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.

This is How It Should Be

Adults on a concrete surface hold colored controllers in the air and move around.

Adults play Johann Sebastian Joust outdoors at BitBash Chicago.

 

The last three weeks have utterly destroyed me.

Granted, I’m not someone who had a hate campaign targeted at me, but watching women I considered to be at the forefront of games criticism being picked off, harassed, doxxed or quitting really took a number on my own sense of safety as well as my desire to be a writer in gaming. This slow-moving avalanche of misogyny reminded me of some awful things in my past and left me struggling to articulate feelings of helplessness as a woman, feminist and creative person.

In spite of all that, I was excited to be attending an indie games exhibition in Chicago called BitBash. Underscoring that excitement, however, was a touch of nervousness – what if I wasn’t “cool enough” to be there and what if there was drama? Still, I thought that getting a break from the constant misery-reinforcement on Twitter and various blogs was a good idea. I was also going to hang out with Gita, someone who’s work was incredibly enriching to me but also was a kick-ass lady to be friends with. In addition to that, she was also okay with hanging out with a weird Internet woman (me.)

We met up on Saturday and took a car over to the Threadless warehouse space in the Western Loop area of Chicago, not knowing what to really expect. We showed up and were greeted by a pretty welcoming sight: people milling around in the front parking lot playing games and having a good time. We had gotten there early enough so the food trucks hadn’t quite been set up yet, but late enough to make clear that the space was full of things to do and see. We had pushed our arrival later in general, as BitBash had warned of lines, but for the most part it was just the right amount of people and we had no problem getting in and milling around.

One of the first games I got to experience was Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik), which Gita had excitedly mentioned wanting to play since we got there. When I had read the description, I was confused, having no experience with the original game, and it seemed very abstract. Watching a bunch of people play it though, made me realize how fun it was. Even though I didn’t step in (I have a really intense performance anxiety), watching everyone flail around and move to get other people to shake their controller, appropriately controlling their speed to the slowed-down or sped up orchestrations, was incredibly entertaining. Adults playing and having a good time outside is infectious and isn’t something you see often, especially since many of us focus on hobbies that keep us inside, aloof. Not to be outdone by just peers, I even saw a group of grown men attempt to compete with a tiny little girl who was just as excited as them to play.

That kind of experience was indicative of what I noticed over and over again while we were there: everyone showed up. Gaming events have always felt very overwhelmingly white and male and this didn’t. Granted, there still were a lot of white dudes there, but many more people were that didn’t fit the profile. A highlight of this was notably how many women there were. Given recent events, it made the event feel incredibly safe. Looking around, I saw tons of women: working the event, playing video games, as well as sitting around chatting with each other. In general, it was a diverse array of nerdy people with splashy t-shirts with Metal Gear Solid or Doctor Who, hipsters with knit caps and flannel, as well as people who I’d probably see in my office. It wasn’t even the typical young, single crowd either. There were older people, parents with kids, and couples of all varieties. It surprised me, even as someone who’s crowed that “gaming is for everyone.” Seeing it happen as a bunch of people coming out to have a fun time really knocked that idea home for me.

Other than attendees, Threadless itself was another high point. The space was incredibly inviting for not just play but also relaxation, which I relished. I’m someone with a chronic illness and having half of it outside with benches and grass meant that I could take breaks to sit down, read my phone or generally enjoy the nice weather. Gaming tends to present a level of stimulus for me but adding in crowds of people (and it did get crowded inside at times) meant that it becomes a touch overwhelming, so being able to take a moment was appreciated. If I had to grouse about anything, it’s only that it needs a bigger space next time. Lines for the food trucks also presented a problem, as standing for long periods of time on concrete made comfort impossible. Overall, though, it felt nice that there were spaces to chill out and socialize if you needed a break. Gaming could do well to recognize this for other events, as I know I am not the only person who might need this sort of things.

Inside the store’s floor and warehouse proper is where most of the games were being exhibited. I milled around, elbowing my way past throngs of people, as most of the cabinets or laptop setups were close together. I regret to say that I did not play most of the games that were at the exhibition, but one that caught my eye was the Choosatron by Jerry Belich. The idea of a game being a Choose Your Adventure register printer was really unassuming and creative to me. I picked a story that revolved around the machine’s assurance that I was dead. Quietly, and with satisfaction at the simplicity of it, I folded up the tape of my story and put it in my pocket. I still have it.

Most of my time was spent watching other people play the games and that was fine enough for me. Something about games is intensely private for me, whether it is putting quarters into a machine no one is playing or sitting at my computer fiddling around in Diablo 3. The idea of people leaning over, waiting their turn and watching me gave me the creeps and reinforced this idea in myself that I’m still terrible at video games. However, this was mostly my own anxiety talking. No one was being rude or aggressive at any point during the event. Dying was a mirthful moment, and messing up got the usual face-palms and backslaps from friends. I got to watch one of the game’s creators (I believe) even cheering on participants who made a point of knocking over tables in Tango in Paradise Simulator (Andy Saia) by chanting, “TABLE TABLE TABLE!” loudly. While I was a touch sad I didn’t get to play Max Gentleman (Hats Productions) or Tango in Paradise, Crypt of the Necrodancer (Brace Yourself Games), getting to be a part of the overall experience was worth it to me. Everything about the space and experience was rewarding and gave me some part of myself back that I had lost along the way in the past month.

As Gita and I took a car back to her apartment, both of us remarked how positive the day had been. Both of us had felt a need for something like that and we had gotten it in spades. It was an enriching event that felt like the way games should be: fun and for everyone. Everyone from adults to kids had a good time, including two little girls that had just come from tap recitals and someone’s grandmother watching the Joust.

It was a renewing Saturday. It would have been even if in the wee hours of the night, Zoe Quinn hadn’t revealed that this feverish nightmare had been online misogynist brigades actually conspiring. It washed away a lot of the perpetually sour, negative feelings I’d had over the past couple of weeks and gave me at least one bright spot amid all of the rubbish. In the larger aspect, it felt like this is how I imagined things. I know it’s a little high-minded to wish for a utopian world where gaming could be for everyone, without harassment or guile or oppression, but for a few hours in a warehouse, maybe it was.