Warlords of Draenor: The Dark Portal is the New Glass Ceiling

Happy gnome shouting Ladies! In Warcraft!

Drawing by Paululum, aka @Doodlegnome.

Let’s go back, way back to an alternate timeline. It’s Blizzcon 2013 and we’re in a world that seems similar to our own. It’s moments before Chris Metzen announces the next expansion. Suddenly the screen changes and the now-familiar logo goes up. Relatively little is changed. It is called Wars of Draenor.  Metzen strides across the stage, the heady determination evident in his face. He unveils a piece of concept art that has him nearly squeeing with excitement – a large digital fresco in shades of brown and red. Present is our antagonist Garrosh, his right hand Zaela and the assembled orc lords. It looks as much of a motley crew as any metal band. 

But then he regales us with a second mural – the combined might of Azeroth as we know it rushing to meet on the battlefield. There’s a righteous female draenei champion leading the charge for the Alliance and for the Horde, there’s Aggra and Thrall, Draka and Durotan. We see Varian, Jaina, Moira, Tyrande, Malfurion, Vol’jin, Sylvanas, Gelbin Mekkatorque, Velen and Maraad, Lor’themar, Genn Greymane, Gallywix and Baine Bloodhoof. All of our races’ leaders are present and accounted for along with many of our valiant champions. We are going to stand tall against Garrosh and his Iron Horde.

We see ourselves reflected in this art and we get jazzed at the mysterious hints of characters we’ve met briefly before or new ones that look exciting and powerful. 

When the the lore panel takes place, a fan asks Metzen about what Aggra’s role in the expansion will be as she was seen in the opening announcement. Metzen laughs and wryly remarks, “Who do you think is going to help lead the Horde in this familiar world? Thrall? He’s never lived here!” 

As much as I would love it, we don’t live in that timeline. Let’s talk about what actually occurred and why it is so important.

If you don’t read World of Warcraft blogs or Twitter, maybe you missed the heated discussion that’s been going on about how the marketing and potential story choices were being handled regarding Warlords of Draenor from its debut at Blizzcon this year. Chris Metzen as well as another influential member of the Dad Crimes crew Dave Kosak, seemed to paint a pretty male-centric vision of Warlords that left many people with a bad taste in their mouth. If this was the opening salvo of the newest Blizzard product, why weren’t there more women involved in the offerings?

What further drove the wedge in between the developers and fans was Chris Metzen during the lore panel answering to a fan’s question about what Aggra would be doing and he alluded to the fact that she wouldn’t be there because it was a “boys trip.” While I think this was a moment of sheer Metzen-level exuberance that didn’t properly filter itself, it definitely left a profound impact on people already confused or bewildered by the expansion reveal. Here was someone at the top of the creative development for our beloved game joking around that going to Draenor was akin to a bunch of dudes packing their axes like rods and heading back into the Dark Portal for a beer-fueled fishing trip. It rang as a poor attempt at a joke but it, unbeknownst to Chris, created a rallying point for fans, women in particular, that was on a level with “Hush, Tyrande.” It’s much easier to start picking apart sexism and character representation in World of Warcraft when you are given such moments that are so overt and show such a lack of understanding and consideration for your audience’s makeup.

While I believe Metzen (or even Kosak by extension with all of his “savage” talk) to be a fairly well-meaning guy, the fact of the matter is the comment underscores a lot of what usually inserts problematic content or creates a problematic vacuum of certain key building blocks of a fantasy world you want to make. It’s a small group of people (in this case, the men on stage) being excited by things and forgetting that we’re not all jazzed up about seeing metalhead orcs go back in time to cleave things in twain with other orc dudes. It’s fun and cool to Metzen, who ultimately gets to revisit a potent and fun time in his writing career, but it doesn’t seem to take some of us along for the ride in quite the same way. This is where I feel the real disconnect is occurring: not that I truly believe Warlords of Draenor will be entirely absent of cool women characters (I’ll talk more about this later) but that main figures of creative development presenting the story to us didn’t feel it necessary to talk about most of them except only briefly.

It’s confusing for two reasons, one, because we literally just came from a world that is as close to an idyllic meritocracy as World of Warcraft will ever have (Pandaren) and two, because there doesn’t even seem to be very solid logic for why Aggra in particular wouldn’t be there. It’s this moment of non-consideration for the idea that a Draenor native mama wouldn’t be present to show her son the planet she grew up on that gives us pause because it isn’t particularly just about her but shoots an arrow straight into the larger problem of being overlooked or under-considered by some of the top dogs in creative development. World of Warcraft has, up until this point, been moving forward in both its’ lore and story with regards to representation and so it feels like whiplash to see this being the initial offering we’re given.

Though, if I think hard enough, we can look back again how even Mists of Pandaria was presented to viewers initially and extrapolate that when it comes to selling people on their expansions, Blizzard really doesn’t give a hoot about ladies. No matter how much progress you make in making a world that has tons of really enjoyable, memorable and complex women characters in it, when the wrapping paper on the whole she-bang (heh) still looks dominated by men, you find yourself more and more unwilling to open it. So in this aspect, you could say that this just a marketing problem and not a story problem. I think that’s fairly close to the truth, but despite this being an issue with how they want to sell an expansion, it does have an effect on the story after all.

This is is why, going back to the “boys trip” quote, Aggra’s seeming non-inclusion in the story is such a big deal. When women are not considered for being played up as a cool fixture of your story to your audience from the outset, you might find yourself overlooking them in other places. The idea of Thrall going ahead to lead the Horde with his parents without his wife or his kid says a lot more about how creative development wants to talk about fathers and families versus motherhood and the like. And it’s weird, as someone who is not a mom, but knows plenty of them who play. (I am going to address more of this in a later post, so just hang onto your pants.)

Does this ultimately mean that I believe that the expansion is going to feature no women at all? Absolutely not. Like I said, Mists of Pandaria, once we got into the meat of the story, featured many moments where I felt women had their role to play in both the overhanging story arc (see Isle of Thunder patch with Jaina and Vereesa) as well as the day-to-day stories that we see in the Pandaren people or even something like the Klaxxi. I felt that both narrative and quest development teams did a really good job creating a world that was seamlessly egalitarian, even if we crash-landed on their shores with war in our hearts and sometimes less nuanced character development. Pandaren gave us a world where all of the women were equal participants in everything, whether it was protecting the land, working it or being diplomatic entities. It wasn’t just strong women like Suna Silentstrike, but women that were humble, quiet or nuanced in some other way. And I felt that it rubbed off on even some of our regular Azerothian  sisters. Because of that, I have a cautious optimism that Warlords is going to have just as many orc and draenei women filling in the gaps that we didn’t get to see in the opening cinematic, not just as brave champions of the Light (like the hotly speculated Yrel) but as complex personalities all over the place.

It’s because of this faith that I feel fully ready to rebut criticisms of those criticisms by saying that it is “too early” to know what is going to be happening in the story with regards to the women. Sure, it absolutely is too early and there’s definitely going to be cool powerful women present in the story of Draenor. (Again, Yrel seems to be held up for this a lot, and I can see why.) The problem is that because of the disconnect in marketing, because we are at this very initial point in the on-going reveal of the expansion, there absolutely needs to be unpacking and discussion and critical awareness. By getting ahead of more permanent story decisions now with our feedback, we stand a greater chance of having a profound impact on seeing ourselves in the story we love so much. This is really the beating heart of the problem, of why this omission felt so glaring. People love Warcraft, a lot of us women love Warcraft. We want to love Warcraft not just as the characters we build up in our heads as complex or nuanced, but to see our stories reflected in the ones that the company creates. Representation matters and the sooner we can have this discussion and make sure that we have a stake in that representation, so much the better. Blizzard has made very large strides in both its’ creative development teams and community management teams to ask for and receive feedback from us, the players. Not just on things like balance issues, obviously, but how we feel about where the story is going, what kinds of things are expressed and are we excited about them.

Feedback is crucial. Blizzard has let us know that it listens to the community and is willing to make changes should they feel that criticism is both substantive and will improve the game. Representation is also crucial. Our media affects and informs our lives and leaving a lot of different groups out of the story (not just women, but queer people, people of different genders, races, etc.) has a subtle but penetrating effect on the people who consume this media, namely us.

In her post about the Welcome to Night Vale podcast and QPOC representation on PolicyMic, Zainab Akande succinctly delivers why this is such a big deal:

“Why does this matter? Because media representation matters. Why does media representation matter? Because the media is a pretty central force and plays a vital role in society at large. Mass media in particular has the power to change or reinforce the habits of its consumers. It also aids in constructing worldviews of its consumers by reproducing reality— to an extent. Perception is the name of the game and it’s difficult to perceive what is non-existent — or in the case of POC and LGBTQ characters, severely lacking compared to the real world the diversity scale.”

If your game doesn’t gesture even a tiny bit at the important stories of 50% of the population that is both playing your game as well as participants in your story in the first offerings you serve to your public, you’re not doing a very good job. Not only in selling a product to as wide of an audience as possible, but in selling a product that has more of a dramatic influence than the work that has come before.

This is one of the reasons why I’m so cautiously hopeful that the chefs stirring the pot that is narrative and quest design in Warlords know what they are doing. Going back in time, not just figuratively for the purposes of the story, but literally, to an earlier time in Blizzard’s game development is precarious. While I understand that Warcraft is where many of the great women leaders of World of Warcraft spawned (Tyrande, Jaina, Sylvanas), going back to a place that feels less unconcerned with what we’ve learned in the past 10 years of gaming with regards to diversity feels tricky at best. So while the excitement is here because we’re getting to finally see a world that was merely hinted at in both Warcraft and World of Warcraft’s lore, a lot of us are feeling somewhat hesitant that it will do due diligence in being a past we want to visit for the first time. The story feels very male-dominated for multiple reasons, as I said, and by going back to it, we might lose ourselves in a timeline that feels unconcerned with the rest of us. However, much like Warcraft then and Warcraft now, we cannot ignore that all of these things are choices. Choices made by the writers, by the developers, and by people like Metzen and Kosak themselves. Fantasy not including women isn’t historically accurate, it’s just repeating sexist storytelling whole-cloth, most of the time due to the lack of perspective that some of their very male authors seem to have. We need to not only look forward to the work of the women who undoubtedly comprise the story development team, but let Blizzard know that everyone working on the game’s look, feel and narrative that they should make a world that all of us here in the present, would want to go back and save. Not only just as characters in WoW’s story, but as video game players in general.

Other posts on this topic:

*in case it wasn’t very evident, the title was written in jest.

26 Responses

  1. Well said. I get anxious when people get aggressive with an important issue. In my experience, aggresiveness and calls for quick band aid fixes never work out well. Your post was logical and assertive without calling for hasty or aggressive action. Thank you for that.
    I remember the Mists trailer, and how it failed to show the female development we saw throughout the expansion. I have also seen how Mists has been a major test lab for Blizzard in what can work and what doesn’t. I love good characters in a story, male or female, so I will admit that I don’t always see sexist issues when they pop up. I am glad to see there are people like you out there who are respectful and assertive on feminist issues.

    • Well, I’m not one for hasty fixes when it might have a permanent impact on the storyline, but I am kinda chuckling about the difference between being assertive and being aggressive. I don’t know if I’d find being aggressive as a woman threatening or scary, myself? I am not angry about any of this but I can understand why someone would be.

      • I guess for me aggressive is “you need to do this now because I said so” vs assertive being “I have valid reasons why this thing should be done, I feel strongly about this and I want you to understand why so things can change”. Aggressive to me is a power trip, or an emotional reaction acted on without thought. Assertive to me is a logical and well though out stance that is fed by passion. One promotes fear in me while the other gives me confidence in the speaker. I might be splitting hairs, but that is my perception based on my experiences.

        • I am going to apologies here. I spoke without knowing much about the subject at hand, and just jumped in uninformed. I’ve recently learned that I had no idea what I was talking about.

  2. You are correct in that the developers need to have our feedback in order for them to weigh potential game developments with the needs of their player base. But I believe there also needs to be a discussion of consequences. How long will we continue to pay for a game if we feel it is not fairly representing us? What consequence is it to Blizzard if they choose to ignore all the advice we provide to them?

    And why should we be “cautiously optimistic” that the developers get it? Pandaria may have been somewhat idyllically meritocratic, but it was still very much a male dominated and driven story. Lorewalker Cho, Taran Zhu, Chen Stormstout, they were everywhere in Pandaria. Outside of Aysa Coundsinger, name a prominent female pandaren that you had regular interaction with outside of a daily quest. Look at the driving figures in the Dominance/Shieldwall/Isle of Thunder storyllines; look at the very leadership involved in the conflict. Outside of Sylvanas (what a role model) there is no female leadership in the Horde. On the Alliance side Jaina has been turned into the bitter, crazy lady; and, Tyrande, who by the way probably has a few more years experience leading an army than Varian, was all but sidelined. Do we see this being meaningfully changed in the coming expansion? Where is that hope? There are a number of things that have served to cool my excitement over Warlords, and this is the one that may end up simmering the hottest.

    • This is a really good point. While the writers have begun to include more interesting female NPCs as quest hub/arc leaders in many new zones, not many of them succeed in leaving the location of their original appearance and breaking into the bigger game story in the way that Saurfang, Garrosh, and many other male characters have. Don’t get me wrong – I love all of these ladies and I appreciate their inclusion, but I would like to see a few of them transcend their original quest-related purpose and join the main cast. Since a lot of these characters seem like a response to players’ criticism of the lack of female characters in the game, maybe continuing (but refining) our criticism will help more female characters to be written into the major plot.

      • I would have to agree with both of you. I’m just trying to balance my overall disappointment with how women have been involved in the story all along (if anyone’s read my blog, you will see this!) versus where we should be going from here and maintaining some sanity-preserving levels of hope.

        It’s definitely not an easy line to stand on most days though. And I don’t expect anyone to feel the same way.

        • The question going forward is, in some ways, can the demands of a diverse player base be met while all other factors remain null; ie can the storyline be restructured in such a way as to better reflect gender parity without significant changes to the mechanical design of the game or large retroactive continuity changes. Warcraft 1 & 2, to which we are returning in WoD, were built around a particular conception of fantasy that reflects their creators (white, male, American), and as long as that foundation remains intact, it’s going to color everything that is built on top of it. The followup question which might be even more pressing: should we wait around to see if they can? I don’t think it’s an easy question due to the size and scope of Warcraft, and we should remember that franchises across media-lines are currently undergoing similar spasms as diverse fanbases agitate for a better share of what their frequently un-diverse creators and gatekeepers are offering.

        • One thing I always react to with the examples of Jaina, Sylvanas, Tyrande etc. is how they’re referred to when we talk about female characters in WoW. Firstly, there’s three of them. I’m not a lore follower, particularly, so there may be others, but they’re the three that spring to mind. Just three.

          And furthermore, we shouldn’t have to turn to these three characters. We shouldn’t be placated by one strong draenei lady. Strong female characters should permeate, they should be ubiquitous, they should be the norm. It shouldn’t surprise us, it shouldn’t be something special.

          • There’s very women that have attained the higher echelons of lore, absolutely. And how their stories go are definitely not 100% positive, I agree. There really should be more.

          • I honestly think they really did do a better job this expansion in terms of presenting us with quite a few proactive, interesting female characters. And the reason people keep referring to those three is that they’re the ones who’ve had the most prominence throughout all of Warcraft history, which can’t easily be undone in one expansion. My big problem is, as it was mentioned above, that those new characters we do get to interact with never really become major players. I mean, we got a new female faction leader in Aysa and she practically vanished for the vast majority of the expansion.

            I can sort of understand this; they wanted the major players to be characters we knew and cared for already. But then, the only female character that we’d met already that really had some sort of story arc was Jaina, whose arc was handled terribly in my opinion (I mean, she literally just lost her people and her friends; it shouldn’t be hard for me to be sympathetic with her anger), and -I guess- Vareesa somewhat (though her grief and anger are never really explored that I recall). Sylvanas doesn’t really show up at all, despite the fact that if there’s one faction leader that would’ve really wanted to see Garrosh deposed, it was her. Tyrande gets brought in only to show us how much wiser Varian’s gotten (a role that Jaina fulfills for most of the expansion), and Moira got about two-minutes of doing something in a scenario that had nothing to do with the main storyline and that I’d wager 90% of the playerbase has all but forgotten.

            So, I guess, what I really want to say is that I agree with you, and I definitely want more strong female characters come WoD. But beyond than that, I really want them to go beyond being cool (or angry) and kicking orc butt, and actually have them make choices and have foibles and attachments and be an important part of the larger plot.

            I’m optimistic that this will be the case with Yrel, but, hopefully, all the other female characters that we were told would be in the expansion will get a similar treatment. (Also, can we maybe recruit Taoshi to come help us recapture Garrosh?)

  3. Pingback: The Alliance Superpower? | Tree Heals Go Woosh

  4. I brought this up running Dragon Soul the other night, as an aside…

    “Who… Who is Hagara the Stormbinder? Who is she?”
    “She’s– you know, an orc lady and she’s very mad.”
    “But who is she? She’s a ranking lieutenant in the Twilight Cult, she has a female general and wasn’t– wasn’t she this aspiring arcanist under the Forsaken? Who are these girls? Have you noticed that the Twilight’s Hammer’s elite forces are primarily comprised of women?”
    We were all quiet for a moment until one of them spoke up, “Maybe… we’re kind of fighting on the wrong side in terms of equality, here.”

    • Hagara was only featured in Dragon Soul, nowhere else. And that goes to the point. The Forsaken you might be thinking of may be Lilian Voss, who was seen in a very short sequence of low-level quests in Tirisfal Glades, then in Heroic Scholomance for Cataclysm, and not at all afterward. There are a number of female NPCs in the Dranei, Tauren, Worgen, and Goblin starting zones, but they become very rare outside those. When you start talking about female characters that have had actual story arcs in game, the list becomes very, very short; and, as AppleCider mentions above, you are not looking at very pleasant stories. Lilian Voss ends up strangling her own father and launches a murderous vendetta against the Scarlet Crusade. Vanessa VanCleef is shown to have witnessed the killing of her father as a young girl, and ends up leading the Defias Brotherhood in a bloody revolt in Westfall. Magatha *shudder* Grimtotem, the most evil of the evil, manipulates you into not only releasing her from the Twilight Cult, but obtaining their orbs of power for her. The list of good stories, is somewhat overbalanced by the bad.

      • I personally would’ve liked to have seen some competent development of Varian via him sympathising with Vanessa. After all, both saw their dads killed. He should know how she feels.

        but they didn’t think to do that.

        I do not like Varian as he is portrayed in the game and in books. He gets to act abusive and have it handwaved, and it’s because of him that Jaina got defiled. But he had potential, and it’s been wasted.

  5. See, the exclusion of Aggra from Draenor is weird because there was a scene in Lord of the Clans where Draka (Thrall’s mom) straight up decks Durotan (Thrall’s dad) for saying she should stay away from the fighting.

  6. Well, they made some good story arcs for female characters in Mists and even a few that passed the Bechdel test, but they also made some very bogus choices. Twin Consorts? Monara, the ghost of the last Empress? Only two female Mogu in existance? Zaela just appearing as a disembodied voice, no reason given for her siding with Garrosh aside from “she’s his girlfriend now”?

    During the last Blizzcon there was a controversy with Corpsegrinder, and I recall a very heartfelt and detailed letter came out a week or two later apologizing for offending people by their choice of artists. Well, Blizzard has inadvertently offended again. Their choice about how they respond to it will tell us a lot about how seriously they take our segment of the fanbase.

  7. I cannot even call the inclusion of Jaina and Varesa “progressive”. Jaina got thrown off the slippery slope into asshole-ville to make Varian look good, got stiffed with an emotionally-abusive irresponsible jerk of a love interest (Kalec says she is worse than Arthas, that is fucked up) whom she is them portrayed as incapable of rational thought without (like Jaina WOULDN’T know who was really the motivator behind the Divine Bell business? PLEASE!).

    (Also, by the by, the reason Velen is omitted from everything is because he gets in the way of Kosak and Co.’s problematic shittiness. If Velen had approached Jaina post-Dalaran, things would have been much better, and Blizzard knows it, so they ignore him. AND I AM REAL ANGRY ABOUT THAT.)

    Varesa? Pfft. it’s nice that my fellow femmes wanna make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but she is NOT progressive. She exists to be Rhonin’s prize. That’s IT. She exists so Knaak’s self-insert can schtup an elf. She is the Strong Female Character trope personified, and the entire bloody arc with her and Rhonin’s relationship is about him ~taming the exotic woman~. The only reason she gets involved in a damn thing? is because of Rhonin. WHY IS THERE NO EXPLORATION AT ALL OF HOW SHE FEELS ABOUT SYLVANAS!? Is she worried about her big sister? Has word gotten round to her that Sylvanas has been eaten by a bullshit plot that was supposed to make Garrosh look good? We’re never going to know about this.

    Feminist READINGS of Jaina and Varesa’s actions are all well and good. Ditto tyrande. ditto Sylvanas. Again, silk purse, et cetera. But the intent behind them is the opposite of progressive.

  8. Yrel is supposedly going to be one of the major stars. I think we have two big problems here:
    -They want us to come to know Yrel rather than give us her whole backstory….this means they can’t hype her too much yet
    -The other stars are all major characters from past games and they just aren’t women. There’s no particularly good reason for any of the major female characters to show up, except for Aggra.

    This being the case, it probably should be Aggra and not Thrall who goes thru the portal, which would get female representation, build Aggra more as an independent character, and relieve some Thrall-fatigue, but I’m sure that never occurred to Metzen. But I think this speaks more to Metzen’s Thrall fixation rather than some misogynistic bent.

      • Aye!

        Like, even if someone didn’t mean to elbow your face on a subway it still hurts, right.

        So how is this hard to apply to sociological phenomenons like sexism? Someone saying an ass thing by mistake has still said an ass thing.

  9. I have always thought, rightly or wrongly, that the Orc culture was very male-orientated, and Orc women were second class citizens, simply because ‘Strength’ meant physical prowess. The toughest orcs became the leaders, and even Thrall was a gladiator in the past.
    “Warlords of Draenor” seems to allude to this, as does the “boy’s trip” comment, however flippantly it was made.

    As an Alliance-only player, I have no Horde heroines, and while Jaina was always someone I had empathy for, in Mists I kind of lost my empathy for her to a large extent, and have to say I really have no female characters in WoW now that I am interested in. It really does feel like a “boy’s trip” at the moment.

    • It’s hard to keep straight how orcs felt about ladies! I mean, WC1 was like DUDESSSSSS but then there’s these occasional retcon stirrings about how it’s Gul’dan’s fault sexism happened among orcs, and then there’s all the Greatmothers on Draenor who are high-standing respected leaders and it’s implied that the Ma’ghar didn’t drink the Gul’dan koolaid and so they preserve original orc culture, but then Garrosh is a total sexist douche (more for shock value and to make him into the trope of ‘orientalist warlord from the desert who hates women and flies planes into buildings’ than for any actual addressing of sexism as a problem, dohhh hoh hoh ohoh) and it all gets really convoluted and would someone take notes pl0z.

      And lol I am never gonna stop being angry about Jaina. i love her, and they defiled her and Tyrande, to make Varian look uber. XP

  10. Pingback: Fangirls Around the Web: December 5, 2013 « fangirlblog.com

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