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.

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!