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

Happy gnome shouting Ladies! In Warcraft!

Drawing by Paululum, aka @Doodlegnome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other posts on this topic:

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

Amber is the Color of my Gender

Technically I meant to title this as “Amber is the Color of my Sex” to be scientifically accurate but I figured it might attract the wrong kind of attention. Yesterday on Twitter, I was reading a really interesting discussion on the nature of Klaxxi gender. The reason for the speculation was because, despite Blizzard’s past laziness with regards to gendering their non-player races, it could easily be left open to interpretation with a bug race like the Klaxxi.

World of Male-craft

Unfortunately my skepticism that Blizzard made a race that wasn’t populated with dudes unless otherwise specified (Grand Empress Shek’zeer) is high. While Blizzard is exceptionally clever and the Mantids have been left open to interpretation, I don’t think it was done on purpose. Warcraft constantly defaults to “maleness” as the norm when it comes to NPCs unless there’s a reason to duplicate women elsewhere (in the case of some NPCs that have player races.) This isn’t surprising at all given that it is way cheaper on both resources and development time to only create men. Why?

Their logic seemingly is that in a world of war and aggression, wouldn’t most women die or be hidden away so you can perpetuate your tiny little race infinitely after adventurers slaughter billions of your kind every day? On top of that, they seem to not quite “grok” how to gender models as women without extensive time put into it if a model doesn’t have tits or a pink bow on it’s head. Those two facts make representation in the game world a fairly open-and-shut-case. There are notable exceptions to this: Centaur, Naga (who have explicit male/female models), Dragonkin (at some levels), and Harpies/Dryads (who are exclusively female.) The rest are seemingly neutrally gendered or typed male, even in the face of actual logic. That’s just how gameplay will always clash with lore.

This is the largest point in the idea that Blizzard may have made the Mantid at large a mixed gender race. However, this doesn’t stop us from using their lack of detail to our advantage to speculate otherwise.

BUGS, BUGS, BUGS

I’m not an entomologist but insect societies, which the Mantid and such seem to based on, wouldn’t necessarily conform to Blizzard’s “all men all the time” rule when it comes to NPC races. By setting up a female Grand Empress with an unclear line of succession (there’s combat and corpse eating but it doesn’t say if it is matrilineal or what) as well as offspring being sired by her (presumably), they seem to leave the door open for contradicting themselves with their own male bias. Insect societies that behave with a “queen” being the mother figure (see: Grand Empress Zek’hara) like ants and bees do not have an overwhelming majority of their society as male. Most of the workers tend to be female drones, with some breeding males groomed for the queen. It would stand to reason that if the Mantid were similar to these species in terms of being colony insects, that most of them (including the Klaxxi) would be women. However, a couple of facts about the Mantid move them away from being simple colony insects.

1.) They are fearsome in the singular, more-so if fighting in a swarm.

Insects that are typically colony-based do not have individual characteristics such as these, whereas Mantid seem to be capable of doing great damage all on their own, moreso if any group of them stick together.  A single Mantid is able of making personal decisions as well as defending themselves, and could live away from the group.

2.) They do not communicate via collective.

Unlike the typical sci-fi/spec-fi convention, Mantid and Klaxxi talk to eachother using technology via sound frequencies boosted over large areas and developed language, rather than things like scent markers, swarm intelligence or the ubiquitous “hive mind” where all members in the society are linked telepathically to the central power and do not think independently.

These two indicators mean that it is very possible that Mantids are not specifically majority female and may perhaps be a mixed-gender population (which is still not majority male.)

Not So Much Man-Tids: Meritocracy Within an Aristocracy

My strongest case for there being mixed gender despite Blizzard’s plans to leave a fairly non-dimorphic insect species mostly male is the cycle of the Mantid Swarm.

Mantid assaults on the Serpent’s Spine are a terrible thing to experience, both as a defender, and as a mantid. Only the smartest, strongest, or most agile of the mantid survive this encounter, and pandaren defenders are slaughtered outright in terrible numbers.

Mantid survivors make their way back to the great trees, often bearing trophies of their conquests. There, they are welcomed back into the mantid society, and take their place among their civilization according to the level of their deeds. The purpose of this rite of passage is unclear. but those who travel beyond the wall are forewarned: any mantid you encounter beyond the wall is a hardened veteran, to be feared and respected.

Mantid Swarm lore scroll in-game

In short, the Mantids and by virtue the Klaxxi, are a merit-based insect society. Those that we see in-game that are not throwing themselves against the wall as cannon fodder are the highest achieved in Mantid culture. At no point are these best and brightest codified as male, even those who are pegged as the most strong. Blade dancers, manipulators and bladeguards alike are, despite the game’s norm, potentially female. Due to WoW having no dimorphism in body types among the Mantids (save for the Empress) means that we have a potential for yet another mixed-gender NPC race. Granted, I still believe that this is by accident, but the idea of the Mantid society defining themselves by accomplishment seems more a true reflection of the Warcraft gender politics than even us as player characters are. In this vein, it’s very possible that the Empress ascends to the throne by virtue of being the most accomplished female within the group, rather than strict familial succession. We could conjecture even further and say that gender is fairly irrelevant as how Mantids define themselves in all aspects other than the singular Empress hierarchy. Gender as a societal construct seems fairly irrelevant to them and solely a biological indicator of sex. What a Mantid does during and after the Swarm cycle is far, far more important and is the pinnacle in individualism.

In this respect, despite Dread Wastes giving me the major wiggins, I find the Klaxxi/Mantids very exciting and hope that we see more lore about them in the future. As someone who uses the game to escape the ridiculous gender politics of reality, seeing a society work solely on individual merit makes me gleeful.