Azeroth: a dream-like planet of epic proportions, where storytale creatures of all shapes and sizes wage massive battles amidst beautiful scenery in a rich, folklore-inspired narrative. The backdrop of the World of Warcraft series is clearly indebted to works of fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, and on the surface its setting and narrative seems like a routine exercise in genre conventions. The game’s politics tell a different story, though, one that’s based more in the realities of racism and discrimination in the Western world then anything in an imaginary universe. This is the point Jessica Langer makes in her essay “The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post)Colonialism in World of Warcraft“.
Open any World of Warcraft forum and you’re bound to find fans waging debates on whether the Horde, the game’s less glamorous and more grotesque cast of playable character types, is meant to be evil. Blizzard’s official statement (found through WoWpedia on a clothing site, of all places) states that according to Warcraft lore, The Horde is not evil; they simply “possess a strong code of honor and strict laws for disobedience.” Langer makes a claim in her introduction that’s sure to raise ire from diehard WoW fans: that World of Warcraft “carries out a constant project of radially ‘othering’ the Horde, not by virtue of distinctions between good and evil, but rather by distinctions between civilized and savage, self and other, and center and periphery (87).” In other words, the Horde represent the Other, while the Alliance are the white, anglo-saxon ruling class that continue to dominate global media today. Her defense of this comes not from examples from the game’s narrative, but through examining the different characters themselves, whose physical features and cutural traits often resemble stereotypes of marginalized groups from a Western perspective in the Postcolonial society in which Blizzard Entertainment is based. Take the Tauren class of characters, whose nature-inspired names and tee-pee like houses resemble a crude depiction of the “noble-savage” stereotype Native Americans are so often lumped into. She takes particular issue with the monstrously-depicted Trolls, who speak in a dialect that closely resembles Jamaician english and practice a voodoo-like religion to match. Not quite the image of a race-less techno-future Haraway had in mind.
However, as Langer goes on to explain, the truth is not so clear-cut along well-defined racial lines for all races on the Horde. Although all of their options are made to look somewhat ugly and grotesque in one way or another, not all of them are racialized stereotypes. There’s the curious corpse-like Undead class, who posses a skeletal appearance Langer states is “a reversal of bodily integrity that enhances the Otherness of the Horde (100).” The realtively new Blood Elves, with their “arrogance about their beauty and derision of the other Horde races (98)” almost seems like a self-reflexive satire on the very Western standards the game imposes on groups of non white-males. It is these examples, that blur the nature of racial depictions in World of Warcraft, that are symptomatic of the game not being a linear text but a sprawling representation of the world itself, a simalcura of the confused Western construction of race. Though Warcraft does contain examples of racially motivated characterizations steeped in the mentality of the culture it came from, Langer makes sure to point out that these issues are complex within the game’s word.
World of Warcraft fans are quick to object to claims of racism in the MMORPG. A post on the battle.net forums finds players speaking out against such accusations as “reading into every stupid little detail for a social issue that doesn’t exist.” It is unclear whether or not Blizzard intent was to encode racially motivated messages into the fabric of Warcraft. Regardless, the races are differentiated by post-colonial boundaries that Lisa Nakamura refers to as “cybertapes” meant to provide “familiar, solid, and reassuring versions of race which others uses can readily accept and understand since they are so used to seeing them. (101)” Indeed, stereotypes are surely nothing new, and are a natural side-effect of humanity’s inclination to view life through a judging, “enframing” lens. It is telling that the Human class on the Aliance is a Caucasian character by default with only subtle variations in skin tone, rendering all other races in the game below or opposed to this default ‘human’ status. The problem with Warcraft that Langer identifies is that their portrayals are so thinly veiled that they promote an over-simplified view of other cultures through a Western gaze subtly yet intuitively to its international audience of consumers, further disseminating a white-washed perspective throughout the world.
Langer’s article also raises questions about other aspects of the Warcraft that are emblemeatic of Western ideals. Among the ones I noticed is the abstract depiction of religion throughout the game. The NPC’s of Azeroth practice a form of magic known simply as The Light. Though their belief system lacks a clearly-defined God in the Christian sense, they do have places of worship that closely resemble gothic cathedrals and refer to themselves as the “Church of the Holy Light.” Differences can also be seen in the manner of dress between members of the Alliance and the Horde, which seem to be divided along class boundaries as well, as the character designs of Horde classes are often much more ragged, torn, and poor compared to the regal and dignified appearance of many members of the Alliance. I would be curious to know what Langer thinks about the recent addition of a playable non-side affiliated Panda character in the recent Mists of Panderia expansion, which could be viewed from within the postcolinial perspective of Orientalism that Langer draws upon the fetishization of Eastern Asian culture among gamers.
I do not think that Blizzard is a racist company. I also don’t think that playing World of Warcraft is going to inspire people to look down upon minority groups and use racist language. The socially encoded messages in Warcraft are present in almost all forms of mass media meant for entertainment consumption, and should be viewed through a critical lens with a realization that they are symptomatic of our society. That said, raising awareness of these undertones is a good way for inspiring debate and conversation about the way race is constructed and portrayed. In some ways, the depictions of the Horde in World of Warcraft could inspire players to look deeper into the issues facing their own world beyond the computer screen. Ultiately, though, it is my hope that one day we will be able to move into a society that does not have to rely on stereotypical portrayals of groups for source material, and that Blizzard will develop games that draw people in for their creativity and imaginiativty – the true roots of what fantasy should depict – and not on unfortunate biases of the increasingly expanding Western world.