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.

 

 

A Letter to Blizzard Regarding Rape

Content warning: This letter is going to talk pretty openly and specifically about rape, sexual assault and coercive sexual acts. If this is triggering, please skip this post. 

The only thing I thought when people started “speculating” that Y’rel might be Garona’s mother somehow in Darkest Timeline Draenor was, “Jesus christ, not again.” Despite the fact that I don’t find that story plausible given what I saw in the Warlords demo (if anything, it’d be Y’rel’s sister), the content potentially provided would be all too familiar. It’s really been a huge bugbear of my Warcraft career that so much of the game and tie-in books have introduced a lot of dark, sexually violent content.  Given Warcraft’s announcements that AU!Draenor would be more dark and “savage”, I am terrified if that means we’re going to return to even more of the hints of grimdark, gritty “realism” we’ve seen pop up in WoW since around Wrath. Why do I believe that this is going to involve rape and sexual violence? Look at the setting and look at what things we’ve encountered before in the Warcraft universe. Most of it has never been explicitly shown or described (thank god) but it doesn’t take much thought to see what has been going on in-between the lines, or hidden behind the veil of euphemistic language.

So yes, if you’ve never thought about it at great length before, here is what I’m saying: Warcraft has a rape problem. It’s not immediate, it’s not usually happening to characters in the game but it’s there, implied, talked around and gestured at vaguely. Forced pregnancy or attempts at forced breeding happening to Alexstrasza and Kirygosa, other red dragons? That’s rape. Mind-controlled sex slaves in Black Temple? Rape. Keristrasza being forcefully taken as a consort for Malygos? That’s rape (And we kill her later too.) Half-orc and -draenei children being born out of prisoner camps? Probably rape (Inmate and guard relations are not consensual.)  Mogu quests where they tell their buddies to “have their way” with us as prisoners? It might not have been intended that way, but that is euphemistic language for rape as well.

I’m so mad about this, if you couldn’t tell.

It’s really hard as a rape and sexual assault survivor to look at a fantasy world I have spent almost 10 years inhabiting still have darkness like this lurking around the corners. More than anything else that’s problematic in the game (and there is quite a few things), I have a hard time dealing with yet another potential fantasy world that Blizzard has concocted where I might once again have to face a reality where Warcraft has rape victims in it. It’s a huge trope and motif in fantasy, particularly of the more “grimdark” or gritty variety. It is a conceit where authors say that it makes the world more “realistic” and therefore, by their logic, better. In a worse case scenario, some authors and writers (a lot of whom have never experienced this) even use it as a cheap “this is how we break a woman down before we build her back up to be strong” trope. Or they joke about it as a metaphor without concern that this is someone’s life they are talking about. Rape is not a fantasy concept. It is not some far-off happenstance because we live in a just world where it stopped existing. Rapists go free. Rapists do it without concern or even recognizing that they are responsible. Some of us have to live or see or be near people who have raped us. A lot of times, rapists are people who have a lot of power over others. The list goes on. It is very fully a reality that many, many people live with. As someone who lives in this reality perpetually, where I’m never ever going to be quite safe no matter where I go, I could do less of that and more with a fluffy, lighter fantasy world where maybe my character would be considered safe. Not even due to the fact that she has magic and anyone trying something like that would easily be burned alive, but just due to the fact that rape and coercion wouldn’t even exist.  (While we’re asking for impossible things, can I tack torture on there too?)

I get it, people are going to tell me that “This is a fantasy story about war! We murder people by the droves! Why aren’t you bothered by that?” As far as I know, I have not slaughtered people by the thousands. I am not cruel to wild animals. I have, with only one exception, never seen anyone being violently killed or die. But I have, on a regular basis, been fondled, flashed, groped, as well as lived through both rape and sexual assault. On top of that, I’ve been in many more situations where I just did things I didn’t want to just not deal with the person demanding them. This is a persistent thing for some people, in our world. A lot of us never feel safe, and coming to the gaming community, where “rape” is a term tossed around in PVP, to even our fantasy games dragging in sexual assault, violence and torture, you can’t even leave it behind for an hour or two in the evenings.

Granted, Warcraft has done a good job not having it immediately up in front of our face but as anyone who’s read my blog on a regular basis knows, it’s still there. I’m asking that maybe now, before we travel to a new Draenor, that maybe it’s an alternate universe where this kind of awful, emotionally destructive shit doesn’t happen. It’s tiring. It makes coming back to Warcraft unnerving and upsetting and feeling like my desires don’t matter. It perpetually taints a place that has been, over the years, fairly supportive of both my real life and my fantasy experiences. I’ve met great guildmates, had fun in raids and seen amazing places. But every time people start speculating or I read yet another tie-in novel that mentions forced pregnancy, I feel gross all over again.

It’s not fun, it’s not fair to a lot of us, and it shouldn’t be some injected part of a fantasy story, point blank. There’s ways and means of putting it into a story that don’t make it cheap or only for spice, that don’t add it to a list of a character’s attributes like you would with “enjoys long walks” or “fought in the Third War.” But most of all, if you can’t do it right, maybe not do it at all? So many other places have enough of it that Warcraft skipping it from now on would not bother me a single solitary bit.

 

 

 

 

 

Warlords of Draenor: Building Female Models

Orc female showing off new model and expressions.

Orc models and screenshot courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

One of the features in the upcoming expansion I’ve been looking forward to the most is the long-awaited model revamps. While we have no confirmation that these models will be ready by the start or even middle of the expansion, what we’ve been shown so far has been promising. Through their new Artcraft series on World of Warcraft’s front page blog, we’ve been able to see a continuation of the promises they made about updating models at Blizzcon last year. Today’s offering of an orc female is no different and comes hot on the heels of the recent debut of the human female model.

It’s no secret that I take female model designs seriously – gaming culture is plagued with representations of women’s bodies that are problematic and World of Warcraft has long had a problem with a lack of customization. While I’ve enjoyed that at least WoW makes a decent effort to vary its’ silhouettes, it is still a game running on a graphics engine that’s severely outdated. These model revamps have been fun to watch as they happen; it is clear that they want to keep the overall visual fidelity to the old models but at the same time fix a lot of the problems that come with having them be a far lower resolution. Also nice to see is the time and care taken with some of the musculature and anatomy. Seeing game models that finally sit the breasts on the chest wall in a realistic manner is heartening, as well as egregious postures being smoothed out and relaxed.

I have to admit I’m a bit blown away with how much personality and life they’ve injected into the models. The postures looking more natural, as well as improved muscles and facial expressions makes me feel I’m playing a “real” person. The new orc female models are no exception – there’s life there now beyond just a blank, doe-eyed expression.

“We want a strong female counterpart to the male, equally battle-ready in appearance, yet still feminine.” — Character Artist, Dusty Nolting

I think the most heartening part of this process, seeing the models unveiled, is that it feels like the design ethic with the female models is steered in a direction that I feel comfortable with. What designers sometimes seem to lack understanding is that women’s bodies are so fraught with politics but they are ultimately our own and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and ability. Designing characters that show a little of this variety, particularly if there’s no sliders to customize, is what is going to keep many of your customers enjoying the characters they play is in your game. Dusty’s quote from the Artcraft about the orc models also reveals another part of the ethic that was very frustrating in the past: dimorphism and the tug and pull between feminine and masculine.

Design often requires visual shorthand to convey a lot of information in a very short amount of time. This often means exaggerating many different things – gendered traits are one of those things. What determines “male” and “female” visually falls on pretty essentialist tropes like muscle groups, facial hair and secondary sex characteristics like bust. Women are often designed to be sexy or sexual and men are power fantasies. This is due to who gaming still believes it the core audience – straight men. Men are given huge muscular bodies and women have very similar hourglass figures with giant racks. This is how the nuance between feminine and masculine gets hammered out as well. With the orc women, I was really troubled by the idea that they would not be able to strike a core balance between the more battle-ready nature of the orcs and the fact that orc women are still women in their own right. How do women in orc culture look and how does this compare to women of other races? Creating identity and unique versions of femininity among all the races of Azeroth is key here. It’s no secret that some race’s women are coded much more traditionally feminine than others: see draenei, night elves and blood elves. It’s necessary to allow every race to have elements of both hardness and softness in their visual identity. With the orcs, I was worried that she would swing too hard in either direction and it’d feel like a joke or cheap. The fact that the screenshots we got convey both that hardened nature as well as mirth and beauty makes me feel more at ease. Now, if I could only get some of the orc women’s hairstyles on my female humans or even my draenei would make me feel able to feel slightly more butch even on a heavily feminized body.

Between the orc woman’s kissy face and the gnome lady’s legendary side-eye, I do feel that one of the things about Warlords of Draenor I won’t have to worry about is how all the models look visually. Blizzard has done a great job so far giving us a peek behind the curtain about how we are going to look in the not-so-distant (alternate) future (in the past) and I look forward to seeing all the models.

Update: Blizzard quietly dropped a full render of the dwarven female model on their Warlords of Draenor site just an hour. Go look!

Some my quick thoughts are mostly that while I love her body, I wish she had a bit more meat on her thighs. Some of the screenshots of her face look a bit wonky but I would bet they look better when actually in game. Yay!

 

Can We Not, Razor Hill?

Misandry the undead mage glares at two gross orcs.

 (Tried really hard to make the title an homage to the infamous A Chorus Line song, “Dance: 10, Looks: 3″ but it didn’t work out. Pretend I did. – ed.)

Patch 5.4 just hit and with it a wave of new content. Unfortunately I am not here to talk about the excitement of Timeless Isle or Flex raids just yet. It came to my attention this morning (hat-tip to Lhivera on Twitter) that someone from my server had posted on the general forums about two gross sexist NPCs that had been dropped into  the game due to the changes in the patch.

Turns out that as of only two days ago, there were now two refugee orcs hanging out in the Razor Hill inn that have a discussion that highlights the looks of the other refugee woman stranded at the inn while Ogrimmar and all points surrounding are in utter chaos. If that wasn’t bad enough, it’s the fact that both orcs are using the “rating system” of ranking a woman’s beauty on a scale of 1 to 10 and not being precisely kind about it.

Orgrimmar Refugee says: Oh, look at her over there. She’s be beautiful. A perfect 10!
Orgrimmar Refugee says: A 10? Ha! Maybe in Razor Hill. In Orgrimmar she’d only be a 6.

I skimmed the thread before it got deleted – it was the usual hot garbage with a couple of bright spots where people were defending the OP and calling stuff out. The real sickening part of this for me though was just how normal people believe this stuff to be. Rating women like they are consumer products is objectifying, dehumanizing and hurtful if you have to deal with it, which a lot of women do. Ranking women reinforces the idea that the only thing of value we have is how men judge us based on arbitrary notions of what they find attractive, or more bluntly, “fuckable.” It’s coarse and piggish.

I was dismayed that this was even in the game, especially as of the latest patch. Here we are not talking about content that’s been embedded in parts of the game from years past but something someone recently felt was okay to stick in a little corner of the game, with all the added contextual grossness due to the fact that it’s displaced citizens describing a woman away from her home. I thought that Blizzard had gotten at least slightly better since the Ji Firepaw fiasco, that maybe we had started to get on the right track away from some of the more dudebro aspects of design. It’s been elucidated to me that developers take pride over their NPC creations, no matter how big or small, so who takes pride in this? Who takes credit for this? Why did someone feel comfortable sticking street harassment in here? It rightly makes people feel uncomfortable playing, like this world isn’t also ours to partake in.

Thankfully, as a small silver lining, CM Zarhym tweeted in response  (right before I put the blog to press) to several concerned parties on Twitter that this gossip text was being removed. Swift action is one of the best courses of action for something small like this, but I think we still need to get at a place where people consider that these things are a) not normal b) are hurtful to quite a few of us that play the game. I still hold out some shred of optimism that World of Warcraft overall is improving, but a lot of that is due to those of us in the community who feel more bold to call this stuff out. There’s a sea change coming and I suspect it is because of the efforts of bloggers, Twitter folks and forum posters that are doing most of the work.

Misandry the mage yells at these bags of amalgamated hubris.

Misandry the mage yells at these bags of amalgamated hubris.

Still, much gratitude to the community team for passing this internally and getting it changed so quickly. It was really weird to fly into Razor Hill and have to skip over the cool lore events that are going on there to check out two nameless orcs critiquing an orc woman’s looks rudely every minute or so. We ultimately need to keep pushing for a game that builds a world where the shitty things we have to contend with in real life aren’t the same things we run across randomly in game from NPCs.

(Thank you to Misanthropology 101 and Ember Dione for their blog posts.)

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.

New Pandaren Female Teaser: Critique on Video Game Women Bouncily Abounds

Pandaren Female

Very early this morning (3 AM or so my time) Blizzard decided to drop a teaser image on us of what is presumably the female pandaren model for Mists of Pandaria. The full reveal will be on the 19th of March. Considering how we’ve already seen not only  how the males of the race move and look, this was arguably one of the most hotly speculated things about the expansion that wasn’t revealed at Blizzcon last year. The full image is posted up at World of Warcraft’s Facebook, here.

A couple of things really leap out at me and my especially trained lady-figure eye (so sue me): first off, it’s not as heavy as I would have liked, perhaps. There’s obviously curves there, but as Pewter from Decoding Dragons commented, “[it] is still  hourglass shaped.” It gives off feelings of dwarf women, which is fine, but I felt that maybe Blizzard could have gone to a different body form this time around. Slightly more rotund or bottom-heavy triangle would have made sense given how the males are shaped. The arms and their length definitely feel more “animal” than humanoid given that they sit slightly more bulky and longer than where they’d fall on humanoids. They are very goblin-ish in that regards. She has a confident gait, which means she’s not going to be slumping or stooped. The shape coming off her legs and midsection suggests a swinging tassel or tabard. It’s unspeakably Asian-influenced too, with the hair sticks. There’s still a lot of things that trouble me with regards to the Pandaren and Pan-Asian influences, especially where the women are concerned. All in all though, this doesn’t look like a terrible model. The real test though will be to see the face; given what a botch job female worgen were, I am cautiously hopeful that this lady won’t have bedroom eyes or a side-wise snarl.

What really interests me about this is not Mists of Pandaria but what criticism of said female video game race models says about our feelings on women’s bodies, even if they are “fictional.” If you take a gander at WoW Insider’s or MMO Champion’s comments, you are going to get an eyeful of criticism of various body types, sexualized language, and a lot of snark about these “panda women.” (Usual rules and warnings about reading comments apply here, guys. Approach with caution.) Not only criticism but a ton of wolf calls and value judgements like “normal” and “real” which is always exceptionally pernicious when it comes to discussions such as these. A lot of intriguing language that persists in our own discussions about larger women’s bodies pervades with an uneasy metaphor: being “thick” or “having meat on their bones.” It says that we still have a lot of weird concepts with regards to seeing women as edible, consumable or outright sold off the docks to restaurants, if you want to be perversely literal with this metaphor.  All this ever does, aside from whatever homophobia and fat-shaming goes on, is serve to reduce how us actual non-fictional women feel about our own bodies. Sure, Pandaren exist only in Azeroth, but we are the ones who play alongside the gamers saying things like what kind of badonkadonk they have, how big the boobs are, or how ugly and fat they are. A lot of us want to see ourselves in the video games we play (to a degree) and despite eagerly accepting fantasy, there’s ties between our own looks and how these races look (even for men.) As much as men feel the slights of a male power fantasy by not having a 6-pack, women tend to feel bowled over by the sexually-charged, often sexist approaches that video game companies take when representing their fantasy women. It’s still about how we are not part of the audience who is looking at this, and this audience often speaks up quite loudly without thinking about the ramifications of what they are saying.

Do I think Blizzard is failing in this regard? Not as much as some other games, no. Blizzard, while still adhering to a mostly popular waist-hip ratio, still mixes it up with heights, body girth and bone structure (especially with regards to Forsaken, naturally.) It does so more than some other games that have a wide variety of races in their worlds. I’ve heard a lot of women who are happy with the fact that they can play a race that looks like them or makes them feel good about themselves. While the Pandaren criticism is going to be coming fast and hard, I urge you to make your own judgements, whether they be positive or negative, but let’s leave the shaming, the creepiness and the grossness behind. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with these new brewing-and-cooking women (which is fascinating to me, since women dominated a lot of the world’s brewing pre-Industrial Revolution) who can stomp butts all over. Mists, here we come.