Sunday, April 27, 2014

Finding Masculinity - Groundwork

“The thing about a hero, is even when it doesn't look like there's a light at the end of the tunnel, he's going to keep digging, he's going to keep trying to do right and make up for what's gone before, just because that's who he is.” (Emphasis mine)
― Joss Whedon

When it comes to characters in any media, but particularly in games and other nerd media, straight white guys definitely have it made when it comes to characters they can identify with.

"So you get clothes, and I get a skin tight bodysuit?"
A great deal has been written about the absence of women in primary roles. Women are so seldom portrayed as the primary heroes that it becomes a subject of note when they are. The same goes for any hero of color or a character who might not be read as straight. I agree that this is where the bulk of the conversation should be, but there is another side to this paradigm that is discussed less often.

The portrayal of straight white men as the default hero hurts everyone. Yes, it even hurts straight white men too. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t contribute to male privilege. I know that I’m lucky to have a plethora of positive heroic characters that I can easily identify with. Since this privilege is built on a foundation of sand and lacking true substance, however, there is a cost to having masculinity defined as it is in many games and other media.

The criticism of the patriarchy does not have to be limited to its impact on women. The diminished role of women and the constant exaltation of a certain kind of man portrayed in games and nerd media hurts men too. Patriarchal dominance harms society as a whole. Feminism is not about fighting for half the population. It’s fighting for all of it.

Despite the wide variety of characters men can identify with, there are a few tropes that the nerd genres in particular strongly push to define masculinity. These tropes become problematic when they start to strictly define maleness in very specific ways that are neither realistic nor healthy if brought into real life practice. In this post I’m going to cover the stereotype, explain some of the costs of this construction of male identity. This post is my groundwork for going into how some media like Pacific Rim and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have presented some interesting angles on the stereotype.

Strong, Self-reliant, and In Command  – Masculinity Defined

"It's a glorious day to be a super man."
When a male-oriented game loads that first cinematic or we see the opening scene of our manly hero in a movie, we can instantly make some baseline assumptions about the man we are watching. After dozens of movies, stories, and years of a reverberating culture informing our expectations we can assume that this hero is almost definitely strong, self-reliant, in command (especially of his feelings.) These are what our culture has accepted as the formula not only for a hero but also a man. Deviation from this template can happen in a heroic story, but it is narratively significant if it does.

"About 98 lbs, sir. Why?"
For example, Captain America starts off his story as a physically weak man and part of his narrative is gaining respect and command – as well as super strength. His initial absence of strength is such a deviation from the template that it becomes the focus of the first act of the movie. Even prior to being blessed by a strength granting serum, it’s emphasized in Captain America: The First Avenger that Steve Rogers always had a personal strength of character. This strength of character is presented as a kind of proxy to stand in for Cap’s lack of physical strength until it’s serum time.

Can you even imagine Han asking Chewbacca or anyone else for help?
 It’s rare to see our male hero ever ask for help, rather than give orders. Asking for help conveys weakness or vulnerability for the male identity. Needing to work alone to protect others is all over comic book heroes. It’s where the whole costume thing comes from after all. Batman, Spider-man, and Superman all make a point of working alone. It’s the source of heartache for our heroes but enduring the solitude is just another attribute that defines masculinity in this construction. There might be side-kicks or team ups, but it’s rare for any of these types of characters to really be in need of someone else.

When Wolverine flips out it's "heroic." When a woman does it, it's "hysterics."
Our male hero is always the general – never the lieutenant. If he is the lieutenant, his general often doesn’t really “get it” so the hero is the moral superior officer anyway.  He is always in control. Even when his emotions get the better of him, a male hero is typically channeling that into something awesome. Wolverine might lose his cool, but it’s always getting lost in the direction some kind of important objective anyway. We rarely see our masculine hero break down in weakness for very long.

"My whole life has been building up to this point when I greet you as you exit your pod, sir.
It was a pleasure to watch you sleep."
Often the male hero of a movie or video game is so in command of everything that goes on around him that he becomes almost like a black hole sucking all the attention and motivation for other characters into himself. In video games, where the player is usually taking the role of the hero, this phenomenon can get especially silly. In Halo, for example, you get the feeling sometimes that NPCs are just waiting for Master Chief to arrive and give them a purpose in life – so much of narrative’s universe is centered on the male hero.

Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but almost every male hero follows this general template. These aren’t really bad traits for heroes to have . We want to have a hero that is strong. It’s good to have self-reliance and no have to lean on others all the time, and being in command is just part of the wish-fulfillment escapism that goes hand-in-hand with these kinds of stories. These traits are so engrained into our heroes that the template has become too rigid. We are limiting what we think of as a hero.

The Costs of "Masculinity" 

These truly are heroic traits, but because heroes are so predominantly male we often understand them as specifically masculine traits. We expect men, and even young boys, to be strong, self-reliant, and in command even when the situation does not demand heroics. Men come to expect this of themselves in everyday life, despite the fact these traits are usually either unattainable or unsustainable.

Nobody in real life can be heroic in these ways all of the time. To me, real life heroes and the best fictional heroes share in common that they are ordinary people driven to accomplish extraordinary things under circumstances that demand something exceptional. I believe that we all have that strong, self-reliant, in-control hero within us that can come out when the time comes, but it is impossible to draw on that inner power at all times. It’s definitely not healthy to try.

No Bruce! Don't!
There is a cost to letting these traits define men. Everyone will always experience moments when we are weak – physically, morally, or emotionally. We will always be surrounded by others who are stronger than us in one way or another. A wise person accepts vulnerability and seeks out the help of others. This is not weakness so much as it is being human. On a team at work, on a sports field, at school, or in a game, usually a team that can rely and lean on each other can accomplish more than a group of lone-wolf super stars. The heroic masculine identity construction pushes men to do more with less – usually needlessly.

In the workplace men will try to hide or obscure a lack of knowledge or ability until they find themselves in a situation where they can only be fired. This hurts the employer who promoted the man to a position of incompetence and it hurts the man who could have been just as successful as a lieutenant if he had not believed his identity as a man depended on him being a general.

This masculine identity construction takes its toll on mental health too. Men suffer from depression at the same rate as women, but they are less likely to seek help for it at factor of 2 to 1. This is strongly correlated with heroic concepts of masculinity. The heroic male suffers quietly. He believes he should endure pain on his own because he is expected to be strong. In the real world, however, untreated depression steadily gets worse. Our real-life stoic and heroic men become incapable to help those around them, and many turn to the unheroic coping mechanisms including substance abuse and suicide.

On the one hand, dealing with problematic portrayals of a heroic male identity is undoubtedly preferable to dealing with the subservient support role or completely absent role women have forced upon them constantly. At the end of the day, a man is left struggling to fit into an unrealistic, yet positive, construction of masculine identity, while the female heroic identity still struggles to even be visible. Nevertheless, the problematic nature of masculine identity is another damaging element of the gender identity construction in our games and nerd media.

Working towards cooperative identity and monster slaying robots.
We are making progress as a society, but we still have a long way to go. As cracks and fissures appear in patriarchal formulaic story-telling, however, we are seeing a few interesting challenges to both the stereotypical female and male roles shine through. I started this post after noticing some interesting takes on the masculine identity trope in Pacific Rim and an episode of Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Next post or two I’ll be exploring those twists in more detail. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Lessons about Winning, Losing, and Claiming Online Gaming for Good (instead of Evil) - Part 1

“I hate the negative talk and we hear a lot more of it when we end his screen time for the day”

Sometimes I talk with my co-worker about his son’s geeky interests. Chris has told me a few times about his 12 year old son’s experience online with games like Minecraft and Team Fortress 2. While Chris is supportive of his son having fun with games, he isn’t a huge fan of the negative culture sometimes found among gamers. The stories that he has told me can chill me, but, sadly they are very familiar. Mixed in with the good people who game online is a vocal collection of individuals who see online games as a chance to eject all social filters and civility towards other people.

A lot of gaming online is competitive, and I have encountered plenty of people who get a little over-invested. A win is seen as license for tearing into an opposing player, and a loss is viewed as permission to tear into teammates.

Often to these players a match that is unlikely to result in a win is not worth playing. Knowing that everyone is bound to lose sometimes, this mentality guarantees that one simply will not have fun a significant portion of the time. This is a big contributing factor to the “negativity” my co-worker refers to. With value only placed on winning, a loss becomes just a thwarted expectation of happiness with no redeeming qualities or lessons of its own. There are even servers dedicated to PvP in World of Warcraft that are populated almost entirely by a single faction because nobody wants to risk losing.

9 of the 10 most faction split servers in WoW are PvP servers. What is the point exactly?

Granted, people like to win. In studies conducted by psychologist Cheryl Olson on the motivations to play video games “to compete and win” (emphasis mine) is a common reason. And why not? Winning makes us happy. One of the limitations of Olson’s study, however, is determining the weight of a loss. Players might seek out gaming to compete and win, but are they denied all happiness by only competing and not winning? Is seeking out competition inextricably linked to seeking out the win?

According to Olson, the young boys surveyed are especially focused on the win and the bragging rights come with it. Indulging in a little swagger after a win is perfectly normal and acceptable. It’s a chance to celebrate with your teammates and enjoy that accomplishment, but can a child understand the smaller victories? The victory of playing well even in defeat? The victory of doing better than last time or at least having a couple of good moments in a match?

Maybe learning to accept those smaller victories takes some time and guidance.

For my own part, online matches against other players have taught me to appreciate the competition more than winning or losing. Online games are a great opportunity for my co-worker’s child to learn lessons about winning and losing graciously, teamwork and strategy, and the art of going down fighting even in the face of impossible odds. Chris knows this but is uncomfortable with his kid’s online experience with good reason. There is a truly vicious segment of the gaming community out there that no parent would wish their child hurt by or to become a part of. The mean attitude encountered online has therefore become a barrier to something that Chris’ son could otherwise learn a lot from.

The “winning-is-everything” attitude is not even the worst behavior gamers endure online. Bullying can be a serious problem online, and it can go far beyond what you might expect in the real world. I’ve seen personal attacks based on racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and sexism fly freely in games. It’s not something you would want your own child engaging in online or - worse - bringing into offline life.

Whenever we talk about these issues, I encourage Chris to try to get involved in whatever his son is playing, so he can be present to provide some guidance to his son through the morass. Okay, so a kid in their early teens might not really want their goofy parents invading their hobbies. Video games are an opportunity for a kid to leave the nest and explore life on their own a little. Nevertheless, parents can still be a part of the same gaming community as their kid, and not be hovering next to their kid while they play. Games are a common text that children share. Parents can share that text with their children too.

A symphony of 16-bit color and sound!
I loved talking to my own father about playing Civilization even though we never actually played together. The fact that my father played the game himself gave me a channel to talk about it if I wanted to. Even if we never co-ruled, we could swap stories about trying to halt those expansionist civilizations whose thirst for cities and tribute could never be sated. If there were an online component to Civilization 1, maybe I would feel better talking to him about it knowing that he had some context for what I was talking about.

Maybe Chris and his son won’t be an unstoppable father-son TF2 team, but I think that having a trusted friend or relative who shares this hobby is a huge help – even for those of us who are past our teenage years. Even if a teenager won’t admit it, I’m sure Chris’ son still looks to his parents for guidance. Maybe the kid is not going to be asking for any gameplay tips, but he’ll probably pick up on how Chris treats other players. If the child is bullied online, Chris will have a context to advise how to deal with it.

I believe the negative culture in online gaming is self-feeding. People rip into each other and get personal because “that’s just the way things are on the Internet.” I refuse to accept this and think it’s time we push back and enable others to do the same. The first step is helping each other be the kind of players we want to play with, and the first step can even start right at home.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Warcraft’s Racism and Sexism Problem – Part 2 (Women of Warcraft 3 - Intro and Tyrande)

I would like to give a shout out to noted author and velociraptor expert Emmett Scout for conversing with me on this topic on Twitter and helping shape some of these thoughts. Emmett is an editor for The Next, a blog that gets deep and brainy with games and all sorts of nerd media.

Before proceeding onto reviewing the manifold sexist and racist missteps of World of Warcraft, I thought it was worth noting four female characters that Blizzard introduced in Warcraft 3 that were written particularly well. Lest people get the impression that I believe Blizzard did nothing right in terms of feminist or racial sensitivity, I should also point out what they did well, right?

Tyrande Whisperwind, Maiev Shadowsong, Sylvanas Windrunner, and Jaina Proudmoore were all introduced as key figures in the Warcraft 3 series. They were all strong female characters that accomplished their goals through the point of an arrow, the keen edge of a glaive, or good leadership and diplomacy. These characters had their own stories outside the context of any man’s story. They were fully realized and heroic – each in a unique and interesting way.  

Despite how well these characters were written, however, Blizzard artists did not always present them visually in a way that followed their empowered characterization. All of them, save Maiev, have occasionally demonstrated a reckless disregard for their midriff’s safety, for example.  Depending on the artist, they are often abundantly endowed in the chest to the point of gravity defying absurdity.

Sylvanas evolves in World of Warcraft from "Suitable but Night Elf" to "There's the Dark Ranger!" to "I'm only cold on my head, shoulders, and legs. My torso strangely feels just fine."

Apparently this is the only the context in which many players and artists understand female power. “Sure, they can murder you, move like the wind, spray knives in every direction, and control the elements, but will they still be arousing and able to nurse many babies?” seems to be the pressing question in some people minds.

Nevertheless, despite the occasional mismatched art, I have to give credit where credit is deserved. Here they are in detail one by one, starting with…

Tyrande Whisperwind:

We are first introduced to Tyrande at the start of the last chapter of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. She leads an army of night elf fighters, all of whom are women. The night elf men are asleep at this point, because apparently druidism (which only men practice at this point) is really exhausting. Tyrande overlooks her beloved Ashenvale Forest and sees it threatened by newcomers – orcs and humans.

"Just checking out my dominion from a cliff like a boss, Shandris."

We saw the night elf women previously in Warcraft 3 during the orcish campaign when they began skirmishing with the orcs harvesting lumber. The orcs in response have murdered the night elf demi-god Cenarius. Diplomatic relations are not great among the different mortal species at this point.

Imagine how many worker units and demi-gods would still be alive, if anyone in Warcraft just tried *talking* to each other before starting a fight?

Tyrande, however, recognizes the greater oncoming threat of the undead and their demon overlords. These Burning Legion guys are old news to the night elves... 10,000 years old old news. Tyrande is brave, but she is also prudent. Unlike a stereotypical video game hero character might, Tyrande does not dive face first into conflict. Tyrande exhibits real leadership and seeks out support. This is clearly out of wisdom rather than weakness.

Tyrande and her army awaken the male druids. This includes Malfurion, Tyrande’s lover.

Malfurion and Tyrande exhibit a pretty healthy and believable relationship for characters in a video game. They are both independent types, but they are genuinely caring towards each other even if they do not agree 100% of the time.

For example, they have a disagreement about freeing Malfurion’s brother, Illidan. This is a disagreement with possibly cosmic implications.

Illidan sought out demonic power for himself is the problem… Malfurion thinks freeing Illidan invites more trouble than help. Tyrande thinks that Illidan is precisely the kind of trouble the demons need to halt their advance. Malfurion considers this reckless and even tries to “forbid” Tyrande from freeing Illdian.

Tyrande effectively tells Malfurion to get lost, and does what she thinks is best. After Tyrande has freed Illidan, however, she and Malfurion are still affectionate with each other - even if they are cross. Furthermore, despite their flowery language, neither Tyrande nor Malfurion really strike me as being creepily enthralled by each other. Tyrande’s story is not eclipsed by her love interest’s. Instead, Tyrande’s story is her own, and sometimes is shared with Malfurion’s. It's a pretty good example of how two people in a relationship should interact.

Whether Blizzard did this consciously or not, the power couple’s relationship offers some lessons often lost to real life guys (especially nerds) when contrasted with the relationship Tyrande has with Illidan. Illidan is obsessed with Tyrande, and claims to fight only because she wishes it. Tyrande’s cold polite rebuttal to Illdian is a beautiful crushing of Illidan’s all too familiar “But I really really like you and am willing to do all this stuff” case for romance.

"I worship you like a goddess. That means you HAVE to love me back, right?"
Sorry Illidan. No amount of infatuation or labor can obligate Tyrande to love you. Thanks, but no means no… now go fight a demonic army.

That's the essence of Tyrande in Warcraft 3. She's tough and focused on her job. She is a hero who fights for the forest and her fellow night elves. The Blizzard team wrote her as an exemplary leader and warrior by any measures regardless of gender. She knows when to use diplomacy and when to be forceful. Despite her art being sometimes oriented through the male gaze, her writing, for the most part, is well done. She comes out of Warcraft 3 as a true hero that people want to be like rather than simply be with.

Tyrande's only big fault in Warcraft 3 was her casual beating of Illidan's jailers. I was never quite clear how Maiev evaded Tyrande's notice, but Illidan's prison warden does not give up on her job that easily...

Next installment: Maiev Shadowsong.

Ready and equipped for the job.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Unconscionable Carving of Beverly Katz

A little over a week ago an episode of Hannibal aired that really threw the series off its rails for me. I still enjoy the show and its antics, but the show has done little so far to undo the harm it has done in Episodes 4 and 5 of the 2nd Season.

I am writing specifically about the entirely needless and narratively clumsy elimination of Beverly Katz, the show’s only Asian principle character, and one of a diminishing number of women in the show.


In fact, if you look at the female principles we have seen so far in the show, all but Alana Bloom have been murdered or are slated to be murdered (if they follow the novels Freddie will be killed.) To be fair, a great many people have gotten murdered throughout the show, and maybe Freddie will get to live in the TV series. Ms. Lara Jean Chorostecki, after all, has done brilliant job making the character both sleezy and powerful at the same time. The male Freddies that have gone before her were kind of oafish characters, while Ms. Chorostecki’s characterization is alarmingly adept, albeit still a lower tier tabloid journalist.

Nevertheless, we’ve had two recurring principle characters die for what seems to be the exact same purpose: Man Pain.

The trope is sometimes called “Fridging.” A female character dies, usually in a horrific manner (but stuffed into a refrigerator is what the trope is named for), in order to provide motivation, Man Pain, for the male protagonist to soldier on and take revenge or win the day. It’s an old trope in a lot of movies, comics, TV shows… any media really.

Murron in Braveheart?  Good example. That’s William’s wife, by the way… you don’t recall her name, but you recall William being pushed by her death though, right? Exactly.

I recently went to Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, and there panelist Cora Walker mentioned Beverly Katz as an example of “Fridging.” It didn’t even hit me until then: In Beverly’s case it was quite literally *fridging.* She is killed, fridged, and put on horrific display to motivate Will Graham and Jack Crawford.

It should be pointed out that in these Fridging Scenarios the woman’s death usually had nothing to do with her personal narrative, but everything to do with the man’s. Murron in Braveheart, going back to our archetypal example, has no narrative outside her connection to William Wallance. Her death is inconsequential to her arc, but crucial to his.

Beverly’s death is even worse in some ways because she was a well-developed character on the show and she had an arc to work with. It’s always offensive when the woman or person of color has no development and serves exclusively to die in service of telling the white male protagonist’s story. There’s something especially offensive about building up a character that *could* have her own arc, but then has that thrown aside in service of getting the audience attention back to “real protagonists.”

A lot of viewers really identified with Beverly Katz. She was smart, scientific, proficient with firearms, comfortable with incredibly creepy murder scenes, strong instinct, and willing to take chances. She was an interesting, well-rounded, and realistic character. Do you know how difficult it is to find non-ninja Asian women on TV? It’s really tough. You know how easy it is to find women, Asian and otherwise, who are just normal people capable of doing extraordinary things in the real world? Very easy. Why can’t art just reflect reality?  

That’s, after all, the essence of beloved relatable characters. In a TV show or movie or game, we usually  want to see someone like us or the people we know, who, through some narratively justified events, is in a place to do something amazing. Beverly Katz was accomplishing exactly that. She was a well written character that made the world of Hannibal feel more real because we don’t only see men accomplishing amazing things every day. With her gone, the audience is only stuck with an increasingly simple Alana Bloom as the only female principle character in the show. Alana is literally used as a sex object in Episode 6.

There was no narratively justifiable reason for Katz to die. Abigail Hobbs had already died earlier in the show to provide exactly the Man Pain that they are now trying to give Will Graham through Katz. At least when Abigail died it was believable and felt like it fit in with Abigail's own arc as a character. She played a dangerous game Hannibal. She brokered some deals with the devil and ended up over her head. (Faustible!) Moreover, she had a relationship with Will Graham that was not wholly appropriate. Will was warned about his paternal feelings towards Abigail and that made her death even more dreadful. Will had a tragic flaw of caring for a person whom he should have kept some professional distance from and it was exploited to demonstrate a point – this is how good drama is to be written.

Beverly Katz, however, made uncharacteristically stupid decisions that lead up to her death. Why would she ruin all the evidence against Hannibal by searching his house without a warrant? Why would she leave no trace of what she was following up on or consulting her colleagues? If she were willing to share what she suspected with Jack Crawford, why not leave him a note or write a report to alert him of what she felt needed investigating? Why did this previously quite capable FBI agent suddenly become like a drugged do-do slowly wandering into her doom?

"No, wait! This is all wrong! My character would never be this dumb... there's a man behind this, I know it!"

Oh that’s right… it happened just so we are doubly sure that this show is all about him. Doesn’t matter where her narrative was going, or what her character growth was heading. Let’s break narrative and all we know about this character just to keep the male protagonist reaching for the stars.

What really saddening is how this contrasts to the film that made the Hanniverse a household name. Silence of the Lambs on the surface is a story about the capture and escape of two different very creepy serial killers, but, more deeply, the movie is mostly about Clarice moving her way through a man's world and coming out a victorious woman. 

In comparison, the trajectory the Hannibal TV series is taking seems to bear the subtext of the feminine being literally killed and eaten for daring to wander into the male domain. The murdered characters we've spent much of any time with so far are Beverly, Abigail, Georgia Madchen, Marissa Schurr, Dr. Sutcliffe and Franklyn Froidveaux. With the exception of Dr. Sutcliffe and Franklyn, all of these characters were female, and Franklyn's character was such that one might as well lump him in as being a characterization of the feminine.

Most disappointing. I hope that this was just a hiccup in the show and that we can steer more towards competent female character in the series rather than very worn out and old tropes, but I'm not holding my breath. Maybe though? Who knows with Hannibal! An earless Abigail may be fighting her way to freedom right now.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Warcraft’s Racism and Sexism Problem – Part 1 (Warcraft: Orcs and Humans through Warcraft III)

I mentioned in a previous post that I have been on a quest for the past few years to replace the increasingly problematic World of Warcraft as my go-to MMORPG. “Problematic” can mean many things, so I thought it was worthy to go into detail on that.

In order to do this, I’m going to re-visit each of WoW’s franchise predecessors in this first post. This franchise was not a beacon of progressiveness that ended up in Pandaria overnight.  In a second post I’ll cover (as best I can) the various racist and sexist missteps in World of Warcraft that diminishes an otherwise amazing game.

I want to be clear and honest that I’ve enjoyed the Warcraft franchise since Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. When I criticize this series, it’s like addressing a familiar elderly relative that you love, but who continues to say and do outrageously racist or backwards things.

I would also like to clarify what I mean by “racism,” since there are still some who immediately think racism is restricted to violent hate crimes or klan membership. This seems to be the definition of racism that I encounter especially among older people. I think this definition of racism developed as a way to soothe away the painful truth that, while the civil rights movement did so much, we still have so far to go.

We live in a different day now. While I wish I could say that we never have to worry about the more egregious examples of racism anymore – lynching, systemic oppression, etc., they are no longer the entirety of the battle. We can afford to attack racism on multiple fronts from multiple angles, unlike days past when we had to focus on the argument of whether or not we could eat at the same lunch counter.

I think we now understand that you cannot simply pull this weed from the stem. You can’t just pluck at the overt and obvious racism. Racism requires that we go to the root and confront it at every place it appears and rears its ugly head – even video games.

In terms of Warcraft, “Where’s the real harm in a little use of another culture’s art and silly Jamaican accents?” you might ask. True, racism in a video game is less impactful than segregated restrooms or the real fear of lynching.

Just because one example of racism is not as damaging as another, however, does not make the lesser evil something good or acceptable.

Even the seemingly innocuous race tropes & cultural appropriation in World of Warcraft can designate a the MMORPG as White space. By “White space” I mean it is a social space where non-Whites will sometimes be made to feel, or “reminded,” that they are guests in a space of which Whites feel ownership.

That is ethically wrong. Our online community suffers if people feel they are not fully part of the community because of their ethnicity, gender, or orientation. An online game should be a place where everyone can have fun regardless of background. We should be united by a shared love of orcs and elves rather than a shared privileged white male experience.

We already have far too many of these White spaces in the real world. Every person of color can tell you about a moment when they suddenly felt they were perceived as an outsider or guest. Many universities and industries still struggle with defining themselves as White spaces. This phenomenon has a real impact on a person’s comfort levels and success.

We do not need more White spaces created online.

Is that what Warcraft is doing, though? Let’s take a walk down memory lane and find out.

Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994)
I loved this game. I first started playing it when a friend just let me have it in 1996 – two years after its release. Looking back now, I should have realized that we don’t have to wait until World of Warcraft for issues of race to come up. Look at the cover.

Warcraft: European Guy vs. The Beastial & Dangerous Other.

To be fair to my early teen self, MOST games in this time pitted white men against monsters. Seriously. Tomb Raider caused a stir in 1996 simply by having a female protagonist. Games that had a diverse set of characters usually had a special REASON to explain having a diverse set of characters. For example, X-COM, gave you an international team of soldiers to fight of an alien menace – but it was also a specifically international team to face a worldwide threat.

Unless earth itself was under such threat that everyone got involved, your average game of the early 90s was about heroic white people.

Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was no exception. By “humans” they meant exclusively white men. Sure, Azeroth was basically a medieval European kingdom in concept. On the other hand, this is fantasy, and you could have just as easily had anyone else represented in that armor.

I don’t want to push this too far, but I also think there was definitely some racialization going on with the presentation of the orcs. The nose shape, the large lip, the “primitive” style and “savagery” all point to well… strictly not European. These are all tropes and themes Europeans have commonly attributed to people of African or Asian descent. Not the most egregious racial caricature, but still worthy of note.

What was cool about Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, though, was that you could play as the orcs. At the very least the Blizzard team gave the Other faction a little dignity and motivation. They weren’t just faceless herd of foreign bodies. The orcs were awesome!

... But yeah, they were still a herd of invading foreign bodies. 

Never get tired of that trope…

Warcraft II (1995)
Awww yeah! Enter the game that I would play, seriously, through 2001. The game was brilliant. It introduced naval and air warfare into the mix, as well as more named characters that you got to control. I loved the story telling. You had a bit more complexity going on. You had human kingdoms standing off from the Alliance. You had the orcs in disarray and having power struggles at the highest levels. I loved it.

As you can see from the cover… the White Guys vs. Others trope was still present, but at least I can’t remember it really getting *much* worse than its predecessor… well there were the trolls.

This was the first Warcraft game to introduce trolls. The trolls were vaguely African sounding in their speech, but not specifically Jamaican at this point. The trolls were presented as ruthless savages – as were all in the Horde really.

Um… but hey! At least they got Zul’jin! Zul’jin was a rocking character. He was a fierce leader for his people who fought the White elves for their ancestral homeland!… He was later presented as a raid boss in World and Warcraft and then killed.

Warcraft III (2002)  
Ah, here things get oh so good… and soooo frustratingly bad. I was in college when this game was released and I was starting to be able to explain things that I noticed were off in games and other media.

I distinctly remember asking my friend in my dorm room, “Have you noticed that the orcs are now just straight up Native Americans apparently?”

“Yeah… that’s kind of weird,” he replied.

“They’re all into nature and connection to the elements instead of demons now too. That’s… kinda racist,” I responded.

I then proceeded to keep playing the game ad nauseam through 2006.

It was a brilliant game. It introduced hero units, which made the game feel part RPG and part RTS. The PvP matches were tons of fun. For all of its cultural appropriation, the art was great too.

But still… really? You’re going to give the orcs teepees, totem poles, and connection to nature now? Spirit wolves? The trolls are from islands and speak with a distinctly Jamaican accent? Jamaican troll witch-doctors?

I’m not saying that they tried to present these borrowed aspects from native cultures in a negative light. I think they took pains to present them very positively actually – unfortunately this was a positive presentation in the most clich├ęd stereotypical way possible.

Oh and then there were these guys:

Orc Blademaster and the Pandaren Brewmaster.

The pandaren is essentially a panda with a bunch of stuff from kung fu movies thrown on him. Fairly culture-reductionism, but okay, whatever. The orc is clearly a samurai. No problem there, right?

Except both of these characters are voiced with Asian accents using comically broken English that would have even made George Lucas shake his head.

All of this stuff, the Horde art’s influence from Native American cultures, the Jamaican troll witch doctors, the Asian-inspired heroes using broken English, it’s all just so lazy. Many people have asked me if I am suggesting that Warcraft should only include European-influenced art. Of course that’s not what I want either.

It’s really clear when you have art inspired by a variety cultures, and when you have art copied from a variety of cultures FOCUSED THROUGH THE LENS OF ONE CULTURE. The New Horde’s art wasn’t created to draw a connection to actual native cultures. It was created to draw a connection to a white person’s impression of native cultures.

Even if it isn't meant to be offensive, it’s sloppy. It’s offensive to good taste if nothing else – Especially from a team that can do better. The Blizzard team had always put so much thought and effort into its products in most aspects. Why did they have a blind spot here? Well probably mostly because they lacked diversity on the team, but still. COME ON.

Do I think the team at Blizzard purposely did this? Probably not. I hope not. A lot of White space creation is done unknowingly through a lack of awareness. Nevertheless, the reality is there. 

Warcrafts 1 though 3? Kinda racist. 

World of Warcraft came out in 2004. Surely some progress will be made in the right direction, right?

It can only go up from here right?...

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