Spoiler warning: This post contains direct spoilers related to plots and storylines in Warlords of Draenor.
The closing cinematic to Mists of Pandaria (after defeating Garosh and returning to the Vale) asks us why we fight. This scene says “To fight out of fear or anger is to fight a war that never ends. Face your fears. Calm your hatreds. Find peace within yourself, so that you may share it with the world around you.” I also think this reflects within me when thinking about Gandhi’s statement that you should “be the change you wish to see in the world”.
This Saturday, I was a guest on the Justice Points podcast, talking a little bit about social justice in World of Warcraft. The podcast episode is live here.
In the game, as well as in real life, I fight for equality and justice in the world around me. I fight so that others can have health and happiness. I strive to teach others and give them the tools they need to succeed. That is why I write guides to help others. That’s also why I have to speak up about social issues that I feel crosses a line. I know that everyone doesn’t agree with me, and while I am leaving this comment section open, I will remove any posts that are disrespectful. In all cases, the examples used in this post are examples that other people posted about first, but I felt the need to use my voice to make sure they aren’t forgotten.
I believe that Mists of Pandaria overall was a success in terms of social justice for gender issues in the game – in terms of not making gender such a big issue, and making me feel welcome to the game as a female. Mists of Pandaria did a great job of featuring strong and powerful women, doing important things. This included Jaina, who even appeared on the front of the Tides of War book! For video games, having a female on the cover of something is actually quite an accomplishment in terms of promoting acceptance of women in games. It was a subtle gesture, but it felt appropriate and natural. In the past Blizzard had been getting better about having awesome female characters.
This sentiment, however, gets easily forgotten as we go back 10 to 20 years in time to revisit our past in Warlords of Draenor. We are led to believe that we should forget these warnings of the Pandaren as we ramp up for Warlords of Draenor. Instead, the word “savage” starts to feel as though Blizzard is using it as a synonym for “manly,” especially with regards to the “boys trip” Blizzcon comments and leaving Aggra at home to take care of Thrall’s baby. Instead of listening to people who wanted more women, and better representation of women, they dug in their heels – and this lack of sensitivity has infected how women are represented when they are present in the game at all in what little we’ve seen of WOD thus far.
This is such a stark contrast from the more equal feeling in Pandaria that the Warlords of Draenor opening cinematic and website made me fell unwanted in the community for the first time ever – because suddenly out of nowhere, it felt like my gender mattered in ways that wasn’t comfortable. I could fight individual men telling me that I wasn’t worthy because of my gender over the years because I had tools to squelch them (e.g., ignore lists, deleting blog comments, reporting on the forums, etc). A bigger problem, however, is caused by Blizzard endorsing all those things that the community had said about me as a female player, and undoing all of the headway we had made towards increased respect. This was an issue that I brought up around the time of Blizzcon.
Unfortunately, these gender issues have only gotten worse, instead of better, in the last several months. In fact, we’ve had several people in the WOW community decide that maybe WOD isn’t for them in recent weeks due to the way that WOD is being marketed. Even people you think would like TV shows about motorcycles (e.g., the new Azerothian Choppers WOW tie-in show) haven’t had glowing reviews of the current marketing.
I believe that part of this problem is in forgetting that they need to actually care about the fact women play their game. In trying to revisit their past, Blizzard is remembering a history when they did actually exclude women players from their games, and there is a collective group-think at Blizzard that has promoted this forgetting of women gamers. That’s why there are so few women we know are going to be in Draenor, and that’s why the overall really poor representation of the few women in Draenor is a problem. Going back to a time before women were invited to play video games is just not acceptable today.
The sexual harassment of Draka
One of the bigger problems is an Alpha leak that included Draka (Thrall’s mother) being sexually harassed by another character. The dialogue is something like: “Draka … come join me in the Iron Horde. Lose that armor and settle down with a REAL MAN!“. This dialogue is unnecessary and offensive. This dialogue doesn’t increase their sales. It doesn’t add anything to the game. It tells women they don’t belong in Draenor, because that’s how some of their players are interpreting these words. It is also not something they would do to their male heroes in the game. It becomes a huge problem when it directly encourages the male players of their game to say this to female players of their game because it endorses the sexism pervasive in gamer culture. It tells male gamers that it is okay to sexually harass female gamers, because that’s somehow normal. Blizzard gets to define what is normal in gamer culture, and influence real life outside the game. Instead of being a force for good, they have chosen to slide backwards 20 years in terms of what is acceptable in video games and in our cultural media. Even if the dialogue is said by a villain, it is still inappropriate.
Rape jokes are even endorsed in hearthstone’s card set:
Having the flavor text of “Guys! Guys! Slow down!” tied to a picture of a scantily clad female with their rear-end sticking out towards an aggressor becomes a problem, because the text and the picture together make it a reference to sexual assault (and not something potentially more gender-neutral). How did no one recognize the fact that this card probably wasn’t appropriate? With the fact that sexual assault references are so common in video games, people actually just don’t recognize what it is anymore. Sexual violence against women (but never against men!) becomes the new normal. You could ignore the sexual assault reference and interpret it (incorrectly) as being more neutral, but why does sexual assault need to feel normal in the first place? Changing either the art or the flavor text would make the card a little bit better (changing the flavor text would be easiest, though). It worries me if there is a lack of caring about how portions of their audience might perceive this card, and no editing of thoughts and behaviors internally at Blizzard to recognize subtle messages that become part of a bigger and more pervasive culture of demeaning women. Either way, it means they likely didn’t think about how the products they develop may be perceived by a wider audience. Things like this make it feel like the company didn’t think about their cultural impact in the world. If this card was the only instance of sexism in Hearthstone, it would probably not be so bad – but it is just one of many examples. The same problems pop up in Heroes of the Storm. The same problems pop up in almost all popular video games – and its so frequent that it feels normal.
I think there has to be a better way for Blizzard to connect with their audience in a way that doesn’t actively endorse gender stereotypes and endorse jokes about sexual violence that becomes part of the cultural narrative of what is accepted in video games and real life. As a cultural leader in the world, Blizzard needs to take their responsibility more seriously. While this is “just a game”, it is actually true that games influence cultural beliefs about sexism. Real life beliefs about sexism mirrors what is portrayed in the media and in video games. Sexual harassment in video games increases endorsements of real-life sexual harassment. At some point, we stop seeing sexual harassment as being sexual harassment because it just becomes a normal part of life that women are expected to put up with. It turns out that women really don’t like being honked at just for walking down the street in real-life. It turns out that women don’t really enjoy being harassed in the context of their games that should allow for feelings of safety.
As a leader in the gaming industry, at what point does Blizzard decide to stand up and fight for respect among their gamers? At what point does the “boys trip” end and respect for their women fans begin? We see that the introduction of Yrel and the story she is involved in for WOW that she is treated with the same disrespect in her own character dialogue that other female characters are facing in today’s Blizzard games based on what we can see thus far.
What if gender roles were reversed for in-game dialogue?
With leaked dialogue between Yrel and Maraad, there is now a new flurry of posts about how women get the short end of the stick when it comes to character development Warlords of Draenor. In the podcast, I talk about how the dialogue written for Yrel is sexist because they wouldn’t do the same thing to Thrall. Thrall never has to worry about being sexually assaulted by other characters in the game (which is what the word “defiled” actually means). If the male orcs in draenor wouldn’t sexually assault the other men they capture, there is no reason why rape references are necessary in Yrel’s story, especially with a male character telling the female character that she’s been “defiled” and “broken”. In this case, “broken” is not is not coming across as a reference to the people who were corrupted with fel magic, but in a more more sexually aggressive nature because of the way that Maraad tells us that his “angel” has been “defiled”. It doesn’t make sense for a male character to need to be motivated by the rape of a female character, and I’m not even sure that was Blizzard’s actual intention – but that’s how the dialogue reads when it’s directed against a female character. It actually hurts the character development of male characters when they are also limited by the way that sexist dialogue is written. Changing sexist pieces of dialogue, however, could make the story better.
In the following example (one of MANY examples I could have chosen) Yrel’s name is replaced with Thrall and Maraad’s name is replaced with Aggra, it doesn’t necessarily come across quite so aggressive (because males in video games are never sexually assaulted in the first place), but it still proves my point. You could interpret the “defiled” as being more neutral, but why do female characters have to be referred to as “defiled” (with defiled actually being used in a way that makes it invoke the feeling of reference to rape), when we’d never use that term to describe male characters? Why evoke those images and feelings in your player base, and make those images and feelings feel normal and accepted?
Real game dialogue where Yrel’s name is replaced with Thrall, and Maraad’s name is replaced with Aggra. This is to show how when the genders are reversed, this dialogue suddenly becomes something that would never be in the game, it should make people equally uncomfortable in its original form.
- Thrall: What is our plan, Aggra?
- Aggra: We will slay as many of the vile things as we can. We will burn their homes and show them fear.
- Aggra:I will make them feel the pain I felt when I lost you, Thrall.
- Thrall: Aggra… I am honored…
- Thrall: …but perhaps you are taking your vengeance too far. Have you forgotten what the Prophet taught us?
- Aggra: The prophet is DEAD, Thrall. Look what his teachings did for him.
- Thaelin: Ye’ve gone too far, Aggra.
- Thaelin: The Light’s left ye. Even I can see that.
- Ovuun: I carry no particular love for the Light, but I agree. You need to remember what you stand for, Vindicator.
- Aggra: Are any of you more holy than me? I am the LEADER of this expedition, and I will not be questioned any further!
- Aggra: The Light has not left me, Thaelin. No… the Light has finally shown me its true form.
- Aggra: Vengeance.
- Aggra: I saw the naaru’s vengeance in the Purge of Grommar. I was there as K’ara herself unleashed holy death upon the filthy hordes.
- Aggra: And now that these hordes have taken, broken, and defiled my angel Thrall, I intend to unleash my own…
- Thrall: Aggra, my love. That’s enough.
- Aggra: Thrall…
- Thrall: You have been through too much, Aggra. Your thirst for vengeance will only lead to our death.
- Thrall: Yes, I was taken, but I am not defiled, and I am not broken.
- Thrall: Rest now. I will lead our attack on the Naval Base.
- Thaelin: I’m with you, Thrall.
- Ovuun: I, too, will follow you.
- Hansel: And I.
- Aggra: Very well.
- Aggra: Thank you, Thrall. I don’t know what’s coming over me.
There has to be a better way than to introduce Yrel as a sexual assault victim who needs to motivate vengeance of a male character. Blizzard’s games could be much more enjoyable if they took the time to recognize how women may perceive their marketing and aspects of their game. They need someone to tell them where the line of acceptable is, and when they have crossed it. Is reference to sexual harassment and rape of female characters something that should be acceptable? You could easily still have compelling dialogue without having to rely on sexism to convey messages. Thrall would never actually have to reassure someone that he wasn’t “defiled” or “broken”.
They even frame the rescue in ways that doesn’t evoke the traditional fel magic association with the word “broken”, but instead is consistent with the sexual assault interpretation of Maraad’s later dialogue after they rescue Yrel. In this case, they are evoking the traditional “damsel in distress” themes.
- Maraad: Everybody in the Tank. Yrel is being held as a slave in the Stonemaul ogres’ slave camp.
- Maraad: Yrel might already be free if it weren’t for the actions of one deceitful rangari.
- Ovuun: I did what I thought was right, Vindicator. The missing girl seems to be distracting you from our mission.
- Thaelin: Yeah, what’s so special about this girl anyway?
- Maraad: I lost her once. I will not lose her again.
- Hansel: Now THAT’S somethin’ I can get behind.
- Hansel: Besides, the ogres’re sellin’ slaves to the Iron Horde. Stoppin’ ta beat ‘em up fer a bit is well within the scope o’ our mission.
Thus, they aren’t talking about rescuing her from fel magic and becoming a “broken” race, but rescuing her from ogres that are selling slaves to the iron horde, and then framing the dialogue in ways that evokes subtle references to sexual assault in ways that weren’t necessary to evoke. It would be really easy to fix the dialogue, however, and make it much more clear in the possible interpretations. There isn’t any need to leave the dialogue open for an interpretation that references sexual violence, but instead Maraad’s motivations could be made to be less focused on rescuing a damsel in distress as his primary motivation in the game.
How could you change game dialogue?
For the especially problematic text from the first quote (now with the correct name attributions), the red cross-outs are what could be removed. Green text is new insertions to allow the character to still be angry and motivated.
- Maraad: We will slay as many of the vile things as we can. We will burn their homes and show them fear.
- Maraad: I will make them feel the pain
I felt when I lost you, Yrel. they have wrecked upon our people!
- Yrel: Maraad…
I am honored…
- Yrel: I too wish to stop them …but perhaps you are taking your vengeance too far.
- …. (skipping a couple lines)
- Maraad: I saw the naaru’s vengeance in the Purge of Grommar. I was there as K’ara herself unleashed holy death upon the filthy hordes.
- Maraad: And now that these hordes have
taken, broken, and defiled my angel Yrel, been allowed to roam free and hurt those I care about. I intend to unleash my own…
- Yrel: Maraad,
, my love. Tthat’s enough.
- Maraad: Yrel…
- Yrel: You have been through too much, Maraad. Your thirst for vengeance will only lead to our death.
- Yrel: Yes, I was taken, but
I am not defiled, and I am not broken. I am here now, and I am stronger than ever.
- Yrel: Rest now. I will lead our attack on the Naval Base.
See? Maraad doesn’t need to be defending Yrel’s honor like she’s a broken princess. He can still be defending his people without needing Yrel’s purpose for living as only as a motivator for Maraad. By making it less sexist in the presentation, it can allow everyone who isn’t motivated by saving princesses anymore to feel included, too. It doesn’t make the story better to marginalize Yrel. There is lots of other problematic dialogue in the mmo-champion’s leaked post, but for the purpose of this thread, I won’t go line-by-line through all of the expansion dialogue. I know that Blizzard can do better. They HAVE done better. It adds nothing to the game to introduce Yrel as someone whose love-interest thinks she has been “defiled” (in this case, the potentially more gender-neutral references for defiled or broken isn’t the impression that Blizzard gives across the whole set of dialogue, not all of which I’ve included here). We have rescued plenty of people from captivity (including Thrall himself). Just because Yrel is female doesn’t mean her rescue should be about saving a helpless princess – Yrel can still be as awesome as any male character if she’s given a chance. She can still assert her strength without having to fall victim to the typical tropes, and without having to make some of the players of their games uncomfortable. For the few female characters that will actually be in WOD, they need to be treated with the same respect that is afforded their male characters.
In the end, it is the little details within a game that makes it feel like a welcome space for everyone, where everyone can feel comfortable and at home. Women characters in Blizzard’s games should be treated with the same respect they afford to their male characters, and even their male characters will benefit from that. In the attempt to bring a “savage” expansion, lets not forget to make sure that the whole audience feels included on this journey. There have been times when Blizzard got things right. They did a lot of good in the Mists of Pandaria framing. So, we know they can do better, because they HAVE done better in the past. It’s not so much to ask for everyone to feel included, and it’s certainly not too late for Blizzard to make a pass at their dialogue and content across all their games and think about how they represent (or often don’t represent) women.