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.

Kirin Tor Offensive and the Uprising of Women

Archmage Modera, Jaina, Nasani, my shaman and Vereesa talk business.

Archmage Modera, Jaina, Narasi, my shaman and Vereesa talk business.

This week, like many other servers, my little RP server participated enough on the Isle of Thunder in order to unlock Stage 2. For anyone who hasn’t really poked at Patch 5.2 content, the newest daily hub features the forces of the Kirin Tor Offensive versus the Sunreaver Onslaught. These two factions are the continuation of the story from Patch 5.1 involving Jaina and the purging of Dalaran, and for the Alliance. What makes it so unique is that it’s one of the few places I’ve seen so far that is a largely woman-dominated part of the story, at least Alliance-side. What got me thinking about all this is the scenario (“Assault on Shaol’mara”) that players have to do that bridges Stage 1’s landfall on the island to securing the tiny outpost in Stage 2. The scenario, especially if you play a woman PC, is entirely driven and acted out by women NPCs – Jaina Proudmoore and Vereesa Windrunner in particular. There are also a couple other notable Kirin Tor Offensive names such as Archmage Modera and Narasi Snowdawn from the Silver Covenant.

It’s the first time that I can remember in-game that the story moving around me wasn’t really due to the actions of men or being plodded forward for their benefit. Even more astounding is that it isn’t really a diplomatic mission but it’s you fighting to push back the trolls in a skirmish. Vereesa is your guide Alliance-side and you and her fight with panache (she even says she likes your style!) and help gain ground so that the Offensive can set up a permanent base of operations on the island. It is a short scenario, to be sure, fighting a couple of bosses and trash but it felt a lot more immersive than some of the other story scenarios I ‘ve done, save for Operation: Shieldwall, but the fact that this particular group is headed up by Jaina and her lady pals is a welcome change from a world where she’s (and other women NPCs) have been shit on for taking the reins. While Garrosh and Varian are still duking it out like saggy diaper babies over Krasarang, Jaina and Vereesa are pushing with the Shado-Pan to unseat Lei Shen’s forces from the Throne of Thunder.

I always thought it was particularly weird that despite Azeroth being mixed gender, that women NPCs haven’t largely been as visible as “fighting” forces outside of Sylvanas. Even as leaders, they still assume more of a “calm” face to opposition. It wasn’t until Mists of Pandaria that it’s been more or less shaken up and not always in ways that I appreciate. Varian has always been presented as a hot-head but it isn’t until Jaina or Tyrande (in the Little Patience scenario) get their own need for anger that it’s suddenly not okay to be an aggressive person. I’m over-simplifying a bit but it seemed a little bit like women were still getting painted with a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” The Kirin Tor Offensive feels like a somewhat better outcome for the Jaina vs. Varian power dynamic than what Patch 5.1 had initially implied with Varian tsk’ing her into a corner because she had dared to go against his plans that she wasn’t even allowed to be a part of.  Jaina’s anger has always felt justified to me, especially as someone who read Tides of War, and I felt sad that most players, particularly Horde-side ones, wouldn’t necessarily grasp that her disgust with the Sunreavers would come from the fact that the ultimate betrayal of Theramore came from someone inside of Dalaran. The fact that the Offensive is also staffed and maintained by high-profile women that haven’t been seen in a while and would have largely been left to rot in Dalaran is a fresh take on the “daily hub with even more reputation grinding” dilemma.

For all of the problems that Mists has had so far with some of the PVE progression, the storytelling feels pretty top notch. I’ve long been a critic of some of Dave’s Kosak’s work in story development (I really hate his NPC!) but if this was his baby, particularly the scenario, then I can’t help but thank him. Women have too long taken a backseat in Blizzard’s stories and it is nice to see them doing something proactive and unguided by the desires of a male leader thus far. I’m really interested to see where the Kirin Tor Offensive goes as we unlock more stages, and I definitely feel more optimistic about then I have about some of the other things in this expansion.