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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Why, when talking about minorities in gaming, you talk about WoW

This post is based on a comment I made on an article called "Women in the World of Warcraft: The Bigger Picture" by Will at Skepchick (yep, it's not just chicks!). There were a lot of reactions to the piece, some of them quite...vehement, but a commenter going by the name of Sawhoof who described herself as a twenty-something lesbian fundamentally rejected Will's decision to use World of Warcraft specifically as the focus for a discussion on diversity in video games, and it got me thinking. And then writing. I don't necessarily agree with the criticisms Will makes regarding WoW, but absolutely agree with the decision to make it a focal point when talking about representation of minorities-- specifically in this case LGBT people and women-- in video games. What I said was...well, here. What follows is a slightly modified version of the comment:

Sawhoof wants to know why Will is bothering to write about WoW when WoW is, as Sawhoof sees it, not a very good game and one that is on its way out. She also says WoW is as “generic as a knights in shining armor game gets.” Sawhoof, as a lesbian who plays video games and WoW specifically, presumably agrees with Will on most of what he’s said here, yet with inexplicable hostility she asks why what he’s saying is relevant. Here’s why it’s relevant:

1. WoW is a living game, a game with an expansion coming out later this year, and one which 10.2 million people all over the world continue to play and enjoy. And they pay $15 a month to do it, making it for them what Mike and Jerry of Penny Arcade have described as a "WoW utility" (you pay for the phone, the heat, the water..the WoW). It is the MMORPG that people who don’t even know what an MMORPG is, or what it means, still know about. It is also in my opinion an amazing game and one I continue to enjoy playing, but even if that wasn’t the case it would still be obviously important. If you’re going to talk about how minorities are portrayed in a video game that matters, and you’re just going to talk about one game, there is no better choice.

2. If WoW is really as generic as it gets, that makes it even more important to talk about it because that means that what it presents is at least in some way normative. “Generic” meaning, after all, “representative of a genus.” If a game sets the standard for games of its type, you want the standards it sets to be good!

3. A video game is a fictional place, yes—it can be anything the writers want it to be. That’s why what the writers want it to be matters. Everything they create is on purpose! Nothing has to be other than the way they want it to be, in terms of content. So while there may be elements of the story that make it necessary to present minorities badly or not at all, we can identify the gratuitous instances of such and ask “Why does it have to be this way? And if it doesn’t, why not change it?”

4. Sawhoof’s answer to that question is “Capitalism.” That is, that Blizzard has no incentive to portray minorities better because it’s not good for their bottom line. This argument always mystifies me because it assumes that people who play its games are a bunch of bigots and won’t be as happy with a game that doesn’t encourage prejudice! What’s the evidence for this? Sure, lots of video game players are sexist/racist/homophobic etc., but that doesn’t mean that the games they play should cater to these positions, and don’t depress the living hell out of me by suggesting that it’s financially necessary for them to do so.

5. An MMORPG isn’t just a story; it’s a world. It’s right there in the name—World of Warcraft. It’s hard to change the world we live in, but a whole lot easier to change one that was deliberately created, and whose creation is ongoing. So the choices made about what players are allowed and encouraged to do and how their characters are allowed/encouraged to look, as well as how NPCs behave and look, are very important. Some people want to play a radically different character in a game than they are in reality, but a lot of people want at least the option of playing something closer to who they really are. They also want to see characters who don’t exist in reality, but if those fictional characters are going to resemble reality in every way except that they’re homogeneous in a way that reality isn’t, that’s a turn-off. Sure, make people who are humanoid pandas! I’ll play one, because I’m one of those people who never chooses to play a human if other, fictional races are available (my first main was a troll). But if you’re going to have humans, please make them as diverse as actual humans actually are, or have a good reason why you can’t. Otherwise it looks like you don’t like the diverse forms that humans actually come in, and people whose forms aren’t represented tend to be offended by that thought.

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