Memes, Context and Teen Girls: How ‘Just Warlord Things’ Rings False

#justwarlordthings image macro

Image courtesy of Just Warlord Things tumblr.

Memes and other forms of memetic communication that have sprung from various social media outlets are something of an interest of mine. Whether it’s Twitter jokes (like Jobs/Hope/Cash) or Tumblr text posts, there’s something charming to be examined about how we talk to each other in-group in the various spaces we occupy.

One of the stranger things that has come about from this is that companies have definitely noticed that there’s cache in adopting the mannerisms of the population they wish to sell to, especially via the same channels their demographic will be browsing. Most times the attempts are incredibly tone-deaf or straight up incomprehensible, with at least one notable exception. It feels goofy on the surface but the larger capitalistic intent is to try and don the apparel of your audience in order to get them to identify with your brand. Most companies do not realize that they are not people, as much as they like to try. Plus, since most social media outlets are moving towards making their huge client base into more active consumers, the effect feels chilling.

Memetic jokes and language in online spaces are designated for entertainment and to also bolster a sense of community, but something people often forget is that they are also purposeful and create cultural meaning. They inherently refer to both the medium and the people who inhabit said media. Companies often run aground because they attempt to remove the contexts that created the language in the first place.

Take, for instance World of Warcraft.

Warcraft started a Tumblr this week called “justwarlordthings” and has created both image macros and video content to go along with, plastering both (with attendant tags) on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. The whole shebang is an artful parody (homage?) of the well-known #justgirlythings Tumblr. For those people who weren’t aware of that blog, #justgirlythings produced the kind of basic but relateable image macro that was delicately indicative many of the things people ascribe to Tumblr generally: teen girls. The pictures often of headless white young women frolicking often dreamily talk about boyfriends and simple pleasures that are no doubt the height of femininity.

Warcraft is not even close to being the first to do a send-up of #jgt, given that the blog itself was so easy to poke fun of. Many parodies often subversively undermined what is presumed to be a very normative, white performance of femininity by suggesting that it is typically girly to summon demons or be a witch. There’s a resistance there, via satire, to the presumption of what it means to be “girly” when that meaning is so rigid. It is powerful, especially when Tumblr’s high population of girls, women and other femme individuals is so soundly made fun of.

It’s this general scorn for Tumblr by the rest of the Internet community that makes Warcraft’s joke feel less like “laughing with” and more like “laughing at.” There’s also the matter that their meme overlays what is traditionally a pink, feminine meme with their newest expansion’s trappings: masculine, brutal and violent. There’s nothing smart being said here, but rather another instance of nerdery that adopts something for girls/women (even if it is problematic) and makes it about men and their interests. The ability to critique can come from outside the group, but it often rings false if there’s a substantial power differential at play. This goes doubly so for a company who has no real interest in making a statement or undoing societal structures.

The extra layer to all of this is that Warcraft is not absent of girls and women; the giant MMORPG boasts quite a large population of both. This, along with past issues with representing gender is why Blizzard has been making attempts to rectify how they come across to their audience. They just recently debuted their newest IP, Overwatch, which prominently features women as half of their new characters, as well as replied to many of their fans who felt left out by Warlords’ story.

It is weird that Blizzard is doing a campaign like this. Given how their expansion was marketed prior to the release, it feels off-base and callous. No one owns a meme, per se, but given a company’s ability to leverage it into sales or a deeper community buy-in, is it really Blizzard’s right to cash in on something that is largely not theirs to dance all over? Do they really want to alienate the people who might have created the whole girly meme from playing their game? Who knows.

This just feels like another instance of a big business not really getting what some of their potential demographic is really all about.

Escape Velocity

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Thelma and Louise picture courtesy of the Screenlines blog.

Sometimes you just have to trick yourself into thinking you’re going on vacation and while no one is paying attention, pack your car and head west.

It’s weird to think of leaving a game and its attendant community with the same gravitas as other more serious topics, but given how often World of Warcraft resembled a small town at times, it is an apt description. For a population of 7 million, it was incredibly insular in that regard. Instead of doing things for World of Warcraft, it’s been nice to focus on other things, particularly things that interest me, no matter what they are. I’ve been catching up on more television and movies with my boyfriend, as well as trying out way more games. Not having to maintain an audience who only care for me to talk about WoW means I can talk about anything I want, and interact with whomever shows up to listen.

I never thought I’d leave Warcraft. I thought about the day that I’d just end up being done and turn off the lights, wander away. I didn’t realize that it would really be me watching my pretty consistent enthusiasm for a game being ground into dust and my attempts to change things being stymied as I realized that a giant company doesn’t really have to care. Warcraft, and Blizzard if we’re being honest, is so massive that it has its own gravity. You either roll in towards it or in my case, work up the energy to fly away. It is a funny business attaching yourself, limpet-like, to one game and one game only and the whole method of criticizing the one thing you’re so intimately connected with. People resented me for my criticisms, but those same people were the ones I had to impress and cajole into listening. I grew increasing frustrated when I realized the only thing that kept us talking to each other was a thing I was growing to hate. I was playing the same game that I had come to despise over a number of months, wishing it would get better and then watching it get worse. I definitely wasn’t making any progress, and I wasn’t getting any better at what I was doing. I also was becoming a person I really didn’t like – resentful, angry and generally just bitter.

Everything looked like it would be better once I put enough distance between myself and Warcraft.  The reality is that it is and isn’t. I am a small country mouse in a big city now. (I would imagine some people would term it as “little fish in a big pond” but I am not nor consider myself such. I just know this is a different culture now where the land is way more unfamiliar.)

The larger gaming community is confusing and it’s been odd to disentangle myself from one population of people with a significant sexism problem only to run straight into watching the paranoia, misogyny and schisms happening all over due to gamers being angry that women like making games and writing about them. It did remind me though that trying to attack the problems with one game left me not focusing at how it’s a deeply connected issue to every other game that’s been made and the people who play them. It also showed me that the despite all of those fibers crossing back and forth, capital-G gaming is content to not overturn the rock that is MMORPGs and the shit that goes on there. This is one of the reasons that MMORPGs have such a weird, impenetrable barrier around them; they are a genre of game so all-encompassing and socially engrossing that it’s very hard to get out of them long enough to try other things, and the audience is okay with the larger world ignoring them.  MMORPGs are hard to understand unless you’re in the thick of it. Having been there, I understand that it is extremely hard to leave, and extremely hard to peer into it without feeling confused.

I guess this is at least one thing I do understand, this liminality. There’s a difficulty in making a promise to yourself that forever means just that, the end.  It’s hard to change present tense to past, to put down the road lines as you’re driving, trying not to outpace your expectations by the reality of the situation. I keep moving forward and away because it’s not cool to look at explosions. It’s also hard not to sound dire when I don’t even know if I’m running from, or to somewhere

Some days, it feels like a little of both.

 

 

 

Not A Photograph, But A Mirror: Sexism, World of Warcraft and Gaming Communities

A screencap of an item on Wowhead.com, called An Autographed Portrait of Jaina Proudmoore. It has flavor text that reads, "Before she went crazy."

A screencap of an item on Wowhead.com, called An Autographed Portrait of Jaina Proudmoore. It has flavor text that reads, “Before she went crazy.”

This is about a photograph.

But not really.

 

It’s about a fake photograph from a fictional woman, in the hands of a gaming company that made her, who also made her the butt of a joke.

But not really.

It’s about how we continue to talk about women, and how we talk to women in gaming spaces.

I had, perhaps naively, thought that when I quit World of Warcraft that it meant that I had a certain freedom to leave it behind and never talk about it again. But the problem is that even if I walk away from the game, the shittiness that permeates some of it and the community at large is still there. I still have friends and acquaintances who deal with this stuff. So while I gave up making World of Warcraft my 24-hour job in terms of combating sexism, seeing the continued effects of it ricochet around just makes me sad. In a positive way, it gives me a new freedom to address the subject in a more complete way.

Perculia, Wowhead‘s site director, is one of the more visible women in the World of Warcraft fan community. She runs a site that is the largest database for World of Warcraft as well as an informative news site about updates to the game. She’s good at her job herding digital cattle, whether it’s keeping up on news culled from developer’s Twitters, coallating data from a new beta patch or putting the massive amount of information in the database together in a relevant, clever way. She is an extremely important person in the game’s community as well as to the game itself – even Blizzard’s own employees use Wowhead to look for stuff. Despite not playing the game anymore, I still like to keep up with what she’s doing.

On Wednesday afternoon, she brought up a seemingly unimportant gray item that had come in the latest beta update for Warcraft’s Warlords of Draenor expansion. For those who aren’t familiar with the game, Jaina Proudmoore is one of the few prominent female leaders in the game’s canon, who has had many appearances in the overall world story of this popular MMORPG. However, her story took a bit of a turn between the last expansion, Mists of Pandaria as well as a tie-in novel, Tides of War. The powerful mage suffered a tragic levelling of her port outpost by an opposing faction using a mana bomb and has gone on the offensive since then, struggling with her own anger and grief. Whether or not she’s a moral person at this point is up for debate (as she also jailed and hurt neutral-aligned blood elf mages, staged military motions against the Horde) but within the game’s own lore, she’s not very different from other warring male NPCs with the same narrative prominence. However, many of the game’s players have taken Jaina’s turbulent actions since the bombing of Theramore as proof of her being “crazy” and have cracked jokes along those lines.

It’s obvious that this item is in reference to that, but despite protests from players that this is merely a joke on Blizzard’s audience, I don’t believe it. Jaina has become one of the more polarized characters in the game and there’s no mystery as to why – she’s a woman with extremely strong emotions. Prior to this latest character arc, she was powerful but she also was very loyal to a more pacificist, neutral approach to relations between the two factions in-game. Blizzard has done a pretty mediocre job respecting that change with nuance or sympathy, despite characters with far more morally bleak outlooks (see Garrosh Hellscream, leader of the Horde) garnering equal or greater spotlight and admiration. If Blizzard is cracking wise on their fanbase, which I don’t buy for a second, they would have to have a position distinguishable from who they are parodying. That’s how satire works.

One of the things that eventually drove me away from World of Warcraft is just that kind of jokey disregard for many of the under-utilized female characters that the game boasts as well, combined with an overall lack of understanding of their female audience at times. Seeing them continue to make little jabs like this at a character who’s gone from being made fun of for being a bookish nerd, to being made fun of as a “slut” because fans think multiple male characters were interested in her, to being too peaceful, to now being too crazy, is really disheartening. There’s also just the fact that underneath all of this is that she’s a woman, and that’s enough for players to dislike her. Having the company who created her undermine pride in who she is doesn’t send a very good message to Jaina fangirls as well as the rest of the community. What this really says is less about one particular fictional character but more about the real people who wrote her, the real people who thought this item was a good idea, and this has a ripple effect throughout an already pretty sexist community. Because it’s not really just about how we represent and treat fictional women, but moreso how it makes us look at real women.

Perculia bringing this item to light sparked not only enough discussion to get Warcraft to put in a fix immediately (to be updated in a future patch) but also a round of detractors, harassers and other miscreants who generally hate it when anyone criticizes the game, especially for reasons that have to do with things like sexism. That’s what this is, in case it wasn’t clear. It might have been a joke, but it wasn’t very funny to everyone and it was just another moment when women (and their mental health) were the punchline. Seeing Perculia deal with harassment for almost two days now over something that amounts for passing disappointment for a company she works closely with is more indicative of the problem than some flavor text. It might have been a throwaway item but over time little things like this just add to the constant river of shit you have to deal with as a woman trying to play this video game, if not video games in general. The item, as well as her tweet, has shown up on a noteable cesspool known as the MMO Champion forums, which stoked anti-“SJW” mockery and keeps bringing in fresh waves of people to berate her (but notably not as harshly to the devs who spoke to her about the change) or troll her about caring about it. It’s sad.

When I started poking at the larger game community outside of the insular crowd of Warcraft players, I thought that maybe some of the things I’d seen being an outspoken feminist would have gotten slightly better but then the last month happened and shattered that belief. What happens within WoW’s borders is nothing different than what happens when Anita Sarkeesian makes a new video. The only difference is that instead of finding lots of different female journalists, media critics or game developers to fixate on, WoW’s community often only has a scant few women who work for big fansites, post on the forums, or make fan works like YouTube videos. Instead of someone like Zoe Quinn being a target, I’ve seen people harassing Trade Chat on Twitter or post derogatory comments on Liz Harper’s editorials. I even caught a lot of flak when I brought up Ji Firepaw having sexist dialogue back in Mists of Pandaria. Big game companies have just as much responsibility to diversify their works as they do to make sure their fans feel safe discussing and criticising their company, especially when so many women (and other marginalized populations) put in so much time and work promoting their products and making them accessible to other players. I’d even say it’s a responsibility despite it potentially costing the loyalty of other segments of their audience.

At the end of the day, fans of World of Warcraft are no different than someone who writes for Polygon or makes indie games if we’re all talking about women. Gaming has a sexism problem, whether it’s towards real women or fictional ones and the two are intimately connected, no matter what we think. And as much as I’ve seen progress, we still have a long way to go.

Really.

Goodbye (For Now, In This Particular Way)

ais-mountain2

It’s not the end, not really.

A lot has changed since even the last blog post here. Funny how things can spin off of orbit when you’re not looking, but I need to be honest, I’ve been slowly rolling out of Warcraft’s gravity for the past 6 months or so. What makes me sad is that I didn’t want this to be the way it all fell apart – I wanted that day to be graceful and far off in the future, when I was good and ready to put the game away because I had outgrown it, that it no longer satisfied me and I wanted to move on to something else. What’s sad about that is that honestly, a bitter and slow decline would have been easier to brush off. Being forcibly ejected from something I have loved for so long means I look back on all the time I spent with regret and my present time now with confusion. I was moderately happy before Blizzcon, even with some of the problematic behavior. But it’s hard to take a good look at a property and realize that you don’t really factor into it at all, no matter how happy you’ve been in that world.

I know some people have called me “toxic” or “extreme” in terms of my particular strain of feminist critique, but at the end of the day, I am a nerd just like the rest of you and feeling shunted off to the side awakens some pretty old, dismal feelings. I have played World of Warcraft for 9+ years because I really and truly loved it. I became friends with my now-boyfriend here, I was part of the same guild that I first joined in Vanilla until now. I have thousands of screenshots, memories and achievements. I was a World of Warcraft player long before I was truly a feminist. I met amazing women via this game and it’s what lead me down that path in the first place. So in that way, the intense irony of that ideology making me realize that video games are still a hostile and alien place for marginalized people is not lost on me.

It’s just sad.

Still, I can’t say World of Warcraft is a bad game. It’s not. If it was, I wouldn’t have stuck around for so long. It has a great many stories and places that I wish I could relive over and over. It has a lot of people who worked on it/are working on it that truly love the franchise and truly put an amazing amount of effort into it and have made me feel like part of the community. To Tseric, Caydiem, Ghostcrawler, Nethaera, Zarhym, Terran Gregory, and Helen Cheng, thank you for making my tenure with Warcraft so pleasant. Even though some of you haven’t been at Blizzard for a while, your presence left an indelible mark on me.

To my guild, Northrend Commonwealth, I will miss you. Granted, I have most of you friended on Twitter and I suspect we’re going to be friends well into our twilight years, but you made being in a guild amazing. Not just present members, but everyone who helped me out from when I was just a tiny mage wearing INT/SPI gear (back when that wasn’t good, before it was good, then bad again). To my raid team who took me to Molten Core and beyond. To everyone who showed up on the guild’s doorstep four years ago and made it what it is today.

To everyone in the World of Warcraft community, I salute you. You have made my time as a Warcraft blogger and podcaster special and it’s been wonderful getting to break down the game with you all, sharing the highs and the lows. Some of you don’t particularly like me much, but I see it much like being a family, except now I’m not innately responsible for your well-being. Maybe I never was.

That screenshot up there was taken in 2006, after I had started raiding Onyxia and Molten Core. Featured is Bunny, my first epic mount and second mount ever. I spent so much time grinding out Ironforge rep with runecloth and Alterac Valley just to get you, and you are still one of my favorite mounts, even though I haven’t ridden you in a long time. I figured it’d be fitting to go out the same way I came in, in the spot I promised myself I’d settle Aislinana down in for a long winter’s sleep. I used to climb around here when I was level 10 and it was impossible to get up here unless you were a good wall-climber and jumper. I used to take people here and it was my special spot. Now anyone can fly up here but I still consider it a place that’s just uniquely mine. Funny how that works.

I tried really hard to believe that if I was a strong enough person, it could fix things. The world is far more complicated than that.

Anyways, I’ve put off the inevitable with more words that necessary. I will see you folks around. The blog is staying, even if I will not be covering Warcraft explicitly anymore. I will still be around, for better or worse. You’re not rid of me yet. This was just a eulogy for something that should have never died.

WoWScrnShot_061114_063826

 

– Nico, otherwise known as Aislinana the Gnome

 

 

 

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.

April Fool’s Jokes and Perfect Storms

Draenei priest drawing.

Taking a page from Vidyala and posting my own draenei art.

At the risk of stirring things up even further, I want to talk about why the fake Artcraft presented by Blizzard’s World of Warcraft team was the worst possible joke to make at the worst possible time.  I hope people don’t think I am going to debate the relative offensiveness of it; I am not because I do think it was offensive and I know there’s better people that have been talking about it rather than myself. No, rather, we’re going to talk about what made everything so much worse.

I know the title talks about “perfect storms” in that it was a confluence of several factors coming together, but let’s abandon that particular metaphoric imagery for a second. Imagine a giant field full of grass. In this scenario, World of Warcraft’s assembled community of fans are the grass.

It’s been a drought since Blizzcon. We’ve been fairly starved on concrete updates on the expansion’s progress. We’ve seen some model update Artcrafts, some dev watercoolers, but no beta, no big news and only minor progress on everything else. Bigger sites like Wow Insider or Wowhead news are scraping for content and opting to talk about Blizzard’s other releases like Diablo III: Reaper of Souls or Heroes of the Storm. We’ve grown pretty dry and bitter about the expansion the longer we don’t hear about it. It’s a pretty unusual method given how long we’ve been marinating in Pandaria’s last content patch. It would be easier to deal with if we had the new expansion to look forward to on the horizon but it’s been pretty dust and tumbleweeds thus far.

In this field, imagine a couple piles of goblin bombs laid haphazardly on the ground, hidden among the tall weeds. These are the issues a lot of us have had with the potential content of the expansion: lack of positive female character representation, expectations of more grimdark “gritty” realism, and the inevitable “boys trip” that we heard about at Blizzcon. There’s a lot of worries among some of us regarding how enjoyable we will find the questing and story experiences of this new expansion. While Ji Firepaw was a net positive, what lurks in the water for Warlords?

On top of that, the air is dry. Fans are looking for anything to digest or keep their attention. Our community is tied between forums, social media, blogs and anyone we play with in-game. We spend a lot of time nitpicking, dissecting and debating. Given the lack of information thus far, it’s mostly speculation. People are anxious.

Then you toss out the equivalent of a lit match on all of that and you have an explosive, incendiary wildfire on your hands. The models make people feel awful about themselves or angry at Blizzard. The blog text makes fun of all sorts of women and pokes at things like incest and twerking. It comes on the heels some other April Fools jokes that while bizarrely problematic, are also funny. It sticks out like a sore thumb. It riles up people who only want “real” content. It makes everyone who was worried about problematic content feel even more unsettled about their gut feelings. The community goes into an uproar: those who found it funny, those who didn’t, and people who think the “not funny” people are giant babies. The explosions that occur over any sexist content go about as well as expected now that everyone is in on the discussion.

Pulling myself back far enough from my feelings about women being mocked at a time like this (not intended maliciously, of course) means I look at why this happened. Is this a cultural problem within Blizzard? Did everyone think this would have a positive impact and anyone who didn’t not get to speak? Were they overruled? Who looked at this before it went live? We’re not talking about a developer being caught off-guard and speaking close to his chest, but something that was written, edited and arranged for publishing on the front page. Models were created specifically for this. It makes me wonder.

Sometimes thinking about the mechanics and anatomy of a controversy keeps me from getting too upset about the thorny emotional center, but even if you know how a disaster came to be, it doesn’t help you deal with the aftermath.

 

 

Mini-Post: I Can’t Quite Grasp It

While I was on my forced sabbatical (due to my desktop needing to in for repairs), I still had some internet via my old broken laptop. One of the frontpage posts on World of Warcraft was showcasing some of their TCG art over the years. The first card in the series as well as the header for the post was this:

Trading card game art of night elf woman in skimpy armor fighting off vines.

Art by John Bolidora, ©Blizzard Entertainment

Anyone else see some really weird, glaring issues with this? Not only is it a more skimpy version of the vanilla box art, but the fact is the vines are like three seconds away from turning into some gross porn scene. There’s even a tendril wrapped lovingly around her barely-supported boobs. C’mon now. There’s nothing about this that suggests that she’s struggling either, but is placidly confused, vapidly so. She looks like she just wandered into this mess of vines and is now slightly befuddled by this. She looks like a posed mannequin, rather than a warrior wanting to charge out of this trap. Her face is also nearly devoid of any emotion, other than a slight lip snarl.

This is apparently the “Immobilize” card from the Drums of War set. The art itself is from 2008, the set came out roughly around that time as well. And yet it’s just turning up on the front page now because they are featuring all the art of the trading card games and it has been around a long time. I was merely going to pass by this without much complaining because it’s tiring attacking every single piece of shitty fantasy art that does this but I happened to see cards from the new decks that my boyfriend purchased at Target:

An orc trapped in thick woody vines, lifting him off the ground.

Art by Christopher Mueller, ©Blizzard Entertainment

This is art of quite a different order. Granted, the orc is wearing about as much armor as the elf but it isn’t sexualized in the same way. He also looks actively upset and the vines are trying to wrestle his weapon away from him. Nothing about the trap suggests the same level of sexual powerlessness and his body isn’t being manipulated in that way either. He’s a strong orc being caught off guard by a trap! It’s pretty basic to see the level of difference between the two.

It might be a more contemporary piece of art, or at least better art direction with this series, but the fact that people at Blizzard are still wishing to highlight the older, more gross art from the trading card game front and center makes me believe that no one feels that the elf up there is problematic. There’s been several other times art from fans (Dragon vore *NSFW* or “Loyalty Level Six” comes to mind) or official artists have gone up on the front page that no one seemed to look over before okaying, and this feels like more of the same, except this was licensed and pushed to their card game.

Sigh.

Patch 5.4 – Mad about Moon Moon

Moon Moon the wolf falls on his wolf friend.

This is one of the least objectionable Moon Moon meme images.

Trigger warning: ableism discussion and terms.

The first Patch 5.4 notes and PTR came out this week and with it, all the fervor over our first real peek at the content that’s been talked up since Pandaria came out. People have been going gaga over set bonuses, new boss models, but what caught my eye was something way less exciting – a battle pet. Originally when I saw listed that there was a Moon Moon pet dragged out of the datamined content files, I thought it was just something stuck there that wouldn’t have anything meaningful around it.  Contrary to my belief,  Moon Moon is a pet dropping from a new Darkmoon Faire boss and will most definitely be in Patch 5.4. This has me pretty annoyed, if you could guess from the title of my blog post.

Moon Moon is a reference to this meme that got started on Tumblr. It is yet another meme that capitalizes on the mental differences of someone, with a host of veiled ableist insults and terminology. What is ableism? It’s specifically discriminatory actions and language towards someone’s physical or mental disabilities. Ableism usually and casually often occurs to making fun of people with learning disabilities or being on the autism spectrum (“spergin'” “retard/ed”), or for mental illness (“crazy”/”schizo”/”bipolar”/”hysterical”), and physical disabilities (“crip/cripple”, “spaz/spastic”, etc.) or using those terms against others as a negative.

Given that the person who started it all said that Moon Moon would be the “most retarded wolf”, it’s not surprising that everything else has followed suit. Memes, due to nerd culture in general, really like to constantly revolve around this sort of everyperson (or animal) that has speech impediments or some sort of mental “slowness.” It’s gotten so casual to the point that most people don’t realize that it IS insulting, but the reason these jokes proliferate is because denigrating people’s mental capacity has always been a trope for humor, because people consider themselves “better” than others for that reason. It’s hurtful, in short, but very few nerds really care.

Since Blizzard has a really inconsistent policy on including meme fodder in their game (Nom Nom Nom as a druid talent got scrapped, but we have this, plus look at how many Slapchop references there are), the fact that they felt it necessary to make a battle pet (as well as a raid boss, really) dedicated to a fairly recent,  insulting meme is frustrating to me. Meme culture is persistent but often long after it is actually funny, on top of the fact that a lot of them are generally offensive in some way. Did we need this? Not really. I’m sure this is considered by some to be a very petty gripe, but popular culture making its way into World of Warcraft doesn’t always mean it is good.

 

Patch 5.4 – Flexible Raiding Feature Announced

Possible implementation of FLEX raiding with Crabby.

Last night, Blizzard dropped a big unannounced Patch 5.4 feature preview onto their blog – “flex” raiding. This raiding would be a new, fourth difficulty somewhere between LFR and normal-mode that would have it’s own ilvl. It is primarily to help those raiders that wish to do a level of content with pick-up groups as well as friends and family in a more casual, social environment. It would work with both friend groups and cross-realm lists, making it very inclusive for those of us who like to pull in people for raids from every corner of the globe. The premise of this works off the idea of scaling – similar to how rares and elites have been working since Patch 5.1. The minimum a group can have is 10 but will add health (and presumably damage) depending on how many people you have, up to 25 players. What also makes this convenient is that loot works exactly the same as LFR – it is awarded individually, based on loot specialization. This means, as promised, that there is no reason to not bring anyone you so choose, so long as you have a balanced role makeup. The devs seem adamant that they want this feature to be for everyone – no minimum ilvl requirement, and that every player should be able to come, rather than a specific class.

Blizzard making a move towards an inclusive social feature such as this is a big deal, especially to someone like me who only ever does raiding these days in a casual environment. My guild’s raid team is a very bare-bones 10-player raid that very frequently pulls in cross-realm players and cancels raids when we can’t scrape together 10 people for behind-the-curve content. The idea of being able to raid with anyone on current content and bringing a variable number of folks gives us way more freedom in terms of both difficulty of content (like raid meta achievements, which the blog said will be doable on Flex difficulty) and flexibility of raid filling. Giving the WoW audience even more reasons to pick and choose their raid experience as they see fit is always a move in the right direction.

Are there some drawbacks here? Absolutely. There’s the ilvl bloat we’re experiencing right now – we’re two content tiers in and we have many orders of ilvl gear that a potential casual player is looking at. Adding yet another swath of gear in between LFR and normal is only going to muddy this further. Will it give players more choices or is it going to just make attempting to figure out upgrade paths even more of a nightmare? There’s also the concern of this pulling even more skilled or socially-connected players away from the potential LFR pool. While random grouping methods have proliferated, I still feel that the subset of players that this is catering to might make them flee from the LFR queues. Lastly, the fact that all three have separate lockouts means there’s going to be some complaining of feeling like you “need” to do all three in order to obtain the best gear as fast as you can, especially if your guild is stuck behind a gear check.

Overall, though, I can’t help but seeing this as a future positive. My guild is even talking about this replacing LFR nights for us – we go in a big group of guildies and friends from other realms on a set night to help us get LFR gear for normal-mode raiding. If we get our own gear and perhaps tackle slightly harder content with only people we choose, this seems like an obvious choice. It cuts out the drawbacks from LFR and gives us more control over our raid experience, socially. We can invite cross-realm friends, do alt raids easier, and not have to cancel raid nights as much. I don’t think flex raiding is going to replace normal raid content for us, even though we only raid four hours a week. Are there guilds that could use this as a replacement for both LFR and normal modes? Absolutely. The idea that you can make that kind of choice now as a smaller, more casual or social guild is great!

I would even speculate that this tool might give rise to the pick-up raid group again on realms that might have lost out due to smaller, less experienced populations (so any place that wasn’t Mal’ganis, basically) – groups could form via Trade Chat again, and there’d be no loot disputes and would still only need a modicum of skill to participate, as well as the variable size making things a lot easier.  People that have long complained about how LFR/LFG destroyed server communities might see a breath of life to local raiding again. Basically, I’m tentatively optimistic about this as I feel that this is one of the few features that’ve announced in Mists of Pandaria that caters directly to the kinds of things I like to do in-game for precisely the people I want to do it with.

The question that remains in my mind is this – was this the big feature that Ghostcrawler had been teasing at for so long? Is it one of many things that Patch 5.4 promises? I’m excited if this is just the start of a laundry list of things that might improve our quality of (raiding) life in WoW in the future.

As for you guys, are you hyped about this possible addition? Does it affect you at all? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

The Trickle-Down Effect of Gear

Ghostcrawler as Reagan.

Ghostcrawler as Reagan.

It wasn’t until I was having a Twitter conversation with Snack Road (isn’t that how a lot of my blog posts begin these days?) that I realized there’s shenanigans going on with gear progression. It was merely a joke about Republicans at the time, but the trickle-down theory seems to be in full effect in World of Warcraft, and has been going on for a while.

For those of you who weren’t very cognizant of the Reagan era in the United States, “trickle down” was two slightly different ideas about economics and marketing that could be summed up as “The wealth at the top will eventually benefit the bottom.” Economically speaking, making sure the wealthiest in our country were taken care of with tax breaks and benefits would eventually benefit the poorest of our country. As far as the marketing theory is concerned, it describes that many products will start out only available or affordable to the richest but eventually lower in price so that all can afford it. The backlash of this is that once the “lower classes” have consumed or popularized a product, it is no longer wanted by those in the elite.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

I feel like more than ever, Mists of Pandaria was a step backwards when it came to an even level of gear acquisition. One the major problems of this expansion was requiring both reputation and Valor Points for obtaining the first pieces of gear that was available to you once hitting 90. In the past, VP gear was not coupled with any reputation. It was a means of gear acquisition that anyone putting the time could benefit from. It started in Burning Crusade with badge gear – it was arguably some of the best pieces you could get unless you were chasing progression endgame and a lot of times, it was the best slot-filler or catch-up mechanism you could have asked for. In Cataclysm, it was so finely tuned to the point that most people I knew except at the very top of the raid game made use of regularly. It wasn’t until LFR being put in that we started to see a decay of that system – given that LFR was put in at the very end of the expansion, the effect wasn’t as immediate. What LFR was doing was not making yet another stepping stone in terms of a gear path, it was creating a ceiling of sorts, contextually. VP gear was locked behind reputation and valor points, valor points were made harder to acquire and capped. Each LFR having successively higher i-level requirements meant that in order to do LFR, considered the final or penultimate level of raiding you’d achieve as a slightly more casual raider meant that you had to gear chase a lot harder than before. While things like the wider choice of reputations, world bosses  and crafting has made it slightly easier, it still feels like the people at the top are benefiting the most from doing what they want to do, while the rest of the curve gets progressively less choices in the matter. Raiders who have the benefit of doing content quickly while relevant have access to the best gear, therefore not needing LFR at all. VP gear from reputation isn’t as necessary once the initial gearing hump of the first tier’s worth of content is over. These raiders are supplied they gear they need by skill alone perhaps, or eventually the content they are chewing through and their success is framed in such a way that other people can’t degrade it by being slower or caught up in circumstances beyond their control (bad loot streaks, raid team falling apart). You see this in not just how loot is obtained but in things like the Cutting Edge achievements. I felt the achievements were a vanity addition that suited the purpose to make top-end raiders happy for their accomplishments, and that’s not a bad thing. However, Blizzard’s design when it comes to gear paths is pretty textbook trickle down theory in a lot of ways and I’m not sure why. 

LFR was supposed to be the great liberator of the masses, but I feel that it’s striated people wanting to make the jump from starting-out gearwise to anything above it. Is this to preserve the value of upper-level gear? In short, raiders that were normal or heroic progressed were seemingly disgruntled from having to share the same base gear pool outside of the content before LFR was introduced. The whole notion of people getting epics without having to set foot in a raid seemed terrible, except to the people who actually were going to make use of it. With the advent of LFR, the gear pool that was shared was largely obliterated, became more gated in Mists and now has forked fairly divergently – those wanting to obtain gear at the highest levels will have to participate completely in it. This isn’t even trickle-down, like before, where raiders were turning their nose up at badge/VP gear, but a fairly inventive shut-out for all but a few opportunities. In order to do LFR, you never need higher than LFR gear, if you want to do normals, you do not “need” higher than normal gear to do it, roughly speaking. This preserves the sanctity of those chasing higher levels of content, in both gear and accomplishment, while giving people that would ordinarily benefit from structures that “spilled over” for high-end raiders something else to acquire. And in a lot of ways, I can even feel myself going, “Well, if you want to do Z content, why do you need X gear?” It’s a very ingrained way of thinking about content striated by acquisition and elitism. So in this fashion, whenever Blizzard purposefully “outmodes” gear i-levels or content, it is satisfying the high-end by making it unwanted by them (giving them new, better!) and satisfies those down at the bottom by giving them what was once a popular commodity.

Of course, this analogy falls apart a little given some of the choices we have in the game now, a couple of content patches in. It is possible to get a 522 ilvl 2-set just via world bosses, or Shado-Pan Offensive rep gear from doing LFR. All that being said, there’s still fairly apparent places where the trickle down is becoming more and more apparent as time goes on. The most notable of these is crafted gear. It used to be the most sought-after for many classes, but the rise and fall of difficulty in terms of obtaining it has been most curious. The first thrust of good craftable gear was some of the tailoring gear – sets that lasted from Karazhan to Black Temple if you played your cards right. The patterns were learnable fairly quickly but making the gear was lengthy and grindy. There weren’t caps on how many pieces of cloth you could make a day but the materials were fairly hard to farm, so it took awhile to gain them. By the end of that expansion, it was to the system of crafting materials AND patterns dropping in the appropriate raids. This system lasted all the way to the beginning of Cataclysm, but what Wrath had introduced was eventually making the material needed for making the recipes purchasable with a currency. Cataclysm made the materials and patterns easily obtainable via the crafting professions but capped the materials significantly. Still, this meant that all you needed to get really solid crafted gear was time or currency. The efficacy of this gear started slipping behind though as people rapidly outpaced the ilvls over the course of the expansion. Mists is where the trickling was really brought to bear – not only did you have the basic level of epic patterns locked behind reps, but more to the point, the highest level of craftables were only able to be made with materials obtained from disenchanting epic gear (with a small chance of dropping from bosses)  of current content. So, basically, if you want gear that is on par with the highest level raids, you have to basically wait for either your raid team (if you have one) or someone else’s raid team to have a piece of gear they can shard. If you’re not a part of an established raid team, in essence you’re looking for another raid team’s cast-offs in order to make yourself better gear. The argument is that if you’re not part of an established raid team that’s doing the content, then why do you need the crafted gear at all? For some people, it could easily be BIS for a time, other people it is simply more of the gear chase but with a lot more restricted paths or options. The only time people outside of the “system” really benefit from crafted gear though is when they are in a situation where their environment is already raining down epics – meaning the highest tier of raiders on their servers are past the gearing curve and are sharding everything or enough people have entered the current content to create somewhat of a competitive market. If that’s not the very pinnacle of this theory, then I don’t know what is.

Still, all of this raises a lot more questions than answers, and I know that I’m glossing over a lot of situations in order to make a point about the theory. Is Blizzard merely acting in accordance to what the audience wants, or is it a more strident hand in directing the gear path for all “levels” of players? Since they are the ones responsible for the structures we have to move through to obtain gear, I can presume that this was done purposefully. The “No Elevators To Everest” seems to belie a developer belief (especially since many of the older ones are returning the fold) that everyone has to really struggle to get what they want, and some people are going to hit a ceiling of skill or success just due to their position and no further. While the parlance has dropped out  some, the idea of “welfare” epics couldn’t be more true now with the advent of LFR, but gamifying this so that no one ever really needs it anymore is an interesting mesh of Reagan-era social policies and Skinner Box perfection. There’s always going to be a subset of people that need enough gear to see the lower-bar content, but not more than that. If someone wants gear beyond that point badly enough, they have to go through great lengths to get it in order to not upset the overflow from the top. The idea that the developers are really giving us so many choices to be powerful but keeping the real power fairly divided and unobtainable seems to be what’s really at play here. Do I mind it terribly, from a personal standpoint? In some ways, yes. I might be casual but the practises of a game company to enforce power progression along lines that have typically caused strife elsewhere doesn’t seem to be the smartest move in the long run. Treating your broadest base and separating it further and further from the middle does little to make anyone feel good, but I suppose Blizzard has worked in enough distractions that no great portion falls through the cracks. Still, this is all something to think about going ahead. Are there iterations down the road that will even further divide the haves from the have-nots? Will desired/vogue gear be overturned even faster? Who knows, but I have seen the problems thus far and I’m not sure I like the direction Blizzard is taking us.

The Azerothian dream is not that every person must be level with every other person. The Azerothian dream is that every person must be free to become whatever God Blizzard intends they should become.

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For Snack Road’s thoughts on a similar topic of gearing, check his post!