Christopher Douglas argues that within the fictional world of the popular online game World of Warcraft, race is not understood as being socially constructed, but rather as a biological fact, “composed of inherited, immutable, essential differences,” and thus perpetuates the old-fashioned “notion that the outward packaging signifies an inner reality, where the differences are.”
Multiculturalism in World of Warcraft
Multiculturalism in World of Warcraft
There is a scandal in Azeroth. The problem, one critic recently noted, is that racial representations in the World of Warcraft seem to be based on racist caricatures and cultural stereotypes at work in our own world. The voodoo-practicing “Barbarous and superstitious” trolls come from islands “renowned for their cruelty and dark mysticism,” says the game manual. Blizzard, World of Warcraft Game Manual (Irvine: Blizzard, 2004), 186 (hereafter cited in text). They speak in a seeming African American vernacular, saying “aks” for the standard English “ask.” “That explains it,” concluded this commentator: “Trolls talk like black people because they’re superstitious jungle savages.” As he also noted, the tauren race take their reference not from the minotaurs they physically resemble, but from “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!’” Matt Ruff,“Wow” With their orc and undead partners, these four races of the “Horde” are rendered as the evil and uncivilized other to the good and civilized “Alliance” races, which include elves, dwarves, gnomes and (of course) humans.
As it turned out, this reading was debatable, with another commentator arguing instead that Blizzard, the creator of World of Warcraft, had taken pains to portray the races in a more complex light, with the trolls, tauren and orcs representing indigenous peoples trying to resist the encroachment of the colonizing Alliance. Superseding the good vs. evil narrative was thus a clearly multicultural and postcolonial paradigm of cultural respect, resistance, and the questioning of supposedly civilized values. “Blizzard not only acknowledges the existence of different cultures - something most fantasy games don’t attempt - they treat them with respect and use them to seriously consider the embarrassing (and ongoing) exploitation, subjugation, and disrespect for indigenous people.”“Trolls and Taurens: Racist stereotypes in World of Warcraft?”(August 12, 2007) That sympathetic reading also found support from the game manual, which explains that
At one time in Azeroth’s past, the Horde was a force of evil, and the Alliance was a bastion of good. However, in today’s war-torn Azeroth, such black and white distinctions are gone. Both factions are simply fighting to preserve their way of life in the wake of the Chaos War. (14)
World of Warcraft’s language improbably echoes that of our world of multiculturalism: groups are “simply fighting to preserve their way of life” (14), and a player’s character enters the world by first watching “a movie introducing your racial heritage” (15). Blizzard’s formulations seem to follow an established vocabulary of cultural contestation, more structured by Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations than by President Bush’s speeches on the war on terror.Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).
But of course we should not be surprised that an online game is a site where these questions of racism, cultural stereotyping and group representation get hashed out. As Lisa Nakamura reminded us at the beginning of the twenty-first century, “The Internet is a place where race happens.”Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2002), xi. If Michael Omi and Howard Winant were correct in their classic 1986 study Racial Formation in the United States, that “Race will always be at the center of the American experience,” we should expect to find race happening online in 2010, perhaps especially in online gaming.Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1986), 6. The racial fantasies that play out online are only part of the ongoing process of what Omi and Winant termed “racial formation”: gamespace, in other words, is only another social site where the expectation that race matters takes place, where race is socially constructed. And World of Warcraft promotes a particularly American racial logic to the planet: of its 11.5 million active worldwide subscribers (in December 2008), it has about one- quarter in Europe, about one-quarter in North America, and more than half in Asia. See Press Release.
Indeed, race is a core game concept in World of Warcraft and the genre of fantasy role-playing games that it most famously represents. World of Warcraft is like an online game version of Lord of the Rings: in a fantasy world called Azeroth, a player creates a character and adventures with others in a virtual setting, fighting monsters, performing quests, and perfecting skills. Choosing a character’s race is the first thing a player does: it comes before a character’s profession, the mix of magic-use, physical prowess, or stealth that characterizes a style of play. In Azeroth, of course, race is not understood as socially constructed, but rather to be a biological fact. Composed of inherited, immutable, essential differences, race in Azeroth is the old-fashioned (which is to say, nineteenth and early twentieth-century) notion that the outward packaging signifies an inner reality, where the differences are.
But such is only to be expected of the genre, given its genealogical descent through pencil-and-paper role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.For an excellent account of the influence of pencil-and-paper role playing games and civilianized late nineteenth and pre-World World II wargames on World of Warcraft’s development, see Henry Lowood, “ ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’: Real-time Game Performance in Warcraft,” in Videogame, Player, Text, ed. Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzwynska (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 83-100. Indeed, what’s even more like Lord of the Rings online or Dungeons and Dragons online than World of Warcraft is Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online, less-popular but similarly-premised massively multiplayer online role playing games based on Tolkien’s oeuvre. Tolkien imagined his races as fundamentally and intrinsically different. The dwarves are strong and hardy, making them particularly tough fighters; the hobbits are small, quiet and stealthy, making them particularly good thieves; the elves are wise and agile, making them particularly good with magic or bow; and so on. Some critics see Tolkien’s work as intrinsically racist for these and other reasons, while others defend him from such charges.For examples of critics, see, Niels Werber, “Geo- and Biopolitics of Middle-earth: a German Reading of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” New Literary History 36 (2005): 227-46; and Sue Kim, “Beyond Black and White: Race and Postmodernism in The Lord of the Rings Films,” Modern Fiction Studies 50:4 (Winter 2004): 875-907. For contrasting views, see Brian McFadden, “Fear of Difference, Fear of Death: the Sigelwara, Tokien’s Swertings, and Racial Difference,” in Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, ed. Jane Chance and Alfred K. Siewers (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 155-69; Jane Chance, “Tolkien and the Other: Race and Gender in Middle-Earth,” in Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, ed. Jane Chance and Alfred K. Siewers (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 171-86; and Anderson Rearick, “Why Is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc? The Dark Face of Racism in Tolkien’s World,” Modern Fiction Studies 50:4 (Winter 2004), 862-74. But my point is not so much that Tolkien was or was not racist; it is rather that race remained a powerful idea and conceptual category in his fantasy world, the world from which fantasy role playing games descended.
Thus, as Niels Werber suggests in New Literary History,
through reading Tolkien’s novels, seeing the movies, or playing computer games like “The Battle for Middle-earth” (EA Games, 2004), one is introduced into a certain bio- and geopolitical knowledge: first of all, races are different not only in terms of skin color or height, but in moral worth, refinement, wisdom, and political integrity. The races are either hereditarily good and wise like Elves or genetically evil and dumb like Orcs, and therefore they make “natural-born” enemies. The absolute and insurmountable hate between Elves and Orcs is not outlined as a consequence of political decision-making, but as a result of their opposing DNA sequences. To pass off contingent, historical, and changeable political differences as “natural” or “given” oppositions is paradigmatic in discourses of social Darwinism since the mid- nineteenth century.Niels Werber, “Geo- and Biopolitics of Middle-earth: a German Reading of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” New Literary History 36 (2005): 227-28.
This is the generic legacy of the fantasy tradition in which Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft and many other games take place. The games encode this logic of racial difference, a logic that players rehearse during play, learning and nurturing the expectation that phenotype signals crucial inner differences. Thus, one commentator uneasily reflected about playing Lord of the Rings Online, “In the real world, defining someone by his or her race is considered a classically illiberal act. But in games, racism - making snap judgments about someone based solely on their skin and ethnic identity - is absolutely central to gameplay.”Clive Thompson, “Playing the Master Race,” Wired (Mar 12, 2007). Or, as Thomas Foster notes in a different context, “virtual reality privileges vision as a mode of information processing, and visual perception remains inextricably linked to a history of racial stereotyping.”Thomas Foster, “ ‘The Souls of Cyber-Folk’: Performativity, Virtual Embodiment, and Racial Histories,” in Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory, ed. Marie- Laure Ryan (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999): 160 (hereafter cited in text).
The obvious point to make here is that the many racial possibilities for characters in World of Warcraft are all about creating consumer choice. In this sense they fulfill the same design function as different classes, genders, and even vocations. Because these games are subscription-based (by monthly or hourly fee), they are designed to bring players back to play the same thing, but differently. This is why Blizzard’s ‘expansions’ - new digital areas to be explored, at additional cost - are accompanied by new classes or races; thus to the original eight playable races have been added two more in the first expansion, with another two due to come out in the third expansion. If these 12 races can each become, on average, about 7 of the 10 possible classes, with gender as an additional marker of marketable difference, then there are about 168 possible play combinations. Add into this mix a character’s choice of 2 of the possible 12 professions - making magic jewelry, crafting special armor, brewing powerful potions or whatever - and you have 22,176 different character configurations. “MMORPG’s are all about choice,” claimed one designer of Everquest - another online fantasy game popular before World of Warcraft more or less cleared the field of competitors - when asked about the multiple races.Eric Hayot and Edward Wesp, “Interview with Brad McQuaid and Kevin McPherson,” Game Studies 9: 1 (April 2009). “The difference in attributes, in profession choices, and starting area of the world, was to set the cultures apart as distinct choices.” Thus, in Everquest, it is not really relevant that the Barbarians speak with a Scottish accent (like the dwarves in World of Warcraft). “The Barbarians in EQ might have had a Scottish flavor to them, but they are not Scots; likewise the pyramids on Luclin might appear to be Egyptian in flavor or style to a degree, but there is no real relationship,” explained another designer.
These games might thus signal a utopian aspiration that our race is irrelevant - “it really doesn’t matter who you are in real life - your financial status, your race, your gender, your age, your location, etc. should all be irrelevant” - and, further, that the games might help to “break down all sorts of prejudices and preconceptions that exist in the real world.”Eric Hayot and Edward Wesp, “Interview with Brad McQuaid and Kevin McPherson,” Game Studies 9: 1 (April 2009). For a critique of this utopianism, see Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2002), chapter 2; Jessica Langer, “The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post)Colonialism in World of Warcraft,” in Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, ed. Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 87-108 (hereafter cited in text); Thomas Foster, “ ‘The Souls of Cyber-Folk’: Performativity, Virtual Embodiment, and Racial Histories,” in Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory, ed. Marie-Laure Ryan (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999): 137-63; and Jennifer Gonzalez, “The Appended Subject: Race and Identity as Digital Assemblage,” Race in Cyberspace, ed. Beth Kolko et. al. (New York: Routledge, 2000): 27-50. In this view, the ability to mix-and- match aspects of one’s virtual identity - including race - might make us more flexible and open in the real world to other races. But what such market choices depend on is the sense that races are real entities, sources of actual, natural difference. In this sense, the liberal capitalist empathy experiment of becoming another race may have the consequence of naturalizing socially-constructed races. What begins as a design choice to keep players coming back unintentionally entails our training in a conceptual model of group difference as natural and innate rather than historical and environmental.
But even the fact that World of Warcraft and games like it recirculate for us our mass hallucination of biological difference is not as scandalous as the fact that in this game there is no distinction between a race and a culture. How can a “race” have a “heritage” that is inherited, and have a “way of life” that demands preservation? Are the differences between orcs and elves immutable, genetically inherited, natural, and hierarchical, or are they malleable, learned, conventionally arbitrary, and relative? In other words, are the differences between orcs and elves racial, or, in fact, cultural? In Azeroth that question makes no sense: there is no difference between these differences. Orcs are extra- handy with axes, which is called a “racial passive” ability in the game, but it is easy to imagine that handiness stemming not so much from genes as from a cultural heritage that placed special emphasis on the axe and its early use by orc children. Those are two different accounts of what makes orcs handy with axes. Axe-oriented culture is indeed a kind of “heritage,” but biological predisposition to axes instead of, say, swords, cannot be. There is no such thing as a “racial heritage,” because heritages are either learned or not.
Thus although it is difficult to imagine the undead as having a culture that needs to be preserved, the game goes some way, as the commentator above noted, into making the orcs, trolls and taurens into groups whose racial cultures are threatened by annihilation. “For countless generations,” the manual explains, “the bestial tauren roamed the plains of the Barrens, hunted the mighty kudos, and sought the wisdom of their eternal goddess, the Earth Mother.” The once nomadic tribes have been united and settled into cities. As the manual continues, “Though the noble tauren are peaceful in nature, the rites of the Great Hunt are venerated as the heart of their spiritual culture. Every tauren, warrior or otherwise, seeks identity both as a hunter and as a child of the Earth Mother” (183). It is not that these races are evil in their continued opposition to the Alliance - that is the old, outmoded way of thinking. Rather, tauren “identity” can only be completed by an enduring “spiritual culture” - a “way of life” - that is threatened by outside forces.
My argument is not only that tauren have a racially appropriate culture that must accompany and fulfill an already determined genetic identity, such that cultural learning supplements biological inheritance. Rather, and beyond this point, the scandal in World of Warcraft is that the game does not care about the difference between race and culture. The terms are indistinguishable ingame, with culture being something you are as likely to inherit as race is something that is learned like a language or a religion. The game is unable to imagine a racial member without her proper culture: there will never be an orc, or, gods forbid, a human, who is drawn to the religion of the Earth Mother.
To return to the above example of the orc characters gaining a “racial passive” ability of being extra-handy at axe-wielding, it is precisely here that the rubber of what players actually do hits the road of game design. A player deciding on a character combination might choose the orc race for his warrior, recognizing the built-in advantage with certain weapons his character could have. On the other hand, he might choose for other gameplay or just aesthetic reasons that he wants to be an orc warlock, which renders the built-in advantage null, since warlocks cannot use axes. Gnomes have a “racial passive” of being a higher intellect, which confers more spell power - useful if you decide to be a mage, not so much if you choose to live your life as a spell-less rogue. And so on.Some analysts have suggested that while there are “minor race-specific game advantages (e.g., Taurens have a small bonus in herbalism, Humans are slightly better with swords, etc.), the differences between races are essentially cosmetic” (Nicolas Ducheneaut, Nick Yee, Eric Nickell, and Robert J. Moore, “Building an MMO With Mass Appeal: a Look at Gameplay in World of Warcraft,” Games and Culture 1: 4 [October 2006]: 281-317). This is certainly true, but in a game as statistics-driven as World of Warcraft (characters have all kind of numbers attached to their abilities and objects, specifying strengths of specific qualities), these slight differences matter to players. There are many reasons for choosing race-class combinations. But from the player’s point of view, it is not clear whether your extra axe ability or higher intellect is a result of racial or cultural forces. Players begin the game as adults, and do not have to learn to use their “racial passives.” They are thus experienced by players as natural abilities - you have to train other abilities as you develop your character, but not this one. There is no sense of the cybernetic possibility of rewiring the supposedly hard-wired, in what Thomas Foster has seen as a possible challenge to the social construction of race in cyberspace (161); here, a player can ignore or work with a racial passive, but it will always be there.
I am belaboring the point that there is no distinction between race and culture in World of Warcraft because that conceptual indifference was typical of the archaic and destructive paradigm of biological race that was successfully challenged by the work of the anthropologist Franz Boas and his followers in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Their distinction between culture and race was politically progressive and antiracist. It was progressive because, first, it sought to show that group differences traditionally attributed to nature (or to God) were in fact learned behaviors, functions of distinct traditions or environments. And it was progressive because, second, it sought, once culture was conceptually distinguished from race, to destroy race as a scientifically defensible concept. Biologists today say that the things we once thought phenotypical differences signaled - intelligence, sexuality, potential for civilization, physical strength and artistic ability - in fact have no correlation to the groups we still call “races.” Boas’s challenge to racial theory was taken up and pursued by many others during the twentieth century. It was a tribute to him when the mourning white supremacist Carleton Putnam laid the blame for Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 squarely at the feet of “Boas and his disciples.”Qtd. in Marshall Hyatt, Franz Boas Social Activist / The Dynamics of Ethnicity (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990), 99. It was the destruction of race as a coherent, defensible concept, and its replacement by a notion of cultural learning and environmental influence that was understood by progressives in the early- and mid-twentieth century as being a key argument for the biological equality of groups (and, often, the relative equality of group cultures).
This was not to say, however, that “racial” populations did not sometimes craft, nurture, and pass on, distinctive cultural traditions. One of Boas’s students, the anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, worked to record such cultural traditions among African American populations in rural Florida and Afro-Caribbean populations in Haiti and Jamaica. She found folktales and religious traditions of hoodoo that were particular to some populations of African Americans living across the South; likewise, to her eye, Haitian voodoo’s loas derived from West African deities who survived the Middle Passage with those kidnapped Africans who carried them to new shores. But these were not racial cultures or “racial heritages.” They were cultures carried by specific populations that remained more or less historically distinct for reasons of social and geographical isolation. Boas’s famous tenet about cultures was that they were historically particular: a culture was meaningful and changed only slowly over time, sometimes from outside pressures, as it was passed on from adults to children within a population group. But historical particularism understood culture as something that was fundamentally learned, thus recognizing the vast contingencies on which cultural transmission can depend. When Hurston exclaimed in her book on voodoo about one local white houngan who was an advanced practitioner of voodoo that “Africa was in his tones,” she was exclaiming on just such learning contingencies that broke the norm, and not on the fact that a racial member had learned the wrong culture.Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 257. Hurston, at least, could have imagined a troll learning human culture in World of Warcraft (and vice versa) because she understood the difference between a race and a culture. Historically particular culture could likewise be lost if it was not passed on: thus many of her Harlem Renaissance colleagues were generationally removed from the Southern black folk culture that they sometimes imagined was their rightful inheritance.Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 51. Culture was either learned (with subtle or unsubtle transformations), or it was not learned. It could never be inherited.
Boas’s and Hurston’s key distinction between race and culture does not exist in World of Warcraft, and in general game studies has not known what to do with that indistinction. Most critics have been critical of Blizzard’s handling of questions of race, stereotypes, and imperialism, while others have noted sufficient complexity and nuance in the game to offer a provisional defense.For criticism, see Hilde Corneliussen, “World of Warcraft as a Playground for Feminism,” in Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, ed. Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 63-86; Thomas Bringall III, “Guild Life in the World of Warcraft: Online Gaming Tribalism,” in Electronic Tribes: The Virtual World of Geeks, Gamers, Shamans, and Scammers (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 110-23; Jessica Langer, “The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post)Colonialism in World of Warcraft,” in Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, ed. Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 87-108; and David Golumbia, “Games Without Play,” New Literary History 40 (2009): 179-204. For provisional defenders, see Esther MacCallum-Stewart, “ ‘Never Such Innocence Again’: War and Histories in World of Warcraft,” in Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, ed. Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 39-62 (hereafter cited in text); and Tanya Krzywinska, “Blood Scythes, Festivals, Quests, and Backstories: World Creation and Rhetorics of Myth in World of Warcraft,” Games and Culture 1: 4 (October 2006): 383-396 (hereafter cited in text). But in one way, the question of racism in World of Warcraft is not the most interesting question to be asked of the game; it is rather, I would like to suggest, the curious and continual swerving between notions of group identity, a swerving sometimes shared by the critics themselves. Thus, for example, Tanya Krzywinska, recognizing World of Warcraft’s debt to Tolkien, suggests that the game’s races are part of its mythological thickness and story-telling complexity: there “are many indicators of each race’s culture that relate to myth that also inform both gameplay tasks and the stylistic designs of the game world’s spaces” (387). But she does not stop to ask how a “race” can have a “culture,” accepting the premise that genetically distinct populations just do things differently in a kind eternal and immobile cultural segregation; no one ever learns another way outside their ancestors’ tradition. In another example, Torill Elvira Mortensen muses on one possible role-playing situation in which “the human is a dwarf- hater, who wants to eradicate the dwarf culture.”Torill Elvira Mortensen, “Humans playing World of Warcraft, or, Deviant strategies?” in Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, ed. Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008). This phrasing correctly apprehends the logic of how races and cultures are coterminous in World of Warcraft: what might be a kind of racism against dwarfs on the part of this human is not possibly distinct from a disdain for dwarf culture. There will never be a need, in other words, to try to eradicate (for example) a locally distinct population of tauren, or human-orc crossbreeds, or undead adoptees, who have been influenced by the dwarf “culture” this human despises.
Meanwhile, in Esther MacCallum-Stewart’s account of race, ecology and imperialism in World of Warcraft, the Horde races are identified as “survivors” in contrast to humans facing social collapse, and “Quests reflect this different cultural makeup” (43-44). Like Krzywinska and Mortensen, MacCallum-Stewart correctly reads the race/culture mashup of the game, but does not interrogate its logic. And in her perceptive account of naming in World of Warcraft, Charlotte Hagström compares the enforced naming patterns of the races in Azeroth to arguments in Sweden about the unsuitability of Anglo-American names for Swedish children, and warns that “We may talk about Canadian or Polish culture, as well as the gnomes’ or blood elves’ cultures of Azeroth and the culture of the World of Warcraft community, but must also be aware that they are not rigid and static.”Charlotte Hagstrom, “Playing with Names: Gaming and Naming in World of Warcraft,” in Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, ed. Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 274-80. But the gnomes’ and blood elves’ cultures are static: Poles can move to Canada and become Canadians, especially within a few generations, whereas gnomes can never go to Darnassus to become night elves, let alone to Silvermoon City to become blood elves. The Polish Canadians will learn English or French, intermarry, and adopt English or French names for children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, but the gnomes could live alongside night elves for generations, and their naming practices and cultural conditions will never be affected by the elves, because their cultural identity is understood to be natural - that is, racial - and not something that is learned. In Azeroth, races living beside one another show no cross-cultural fertilization. The gnomes live in Ironforge, but their engineering prowess seems not to have rubbed off particularly on any dwarves in the city, nor has dwarven blacksmithing or gun ability or Scottish accent rubbed off any gnomes. The trolls share the orc capital city, but their “voodoo” remains alien to the orcs, even as orcish axe ability remains foreign to trolls. Whatever the racial / cultural mix of these group identities, each community is eternally culturally segregated from the others. It is like imagining that African American music and religious traditions never infected white America, or that Christianity was a solely white religion and English a white language, or that a martial arts aesthetic never influenced Western films, or Buddhist religious practices and Asian foodways people of European descent, and so on.
If digital games studies tends to accept (even by not remarking on) these games’ design premise that blur heredity with learning, genetics with tradition, an important exception is Jessica Langer in “The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post)Colonialism in World of Warcraft.” Perhaps the best analysis of how the races in the game allude to real-world cultures, Langer’s essay ends with the critique that
Here, then, is the crux of the problem with Blizzard’s cultural borrowing: if in-game races are closely identified with real-world races, and those same in-game races are treated as biologically distinct species rather than socially categorized races, then the implication is that real-world race is also primarily biologically determined - an outdated and destructive implication that belongs to a racist discourse. (104)
Indeed, the game trains us to use racial thinking, but beyond that, it trains us to blur the race / culture distinction that was, as I have suggested, the historical key to challenging the racist discourse Langer names.
What accounts for this continuous swerving between race and culture? At first it looks like a kind of “Neo-Racism” of the kind diagnosed by Etienne Balibar. Neo-racism, Balibar suggests, “is a racism whose dominant theme is not biological heredity but the insurmountability of cultural differences, a racism which, at first sight, does not postulate the superiority of certain groups or peoples in relation to others but ‘only’ the harmfulness of abolishing frontiers, the incompatibility of life-styles and traditions.”Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 1991), 21 (hereafter cited in text). This Neo-racism, Balibar goes on to say, destabilizes anti-racism by attacking it from behind, with its own weapons:
It is granted from the outset that races do not constitute isolable biological units and that in reality there are no ‘human races.’ It may also be admitted that the behavior of individuals and their ‘aptitudes’ cannot be explained in terms of their blood or even their genes, but are the result of their belonging to historical ‘cultures.’ Now anthropological culturalism, which is entirely oriented towards the recognition of the diversity and equality of cultures - with only the polyphonic ensemble constituting human civilization - and also their transhistorical permanence, has provided the humanist and cosmopolitan anti-racism of the post-war period with most of its arguments. […] What we see here is that biological or genetic naturalism is not the only means of naturalizing human behavior and social affinities. At the cost of abandoning the hierarchical model […] culture can also function like a nature, and it can in particular function as a way of locking individuals and groups a priori into a genealogy, into a determination that is immutable and intangible in origin. (21-22)
This outline seems to accurately describe the insurmountability and genealogical determinism of the ‘races’ in World of Warcraft, now supposedly rendered, Blizzard assures us, not by “black and white distinctions” of “evil” versus “good” (despite the continued racial echoes of “Horde” and “Alliance”). Furthermore, Balibar suggests that Neo-Racism features “the return of the biological theme” insofar as aggression between distinct and separate groups is understood as itself a natural fact of physiology and psychology (26) - an idea that would might go some way to explaining the constant border skirmishes, antagonism, and warring between groups in the World of Warcraft.
There are certainly elements of Neo-Racism at work in World of Warcraft; in particular, the way culture can be reimagined as a kind of nature might offer a particularly promising account of difference in the game and games like it. But of course, in these games there actually are “races” postulated - ones that seem to be understood, with some ambiguity, to have different biological and genetic capacities. In another way, however, Balibar’s theory cannot account for the indistinguishibility of culture and race in the games, the discursive swerving between concepts. This is partly because of Balibar’s primarily French context of North African immigration and the measuring of population groups according to their resistance to assimilating into “the culture of the ‘land of the Rights of Man” (24), a dynamic entirely absent from Azeroth. I would like to suggest instead that the source for World of Warcraft’s conceptual indistinction between race and culture actually lies closer to home: it is an exaggerated version of our own world of American multiculturalism.
I try to outline the development of this conceptual indistinction between race and culture in my recent book A Genealogy of Literary Multiculturalism. Christopher Douglas, A Genealogy of Literary Multiculturalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 2009. The story of that indistinction began, as I allude to above, with Boas’s progressive and anti-racist argument against biological thinking and the overemphasis on heredity, and his argument instead for the importance of historical culture and environmental conditions on population groups. It was through the influence of social science ideas about culture on literary writers that our multicultural literature developed, beginning most spectacularly when Boasian anthropology’s terms helped Hurston articulate her pluralist cultural politics. That story continued through a strange detour when a different kind of social science thinking helping to articulate the thinking of a generation of assimilationist writers, the most significant of which was Richard Wright.
This particularly American history of multiculturalism and social science is another reason why Balibar’s “Neo-Racism” cannot do the job of naming World of Warcraft’s conceptual blurring, partly because of anthropology’s different legacies in France and the United States. When speaking about Boas, Balibar suggests that
One of the great figures in anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss, who not so long ago distinguished himself by demonstrating that all civilizations are equally complex and necessary for the progression of human thought, now in ‘Race and Culture’ finds himself enrolled, whether he likes it or not, in the service of the idea that the ‘mixing of cultures’ and the suppression of ‘cultural distances’ would correspond to the intellectual death of humanity and would perhaps even endanger the control mechanisms that ensure its biological survival. (22)
Balibar’s sense that anthropology taught us about cultures’ “transhistorical permanence” (21) is a lesson entirely in contrast (ideally, if imperfectly) to the historical particularism of American anthropology since Boas. Boas’s usefulness for writers like Hurston, for example, was his insistence that culture took its meaning from the changing historical circumstances of a given population: thus the African American folktales that Hurston collected in Florida formed a kind of “autobiography of the tribe,” as Boas put it in a different context, one that told a particular story of the disruption of the Middle Passage, of the cultural survival of African tricksters, of slavery, Jim Crow, and resistance.
But by the time a post-Civil Rights generation of African American writers turned back to Hurston for inspiration, their anti-assimilationist pluralism found it productive to ground the problem of cultural longevity in a vehicle that was not so potentially treacherous as that of cultural transmission and adaptation. Though the multiculturalism that this generation inaugurated would variously call this vehicle culture, identity, or even race, it tended to look a little like Blizzard’s “racial heritage” - a phrase, not incidentally, frequently used by critics to describe Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday’s claiming of his ancestral identity.See, for example, Matthias Schubnell, ed., Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, (University Press of Mississippi, 1997), 73. As I try to show in Genealogy, in Momaday’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1968 novel House Made of Dawn, the novel sometimes credited with initiating the so-called Native American Renaissance in literature, the protagonist Abel is raised in Jemez Pueblo culture.N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn (New York: Perennial Classics, 1999). But if we follow the genealogical hints of the novel, we discover that it is “memory” in his “blood” that accounts for his strange attraction to the Eagle Hunt and the cultural traditions of the distinct Bahkyush: he has not learned these cultural traditions, but he is yet attuned to them. Ishmael Reed’s 1972 Black Arts Movement novel Mumbo Jumbo - another text inaugural of our current paradigm of multicultural literature, and one of Harold Bloom’s “five hundred most significant books in the Western canon” - likewise imagines “blood,” “genes” and a “race soul” as things that carry what cannot be properly learned.Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972). Though Reed called Hurston “our theoretician,” his novel did not follow in her footsteps of imagining Haitian voodoo and African American hoodoo in terms of historical particularism. Rather, the three characters who learn non-racial cultures are dead by the end of the novel: as in World of Warcraft, there will be not be a troll who can learn human culture, a white man with Africa in his tones.
Moreover, the most famous, Pulitzer-prize winning novel by our Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison tropes and transforms racialized history into a kind of racial memory - and so slavery becomes something that she, and the characters, and white and black readers, “don’t want to remember,” as she has put it.See Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 135-39. In Beloved, slavery and the Middle Passage become things that cannot quite be learned, but rather must be re-experienced - even for contemporary readers - by a memory transference whose continuity seems to depend on a model of racial reincarnation, not cultural endurance and transmission.Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Plume, 1987). One might point as well to Gloria Anzaldúa’s ground-breaking Borderlands / La Frontera, in which the language of culture and race mix to a degree anticipatory of the World of Warcraft manual:
Guadalupe unites people of different races, religions, languages: Chicano protestants, American Indians and whites. “Nuestra abogada siempre serás / Our mediatrix you will always be.” She mediates between the Spanish and the Indian cultures (or three cultures as in the case of mexicanos of African or other ancestry) and between Chicanos and the white world. […] La Virgen de Guadalupe is the symbol of ethnic identity and of the tolerance for ambiguity that Chicanos-mexicanos, people of mixed race, people who have Indian blood, people who cross cultures, by necessity possess. Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999), 52.
Culture and race are the very same thing in Borderlands / La Frontera. One’s race is what one’s culture is; mixed blood confers mestizo culture “by necessity”; one’s ancestry is the same as one’s ethnic identity; to genetically “cross” a culture is not different from crossing a religion or a race. Thus while Anzaldúa, like Reed, owes some intellectual debts to cultural anthropology, she, again like Reed, eschews the principle of historical particularism by which one could locate cultural continuity among what seemed like a distinct “racial” population.
Before Disney reworked the traditional Chinese “Ballad of Fa Mu Lan” for its cartoon feature Mulan, Maxine Hong Kingston adapted it in The Woman Warrior, which is, by some reports, the most-taught book at American universities and colleges by a living author.See Jonathan Yardley, “ ‘Woman Warrior,’ A Memoir That Shook the Genre,” Washington Post, June 19, 2007, Page C01; and Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (New York: Vintage International, 1976). Her adaptation earned the chiding of author and critic Frank Chin, who argued that “At no time in Chinese American history was the real Fa Mulan obscure or inaccessible to a Chinese American girl or boy.”Frank Chin, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,” in The Big Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, ed. Jeffery Paul Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong (New York: Meridian, 1991), 3-4. But Chin’s uneasiness about imagining an instance in which proper cultural learning does not happen in a racially Chinese American family is true of all these multicultural authors to significant degrees. Like the paradigm of multiculturalism, they sometimes ignore the question of cultural learning. That is the way we conflate race and culture: as in World of Warcraft, members of races just know their cultures. These are not marginal books or authors. These are our most crucial, most vivid examples of contemporary multiculturalism in literature. And if they resist the conceptual distinction between race and culture, what hope have the rest of us?
As the example from Chin demonstrates, everything depends on what he means by “Chinese American.” Does the phrase refer to an American person’s racial lineage, or her actual cultural mix? The phrase implies both, and in doing so equates them. In fact, we do not have separate terms to indicate whether we are discussing a cultural or a racial group. “Chinese American,” for Chin and for us, describes both a population characterized by “racial” descent and a supposedly historically particular cultural tradition. But it is not difficult to formulate a thought experiment in which “a Chinese American girl or boy” happens not to learn the Ballad of Fa Mu Lan from parents or community. Given current patterns of Christian evangelization and pop culture circulation, a Chinese American child may be as likely to grow up with the Bible as with Fa Mu Lan, or to learn her Fa Mu Lan from Disney rather than from her community. To switch registers, our words cannot distinguish between an African American race and an African American culture; “African American” (or white) simply means both, simultaneously. Coded into our very language is the indistinction between culture and race that characterizes our current paradigm of multiculturalism. Because we cannot distinguish between race and culture - or because it takes extra effort to describe racial African Americans who do not practice a recognizably African American culture (cases for which we have developed words like oreos, and analogously, coconuts, apples and bananas, pejoratives that signal disruption and our displeasure) - we treat the two rival accounts of group identity as though they were the same.
These examples come from A Genealogy of Literary Multiculturalism, where I develop them in their complexity. As it turns out, Reed’s African American culture was partly theorized through Hurston and her Boasian model’s crucial historical distinction between race and culture. Both found compelling that model’s cultural pluralism, and the possibility of finding latent cultural survivals in a historically separated and marginalized population. And while both Reed and Hurston were suspicious of desegregation and the assimilationist social science that underpinned it, Reed’s multicultural turn was all about collapsing the culture / race distinction that was crucial to the work of his “theoretician.” Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, meanwhile, and his more autobiographical Way to Rainy Mountain, were replete with instances of cultural syncretism and scenes of cultural transmission and learning. Like his own painful learning of Kiowa language and oral tradition culture (sometimes, strangely, through anthropological works), characters in House Made of Dawn must be taught distinct traditions that are not necessarily co-extensive with their racial heritage. But Momaday’s signature trope of “memory in the blood,” as he has repeatedly put it in his fictional and autobiographical work, is all about disguising the labor of learning and papering over disruptions in cultural transmission.
In this respect Momaday is akin to his fellow multiculturalist Frank Chin, both of whom researched minority cultural presences in the nation and their endurance over long periods of time. The Chinese literary tradition and a militantly Confucian ‘writing-is-fighting’ ethos - Kwan Kung is the god of literature and of warfare - are very much present for Chin as cultural resources to be drawn on by current generations of Chinese American artists. And though he was influenced by his friend Ishmael Reed’s anthropological culturalism, the difficult questions of transmission and adaptation are sometimes bridged in his work by imagining Chinese America as simultaneously a cultural and a racial entity. Like Chin and Momaday and Reed, Anzaldúa’s literary oeuvre is deeply indebted to research into the histories of actual migrations and the cultural adaptations that can be discerned through archeology and historical anthropology. There is at times a hard-headed, disenchanted, and positively Geertzian acknowledgment in her work that the religious expressions of a people are likely no more (or less) than the cumulative historical record of social change, disruption, adoption and adaptation in that population. But, as Linda Martín Alcoff has recently and usefully warned us, critics mistake its character when they use Borderlands / La Frontera as an “antidote to essentialism”;Linda Martin Alcoff, “The Unassimilated Theorist,” PMLA. 121.1 (2006): 256. Alzaldúa was an essentialist, not an existentialist, and a close reading of her work suggests that her blurring of culture and race was productive for her literary politics.
Thus, by now it is surely obvious that the scandalous indistinction between race and culture in World of Warcraft is actually the frequent scandal of our own world of multiculturalism, our own confusion writ large. As in Azeroth, we in general do not understand or care about the distinction between a racial inheritance and a cultural heritage. I am not claiming, of course, that our most famous and canonical multiculturalists are racist, or even that Blizzard is racist, a term more apt for Boas’s critic after Brown. We know we are not supposed to believe in race in a biological sense anymore, but instead as a social construction. My guess is that most of these authors do not quite believe in such a thing as old fashioned race (though their biological metaphors of blood, genes, and hybridity suggest that at least sometimes some of them do). Indeed, the rhetorical stance of multiculturalism in the last three decades or so is to generally see through the biological fantasies that help generate contemporary “racial formation” as Omi and Winant put it. There is much evidence in Morrison’s work (for example, Playing in the Dark) to suggest a theorization of racial formation that is at least as sophisticated as that of Omi and Winant’s.See Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992).
Nevertheless, even when our paradigm of literary and critical multiculturalism is most disenchanted about race - seeing it as a social construction rather than as a biological reality - it frequently grounds cultural identity in a racial prescription. My hypothesis is that we erroneously fold into the social science truth of racial formation the dubious assumption that this construction includes the learning of racially appropriate cultures; such that, somehow, society’s construction of the social reality of race out of its biological delusions is the same thing as or happens simultaneously with the learning by children of distinct black or Chicano or Asian American or Native American or white cultures. Contemporary multiculturalism conflates these two distinct processes of social learning, distinct not only as lessons but as sites of learning and as audiences. Racialization’s lessons are the social significance of “race” in America - its signs, its hierarchies, its forms of racial etiquette that apply differently to differently raced citizens - and these things are learned to different degrees by all citizens. But minority cultural transmission has a much wider content: it includes such things as vernaculars, oral traditions, religious beliefs, food practices, and so on. Racialization occurs as a national learning process, with regional pockets of difference cross-hatched by the usual catalogue of identity-complicators like class, sexuality, religion and so forth. But minority cultural transmission occurs in local / familial neighborhood settings and in particularized segments of national media. Thus although racialization is a kind of cultural tradition in America, it does not entail the cultural transmission of minority cultures to specific minority groups.
The primary example where these two processes overlap, of course, is the idea that racialized minority groups’ experiences of social race and racism become part of a cultural tradition that is passed down to younger generations. This is certainly true: Hurston’s work in African American folklore revealed stories constituting part of a minority cultural tradition that encoded black responses and understandings to the process of racialization and the facts of racism. But African American parents teaching their children how to deal with racism is a learned cultural trait that cannot count as an entire and distinct minority culture. This is only to say that, while all African Americans may be raced in America - heterogeneously according to gender, economic status, region, sexuality, and so on - such does not always or usually include the transmission of a distinctive culture. Alice Walker, for instance, was raced as black before she discovered (or rediscoverd) the distinctive African American folklore in Hurston’s Mules.Alice Walker, “Zora Neale Hurston - A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View,” in Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, by Robert Hemenway (Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 1977), xi-xii. To use another example, Americans of Chinese descent may all be raced (in similar but uneven ways), but that racialization is a process distinct from the learning of Chinese American cultural heritage such as the Ballad of Fa Mu Lan oral tradition. We have perhaps been laboring under the erroneous conflation, since Omi and Winant, that racial formation includes the transmission of discrete cultures.
This confusion has produced what legal theorist Richard Ford calls our “racial cultures,” in which “social groups defined by race are treated as analogous to geographically insular cultural minorities and certain indigenous or aboriginal tribes,” and each is presumed to “have a distinctive culture.”Richard T Ford, Racial Culture: A Critique (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), (hereafter cited in text) 7. Warning that “the degree and salience of cultural differences between the races is much less dramatic than between insular aboriginal groups and urbanized cosmopolitans” (8), Ford nonetheless finds that “The slippage between quite insular groups defined by ‘societal cultures’ and fairly diffuse groups with only mild and relatively superficial cultural distinctiveness is characteristic of multiculturalist argumentation” (11). And if literature has been one constitutive field of our multicultural paradigm informing Blizzard’s logic of racial cultures, law may have been another. Multiculturalism’s tendency to treat cultures and races as coterminous or causal entities was strengthened, Ford intriguingly argues, by the 1978 University of California Regents v. Bakke decision, which permitted “diversity” as the sole remaining avenue for affirmative action college entrance policies. Various universities and the decision itself used “ethnic” and “racial” interchangeably, as Bakke “silently analogized racial diversity to ethnic diversity” (45). In response, progressive admission policies encouraged students “to internalize the equation of racial difference with inherited cultural difference and incorporate it into their self-conceptions” (48). Bakke and the diversity rationale reaffirmed recently in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) helped solidify the “cultural difference conception of race” (54) at the expense of an affirmative action policy based on students’ actual experience of racism: “Post-Bakke universities want to know all about the unique culture of the ancestors of their minority applicants, but ignore the discrimination suffered by the applicants themselves” (52).
Thinking of races and cultures as co-extensive, congruent, and non- overlapping means that, in World of Warcraft, there is no miscegenation and no cultural mixing. The trolls, orcs and tauren may have a certain indigeneity to their cultures, but there is no evidence of cultural borrowings and adaptations among these races. There might be elves living in a human community - even elven families with children - but those elves and those children are never affected by human culture. Individuals never lose their racial culture; there is never a generation gap when tauren children learn orcish ways, estranging them from their parents and grandparents. Orcs and trolls can both be shamans, but that vocation is not understood as a shared cultural tradition, or even in terms of cultural influence.
Since miscegenation - that which makes Anzaldua’s mestiza consciousness and hybrid culture not only possible but necessary - is inconceivable in World of Warcraft, the only remaining possibility for races to changes their cultures would be through a transracial adoption. This, of course, never happens in the game. It is not that there are no orphans in war-torn Azeroth. Indeed, one of the game quests involves taking an orphaned child, who is likely of another race, on a tour of Azeroth: a Big Brother or Sister fieldtrip. But (to the disappointment of some players See “Blizz!!!! I want to keep my Orphan!”) one cannot adopt that child. To be able to do so would be to imagine a distinction between a culture and a race, and disturb the racially prescriptive logic of deciding which culture we should have. What would be that child’s “racial heritage,” and what her proper “way of life”?
Here as elsewhere World of Warcraft seems to take its cue from multiculturalism’s unease. On Blizzard’s bookshelves might have been Spokane / Coeur d’Alene author Sherman Alexie’s 1996 novel Indian Killer, in which an Indian infant is adopted and raised by WASPish parents in Seattle. He grows up to become a serial killer, the serious consequence of being raised in the wrong culture. More, as the helicopter bearing the infant to suburban Seattle takes off from the reservation hospital, it strafes the reservation with machine-gun fire. “This is war,” the narrator tells us: Alexie’s surreal symbolism for the genocidal effects of transracial adoption.Sherman Alexie, Indian Killer (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996), 6. The infant turns into an Indian killer, but the title also means that transracial adoption is likewise a method of killing Indians. Such was the similar conclusion of the National Association of Black Social Workers in 1972 when it likened whites adopting black children to “cultural genocide.”Qtd. in Lynette Clemetson and Ron Nixon, “Overcoming Adoption’s Racial Barriers,” The New York Times, August 17, 2006. This language was removed in 1994. This kind of idea, suggests Richard Ford, entails “a notion of a biological predisposition to group culture” (84).
I am not claiming that Blizzard has been intensively reading the great literary works of contemporary American multiculturalism. There is no evidence that Blizzard designers have read these writers - as there is evidence, in contrast, that they have at least passing familiarity with other literary writers, especially Hemingway.See eeggs and WOW Wiki for lists of literary references that includes Beowulf, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Stevenson, Dickens, Whitman, Vonnegut, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Lovecraft, Dante, Conrad, Kipling, Swift, and Palahniuk. The trolls’ voodoo in World of Warcraft does not come from Zora Neale Hurston via Ishmael Reed, but is rather a popular stereotype about it, in contrast to the references to big game hunting that drive one quest sequence (“Hills Like White Elekk”) and overtly refer to Hemingway’s biography and stories. My argument instead is that these authors played a crucial part in formulating our current paradigm of multiculturalism since the 1970s, as they engaged with social science discourse about race and culture, rejected the assimilationist politics of the Civil Rights era, and sought to discover and recover in an overtly pluralist way non-mainstream cultural heritages. These authors are representative of the multicultural turn, but they also helped to theorize, craft and make happen that multicultural turn.
Of course the picture of literary multiculturalism is more complex than this, its genealogy more sundered and confused. But it is not always very much more complex. The great Boasian progressive distinction between race and culture has fallen into disuse. Our language is good at distinguishing among “racial cultures,” but it does not distinguish very well what is racial from what cultural about those groups. Read contemporary accounts of multiculturalism - by writers and academics, in government, business and media, in high culture and in low - and find a constant swerving between the terms, which have become more or less synonymous in public discourse. To be a race is to have a culture. Here, as in Azeroth. That is the scandal.
World of Warcraft, or WoW, is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), a genre of computer role-playing games in which a very large number of players interact with one another within a virtual game world. The game’s community website can be found here: WoW Community Site and its wiki here: WoW Community Site
Douglas’ argument operates in interesting tension with Jill Walker’s essay on the nature of quests in World of Warcraft. Walker argues that “a game is a network of fragments, most of which are not necessary to experience the game fully, and yet which cumulate into a rich experience of a storied world.” In other words, Douglas identifies an immovable cultural concept in WoW, hard-coded racial specificity, in a universe that otherwise depends on fluid and adaptive experience.