Draenor Rock City: The Exclusionary Nature of Nerd Cool

Tzufit and Apple Cider look forlornly at the Dark Portal.

Written by Apple Cider Mage and Tzufit

If you had asked us last week what sorts of things Blizzard could do that might make us feel like World of Warcraft isn’t a game for us, we might have made some comment about treatment of female characters or perhaps the ongoing sexism that women face from other players. We probably wouldn’t have said, “They could make a show about middle-aged men designing motorcycles.” So when Blizzard dropped the announcement that they were partnering with American Choppers for a strange web-series that would document a competition to design a sick motorcycle as an in-game mount (what, another one?), we were glad that we weren’t the only ones going, “huh?”

The more we thought about it, this confused us because it was yet another tone-deaf offering that pushed us farther and farther away from World of Warcraft. Jokes about mid-life crises aside, it’s hard to be excited about the upcoming Warlords of Draenor expansion and WoW in general when you feel like you don’t belong there.

Because WoW is an MMORPG, feeling as if you belong in the world is exceptionally important, arguably more so than in any other genre of video game. In years past, we have drawn our excitement for new expansions by thinking about the things that our characters will do and see, the places they will explore, and the new challenges that we, as players, will experience. In recent weeks, people who used to see themselves as curious about the world we are about to inhabit now have a hard time picturing themselves there. We find ourselves traveling to an alien world, and yet the alienation we feel comes not from Draenor but instead from the people who have created it.

While we cannot know precisely who has their hands in every pie at Blizzard, it seems like the public faces and taste-makers of World of Warcraft often gravitate around fairly similar themes that they consider “cool.” Draenor, more so than any other expansion, feels saturated in these ideas, despite protests to the contrary. The particular rally point in this case has indubitably been Y’rel, a strong Alliance Joan of Arc-type. Yet, everything we’ve seen thus far, from new extra beefy mob models to some alpha dialogue is oriented around a hyper-masculine world that is brutal, savage (as we have been told ad nauseum) and inexplicably full of rock star pyrotechnics. When we saw the art piece of all of the warlords lined up like a gruesome metal band, there was an emotional distance between Chris Metzen eagerly throwing up the horns and us looking on in confusion. We’ve seen fun and goofy inclusion of these ideas before, but the tone now feels very serious; it’s a weaponized barrage of these concepts to the exclusion of everything else.

This nerdy (but still male) idea of “coolness” isn’t a unique problem to Blizzard. Big creator names in nerd culture are still predominantly male, which has been true since long before “nerd” and “geek” were a persistent cultural identity. You have Tolkien, Lucas, Martin, Whedon and, for our purposes, Metzen. Nerd-dom has been retconned into a male space, a refuge for the those who did not fit the traditional image of masculinity, but who enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons and got thrown into lockers because of it. The duality of this background is that for all of the underdog position that nerd men have had most of their lives, many of them still enjoy the benefits of a patriarchal culture that nurtures and comforts their tastes and desires, often to the tune of millions of dollars. For a group of outcasts, loners and misfits, they have, especially in the 2000s, enjoyed a renaissance period. When you combine that with a fairly critical ignorance (or even outright hostility) to other people who are not considered the marketable norm, your fantasy world, much less are suddenly devoid of people outside of that nerd paradigm.

The problem with nerd culture and the belief that only men are considered creators is that it reinforces that the only stories worth caring about are for men, by men, and in a way that is cool to other men. It’s a rigid set of interests that tends to not consider much else outside of it. The worlds themselves sometimes involve a realism and grittiness that is at best, voyeuristic – it’s easy to insert things into a fantasy world to make it more real when it’s not a reality you have to confront on a regular basis. All of this is nerd men and their creations revolving around power and cachet – the stoic, grizzly hero flanked by compatriots and female love interests. In the case of Blizzard, a lot of it looks like muscular brutes, heroes of light and rock guitars.

What seems apparent to us is that some of Blizzard’s content creators are still finding the same things cool at 40 that they did at 15, and though their customer base has matured, their interests are showing their age. No one faults content creators for having inspirations, but when you achieve a level of success that allows you to create content for literally millions of people all over the world, isn’t it reasonable to ask that your inspirations grow to reflect the diversity of your audience? It seems equally reasonable to expect that this is not only something Blizzard should consider but rather something they for which should actively strive.

How we’ve seen people typify this cultural problem within Blizzard and throughout Warlords of Draenor is one of marketing, and we don’t believe that that’s entirely the case. Marketing is a symptom of the problem. The primary issue is a concept and an atmosphere that people are struggling to see themselves in. Is it so terrible to ask for inclusion? Is it so terrible to be afforded even a fraction of the same consideration that a particular segment of nerds have enjoyed for years in WoW? Our standards are not unreasonable; in fact, we might go so far as to call them incredibly low. While active inclusion of diverse women in Warcraft’s story may be the ideal, in the past we have at least been able to say that WoW does not actively exclude us. Recently, that seems to be less and less true. It feels like WoW has been moving backwards (now quite literally) in some places with how women are characterized or talked about, those failures buoyed by the few small successes we’ve enjoyed since then. For every five minutes Jaina is allowed to be a competent leader, we have many more moments of women being killed, hurt, married off or otherwise left behind.

There’s such a spectrum of problems that surround both the women in the story and the audience that it’s hard to list them all. The problem now is how to deal with these revelations about Blizzard and the game we’ve been enjoying for so many years. Loud, vociferous criticism only works when we are able to make headway, and the road to Warlords has so far been littered with increasingly insurmountable obstacles.

Much is still unknown about the new expansion at this point. Alpha and beta often provide key contextual clues to the overall direction an expansion is headed and we acknowledge that there have been exceptionally long dry spells in between updates since Blizzcon. It’s easy to feel like small, select issues make up a larger percentage of future content than may prove to be the case. Historically, alpha and beta have been periods when we’ve seen that critical analysis can and does create change and improvement in Warcraft. Yet, for the moment, we don’t know how to align ourselves with Blizzard’s visionaries because their ideas don’t seem to include us.

31 Responses

  1. The chopper build isn’t the issue you need or want to make a stand on. Attempting to use the bike as an issue and calling it a boys dream is extremely myopic and frankly insulting to those of us who support you and are looking forward to seeing the bikes. The love of motorcycles crosses gender and racial boundaries. The bike will appeal to many of Blizzards fans.

    Bikes that have been built for past companies by OC Choppers or Paul Jr. Designs are for the fans. They end up in show rooms of the companies, brought out for conventions, and often end up auctioned off for charity. Again I see nothing wrong with any of these, it’s not like the CEO will be riding these bikes every weekend in all likely hood. Often they are not road legal and outside of a first ride by the owning company they never hit the road again.

    • I read past the first paragraph. You can be as sarcastic as you want about my point on twitter where you have your podium and I don’t, but you brought up the bikes build for no good reason and that’s what I object to.

      • I’m sorry but I tongue in cheek addressed many people with that tweet making comments on Twitter about the bikes. The chopper thing is an anecdote and a large lead in to things we discuss later, and not materially it’s own point. We are not mad about bikes and we’re wondering why people are fixating on that versus our feelings on the larger topic. If we lose support because wee are confused about the choppers, I’m not sure what to think about that.

        • They’re focusing on complaining about you mentioning the chopper competition, because if they had to focus on any of the other issues you brought up that involve critical thinking and acknowledgement of cis male privilege they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. The most common refuge for wounded egos on the internet is to pick apart a single off-hand mention and turn that into the focus of the argument instead of the important points.

    • The bike is being built in WoW, that was my understanding. It will be an in game mount for whatever faction wins. That in itself has cause some issues that I’ve heard, from the factional side of things. Given the view that most devs have a hordeside bias, I’ve seen a number of Alliance players state it will be horde only mount and alliance won’t get a look in, and that bothers them.

  2. My initial excitement for Warlords quickly turned to cautious optimism, then to continuing decline into pessimism. I seem to have almost daily reinforcement that this expansion is not, and was not designed, for me or even with me in mind. World of Warcraft has been a joyous diversion for me for years, but I am hard pressed to see where the joy is supposed to come from with the news I am hearing. I am granting that we have very, very little to go on at the moment, and that a full beta is still a time away. Still, it is depressing at best to hear what has even made it into the current alpha story as it demonstrates a severe disregard for the feelings of large portion of the game’s subscriber base. If this is, indeed, the story that we are going to get in Warlords then it will mark the end of my journeys in Azeroth. I will not pay my hard-earned money to support something that does not represent me and my interests.

  3. At what point do you stop supporting them via buying their products/subscribing to their games? How far do they have to push the envelope before enough is enough?

    • It’s a fair question. In my case, I founded a guild back in BC and I’ve been guildleader since its inception. The guild has gone through several different iterations since then, from a casual RP guild to a progression raiding guild, and we’ve built alliances with other guilds along the way.

      Recently I decided to hand over the leadership to one of my officers because of personal health issues that have been slowly chipping away at my ability to be an active player (or at least as active as I think a guildleader should be). I promised my former officer that I would be there in WoD so that the leadership transition would go smoothly while he finds his comfort zone in his new role. But if it wasn’t for that promise, I don’t think there’d be much reason for me to try WoD. The entire theme of this upcoming xpac just isn’t compelling for me, and like ACM says, it’s feeling more and more like a middle-aged white male biker gang fantasy, and less and less like a world I want to be in.

  4. Wonderful post, as usual.

    Blizzard is absolutely taking a different tone thus far in marketing for Warlords of Draenor, a tone which seems to be replicated in the content that’s so far been announced.

    Mists of Pandara was the least “masculine” of all of the Warcraft expansions yet released. The primary conflict was expressly downplayed in the marketing material, and it ultimately became an externalized representation of inner, emotional battles with the Sha. The ancillary features of the expansion were pet battles and (as a successful experiment) the farm, both of which have a significant “nurturing” component without express “conquering” overtones (as seems to be present throughout with garrisons).

    The opening cinematic followed that trend, asking the question, “why do we fight?”, over establishing a villain to kill. In fact, the Mists of Pandaria cinematic even subverts the message of the Vanilla cinematic, by making the faction conflict look petty, obsessive, imperial, and ultimately silly in contrast to the Vanilla cinematic’s portrayal of it as cool, fierce, awesome, and over my (faction’s) turf.

    Speculating wildly, I wonder if this whipsaw back to apparent masculinity with Draenor arrived with the return of the Titan team to the main franchise, after that project was pulled back into redevelopment.

  5. Even Y’rel feels problematic to me. Joan of Arc is portrayed as a heroic figure at the five-thousand-foot level, but when you get down into the story, she practically has no agency of her own. Driven by the voice of God to what some consider madness, leading an army and dying branded a heretic is hardly what I consider a positive take on gender politics.

    My take is that some idiot (probably Samwise) saw a picture of “a chick with a sword” and figured that would mollify people. All I see is a half-assed attempt at squelching objections while putting little to no real effort into making things right.

    I’ll bide my time and see what is to come before judging, but I sure as hell am not pre-purchasing and I’m pretty sure that WoD will be my last WoW expansion if they don’t show some good-faith effort and some actual progress – not reaction to negative feedback, but actual proactivity.

    Like some, I’m really starting to feel like the only thing they will pay attention to is (decrease in) subscriber numbers, and that as long as we keep giving money to them, they’ll just nod, make agreeable noises, and keep going the same as they ever were, without any intent or desire to make change for the better.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who was wincing a bit at the Joan-of-Arc comparison. I mean…I grew up Catholic, and while I am certainly NOT anymore, Joan is still a really grim reminder of what happens when a bunch of broskis get intimidated by a woman–they will call her insane, sell her out, offer an “out” that is no such thing or is just fixed so she’ll lose (what happened to Joan while she was incarcerated is horrifying), and then have all her agency sucked out of her story posthumously. Joan was DRIVEN AS HECK but to hear the church tell it she was docile, a “good girl”.

      When that bit of dialogue with Maraad flipping his wig and basically being the worst kind of person you can BE around a survivor of trauma (his antics and dialogue basically loop back into gross sexism and the idea of a woman being property that can be damaged) went live, my brain was like, “I wonder if he’ll sell her out for surpassing him. He already thinks she’s ‘defiled’ and ‘broken'; he’ll be able to make excuses for his actions as a result!”

      Which is CYNICAL AS HELL but. Honestly? I’ve seen it happen. Not to such extremes as WoW likes to indulge in (for the sake of EDGY!) but I have seen guys do this IRL to women who didn’t “behave”. His ego gets dinged, he sells her out. (yes, women do this too, but it’s not seen as acceptable even if it is normalized, it’s ~catty bitches~)

      urgh. it’s just very creepy at the root and I’m not sure what more to say!

  6. I really dont know why this is such a big issue. Blizz has been just as focused on representation between the sexes as they were in vanilla. Its not as if this is a new thing. If youve been able to tolerate or enjoy wow the past 10 years, why is this expac suddenly the one you feel breaks the camel’s back?

    • because it comes on the heels of a whole bunch of other “WE’RE EDGY YEAH WE’RE EDGY THIS IS A MATURE SRSBZNSS GAME SO WE’RE GONNA THROW RANDOM RAPE REFERENCES IN ALONGSIDE THE POO QUESTS” nonsense. yeah, there’s been issues since vanilla, but MoP seems to have heralded this era of Blizz trying desperately to mimic George RR Martin. Random pointless brutality in Orgrimmar, gross police-state tomfoolery thrown in for SHCOK!!!111 value but never properly addressed, on and on.

      it’s become sort of an edgy-wank-fest overload situation. consider it critical mass, or too high a parts-per-million exposure, or too many decibels to deal with? an annoying noise at low volume is annoying but tolerable. crank the speakers to eleven and it becomes painful. it’s like that.

    • Why’s it a big deal? Precisely BECAUSE they keep doing it. BECAUSE every time they get called on it, they do the big-toe-in-the-sand “DAAAWWWW SORREEE LADIES” routine, promise to do better, FAIL to outline HOW, and then go RIGHT BACK to doing the same thing, time after time.

      TLDR; they keep lying to us, and we’re getting tired as hell of it.

    • What bothers me about WoD isn’t the issues presented here, although these issues are real and valid.

      What bothers me is I’m being isolated by their development ideas, not because I’m female, but because I no longer fit their target audience pitch. I’ve seen time and again the ‘type’ of player the devs are making the game for and my life has changed so I no longer fit that profile. The risk of having the devs out on social media is that how they describe players – dimissive remarks about ppl wanting a single player game for example – alienate portions of their player base.

      The vibe I got from The Blizzcon presentations is that this is some big nostalgic trip, back to the good old days. I never played the warcraft games pre WoW. I’m not nostalgic for an experience in my youth I never had. They are seeming to target a very specific, and probably mostly male, audience and I’m not in it. Part of that nostalgia is describing it as a boys trip. I have zero interest in a boys trip.

      I am already not going to be able to raid due to health and family things. I had planned to upgrade the 3 accounts we have and remain subscribed and tinker with my alts. Nothing in this expac so far appeals apart from the chance to learn about the Draenai, and I’m expecting them to kill of Yrel because she’s a Joan of Arc type.

      I’ve played this game for over 9 years without ever unsubbing. But they haven’t sold me on WoD and with their approach to winning back the boys that used to play the old warcraft games, they aren’t likely to. They can design their game how they see fit, and I’ll choose to buy it if I see fit. It works out for both of us in the end :)
      ,

      • “I’m expecting them to kill of Yrel because she’s a Joan of Arc type.” They don’t literally mean word by word joan of arc. They just meant it in the holy warrior who rises to occasion, and have already strongly implied she will return to Azeroth with us.

        • Except Joan was never a warrior. She was an inspiration but she didn’t have any fighting prowess. She heard voices, she inspired others to fight but she didn’t do any fighting. That’s not what she was.

  7. Blizzard is really not making smart choices.

    I mean, I think that being the top enchilada has made some of them super goddamn smug, and I know that’s been a thing people’ve been saying for AGES, but they’ve started acting the part horrendously and it’s becoming embarrassing to watch. They just close ranks and elbow each other and snort like Beavins whenever anyone points out fail…

    I understand nostalgia, but there’s nostalgia and then there’s THIS. They’re trying obviously and embarrassingly to recapture their youth, and that’s not a doable thing. You can still ENJOY stuff you liked as a kid or teenager without throwing yourself facefirst into it like a moth into a windshield and demanding it now conform to the present you…

    They want to bring old players back, arguably, but the way they are approaching story and character is SUPER DAMN ALIENATING. The old players? Have grown up. Blizz is regressing. We have a PROBLEM here! Someone with a family isn’t gonna wanna see kids smacked around for the umpty bumpth time. Someone who’s finally happily out of the closet isn’t gonna wanna deal with lad-culture antics trying to make them go back in. Someone who has come to terms with being genderqueer is gonna get sick of the blood elf jokes.

    Will the lad-culture players stay? Maybe. For a while. The thing about them is they’re fickle and easily bored. They go where their buddies are. They aren’t gonna hang around.

    Add onto this the devs of wildstar and GW2 picking up the clue-phone in re: common baseline vidya gaem sexism, and you have a recipe for blizzard being left howling in the dust of the road.

    God. I am reminded more and more of my university classes, and every “what not to do/how2fail” example we were given. All of them are manifesting all over Blizz’s homeboys and it’s getting painful to watch.

  8. While this makes a good point… and one Blizzard should hear, I also don’t think venting here on what amounts to a private blog is going to move any mountains or shake any trees. Blizzard employees just don’t have the time or inclination to comb the interwebs looking for disgruntled players or near-ex-players.

    Your meaning is clear and obviously you’re upset, but this should be given more directly to Blizzard, imo. Post it on the forums, maybe, although I’m sure you’ll get a tide of idiot flamers (as typical for the official forums). Mail it to devs. I don’t know, but what I -do- know is that unless you beat them in the face repeatedly with what you’re saying, you have zero chance of them hearing it. What they hear over and over are the would-be testosterone kiddies that scream on the forums all the time, and that’s most likely why they listen to them. They may be idiots, but they’re loud and repetitive and when you have to sort through thousands of posts and whatever, you listen to the loudest and most frequent screamers.

    I do think the motorcycle thing is kind of jumping the shark, but eh, it’s a web series, I can safely ignore it, and I get a free mount out of the deal either way it goes, so I’m just gonna ignore it and wait for a free bike to end up in my mailbox.

  9. I’m certainly not about to tell anyone feeling disappointment (or worse) that they’re wrong to do so. But I do want to say that the lines of satisfaction and dissatisfaction may fall in not-always-obvious ways.

    I’m a 48-year-old woman, whose father was an engineer. I’ve always been fascinated by people building things – just about anything, really, because the process of creation often engages me even when the final product doesn’t. My parents and I were all avid fans of the early seasons of American Chopper, before it devolved into the reality-show mess of manufactured drama, which is very upsetting and often triggery for my PTSD. I was deeply tickled by the initial announcement of Azeroth Choppers, and when I showed the trailer to my mother, she laughed and agreed both that it looks fun and that it’s a shame my father passed away and can’t enjoy it too.

    I would certainly like to see more time and attention given to design and building by women, without any doubt; likewise with non-binary creators, come to that. I can readily agree that there are some big holes in Blizzard’s attention to people who aren’t 40-something cis white guys. But – always granting that I may have a highly relevant blind spot here – I found this particular bit thoroughly engaging.

  10. Stages of BlizzLIfe

    Vanilla – We’re here, beesnatches. Face the power!
    Burning Crusade – exploration and experimentation
    Wrath – Hoo-Rah!
    Cata – Hoo-Rah? Hoo-Ray? Hoo-Hoo? Ha…
    Mists – We are professionals now, dontchaknow.
    Warlords – Midlife Crisis (we are SO NOT getting old!)

    Next xpac – The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, Mostly Harmless, OR Starship Titanic (depending entirely on the state of the BlizzLife Crisis)

    The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul – Crisis averted/dealt with, but not without scars; contemplation of one’s posterior not required but possibly recommended. Apology incoming.
    Mostly Harmless – Regression into a childhood state. Danger, Will Robinson, Danger.
    Starship Titanic – Crisis actualized into transformation. #savage becomes #blizzardismythic

  11. First I would like to say, Applecider awesome site, love it.

    Next, I am looking forward to the choppers. And of course pulling for my faction (Horde) the clinically insane. As for the new expansion, I haven’t played WoW as long as the rest of the people here. I have played 6 yrs. Cata was okay, I played everyday. MoP comes out and I got bored. I play at least 2 times a week now. WoD I do have some hopes, but I doubt it. It seems like some classes were not even thought about when the “Bright Idea” came to mind.

    However, the game hasn’t hit beta yet. So I agree that this should be brought to Blizzards attention. As for the masculinity, I am female and it doesn’t bother me. I like to PvP (nice way of venting some anger). The new arenas/battle fields look pretty awesome. And some where you have to build up certain areas to win is pretty cool. It beats having to run for a flag and sit there until the rest beat down the flag carrier.
    Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice to see women more involved in creating. Sadly we are stuck in the Man made world. Where most of chat is stating women don’t play WoW (again please remember I am Horde).

    Have a great day!!!

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  13. I’m interested in how people first became interested in playing WoW. I started playing in vanilla, but initially I had no interest in playing it whatsoever.

    My brother played from beta, and my boyfriend played too, but it just seemed to be all about killing people like so many other games out there, and so not something I wanted to play. It was only after a female friend of mine kept nagging me to join her online, and because my boyfriend got bored and wasn’t playing it that I finally started to play, and became hooked.

    I feel the same way now as I did then – the marketing doesn’t appeal and never has, but I have such fun in-game playing with friends that I will be buying WoD, and as long as we are online together I will keep playing.

  14. Trust me, I too was utterly confused and asked ‘why’ when they decided, probably at no little expense, to do this whole Azeroth Chopper thing.

    Being roughly their age and with them since Warcraft 2, you’d think that I’d be their target market for this kind of thing.

    Strangely, I’m not. As with your earlier statements about their ‘mid-life crisis’, it doesn’t sound so far fetched.

    It seems they are trying way too hard to attempt to recapture the spark and vitality of their youth… and not really succeeding. I’ve always had a feeling Metzen and Co always wanted to be leather bound, bearded, muscly bikers that drove to Sturgis every year when they were younger and this is the closest thing they’re going to get and whether they know how… undignified they look or not seems to not even register and that is troubling.

    With

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