf of that race’s faction, its NPCs friendly only to members of that faction. And while the factions’ (mostly monarchic) governments are, from the players’ perspectives, purely decorative, the two sides have a clear political relationship: the fore-mentioned low-intensity war. They’re nations, or we’re meant to see them as such.
I’ve come to suspect that “the Alliance and Horde are two competing nations” is the preferred ideological reading of the faction system for several reasons. First, as I’ve just said, the narratives about their histories and ongoing relations all point in that direction. Second, each side’s linguistic homogeneity (which would tickle any member of the English Only Movement pink) unifies its players in every activity they engage in. Third, although there are occasional references to tensions within the factions, they’re always lighthearted, and every player has exactly the same access to his faction’s resources. (For instance, one of the jokes that Blood Elf male characters can emote is, “We’re allied with the Tauren? Fantastic! We’ll be having steak twice a week.”) Fourth, the game tries to make faction identity more important than racial identity in many ways. Each race has an officially-designed crest, but they almost never appear in-game; the crests of the two factions, however, are plastered everywhere. The exclamations “For the Horde!” and “For the Alliance!” are ubiquitous. Most importantly, though, reading the factions as nations and behaving accordingly is what the developers want us to do because, let’s face it, in this day and age, nationalism is an acceptable way to draw lines between Us and Them. Much more acceptable, anyway, than other ways. Especially the one that I think is really there.
World of Warcraft, like all videogames, is a rhetorical text. I mean that in the contemporary, Burkean sense – rhetoric as all conscious human expression – so I don’t see WoW as being explicitly persuasive, like an educational or an advertisement game. However, if Burke’s concept of identification, the most fundamental goal of human communication, just means “getting another person to understand what’s in your head,” then all expression is to some degree persuasive. That persuasion might be implicit; and a videogame, with all of its visual, aural, linguistic, and procedural elements, can be excellent at expressing something strongly without saying it directly. Especially an MMO, which A) changes very slowly (if at all) and B) immerses its players in its rhetorical broth for an extremely long time. So here, then, are the messages WoW gives players about race:
- Your avatar’s representational features (physical appearance, recorded voice, diegetic history, current culture) correspond to representations of real-life peoples, though they may combine features of many real-world cultures.
- However you might feel about your avatar’s representational features, its race is crucial to your gameplay:
- It grants unique abilities.
- It allows you to play some classes but not others.
- It dictates where your avatar will be “born” in the game world and strongly influences where you’ll play the first few levels.
- It puts you in league with certain races and in opposition to others.
- Each faction has its own turf (encampments, towns, cities, zones). You should stay in your own faction’s turf unless you want to fight the other faction. (One exception: both factions can inhabit neutral and sanctuary cities, in which fighting will get you in trouble.)
- You should fight the races of the opposing faction, because doing so will earn you prestige and power.
- If you don’t want to fight the enemy races, you should ignore or avoid them, because dialogue is impossible, and the meager coalition-building you can accomplish will cost you power and wealth.
- Nothing you can do with the enemy races – fighting, avoiding, or cooperating – makes any difference in the larger political system, because players can’t change the political structure of the game world.
WoW‘s ethos of equality lets it avoid a lot of the manifestations of racism in real life: job discrimination, denial of access to housing and loans, etc. All avatars start on equal playing fields, regardless of their race. But this utopian idea (which is not dissimilar from neoconservative claims about equal opportunity in U.S. life) is itself undone by the racial separation and warfare that the faction system encourages. The fact that this particular manifestation of racism (separation, warfare) is pretty much the only type of racism a contemporary U.S. white person will even recognize these days makes this whole thing stunningly ironic to me the more I think about it.
That’s because not even I think about it all the time.
Three semesters ago, I went to a conference with an early version of this chapter. I told the Mehet story. I talked about the racism inherent in the faction system. At the end of my talk, in the Q&A, a person in the crowd said something like, “Okay, I get it: this game is really racist. So why does anyone even play it?”
I’ve spent the last year and a half trying to answer that question. Here’s what I’ve come up with: Players don’t pay attention to WoW’s racism because they can comfortably choose not to.
WoW is a cornucopia of signs from which you can pick and choose the ones you like. When I chose my first character’s race, I picked Night Elf for these reasons, in this order:
- My best friend, Dan, had a Night Elf that he had just started so we could play together.
- The Night Elf males were better looking than the other Alliance races that could be hunters.
- The Night Elves reminded me of Tolkien’s elves, who are both tough and artistic, which is how I’d like to imagine my identity in a fantasy world.
So #1 was a practical, small-group-social reason – what Ken McAllister would call the result of a homologous ideology. According to Nick Yee’s always-handy Daedalus Project, which has taken hundreds of surveys on MMO players, 70% of us claim to play with real-life friends. Dan was the biggest reason I got into WoW in the first place: he started it a few months before I did, and he cajoled and wheedled until I finally broke down and tried it. I even played on one of his accounts for a couple of months before getting my own. So my choice of race for my main character (who is still my main) was largely the influence of a friend.
#2 was an idiosyncratic aesthetic reason, so I have a hard time analyzing it. Doing so would involve figuring out where my visual tastes come from, which would lead me right into the whole nature-vs.-nurture debate about whether our perceptions are hardwired or culturally taught. Being a Humanities guy rather than a scientist, and a social constructionist, I tend to side with the latter view. In which case, I could get behind a visual interpretaion of the Night Elf males that cited their extreme muscularity vis-à-vis popular representations of masculinity. Dunno about the blue skin and hair, though; or the pointy ears. Maybe they go with #3.
#3 is certainly a culturally created desire, one that deserves more attention than I’ve been giving it. The entire fantasy genre owes its existence to Tolkien, so to some extent, playing “find the Tolkien references” in WoW would be very easy and very tedious. However, w/r/t racism, there are a few ancestral influences worth noting. LOTR was meant to be the long-missing English national epic, a tale that would encompass the heritage of the nation. Tolkien always coyly denied allegorial readings of his work, but they’ve been easy enough to make: the Riders of Rohan are Norsemen with horses, the Shire is England, the bad guys are environmentally destructive industrialists. 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. [10. For a great reading of the racist symbolism in both the book and film versions of LOTR, see the first part of this article by Tof, a contributor to the academic blog Gameology.)] What this all means is that as WoW has remediated a lot of the iconography of Tolkien’s novels (and Peter Jackson’s recent movies), it has reproduced their Eurocentrism and white supremacy.
Would I consciously recognize and be attracted to such iconography? No. There are other ideologies in these texts – and personal motivations outside of them – that I focus on, dig, draw from. But WoW‘s characters definitely reminded me of Tolkien’s characters. The Elves, Humans, Dwarves, and Hobbits/Gnomes are good guys. The Orcs and their cronies are bad guys. I know I’m not the only WoW player who has made this meaning. [11. The Alliance=Tolkien’s Good Guys, Horde=Tolkien’s Bad Guys association has been cited as a possible reason for the demographic differences in the Alliance and Horde. Yee chews on it in an analysis of some of his Daedalus Project surveys (“Does Horde PWN Alliance in PvP? A Baker’s Dozen of Possible Reasons”). Asking his respondents why they bought into the popular belief that Horde players are better at PvP combat than Alliance players, Yee notices, “Many respondents argued that players new to MMOs were more likely to choose Alliance because the character models more readily resonate with the “good guys” as portrayed in movies such as Lord of the Rings (i.e., human knights in armor and elven archers). And because new MMO players have less experience in raiding and coordination, the Alliance suffers from this in BGs” (2).] Plus, as I said, the elves can write poetry and then go kick some ass, which is an English major’s fantasy if I ever heard one.
So I liked the Night Elves for several reasons, not all of which had to do with how they appeared in WoW itself. It took me several months playing my Night Elf before I noticed that much of their representational design comes from Asian cultures. They celebrate a Lunar Festival every year that corresponds with the Chinese Lunar New Year, for example; and their buildings look like pagodas. [12. According to WoWWiki’s entry on the Night Elves’ capital city, Darnassus, the design of the city’s main gate is a nod to the South Korean Sungnyemun. Further evidence, then, that WoW‘s designers are unafraid of mixing real-life cultures, and counting on audiences not to know/mind.] For me, the Asian signifiers just didn’t matter, and still basically don’t. I identified with a different set of signs, and I still pretty much do. The game enabled me to do that selective signification by combining so many signifiers.
The insidious thing about the cornucopia of signs is that it helps us pretend that race isn’t there. Tanner Higgin notes that in forum discussions about the representational design of WoW‘s races, people not only denied racist influences, they denied any symbolic correspondence at all. Usually angrily. He’s got some interesting readings on what this hostile dismissal means:
This hostility to the question [of whether WoW draws on racial stereotypes] is rooted in the same contemporary tendency to immediately disregard any claims of racism as unnecessary or unproductive… [These comments are] illustrative of the myths of liberal freedom accompanying online sociality and MMORPGs wherein race does not and should not matter because everything is just made up of pixels. Disturbingly, what this implies is that in the real world race is not made up but is verifiable and very real. Beyond the troubling implications of [comments] in regard to race outside of gamespace, what this also claims more directly is that in the virtual everyone finally gets to be White. The White dominance of gamespace has been recast as a racially progressive movement that ejects race in favor of a default, universal whiteness and has been ceded, in part, by a theoretical tendency to embrace passing and anonymity in cyberspace. When politically charged issues surface that reveal the embedded stereotypes at work amid an ostensibly colorblind environment, they are quickly de-raced and cataloged as aberrations rather than analyzed as symptomatic of more systemic trends. (7-8)
So two things are happening. There’s the standard dismissal of the game’s relevance – the infamous “it’s just a game” argument. This dismissal is really common, even amongst gamers. Tof rebuts it well: “If nothing one does in a game matters outside the game, then games cannot be meaningful or useful in any way; but if games can be meaningful, their meaning can be objectionable.” The second phenomenon that Higgin describes is more complex and troubling. If gamers deny the existence of race in the game, he argues, that’s because they think that race exists entirely in our material bodies. We escape our bodies, we escape race. In doing so, we “finally [get] to be White,” in the sense that whiteness is equated with not having a race. This is one of the features of white privilege, no?
I suspect that a lot of WoW players choose to see the Alliance/Horde enmity through the nationalism lens rather than the racism lens. How else could a college student in an English department hallway tease someone from the other side with his side’s slogan without fear of arousing the punitive ire of the Center for Human Rights? How else could I, without shred of doubt, interpret the message as esprit de corps rather than bigotry? How else could I have laughed at a joke about disowning my kid brother for joining the other side? It wouldn’t have been funny if, right then, I’d thought of the other side as black or Native American.
The reason the friendly Orc’s act of cooperation – an act, I might add, whose rarity continues to make it stand out for me after three years and hundreds of hours of gameplay – was so remarkable, was that it showed me what had previously been totally normalized. By bending the rules, I saw the rules for what they were. Reifications of certain ideologies about identity, gameplay, fun. Arbitrary separations of players who probably played the game for many of the same reasons. Rhetorical manifestations. What did our cooperation represent then? Was this some watershed moment of fraternity across battle lines – the WoW version of World War I’s Christmas Truce? Or better yet, a beautiful moment of antiracism?
I can’t argue that. I’m having a hard time not deleting it here. We acted out of good-natured reciprocity: Olive was aiding Dan and me, and we felt inclined to return the favor. The antiracism thing didn’t even occur to either of us at the time. I didn’t make that particular articulation until much later, after graduate classes in critical theory and a lot of contemplation.
And yet. The reason I remember this encounter is that I remember the elation I felt about it at the time. It wasn’t itself a metanoia, but it was a catalyst for several of them. The first, most mundane one, was my realization that the game’s rules could be defied – players can bend them to achieve certain strategies. Gamers call this exploiting: finding a hole in the game’s rules and worming your way through it. The game told Olive and Dan and me that we couldn’t play together, but we did it anyway. Our actions had negative consequences – we all sacrificed some XP and loot – but we didn’t care.
More significantly, though, this event was the first time that I really made meaning of the faction system. It was the first time I’d thought about how the actions circumscribed by a videogame might be expressive, just like its setting and plot and characters. (Later, thanks to Ian Bogost, I would recognize this as part of the game’s procedural rhetoric). The first time I considered just how much the game encourages Alliance and Horde to fight, or to otherwise stay apart. And how these gameplay rules affect our virtual identities. And how those identities are reciprocally tied to our real-world identities.
Introspection and idiosyncrasies aside, why did it take so much training and effort to see WoW‘s racial design? Why does a white middle-class male, born at the very end of the 70s and come-of-age in the 90s, self-defined as liberal and antiracist, need graduate-level training to see this stuff in the first place? What reasons – material and discursive, political-economic and cultural – could explain how race in a massively popular text/commodity/environment could be simultaneously conspicuous and concealed?
This project is my attempt to figure that out.
The section headings in each chapter mostly correspond to Ken McAllister’s Grammar of Gameworks, a five-part scaffold for mapping the influences and effects of videogames in the broad realm of the societal dialectic. McAllister’s idea for a “grammar” comes from Kenneth Burke, the father of contemporary rhetoric, who had himself devised a “grammar of motives” to name the reasons why and how people communicate. McAllister also adopts Burke’s stance on rhetoric itself: that all human communication, even the simplest utterance, arises from a desire for “identification” or basic connection between separate individuals (20-22). Therefore, for McAllister, every element of a videogame – its gameplay rules and its representations – is a “manifestation of the developers’ rhetoric” (56). Whether or not they are explicitly trying to persuade their players to think or act a certain way, game developers encode certain ideologies in the rules and representations of every game. McAllister’s grammar enables us to identify those ideologies – in his terminology, influences – by analyzing the purposes and transformations of all of the agents (both human and non-) in a given rhetorical situation, whether it’s the creation, marketing, or consumption of a given game. From there, we can see how a given videogame is interpolated in the dialectic – the broad realm of ideologies percolating within a given society. The point of McAllister’s approach is to understand how games and gameplay relate to political struggles in the material world:
An analysis of a particular computer game, game genre, or industry practice that uses the grammar of gameworks… will always have as its aim the explanation of how the ideologically determined rhetorical events of a computer game, a response to a computer game, or particular company’s development cycle makes meanings that have consequence (or are intended to have the consequence) of creating or prohibiting transformative experiences – experiences that ultimately shape struggles under way in the real world and that may have no overt connection to the computer game complex itself. … The objective of such analyses is to engage and transform the dialectic. (44, 64)
McAllister follows the strand of rhetorical criticism that Sonja Foss labels ideological criticism, specifically the strand informed by Marxism. I share this strand’s basic ideologies and goals, though I slightly amend McAllister’s position: rather than drawing directly upon Marx, as he does, I draw upon Antonio Gramsci’s revision of Marxism, which establishes a more nuanced conception of how ideology functions in a given “historic bloc.” Gramsci argued that while a certain group might control a given society’s institutions and its cultural “common sense,” this hegemony is neither stable nor monolithic: it contains a certain amount of dissent, and it also contains sediments, or remnants of older hegemonies from prior historic blocs. Therefore, a given cultural artifact – especially a complex, mass-culture one, like a videogame – will often convey incongruent or even contradictory ideologies. This point is essential to understanding WoW.