For this post, I read Esther McCallum-Stewart’s essay “’Never Such Innocence Again’: War and Histories in World of Warcraft.” The essay begins on page 39 of the class text Digital Culture, Play, and Identity.
This essay is concerned with the prevalence of war in Azeroth. It discusses concepts such as the history of the game, the history of war in the real world, and the historical context of Warcraft as a medium in comparison to real-life attitudes about war. McCallum-Stewart points out obvious concepts, such as the First and Second Great Wars of Azeroth existing as allegory for World War 1 and World War 2, as well as less obvious ones, such as the possible meaning of blimps and abandoned airfields within the game space.
McCallum-Stewart uses this essay to question what Blizzard is saying about war and history through World of Warcraft. Her argument is that Blizzard’s view on war is subtler and deeper than it first appears to be, and that this view is reflected in the game space as well as changes in the game over time. For instance, she points out that in Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans (the initial 1994 version of the game), war is at the center of the narrative. This version encouraged players to fight each other, and the main conflict of the game is the war between the Alliance and the Horde. For the current World of Warcraft (2004-present), that conflict has been pushed to the side in favor of a truce. The main focus of the present game is the struggles that the Horde and the Alliance share. This has been achieved partially through the introduction of common enemies such as the Scourge.
Of course, war and tension between the Alliance and the Horde has not been eliminated. McCallum-Stewart points out that the first thing a player is asked to do upon opening the game is to choose a side. She analyzes the literary sources of the playable races as well as the two groups’ histories within the game. She explains some of the complex, mutually sensible justifications for battles between the two sects and engages with the idea of the Alliance and the Horde being distinct from a traditional good vs. evil narrative. The Horde’s primary goal of defending their lands contrasts with the traditional literary view of Horde races as evil, and the Alliance’s problematic industrialism shows that the group is not unilaterally good. The complex history and sheer scope of the game allows Blizzard to delve deeply into the subject of warfare and its potential causes and consequences.
McCallum-Stewart’s essay opens a number of avenues to critically engage with the game. As an amateur player who has only played on the Alliance side and has never experienced the more militaristic games prior to World of Warcraft, I have thus far been surprised by the lack of actual war in the game. My very first quests involved killing NPC monsters, but since then I’ve done quests that involve making pie, collecting crafting reagents, and carrying a love note from one rural Elwynn Forest NPC to another.
Of course, most of my quests have involved killing orcs or troggs or enemy generals, stealing items from my opponents, and twice, looking for lost soldiers. The battles I’ve participated in have felt very temporary, however. Once, I killed an NPC because they were in my way and attacked me, and later received a quest for which I had to go re-kill that same NPC for 1150 experience points. Any progress that I’ve made by killing enemies is completely temporary, and even the “important” military missions are probably completed thousands of times a day. I don’t associate my experience thus far in World of Warcraft with war at all. I’ve spent many hours in the game over the last few weeks, and I have yet to be in a situation that encourages me to think critically about war. McCallum-Stewart’s argument is heavily dependent on the game’s history and former renditions, and new players don’t appear to need the information she discusses in order to engage with the game.
I believe that McCallum’s essay is insightful, provocative, and logical, but the arguments that she makes are far removed from my actual experience of the game. This fact quite easily cycles back to the question McCallum-Stewart is considering: what is Blizzard trying to say about war through the complex medium of World of Warcraft? Whatever the answer to that question may be, it’s clear to me that to understand Blizzard’s message, one has to fully understand the medium. Understanding a book might entail reading it through once or twice, but understanding Warcraft seems to entail knowing the game’s history, years of dedicated play, traveling the virtual world, and playing as multiple characters.
Warcraft is a complicated medium, more complicated than it would have been possible to create before the time of computers. Not only is it complicated, it requires players to find the tiny but important details such as the abandoned airfield by physically traveling, while such details would have to be written intentionally into a book. The manner in which Warcraft engages with war is an excellent example of the breadth and depth of what can be accomplished with virtual media.