Skepchick reader Sean sent in this link to a post on a World of Warcraft fansite that discusses the lack of strong, independent female characters in World of Warcraft’s lore. The author of the article refers to “barnacle characters,” which are characters that depend upon the storyline of other characters for their existence. While I like this idea, I think that women as “barnacle characters” can be much more insidious because it plays on common cultural stereotypes and furthers real inequalities experienced by women on a constant basis.
Many of the points in that article are well known tropes that have been addressed by Anita Sarkeesian in her wonderful “Tropes vs. Women” series. As many of you probably know by now, Anita will be making videos for a new series of Tropes vs. Women focusing on video games. It’s no coincidence that the very notion of bringing these tropes to light sent some men into a complete frenzy (enough to stoop to vile harassment and cybervandalism). This backlash speaks to the larger problems of gaming culture.
The culture of gamers is filled to the brim with racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. Spend 10 minutes in the Trade channel on any busy WoW server and you’ll see all of it. The barnacle characters—especially the tropes that are used to create these characters—reinforce these bigoted and prejudicial kinds of thinking by normalizing a straight, cisgender male way of seeing the world.
It’s easy for many people to think that it’s “just the internet” and that anonymity enables people to engage in these sorts of things, but those people would be wrong. A couple of years ago, I attended BlizzCon 2010 in Annaheim, California. During a Q&A session with the game developers (all white men, presumably straight based on their reactions, though I could be wrong on that!), a woman stepped up to the microphone:
She asked: “I love that you have a lot of very strong female characters; however, I was wondering if we could have some that don’t look like they’ve stepped out of a Victoria Secret’s catalogue?”
After approximately 2 seconds of a few people cheering, the entire venue filled with the boos of men. It was thunderous. Then the mockery came from the panel. They made fun of her right to her face in front of tens of thousands of people for having the audacity to ask for women to be portrayed in a less objectified way. One of the men began to answer her question in earnest, but quickly ended with another mockery of her question.
These are the people who create and deliver content for the World of Warcraft game. They aren’t responsible for the lore novels, but their decisions about characters influence the novel writers. And they are exactly the problem with gamer culture. The way that they responded to that woman told her to sit down and shut the fuck up. And it is appalling.
The sad thing is, this is coming from a company that has historically made mistakes but responded in not-so-horrible ways in the past. For example, in 2006, Blizzard (the company that makes WoW) attempted to discipline a gamer named Sara Andrews for advertising recruitment for an LGBT-friendly guild. This sparked outrage in the queer gaming community, and a week later Blizzard apologized and agreed to review its policies and conduct sensitivity training with its Game Masters (in-game customer service representatives).
Later in 2006, as Blizzard was preparing to release its first expansion pack, there was a change in the body models for the new Blood Elf race. The reason? The blood elf males “appeared to be too feminine.” In other words, they were afraid that their target audience (teen and early-20s straight, cisgender men) would be turned off by the tall, slender bodies and avoid creating characters of that race. I should point out that one of the things you can make a male Blood Elf character say in the game is, “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?” Blizzard is known for putting jokes and references to popular culture and news events into their games, and it seems like one of the developers thought it would be cute to put a little dig at this faux pas into the game.
At the 2011 BlizzCon, Blizzard played a horrendously homophobic clip to the entire venue. Blizzard’s president quickly apologized, but many in the queer gaming community (myself included) grow tired of the constant missteps and apologies. This doesn’t indicate a change in the climate, it indicates a “better-to-apologize-than-ask” attitude.
But wait, that’s not all! Blizzard continues to make questionable choices (i.e., they’re not learning from their past mistakes). Just earlier this year, it was pointed out that Blizzard’s mature language filter was censoring “transsexual” and “homosexual.” Blizzard agreed that those words should not have been censored and removed them from the filter list in a later patch. But Blizzard should have caught this during their “policy review” back in 2006. This is really just an example of how Blizzard continues to ignore segments of its customer base until called out publicly.
I should be clear: this problem is not unique to Blizzard, though they have certainly not been a great example of how to handle such situations. Other companies such as EB Games and Bioware have both made missteps, and have responded in different ways (EB Games by doubling down and Bioware by issuing a mea culpa and generally supportive comments).
So what’s the solution? We need more feminists, women, queer people, disabled people, and people of color in positions of power and creative authority in companies like Blizzard. Of course, that’s much easier said than done for myriad reasons, including difficulties for women and other minorities in gaining access to those opportunities and the horrible environments that they find themselves in when they do. It’s also going to take a lot of speaking up on the part of those of us who are gamers. We must be vocal and straightforward in our criticisms of these things. We must support people like Anita Sarkeesian. We have to let the gaming community know that stuff like this is not acceptable, and we have to generate the demand for better content.