Over two years ago, I was reading this pretty well-known Alpha tester review of WoW, and came across this description of some of the Horde races in Kalimdor. I've been meaning to do a post about it ever since.
...Lean predators, they're as tall as night elves when they stand fully erect, but normally bob along, hunched over, coiled and ready to spring. While Warcraft players know them by their Jamaican accents, voodoo-flavored culture and wild hairstyles, the trolls are also cruel, sadistic and evil...
The closest things to true "good guys" in the Horde – perhaps in all of the World of Warcraft – the Taurens go far beyond just a simple Native American vibe to be true lords of the plains... They are a spiritual people who put new Tauren player characters through a series of rites of passage, including following the path of a spirit wolf. Yet another of the moments in WoW that just feel intensely RIGHT, Taurens have a quest requiring them to chase a kodo herd across the grass fields of Mulgore, as close to a fantasy game recreation of a buffalo hunt as you'll ever come... The Tauren homeland of Mulgore is "big sky country," Montana to the Africa of the Barrens.
So to this Alpha reviewer, at least, it seemed the Horde "races" were all pinned, at least to some degree, to particular cultural groups and practices... does this raise any issues?
Cultural borrowing is nothing new to MMORPGs, of course. Dark Age of Camelot organized Albion, Hibernia, and Midgard around European cultures and mythologies. Puzzle Pirates snagged a pretty well known time and space as a starting point. There were historical MUDs aplenty, I imagine. Grabbing your world components from history is a good way of avoiding the costs of licensing your world from others who own the IP rights and might want some creative control over the project. One could query about indigenous IP rights, but I'd rather not go down that path. (Perhaps "borrowing" is too loaded a term, even -- is "referencing" better?)
Instead, I want to talk about how science fiction and fantasy engage often engage in this type of borrowing -- most "new" things are just old things recoded. For instance, the Wikipedia entry on Klingons points to the Soviets, Mongolians, and Japanese Samurai. In most cases, I think this whole process of cultural encryption, mash-up, and recoding is fun -- perhaps what good art is all about. Looking particularly at WoW, though, I have to wonder sometimes...
Ted's post a while back "The Horde is Evil"
probably drew the most comments of any post we've had here in our
three-year history. I don't want to re-open that thread, but I want to
ask for thoughts on how it connects to the cultural borrowings/references. How does the arguably colonialist theme of WoW (pitting the
technologically advanced Euro-Alliance against the "native" Horde) work for people?
Last year, one of Aaron's undergraduate students, Katie B., wrote an interesting paper on this exact issue in WoW, where she sought feedback from the other members of the class. Aaron actually mentioned it in the comments before, summarizing, in part:
(1) Gnomes, dwarves and humans seem to signify the West, with gnomes and dwarves closely connected to capitalism and technology. The only alliance race with darker skin is the Night Elves, and they are viewed with suspicion by other alliance members.
(2) The visual iconography of the horde races suggests real-world cultures (e.g. totems, tents, face paint), and the horde in general are portrayed as "primitive."
(3) The trolls speak in recognizably Jamaican accents, and the emotes for the male reinforce highly sexualized stereotypes...
(4) The alliance actually locked the Orcs up in internment camps, a move which she compares to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. She writes, "The Orcs’s bloodthirstiness was subdued during their stay in internment camps, which is a disturbing sort of justification for the imprisonment and enslavement of another race of people."
There are a bunch of other interesting observations in the paper:
The clearest indication of colonial awareness can be seen in relation to the excerpts concerning the Horde and Alliance cities. The majority of the respondents note that, in some form or fashion, that the “Horde seem to be more tribal or barbaric. Much more primitive or backward.... The Alliance cities are paragons of sturdiness, whimsy, technology, and nature. This reinforces the idea that the Alliance are the ‘good guys’ by being more advanced.” Part of this thought process seems to reflect a certain measure of acknowledgement for the ‘European’ or Western bias built into the good vs. evil dichotomy in the game. As one interviewee puts it, “Alliance cities are cleaner and more epic. Even the music is epic.”
The whole paper is worth a look -- there are a lot of interesting reflections. I found it fascinating as one student's reading of a MMORPG text. But one of the most interesting claims is that most of the students surveyed weren't consciously tuning into the crypto-colonialist matrix that the author sees in the game: "Aside from passing references to the Scottish Dwarves, none of the respondents mentioned the ethnicity of the different races, skin tones, or even the use of internment camps, which, while empty, can still be visited ingame..."
I guess what I'm curious about is how people feel about cultural borrowing in WoW, and more broadly, about the appropriate limits (if any) of this kind of thing. Is there a point where crypto-cultural references become offensive? Can they be offensive if they are not perceived by the players? Jar-Jar Binks seemed to create a little bit of controversy a while back, so much that Lucas himself reportedly commented that the way Binks talked was "definitely not Jamaican and if you were to say those lines in Jamaican they wouldn't be anything like the way Jar Jar Binks says them."
p.s. For those interested in further reading on the topic of race in video games generally, Peter Edelman and others put together a nice list of resources here.
Update: Parallell discussion of this and Ted's "Horde is Evil" post on Slashdot. Note: If you want to tell Ted that the Horde isn't evil and he needs to pay more attention to the Warcraft lore, it would be appropriate post your comment here (with the 1000 other comments that say that).