WoW

As part of my ongoing search for interesting ways to occupy myself while waiting for Bad Monkeys to be published, I’ve started playing World of Warcraft. This is not an entirely pointless time sink. I did some freelance work for one of the local software giants last year, and it’s conceivable that at some point someone will ask me to be a “creative consultant” on an MMORPG, so I figure it can’t hurt to have some actual play experience.

Before hiking over to Fred Meyer to pick up the game client, I read a bunch of player and game designer blogs, and found some interesting essays. One issue that gets mentioned periodically in game design circles, in a “We really should do something about this…someday” kind of way, is that the vast majority of computer game designers are white men who, lacking anyone to tell them otherwise, sometimes make decisions that needlessly alienate millions of potential customers.

For my first World of Warcraft character, I decided to play a troll of the hunter class. About an hour into the game I got sent on a quest to a seaside village called Sen’Jin, populated by my fellow trolls, and while interacting with the non-player characters I realized that we were all speaking with Haitian accents. A particular shade of Haitian accent, seemed like: repeatedly, as I finished an exchange with a quest-giver or a shopkeeper, I was warned to “Stay away from the voodoo, mon.” Gee, I thought, that’s odd. Why would trolls talk like black people?

Seeking answers, I turned to the racial history section of the WoW manual, and read the following: “The vicious trolls that populate the numerous jungle isles of the South Seas are renowned for their cruelty and dark mysticism. Barbarous and superstitious, they carry a seething hatred for all other races…” Ah, I thought, of course. That explains it. Trolls talk like black people because they’re superstitious jungle savages.

WoW, indeed.

Naturally, this got me curious. Was this an isolated horrible worldbuilding choice, or was there more? After leveling up my troll a bit, I started another character, a Tauren druid.

Taurens, as their name suggests, are a minotaur-like species (although my female druid looks more like a bipedal dairy cow). But they really should have been modeled on bison rather than cattle, because it turns out Taurens are actually Native Americans of the Mix-n-Match tribe. Environmentally conscious citizens of the plains, they live in both tipis and longhouses, and carve totem poles. And their signature greeting is “How!”, an expression I haven’t heard since the days of F-Troop.

Again, WoW.

Don’t get me wrong. World of Warcraft is as fun and addictive as you’ve heard, very well done in most respects. But in a game meant to appeal to a mass audience, this sort of stuff is just incredibly dumb.

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20 Responses to WoW

  1. fallen_scholar says:

    Mind you, those aren’t the trolls you’re supposedly playing. You’re playing…er…uncle trolls. Also, be ready to be entertained by the Sean Connery meets Bruce Campbell dwarves.

    Part of it is a residual concept from table top fantasy RP that an accent is the core of any good role play. This has always mystified me. I mean, I understand the method theory to it, but most people have a limited number of accents they can do with any ease. They want to make it easy for people who want to get into the act. Unfortunately, they make some awkward choices.

    However, the other trick is that the game is not meant to appeal to a mass audience. They know their audience is primarily mildly affluent white boys and young men who tend to turn into quasi-literates when on the internet. I mean, when I left WoW, it was because of this sort of thing, specifically the LBGT guild fiasco.

    In fact, my final e-mail to Blizzard was along the lines of ‘by your actions, it is clear which part of your audience you actually want. You could have chosen to continue to enforce the rules in a sensible manner. But you didn’t, and proved to me I’m not the sort of player you want.’ Mind you, there were some other issues too, also revolving around the inconsistency of Blizzard’s actions on the RP servers, where it was, again, clear that they were more interested in a “stop the car” method of punishment than their originally stated “self-policing” one.

    I would, however, if you’re scanning the field in general, check into some of the other MMOs out there. Most you can scrounge up a free X day trial for. I’d highly suggest EVE. While I didn’t find it terribly satisfying (more accurately it was one of those times when I realized that, sometimes, you can get exactly what you’ve been looking for for ages…and then discover it doesn’t actually grab you), it’s world’s apart from WoW. A Tale in the Desert is much the same way.

    • Matt Ruff says:

      However, the other trick is that the game is not meant to appeal to a mass audience. They know their audience is primarily mildly affluent white boys and young men who tend to turn into quasi-literates when on the internet.

      I realize that that’s their bread-and-butter demographic, but even if they don’t want to go out of their way to court other groups, it seems like it’d be good business, and not that hard, to avoid actively repelling them. When I first read the manual and saw that they’d dropped the old RPG cliche of giving male and female characters different starting stats (more strength for him, more charisma for her), I thought, “Good, someone’s on the ball.” Turns out not so much.

      I would, however, if you’re scanning the field in general, check into some of the other MMOs out there.

      Before getting World of Warcraft, I took a run at MapleStory, which is a 2-D platform-jumper MMORPG from Korea, recently ported into English. The business model is interesting: the game itself is free to download and play, but there’s an in-game cash shop where you can buy cooler-looking armor, better weapons, etc.

      Unfortunately the interface is poorly designed — it took me ten minutes to discover how to leave the arrival platform, and I wasn’t alone — and then, because my character was female, one of the tutorial NPCs starting hitting on me in a really annoying and condescending way. So I gave up after the first half hour.

      EVE Online does sound interesting. Have to say I’m surprised there hasn’t been a World of Starcraft yet, given the popularity of the RTS title.

  2. mojayokok says:

    haha ‘how’ indeed, ‘mon’. That is priceless! I’d be insulted if I could just stop laughing!

  3. bassfingers says:

    OK, I know I’m not the only one who thinks MMORPGing in the settings of either Fool on the Hill or Sewer, Gas & Electric would totally rock…

    • Matt Ruff says:

      I think I’d pick Sewer over Fool — but I’d pick a completely original world over either.

      • bassfingers says:

        For Fool I was thinking the world of the campus is a much bigger place from the point of view of the little people; playing as a dog adds a bunch of other challenges; and getting to be a Bohemian would be an entirely different dynamic. Three (or more, if you threw in the gods…) co-existing worlds of play that may overlap at points, but not at others, not always on the same page as to what their primary goals are. Seems like a rich enough possibility for me. 🙂

  4. Jeffrey Ford says:

    Matt: My kid used to play this game all the time and I watched over his shoulder sometimes to get a sense of what’s going on. The entire WoW world is a stereoptype of, at least, tired Fantasy tropes (I don’t mean to say that this should negate its enjoyment for people). I’m not surprised about this stuff, though I think your discovery is interesting. What I could never get over is how much time you actually spend in the game just running here and running there. They should have called it World of Running.

    • ironymaiden says:

      the standard fan phrase is “World of Walking”.

    • Matt Ruff says:

      It’s definitely a stew of old tropes, but I think that’s a feature rather than a bug — they’re trying to appeal to the fantasy pulp market, and doing quite well at it.

      The constant running around feels more like a design flaw. It’s fun the first time you explore a new area, but quickly becomes a grind. I gather there are mounts and teleportation spells available to higher-level characters, but making gameplay less tedious shouldn’t be a reward, it should be part of the basic package. The single-player RPG Oblivion had a nice feature where once you’d visited an area, you could travel to it instantaneously just by clicking on your map. Something similar in WoW would be nice.

      • Jeffrey Ford says:

        Matt: Agreed. My son, for the time he was really into the game, very much enjoyed it, and I could tell that instead of deadening his imagination it really sparked it. I have to also say I’m impressed with the depth of the world — the way it opens outward and changes in every direction; the complexity of it. I can forsee that some day soon there will be virtual worlds as deep and equally as idiosyncratically fascinating as say a novel by China Mieville. Not only that but my son really got into the idea of the economy of the WoW; the money transactions, etc. I think this interested him as much at times as the bashing things with the weapons (the fighting is pretty corn dog if you ask me). And yes, there are swifter modes of transportation. I think at one point he had a Gryphon that his character flew around on that cut down on the running somewhat.

        • Matt Ruff says:

          I can forsee that some day soon there will be virtual worlds as deep and equally as idiosyncratically fascinating as say a novel by China Mieville.

          I hope it happens, but the big stumbling block is that the production costs are so high, not just for MMORPGs but for any state-of-the-art video game. Eight-figure budgets breed a Hollywood mentality. I know there are indie alternatives, but even that level of quality is expensive compared to, say, shooting a film on digital video.

          Not only that but my son really got into the idea of the economy of the WOW; the money transactions, etc.

          I’m intrigued by both the internal economy and the external economy. The phenomenon of gold farming fascinates me.

  5. ironymaiden says:

    why do i always respond to this news like “hey, i tried heroin today”?

  6. ironymaiden says:

    spazzychic pointed me to the Daedalus Project. it’s real research on MMORPGs instead of anecdotes. the problematic usage article made sense of my past experiences with MMO players.

  7. (Anonymous) says:

    Perhaps the Troll accent is in that Calypso style because they come from the South Seas and not because they’re “superstitious jungle savages”. Besides that accent isn’t just Haitian. Haven’t you seen Pirates of the Caribbean 2 & 3? 😉

    The Tauren are very respectful of the whole native American, shamanistic culture side of things. As you said they are enviromentally conscious citizens, they respect their surroundings and each other. They try and live in harmony with the world. Yet you’ve picked out one small thing, “How!” and used it to conclude that racism is endemic in the game.

    It’s easy to find things that aren’t there if you are looking for them.

    • Matt Ruff says:

      I think you’re missing my main point, which is not that the Trolls and Taurens are racist, but that they are bad for business.

      Women and ethnic minorities play computer games too. Maybe not in the same numbers as the prized white male age 18-35 demographic, but still, they exist as potential customers. It’s stupid to include content in a game that’s likely to offend potential customers — particularly if the game makes its money off subscriptions.

  8. (Anonymous) says:

    This discussion seems long dead, but I found it interesting enough to drop a note. At what point does politically correct become silly? I mean, the voodoo stereotype is rife throughout the culture and isn’t necessarily viewed as a negative, but (and particularly in the fantasy genre) magical, dark, mysterious. Your twisting the fantasy to ‘superstitious jungle savages’ may be a view point, but then, couldn’t anyone take ANYTHING and twist it to be insulting? Hobbits in tolkien world could be viewed as ‘isolationist narrow minded short people who smoke pipes’, thus insulting all short folk, pipe smokers and/or isolationists if they decide to take offense.

    My point is ‘why go looking for insults in a game’?

    • maverynthia says:

      Commenting to a longer dead reply:

      No one is looking for insults/racism/sexism. It’s just so blatant that you can’t miss it.

      A lot of this stuff affects people in different ways. Like the MapleStory. A man would just laugh at the NPC trying to pick up his female character and think nothing of it. A woman would know that it’s sexist tripe and be put off by it, since women are always objectified in the MMO arena and this game is being more blatant than most.

    • Matt Ruff says:

      I mean, the voodoo stereotype is rife throughout the culture and isn’t necessarily viewed as a negative, but (and particularly in the fantasy genre) magical, dark, mysterious. Your twisting the fantasy to ‘superstitious jungle savages’ may be a view point, but then, couldn’t anyone take ANYTHING and twist it to be insulting?

      Sure, people get offended by all kinds of weird stuff. But common racist and sexist stereotypes are extremely likely to offend large numbers of people, so a business that doesn’t want to needlessly alienate customers should make an effort to avoid them. It’s really not that hard.

      Hobbits in tolkien world could be viewed as ‘isolationist narrow minded short people who smoke pipes’, thus insulting all short folk, pipe smokers and/or isolationists if they decide to take offense.

      Unlike black people, “short, pipe-smoking isolationists” are not a group routinely subjected to insult and humiliation, so I doubt Tolkien’s hobbits would be a big problem. The idea is not to avoid ever offending anyone — that would be impossible — but to avoid obvious, needless insults.

      My point is ‘why go looking for insults in a game’?

      You mean, why do I pay attention to this stuff? Because I’m interested in game design, and worldbuilding choices are a part of that.

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