World of Warcraft, Metanarrative, and The Scarlet March

In my last two posts, I’ve tried to explain what I’m trying to do with my independent study project — this week I’m going to try and flesh it out with an example of what I’m talking about.

So, where are we?

World of Warcraft as “postmodern” — or, the idea that World of Warcraft is decentralizing the idea of the metanarrative. To be a little more specific, the idea is that the game allows the player to circumvent the metanarrative.

As a practical example, we’re going to look at a guild that existed on the US roleplaying server Maelstrom a few years back.

In World of Warcraft lore, there’s an alliance of humans known as “The Scarlet Crusade.” The Scarlet Crusade is, essentially, a group of human zealots that despise the “undead scourge.” Prior to the events of World of Warcraft, there was a plague that wiped out a large chunk of humanity, turning them into mindless ghouls and zombies. All of these newly-undead creatures were then placed under the control of The Lich King — one of the series’ main villains. However, some of these undead manage to get their “control” back, turning them into a separate race.

So at the end of the day you have the “free” undead (known as The Forsaken) and the “zombie” undead (known as the Scourge).

In World of Warcraft, The Scarlet Crusade fights against both, believing every creature that comes into contact with the scourge to be tainted. This means that any individual, family, creature, whatever — it’s all destroyed in the name of purity. As you can imagine, this is where the whole “Crusade” business comes in. They are so zealous in their fight that they develop an intense xenophobia, and they become hostile to any of the non-human races, believing everyone but them to be tainted (not just the Scourge or the Forsaken).

On the Maelstrom server, a group of players started a guild known as The Scarlet March. The March was seen as an offshoot of the Crusade — an even more zealous and radical sect of Crusaders. In their story, they were “officially” split from the March — certain events happened within the game, and they saw themselves as the “true” Crusade.

This is where we see the first off-shoot from the metanarrative.

The Scarlet March actually isn’t “officially” split from anyone — they are completely independent, and they exist only on the Maelstrom server. Their entire story is fabricated from a mix of “official” lore and “imagined” lore. Likewise, their story — as a unified whole — is made up of many individual stories (or petits récits). The guild, as a construction of the game, is essentially a collection of stories follow its own metanarrative (separate from the games). The thing is, this central narrative isn’t the most important — as without the petits récits of the individual members, it does not exist.

But wait — how does that count as a “game mechanic”?

That leap comes from the fact that The Scarlet March doesn’t just impact itself. The existence of this group of players working within their own story allows them to have an impact on the gameworld.

This is visible in how The Scarlet March emphasizes its “control” within the game — players from the March patrol around the main city streets, harassing any player they deem to be “unworthy.” In addition, they also co-opt a large in-game cathedral, holding “Mass” there. They also conduct military “expeditions” into “hostile territory,” killing players that refuse to bow to them.

All of these events directly impact other players, even if they don’t have anything to do with the March.

This is the second off-shoot of the metanarrative — the players aren’t just a separate story (distanced from the metanarrative), they are also a mechanic that encourages other players to disconnect from the metanarrative. Likewise, when other players interact with them, they are giving them validity — they are saying, yes, this group of players is more “valid” than the metanarrative imposed on their characters “officially” by the gameworld.

The final off-shoot of the metanarrative can be found within the characters themselves.

In order to “level up” in World of Warcraft, you must kill monsters and complete quests. Now, every quest in the game has some sort of narrative. If you’re a roleplayer, some of these quests will certainly “mesh” with your character, and some won’t. For budding “Scarlet March” characters leveling to whatever the “level cap” happens to be at the time, this is crucial.

If you’re a zealous, xenophobic crusader, you’re probably not going to go on adventures to help out races that aren’t human. Yet, in World of Warcraft, you are frequently forced to help out virtually every race in the game — this means that a character moving through the levels is going to have to take part in gameplay events that break his or her “immersion” — they aren’t things that their character would actually do.

Now, it’s possible to look at a player “ignoring” things like this as “cheating.” After all, how can you escape the metanarrative here? How can you realistically pick-and-choose what events your characters get to “experience?”

The thing is, you’re supposed to — it’s something actually reinforced by the gameplay metanarrative. You see, the player (as in the individual behind the character, not the avatar) is supposed that there is a duality in the narrative being presented to him: yes, these are things *he* is doing, but they are not things that his or her character is necessarily doing. After all, if a quest has you saving the kingdom, then how does everyone have that same shared memory? How is it possible for everyone to save the kingdom — especially when your character is being thanked for the task!

This is the game winking at you — telling you that yes, there is a “central” story line (the metanarrative), but that it is important for you (the player behind the avatar) to selectively ignore it.

So when the xenophobic Scarlet March crusader saves the village of gnomes, he isn’t actually doing it… even though he is.

These three metanarrative off-shoots allow the narrative of World of Warcraft to exist both in a centralized space and a decentralized one. The game is fully open to the idea of the petits récits — in fact, it *requires it* in order to stay cohesive.