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.

Sexism and Rape Culture in Pandaria

Mina Mudclaw dances for a Springtail Ogler.

TW: Some minor discussion of rape and rape culture.

And like a familiar tide, I find myself being pulled back out to the blogging sea, adrift on my annoyance and frustration.

I had planned to write a full summation of  Mists of Pandaria thus far, but I’ve been having too much fun actually playing it to sit down and blog. It’s been really intense to like an expansion so much that I rarely have time for other things, but there you have it. However, as you may have guessed, the new content is not without its problems. The specter of something sinister was already there waiting to greet me as I hit the shores of this new continent.

That something is sexism and rape culture.

It sucks, let me tell you. I’m really having fun and enjoying myself for the first time in a while and I hate myself for seeing this stuff. However, I hate it more for being there. It shouldn’t be. I shouldn’t have to be reminded of the real world, of the grotesque behavior of people, when I want to escape to the bright world of Pandaren and farming and oooh shiny. But unfortunately game developers are still dudes. They still add stuff like this without realizing that this hurts people or how it might come off. Much like Ji Firepaw, I suspect this is a decision to include things that developers see as “normal” — this only enforces my opinion that this stuff exists for many people as something humorous or positive. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit to say that this is unintentional. Maybe it is just a lie I want to believe more than the alternative.

When I was questing to 90 on my main, one of the first zones I really got into was Valley of the Four Winds. The serene music, the lightly falling rains on a verdant farmland looked like it was ripped straight out of a Miyazaki film. But one of the quests early on set the alarm bells a-ringing – The Farmer’s Daughter. Cuppy over at Borderhouse Blog went over this quest’s problematic elements in great detail, which is one of the reasons I felt like writing my own post. Mina having to dance with her furry feet while virmen pelted her with carrots may seem really lighthearted, but much like some of the other things I found later on in the game, it is floated really heavily on an entire set of stories and cultural touchstones that bother me. The idea of a farmer’s daughter (which was mentioned as being a common joke/trope) being kidnapped by sentient rabbit creatures (the mobs are called oglers, for fuck’s sake) to amuse them is weird. It obviously distressed Mina and so I find myself distressed as well. But I brushed it aside because I’m used to doing that. The first thing that anyone tells you when you speak up about something being sexist or part of rape culture is that “you are seeing things that aren’t there.” So I kept on questing (but not without taking a screenshot, incidentally.)

I got into farming at Halfhill in a really bad way. One of the dailies that you do at level 90 for Gina Mudclaw (a relative of Mina, incidentally) is called “Money Matters.” It is pretty obvious to anyone who spends any amount of time in the Heartland that the Mudclaws are a family that run the entire place. They have powerful positions on the Tillers in terms of voting (Gina and Haohan respectively comprise two of the five votes you need to enter your farm) and Gina herself runs the market as both the quartermaster and coinkeeper. She has a lot of prestige and money. This money gets loaned out (without the vig, even!) to various townspeople, and gets collected by you, the hired muscle. The quest has a circulating batch of responses from all of the debtors – some days they pay up, some days they do not. On the days they do not, you are given the option to either pay their debts for them (usually 1G) or beat them up. The first couple of times I did the quest, I paid for people because I felt sympathetic. I wasn’t really reading many of the responses people give, which are sometimes downright obnoxious about Gina. However, it is Spicemaster Jin Jao that takes the grossness cake.

“Gina? That girl down in the marketplace? Hah!

Tell that pretty little thing to come collect the money personally. I’m sure she and I can come to some sort of… agreement.”

His attitude and his desire to rectify his debts with sexual favors made my skin crawl. Despite the fact he owes her money, he still treats her like a frivolous child, but a woman he’s still attracted to and feels that he can “pay back” with sex because he desires her. Her money nor her power or agency are not even a concern here. It’s weird as hell. This one little thing really rubbed me the wrong way. Needless to say the only recourse I had for this was threatening him with violence.

However, that shouldn’t even be in the game in my opinion. Sexist crap shouldn’t be a short-hand (as someone people have argued with me) for “bad character.” You can show evilness or flaws without falling back on gross attitudes that women have to deal with in real life. Someone like Garrosh comes to mind in this instance — they are already priming him for loot pinata status by making him a fascist dictator but his part in Tides of War as sexist scumbag was so fucking awful. When he backhanded only Kelantir Bloodblade (the only major female Horde presence in the book, I might add) or referred to Jaina as “that Proudmoore bitch,” I winced. It isn’t sexism to make a point, it is sexism because that’s what you know as a writer or a designer to indicate certain things about someone. Very often, it isn’t even to indicate bad things. It just exists there because it is normal and natural for you. Garrosh might be getting painted as a super-bad character (because sexism is that last great bastion of evilness, apparently) but people like Spicemaster Jin Jao? Oh, that’s part of a natural stack of responses to a woman asking you for her money back.

My question is why it has to be there at all? Why do we have to use things that make us as woman players feel uncomfortable and reminded of real life in order to strew character development here and there? Why do characters in a video game have to participate in the same shit some of us deal with every day?

One of the final things (so far) that really bothered me was brought up to me by a guildmate. She was doing Golden Lotus dailies and got to the single-time quest that you do when you get to Honored. The quest called “The Secrets of Guo-Lai” and has you entering the Guo-Lai halls with He Softfoot (the worst rogue in the world) in order to find out what the Mogu are planning in Vale. He inevitably gets caught by Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter, who starts crushing the life out of him by a Jade Statue proxy. The quest has you futilely trying to save your friend but you end up both caught.

Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter says: How noble, rescuing your friend from certain death…
Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter yells: …and all for nothing. Take them!
The adventurer and He are both trapped in nets.
Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter says: Your struggle is pointless.
Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter says: You are ignorant to the powerful secrets contained within this vale. I will take them, and then I will destroy all of your kind.
Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter says: Throw these prisoners in the cages. Let the men have their way with them.

source, last emphasis in red is mine

I feel like Fox Mulder when I say that “I want to believe.” I want to believe that the quest designers forgot that the most common insinuation with “have your way with someone” is rape. Granted, it gets prettier terms like “ravaging” or “ravishing” but let’s get down to brass tacks, it means rape. It is never consensual. I want to believe that meant that the Mogu were just going to beat you and He up or feed you to a pack of quillen or something. However, as a woman, this quest chilled me a lot. It bothered quite a few women in my guild and for good reason. It’s a pretty accurate portrayal of stuff that’s happened to women in both our fictional worlds and even real worlds. Get taken prisoner, get put in a cage, be left to get raped by your captors. This stuff isn’t the fancy of someone’s imagination, it is stuff that’s happened to real people. This is why it bothers me so much to have it turn up in my video game. Yes, I get that it is a war game. Warcraft is chock-full of rape if you look close enough at the dragonflights, at Draenei/orc relations. But to have it be a part of the player’s own peril just brings it a step too close for me.

The fact that it came up in an interview with Dave Kosak goes to show that Blizzard feels that this is a part of their storytelling, their quest design. And the fact that I keep finding it turn up in unexpected places goes to show that sexism and rape culture is alive and well even in this new continent of Pandaria. It bothers me wholeheartedly that I have to put up with this in my video games, even in one that has been making strides including more varied and strong women in their quests. So I’ll keep being bothered and talking about it. I hope that Blizzard, like with Ji Firepaw, realizes how much it affects their player-base and moves away from it. I don’t want to deal with it anymore.