October 2007. I post a short version of the “I be a Troll, mon” conversation on Gameology.org, a group blog devoted to academic discussion of videogames. I don’t say much about what I think about the encounter; I just ask readers what they make of it. Amongst the replies, there’s this:
Personally I think it’s just people having a laugh and lightening the tone by injecting some game references into a discussion that is too serious for them to feel comfortable participating in. Not to generalise, but a lot of people go into virtual environments (be they virtual worlds or mere forums) to escape the so called “real” world.
Yet another variation on “It’s just a game!” It never ceases to amaze me how often this argument comes from gamers.
November 2009. I’m running Trial of the Crusader with Dan and Dave’s guild, tagging along with the big boys so I can gear up and be less squishy in battlegrounds. We’re talking over their Ventrilo channel as we play; and in some downtime, Dave asks me how the dissertation’s coming along.
“What’s your dissertation about?” one of his guildies asks.
I give him the sound bite version I’ve been practicing for my MLA interviews: “It’s about how WoW contains most of the varieties of racism that have existed in U.S. history.”
Long pause. Then, cautiously: “Huh. That’s… weird.”
December 2009. Alterac Valley. Dan and I are running south at the beginning of the game, staying with the rest of the pack. We get to the Iceblood Garrison, but instead of running in to kill Galvangar with everyone else, Dan turns left, and we run up the tower next door. We cap the tower and the nearest graveyard. Our offense runs by on its way to the Horde base, but we don’t follow them. We’re going to take the middle and gut the Horde’s reinforcements as they attack our base.
After we cap the graveyard, we run back north to re-take our side’s center graveyard and the nearby towers. Here we meet a handful of defenders, mostly rogues.
God I hate rogues.
Good thing Dan’s there to heal me when the first one saps me inside the tower. I stay alive while I’m stunned, spamming Disengage to jump out of the way when I can move again. It hits and I sail backwards down the stairs and drop a snake trap. Hunter’s Mark on the rogue keeps him visible. He goes down fast: rogues have glass jaws. The other ones screw up and blow their cover early, and we make quick work of them. There’s the tense 30 seconds where we stand by the flag inside the tower and wait for it to cap, and see if we get jumped by reinforcements. We don’t.
Next it’s the graveyard – the real prize. If we capture it, the Horde’s offense will have to start way down south whenever they die up at our main base, which’ll stretch them out and prevent them from a concerted assault on our boss. They know this, so they’ve left six or seven defenders here. We approach carefully from the narrow cliff-lined road to the south. A couple of hothead warriors charge us, and we pick them off. Then everyone knows we’re there, and we get rushed by the remaining four. I can see more spawning in from the graveyard.
We put up a fighting retreat, checking their pursuit with traps, letting the road funnel them. Numbers are on their side. Dan turns into tree form – instant bait – and I kill one of his attackers. A death knight gives up on Dan and runs my way. The big red arrow is over my head now – their hunters have noticed me. The Hordies and Dan play tug-of-war with my ass, my health at 100%, 20%, 75%. I’m smacking my keyboard as fast as I can think of counters – Feign Death to drop hunter pets, Frost Trap to slow down the death knight, Silencing Shot on the mages – and just as I start to yell, “Gah! I’m down!” the death knight about to kill me erupts in flames.
Reinforcements! I collect my wits and follow them back to the graveyard, and we take it in a couple minutes. Our tactic pays off – we’ve slowed their offense just enough so that ours can kill their boss. In five minutes, the battle’s ours. Dan and I are the high scorers.
It’s hard to describe the thrill of games like this. Thrills, rather. The tactics well executed, the defeat of real players rather than computers, the abrupt shift from imminent death to imminent victory (what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe): these moments cured my boredom with WoW.
I love PvP.
WoW‘s PvP depends entirely on the faction conflict, the most racist element of the game.
What the fuck?
I’ve just spent a year deeply considering the links between the faction conflict and racism. Regardless of whether this work teaches anyone else about the rhetorics of racism that permeate this game, creating it has taught me about them. If I’m opposed to racism, should I still play this game? Why do I still play this game?
I’ve grown accustomed to WoW‘s face
The obvious and superficial reason is that I’ve made WoW the subject of this very dissertation, and so I need to maintain contact with it for at least referential purposes. Also, WoW is the subject with which I taught myself how to read games, and through that, discovered and joined the field of game studies. The living textbook, lab, field site. I owe it for giving me my profession.
Omnia vincit amor
A more significant reason is that I came to WoW for the world and the adventures in it, but I stayed for the people. Specifically, some of the people that I’m closest to: my wife, my brother, and my best friend. Annie played WoW to understand and participate in my obsession. With Dave and Dan, since we live 300 miles apart, WoW is the setting and occasion for most of our time with each other.
In her four-year-long ethnography of EverQuest players, Play Between Worlds, T.L. Taylor argues strenuously and convincingly that MMOs are significant parts of players’ social lives, that the relationships they form and maintain there are as real and deep as any in so-called “real” life. I haven’t formed any close friendships with strangers – chalk it up to shyness about meeting new people – but Dan and Dave have.[1. Case in point: a year or two ago, Dave befriended three Australian players while in a PuG. They were already friends outside of the game, but they basically let Dave into their group. He played with them all the time, and they talked about their personal lives with one another. One of the Aussies’ personal details was that his wife had late-stage cancer. On the day she died, he logged on and played WoW with Dave and the other guys. He didn’t want to talk; he just wanted to play. And they honored his request. The kneejerk mainstream reading of this act would see it as unhealthy escapism to a fake world with fake friends. I’ve seen plenty of that (and done some of it myself from time to time, when the material world needed escaping.) In this case, a little escapism is warranted – how many of us would find real refuge in a world where leukemia doesn’t exist and spouses don’t die? But I think there was something else going on here too: this guy was grieving, and he mostly needed to be around his friends in a positive place. I have a hard time seeing that act as unhealthy, or the friendship or its activities as somehow fake or weak.] What I have experienced is immediate interaction with people I would otherwise only see a couple of times a year. As a result, we’ve stayed close – closer by far than I am with other long-distance friends and family.
I still play WoW because my best friend and brother are more important to me than my disapproval of the game’s racism. I feel bad about that; guilt appears to be an inevitable byproduct of facing my complicity in a racist system. But still I play.
Were the ludologists right?
Personally true though they may be, my deep idiosyncratic motives don’t really account for why I’m able to temporarily ignore the racism inherent in the rhetorics of the faction conflict. I’m an English major; I’m interested in and trained for reading narratives. I therefore feel much more affinity with the narratologists of the game studies field, who are mostly also English and film studies people. But in this case, I’m clearly setting WoW‘s narratives and its other representations aside and focusing solely on the gameplay. Thus, I have to consider the possibility that the ludologists are right: gameplay is more important to videogames than representations.
Here is an iconic ludological claim by Espen Aarseth, one of the iconic ludologists:
Any game consists of three aspects: (1) rules, (2) a material/semiotic system (a gameworld), and (3) gameplay (the events resulting from application of the rules to the gameworld). Of these three, the semiotic system is the most coincidental to the game. (47-8)
Aarseth applies his claim to the famous Lara Croft, heroine/avatar/doll of the Tomb Raider games and the world’s first digital pinup model. Lara has gotten a lot of attention, both positive and negative, from both the mainstream and academia, for the ambivalences in her character: on one hand, she’s an ass-kicking treasure hunter who takes exactly zero shit from any human, beast, or god; on the other hand, she does all of her ass-kicking with impossibly long legs atop an impossibly exaggerated hourglass figure. She’s supermodel Indiana Jones. As you might imagine, the narrativist critics who’ve analyzed Tomb Raider have focused on Lara’s body, reading it as an example of patriarchal gender constructions and the Male Gaze. Here’s what Aarseth says about her, though:
[T]he dimensions of Lara Croft’s body, already analyzed to death by film theorists, are irrelevant to me as a player, because a different-looking body would not make me play differently. When I play, I don’t even see her body, but see through it and past it. (48)
From Aarseth’s point of view, the representational design of a videogame is merely the skin on top of which the game’s rules are running. Lara Croft’s body could look like anything and do the same stuff. Therefore, it means nothing.
There are definitely times when gameplay completely overtakes representation in my mind. When I’m playing a battleground, I pay no attention to the races of the avatars I’m fighting, nor to the narrative frame of that particular place. I’m thinking mostly about my opponents’ classes: priests and other healers need to die first, druids are unkillable unless I’m with others, rogues can kill me faster than anyone. I’m also thinking about tactics: capture and hold the Blood Elf Tower because it’s easy to defend, get in a siege tank and demolish the enemy castle’s gates, use artillery on the siege engines battering our castle. And because I’m always playing battlegrounds with my brother and friends, I’m always thinking about where my friends are and how I can assist them. That’s all plenty of work – I am by no means a great PvP player, and the dozens of split-second actions it requires are more than enough to keep up with, mentally. The Alliance/Horde thing, and its rhetorical significance, go right out the window in those moments.
However, battlegrounds are temporary. When they end, I’m teleported back to the normal game world, where the demands on my brain for winning the game of the battleground are gone, and I’m back in the simulation of a society, with its contexts of racial essentialism, segregation, war. I notice and care about these things, at many if not all times. So while I find Aarseth’s point valuable, I also find it too simplistic. I’m inclined to agree with Stuart Moulthrop’s response to Aarseth, in fact:
Certainly one could swap Lara Croft for a digitized Rowan Atkinson without technically changing the feedback loop between player and program. It seems unlikely, though, that Mr. Bean: Tomb Raider would sell nearly as well to its primary audience. Lara Croft’s physique may consist of raw data but it cannot be treated as such for critical purposes. While one may look past or through the avatar body during play, the significance of games as cultural forms goes beyond the player’s time in the loop. (48)
Every videogame player I know cares about the representational elements of games to some degree. We’re all attracted to certain settings, genres, and storylines; and the games industry gives us plenty of variety. Why play a MMO set in the Wild West when there’s one in the Star Wars universe? Why play a multiplayer FPS involving survival against zombies when I can play one involving treasure hunters in a post-apocalyptic wasteland? I don’t mean to suggest that all games in a given genre are the same – there are a lot of meaningful gameplay differences between games within the same genres – but the representational features of games are easily as important as the gameplay in determining how each of us feels about a given game, and whether we’re even willing to play it.
I’m a fraud
Another, darker possibility for why I still play WoW (and enjoy it) is that I’m not as critically conscious as I think I am. Maybe I can wrap my head around the concepts and histories of these kinds of racisms, but I apparently don’t feel it enough to change my actions.
As you might imagine, I have a self-preservation-type desire to step back from that Sarlacc of insecurity and despair. However, like so many things that are scary to look at, my tolerance of WoW‘s racisms reveals a few truths about my place in the racisms of this system.
The privilege to escape
White privilege is the term critical race theorists use to name the systemic political, economic, and social advantages that the peoples defined as “white” have in the U.S. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva points out in Racism Without Racists, white privilege is a historical legacy of European colonialism, and it manifests everywhere European colonies have been (albeit with local variations). In the U.S., white privilege is both a horizontal and vertical phenomenon: it affects everyone, and its reach extends from the mundane (surveillance in stores) to the profound (access to jobs and housing).
The worst thing about white privilege is that it’s tremendously hard to get whites to admit that it’s there. According to Bonilla-Silva, there are several reasons for this, but the most important is that people have a hard time abandoning systems that benefit them, especially when they don’t have to see the negative effects of those systems daily. Thus, our racial structure – “the totality of the social relations and practices that reinforce white privilege” (9) – gets reproduced for reasons that are ultimately obvious:
“Racial structures remain in place for the same reasons that other structures do. Since actors racialized as ‘white’ – or as members of the dominant race – receive material benefits from the racial order, they struggle (or passively receive the manifold wages of whiteness) to maintain their privileges. In contrast, those defined as belonging to the subordinate race or races struggle to change the status quo (or become resigned to their position). Therein lies the secret of racial structures and racial inequality the world over. They exist because they benefit members of the dominant race. (9)
I can say from personal experience that white privilege is a bitter pill indeed. Acknowledging my unearned place in an unfair hierarchy has been a tough, slow process; and I continually renew it the more I learn about the world. I have to consciously remind myself to look it in the face, both because it’s ugly and because it thrives on invisibility. Often, I fail.
One reason I fail to see white privilege is that there are so many opportunities to ignore or escape it. Unfortunately, videogames like World of Warcraft offer a lot of those opportunities. One of the reasons videogames are attractive is that they temporarily let us escape our fraught bodies and pretend that we have other bodies in worlds that are supposedly free of the political problems of our own. It’s a head-in-the-sand maneuver, because the fantasy is just as interpolated in our politics as we are.
The blindness of colorblindness
Another reason I fail, as Act 2 illustrates, is that my definition of racism is unpopular. Just as it’s hard for whites to acknowledge white privilege, it’s hard for us to acknowledge racism, as our discourse about race has become very good at camouflaging, averting, and downplaying the manifestations and even existence of racism. In the U.S. mainstream common sense, racism has come to mean a very specific thing – individual acts of meanness – and most people are loathe to see it any other way. Racism is something that bad people practice. Bad individual people, who don’t see past skin color to appreciate everyone’s subdermal equality. Our everyday word for this is colorblindness; Bonilla-Silva names it color-blind racism.
Bonilla-Silva identifies four rhetorical frames – “set paths for interpreting information” (26) – through which color-blind racism operates. The first is naturalization, the idea that things are the way they are because they’re supposed to be that way. This frame is easy to use in everyday life because change is slow and our memories are short; in other words, we forget (repress?) how things came to be this way, and our daily routines come to seem normal. Especially if we’re comfortable with them. Videogames, and MMOs in particular, contribute to naturalization in several ways. For one thing, they reproduce narratives that vary in details but not in ideological influences. Fantasy, for instance, is the most popular videogame genre; it existed before WoW and will exist after it. Therefore, WoW is just one of many games to reify its nostalgic Eurocentrism. Another way that MMOs in particular lend to the naturalization frame is that they are static worlds – static for an understandable reason, but static nonetheless. The citizens of these worlds have very little power to change them, despite their active participation in them. Unfortunately, then, MMOs reinforce the notion that political systems are natural and unchangeable by regular people.
The second frame that Bonilla-Silva identifies in color-blind racism is cultural racism, the sense that a given race’s intellectual/moral defects are reflected its cultural practices, with little attention to the real contexts of those practices. This is one of the more openly hostile frames, and it seems to be mainly a redirection of biological racism. Videogames reify cultural racism by resorting to culturally racist stereotypes in their representational designs. For example, Grand Theft Auto reinforces the stereotype that all blacks are gangsters and Resident Evil 5 reinforces the stereotype that Africans are uncivilized and diseased.[2. For the former claim, see David Leonard’s article, “’Live in your world, play in ours’: Race, video games, and consuming the other.” For the latter claim, see MTV Multiplayer’s interview with Newsweek games editor N’Gai Croal.] WoW plays into culturally racist beliefs about Caribbeans and South Americans through its intellectually and morally degenerate Trolls.
The third frame of color-blind racism is minimization, which comes in two varieties: the “things aren’t really so bad” argument and the “things are better than they used to be” argument. I see the minimization frame at play in one of the most frustrating things gamers often say about videogames: that they’re “just games.” It’s the essence of the response I got in Act 1 above, which is representative of pretty much every discussion I’ve had about racism with other WoW players. Other games researchers have run across it too; Tanner Higgin, for instance, found that a suggestion of racial stereotypes in the famous “Leeroy Jenkins!” video made in an online forum earned immediate criticism and dismissal. He posits that players’ acts of minimization 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.” I agree – the apparent ephemerality of digital representations makes them easy to dismiss.[3. E.g., witness the mainstream press’s horror at the real-world trade of game characters and money, because “It’s all just ones and zeros!”] However, Higgin goes on to claim, “[W]hat this implies is that in the real world race is not made up but is verifiable and very real” (7), whereas I’m inclined to see minimization of a game’s racism as an extension of minimization of racism elsewhere.
A related maneuver, maybe a variation of the minimization frame, is the notion that racism just goes away if you change a couple of variables. By this logic, WoW‘s Trolls aren’t racist, because they don’t actually look like Caribbean blacks; they’re big blue guys with tusks. Or the Humans can’t represent whites because you can make their skin dark brown as well as pale. The semiotic mixtures in WoW‘s representational designs help people make these claims. They’re part of the trick. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the developers don’t see this as a trick, that they see it as the single necessary key to avoiding (or transcending) racial stereotypes. At the very least, it’s a sign that the developers are trying not to reproduce racism as many people define it. What they don’t understand, though, is that race is comprised of more than bodies. Race is a social construction that begins with bodies but extends to all manner of practices, beliefs, rhetorics, and material conditions.
The fourth and most important frame of color-blind racism in Bonilla-Silva’s rubric is abstract liberalism, a vaguely applied appeal to the tenets of liberal humanism, especially individualism and egalitarianism, in explanations of non-whites’ continued inequality. I.e., “It’s their fault because they don’t work hard enough.” I’ve come to realize that liberalism is massively important to WoW, and indeed most videogames – it is, perhaps, their deepest ideological influence. What has surprised me is how closely liberalism and racism are related.
We can be heroes!
I’ve long wondered if the biggest reason players don’t see/mind WoW‘s racism is that the allure of the game’s central rhetorics was just too great. Ultimately, the main allegorithm[4. Allegorithm is a term coined by McKenzie Wark in his Baudrillard/Debord-esque treatise on the role of videogames in contemporary life, Gamer Theory. It’s his name for the meaning expressed by a videogame’s procedural and representational gestalt. As you might guess, the term is a portmanteau of allegory and algorithm. Many games are allegorical, Wark argues, as their representational elements stand for ideas and identities in the material world. Games also contain algorithms – rules for making things happen in a certain number of steps. (In my schema, these are the game’s procedural rhetorics.) The combination of representational/allegorical and procedural/algorithmic elements is an allegorithm. There are thousands of allegorithms running in a videogame, but, Wark argues, you can oftentimes see them coalescing into one big one: the game’s main allegorithm.] of World of Warcraft is the American fantasy, distilled – a combination of liberal humanism’s egalitarianism and individualism, plus a friendly version of capitalism. As a WoW avatar, you have special abilities that make you unique, but you’re no more powerful than anyone else, at least initially. You put in a certain amount of work, and for your effort and skill, you’ll get power, wealth, and prestige. You’ll have equal opportunity to earn this power/money/prestige because the same rewards are available to all and the virtual world produces unlimited resources. You can get rich by farming and making resources, but you have to earn your power/money/prestige yourself; there’s no way to employ other people to do it for you. [5. I hasten to add that the game isn’t perfectly egalitarian, mostly because of player cultures that have developed over the last four years. For instance, guilds often pool some money and gear so that new avatars can level up more quickly than they would if starting from scratch, giving well-connected players advantages over true noobies. Then there are the infamous “gold farmers” – outfits that employ people (often Chinese kids) to spend tedious hours farming resources to make game money, which the companies then sell to other players for real money. So the imperfections of liberalism in the material world have bled into the synthetic world.] There is always a clear correlation between effort and reward in WoW. The player kills 50 enemies, and his avatar levels up. The player gains honor points from playing battlegrounds and gets to buy special armor. And that power and wealth are displayed in really obvious, spectacular ways: flashy spells, ornate armor, enormous mounts, and so on.
In WoW, people experience what material life promises but never delivers: “a fair fight, a level playing field, unfettered competition” (Wark 21). It’s a utopia in every sense of that word: a perfect no-place. We recognize it as such, but that dims its appeal not one whit. All role-playing games offer this allegorithm; WoW just executes it better than most. This is its main draw.
I used to think that WoW‘s liberal humanist/capitalist allegorithm was one of the reasons that players ignored the game’s racisms, that the appeal of the former simply outweighed the repulsiveness of the latter. I still think that’s true, but it’s not quite that simple. First of all, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva notes, “modernity, liberalism, and racial exclusion were all part of the same historical movement” (27). As modernity took hold and reshaped Europe from a feudalist paradigm to a capitalist paradigm, the emerging bourgeoisie sought an ideology that would support their goals of workforce exploitation and personal accumulation of wealth. What their intellectuals developed was liberal humanism, a combination of “individualism, universalism, egalitarianism, and meliorism (the idea that people and institutions can be improved” (26). Of course, as their goals were to make money for themselves, they had to frame their underlings as unqualified for “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – specifically, as not fully human. Racialization and racism proved handy for that job, the necessary flipsides of liberal humanism’s ideological coin.
WoW is the product of a more cohesive historical legacy than it first appears. Its liberal humanist rhetorics and its racist rhetorics aren’t competing with each other; they’re complementing each other. They’re historically linked, even if they’ve separated somewhat over time. WoW is merely rearticulating them.
What’s interesting about this rearticulation is that it’s actually several rearticulations. The construction of WoW‘s avatars upon a biological definition of race harks back to the original articulation of liberalism and biologist racism, an articulation that has mostly disappeared since the 60s. The colonialist and Orientalist connotations behind some of the avatars connect to representations of the peoples that the West enslaved, colonized, and killed during the entire modern period (which still isn’t quite over). Individualism and egalitarianism, both still at the ideological core of U.S. society, have both been attached to opposing positions in race politics since the 1960s. Bonilla-Silva provides some perfect examples:
For instance, the principle of equal opportunity, central to the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement and whose extension to people of color was vehemently opposed by most whites, is invoked by whites today to oppose affirmative-action policies because they supposedly represent the ‘preferential treatment’ of certain groups. This claim necessitates ignoring the fact that people of color are severely underrepresented in most good jobs, schools, and universities and, hence, it is an abstract utilization of the idea of ‘equal opportunity.’ Another example is regarding each person as an ‘individual’ with ‘choices’ and using this liberal principle as a justification for whites having the right of choosing to live in segregated neighborhoods or sending their children to segregated schools. This claim requires ignoring the multiple institutional and state-sponsored practices behind segregation and being unconcerned about these practices’ negative consequences for minorities. (28)
So with all of the links between liberalism and racism in mind, what does this mean for WoW? On one hand, it’s a utopia, a simulation of a world system in which equal opportunity for hard-working individuals really does exist. On the other hand, it’s reifying a myth that many whites believe does exist in the material world, and is thus potentially contributing to the perpetuation of a delusion. A delusion that continues to harm millions of people.
WoW and the crisis of modernity
Victor Villanueva likes to say in seminars that postmodernity is merely the crisis of modernity, the end of a paradigm rather than a new one. This claim has stuck with me. It occurs to me now, in a classic case of finding my thesis at the end of my draft, that it applies perfectly to WoW.
World of Warcraft is very much a metaphor for the ambivalence that mainstream U.S. culture feels as it questions modernity’s ways of being and communicating, but has yet to shift into the next paradigm.
On one hand, there’s all this postmodernism in WoW – both literary (fractured narratives, metafiction, intertextuality, irony, pastiche) and social (we pilot avatars in a synthetic world whose scope in the material world is international and which is owned and operated by a staggeringly successful development company, itself owned by an even bigger publicly traded corporate conglomerate). And yet so many of the game’s structures and narratives are so very modern: bodies, organizations, language, hierarchies. Then there’s its fictional setting, which is mostly pre-modern, but, like everything else, exhibits crazy admixtures – cyborgs and spaceships alongside knights and castles.
I might say it’s all just quaint or goofy and leave it at that. Much of it is quaint and goofy. But that would rob this text of its rhetorical power, which is significant.
Like all media in their childhood, the videogame mixes its parents’ traits and creates a few of its own. From storytelling media, videogames inherit the capacity to represent ideas and identities that their audiences have profound intellectual and moral affinities with. From games, videogames inherit the capacity to let their audiences try out these ideas/identities – model them in action, and experience the consequences. To push the childhood metaphor further, videogames are subject to the influences of both nature and nurture as they grow; they (and their parents) exist in a world that seeps into them. To some degree, they’ll have to fit into that world’s ways of doing things. Hopefully they can change some of them.
Videogames are rhetorically unique in general, but massively multiplayer online games are unique amongst videogames. MMOs run in constant parallel existence to the material world – always on, always populated. WoW‘s sun rises and sets with ours. At the end of the day, it’s a simulation of a social existence, a kind that’s fun and competitive and gratifying in all kinds of ways that so-called “real” life can only hope to be. Fantasy is the right word for it. However, it’s important that we know that this fantasy is the conscious creation of a few dozen people, employees of an entertainment industry that wants our money more than anything else. And gets a lot of it. This particular company, maybe more than any of its peers, is exceptionally good at giving its customers what they want. What they didn’t even know they wanted, maybe. That’s because it speaks to some of our deepest cultural values, fulfills some of the basic promises we’re told that life is supposed to fulfill for us.
What could be wrong with this? For one thing, there’s the danger that the fantasy will be so compelling that we’ll turn away from reality. The Matrix/Infinite Jest scenario. I don’t think that’s as likely as the Luddite types would have us believe, but I do see an element of truth there vis-à-vis WoW specifically and the high fantasy genre in general: we need to be extremely wary of our own nostalgia. It’s a sweet drug, nostalgia, but it’s dangerous too. By reveling in some parts of history while ignoring others, nostalgia can turn our attention away from things that attending to. The history of racism is especially plagued by this forgetfulness and avoidance.
Another danger with modernity’s fantasies, and with videogames that reify them, is that modernity’s ideals – life/liberty/happiness, equal opportunity, individualism – are as elusive as they are lofty. They have always eluded us. They’ve also excluded a lot of people; or rather, a lot of people have been kept from pursuing them. Or, worse, these people have been not just excluded from the fruits of modernity but victimized by it – exploited, enslaved, and murdered by modernity’s inventors and the political systems they created. And they continue to be.
Of course, the positive evolution of this system has to involve a lot of effort on a lot of fronts, but artistic fronts are usually ahead of the curve. Videogames are some of our society’s most popular art forms, and their most unique feature is that they can teach as well as reify. If they can be made to simulate world systems that transcend modernity’s dark sides, they should.
There are some signs that the videogame industry is moving in the right directions. BioWare’s games, for instance, are continually pushing the boundaries of role-play in complex branching narratives. Even WoW lets you change your avatar’s race now (for a fee, of course). But they can evolve faster and further. How can videogames evolve progressively? Or better yet, what can we do to make them?
It would be hypocritical and unrealistic of me to say that white gamers should stop playing WoW or other games with racist rhetorics. (Well, some of them we should definitely avoid.) What should we do, then? We need to start by admitting what’s in front of us. We need to own up to history, see it from the long view, admit that its effects are longer-term than the media and our politicians would have us believe. We need to acknowledge that racism not only still exists but that it’s more pervasive than we’ve been admitting. We need to recognize the representations and procedures of racism and white privilege, both historical and current. And we need to admit that we are implicated in these systems, even if we didn’t choose to be. We benefit by them, and the world’s rich, whom the status quo is really serving, benefit even more than most of us do.
Gamers of all races (actually, of all types of identity positions) need to demand new narratives. We need to become open to the texts of the people that our system has marginalized – not in an appropriative way, but in a way that respects their cultures and honestly considers what our history has done to them. These can be serious games, but they can also be fun ones with well-written allegorithms. We should tell developers, “Don’t give us the same old world, give us new ones.” We owe that to our beloved new medium, to the earnest, talented people that make it, and to the people that suffered for our abilities to enjoy it.
There are lots of ways to do this, because videogames are one of the most popular parts of a national[6. It’s an international movement, really. I’ve deliberately stayed away from discussing the meanings that players outside the U.S. might make of WoW, and that’s been intentional. That’s because 1) WoW is a U.S.-made text, and 2) I can’t claim any knowledge about how this text translates outside of the U.S. (I hope to remedy that someday, but I need to graduate and get a job first.) I do know, however, that WoW is very popular internationally; in fact, more of its players are outside the U.S. than inside. The rest of the world may hate our foreign policy, but it tends to like our pop culture. Therefore, it’s worth closely considering the ideologies conveyed by the texts and artifacts we’re exporting. They have a good chance of meeting a receptive audience, after all.] movement towards direct interaction between authors and audiences at a level not experienced with other mass media. There’s fan fiction (in text and comic forms), a longtime staple of geek culture, and a documented method of dialogue between fans and authors. There’s machinima, a fascinating, evolving art form in its own right, which makes games into movie sets and uses them to comment on themselves. There are mods, which players make to shape the game into the one they want, both in terms of making gameplay more efficient and in terms of telling new stories. Dialogue between players and developers is often direct as well as symbolic; despite their hyperbolic tendencies, the players that participate in forums and beta tests always have developers’ ears. Then there’s good old f2f, which we get at conventions like PAX.
Better yet, gamers: join the games industry and start changing it from the inside.
In the meantime, go play with the friendly Orcs.