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.

A more thorough proposal…

Last week I briefly touched on what my “final project” is shaping up to look like. This week I’ll go over what I’m trying to say/do in a little more detail.

So, the general idea at play here is that World of Warcraft is transgressive in the sense that it achieves a “postmodern goal” of “beating” the metanarrative.

Last week I mentioned that one of the big problems in defining “interactive fiction” is that interactivity itself is a problem — how is a game truly interactive? How is a piece of fiction truly interactive? The immediate problem that arises is that a game can only present a player with so many options: there is no true “sandbox” game. No computer game can exist outside of the realm of numbers and narrative — every game (and every story within each game) must be mapped out ages before a player actually interacts with it.

That, of course, is the problem. That fact seems to invalidate video games as possibly postmodern, as they seemingly reinforce their own metanarrative — that is, there is a predetermined story that the player cannot escape from. No matter how the player experiences the game, their narrative will always bow to the game’s.

Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern give us away around this with agency — they show us that interactivity in drama (and games) is not marked by the ability to do anything, but instead the ability to do something meaningful (from the player’s perspective).

Yet, there is still a problem — the metanarrative is still enforced by the game. While interactivity — the player’s ability to impact the narrative — might be part of the game, the narrative is still defined in relation to the metanarrative. That is, if we take a game like Mass Effect, and we look at how it presents its choices to the player — those choices still align the player within the gameworld’s narrative.

So, how does World of Warcraft deal with this? That’s where I come in!

In World of Warcraft, the community is a gameplay mechanic. Using roleplaying servers in World of Warcraft as an example, I hope to show that there’s this weird paradoxical thing going on in the community, where players both consciously acknowledge the “metanarrative” and rebel against it in a unified way. That is, the “metanarrative” might say something (the “most important” story is defined, individual characters all theoretically go on the same journey from 1 – 90, etc), but the players can (and are expected to!) ignore it.

Basically, there’s a level of cognitive dissonance within the game that every player is expected to accept. On one hand, you’re supposed to acknowledge that yes, you can’t play the game without encountering the metanarrative. At the same time, however, a roleplayer can’t actually do all of the things his avatar is doing within the game.

For example, a quest in the game might have you take down an important character. Of course, a million other players are going to do the exact same thing. So how does the individual roleplayer deal with this event? If you “take credit” for the action, you are invalidating the experience of everyone else. What most players do, in this case, is situate the event within their character’s perspective: so perhaps they didn’t kill the important character — maybe they just witnessed his death, or maybe they might have aided someone else involved in the slaying. Or — another possible alternative — the player might choose to separate their character from the storyline entirely.

By bifurcating the story, the player creates their own narrative, independent from the metanarrative. Not only is it independent from the story, but it displaces it — to the player, her story is the most important element — not the “metanarrative.” Likewise, players that interact with the player will be interested in her story — not the overarching “metanarrative.”

Now, magnify this by a thousand choices, on a hundred different realms. Suddenly, World of Warcraft is way more than just a single storyline — it’s a thousand independent storylines, each existing independent of each other (yet each taking up the same “important” space in relation to the player).

So, how are we doing?

Today’s reading was Maps of Digital Desire: Exploring the Topographies of Gender and Play in Online Games by Nick Yee. This was a formal book chapter based on Yee’s research in The Daedalus Project, which I’ve referenced before in previous bits of research. The Daedalus Project, in short, was (it formerly went into “hibernation” in 2009) a data collection project that looked at gender, playtime, age, and a handful of other variables relating to MMOs. The data was collected via player-given surveys every few years, and then collected into a database.

The article itself uses the data within the project to fuel a conclusion: that game communities are more impactful on gendered play than gameplay mechanics.

Outside of demographics, Yee notes that the motivations for play in MMOs are similar between male and female players. Yee categorizes “play motivations” into three spheres:

Achievement: progress, power, status, numbers, analysis, challenging others, provocation

Social: casual chat, making friends, support, group achievement

Immersion: exploration, lore, fantasy, appearances, escapism

Yee’s categorizations show the many ways in which players “enjoy” MMOs. Likewise, they also show that there’s a great variety of “enjoyment” to be had within most modern MMOs.

The assumed, “popular” differences between the genders (in the gaming sphere) would seemingly mark these categories as gendered. I’m sure anyone who has ever belonged to a virtual community of some sort would immediately know the implications of each category without me even mentioning them: the casual, feminine space would be clearly defined. Likewise, the competitive, aggressive male space would also be clearly defined. The borders would be understood. Yee’s research, however, clearly shows that this popular assessment is bunk: in the category with the largest gender swing (mechanics), the overlap between men and women was 66 percent. Overall, the overlap was 87 percent. While there was difference, there was far more shared ground than feminine/masculine ground.

Yee notes, however, that even these tiny “gendered” spaces can be explained away with other statistics: age differences, for example, slightly inflate the numbers, as women gamers tend to be older than men.

This is about where we get to the elephant in the room: if women and men play for similar reasons, then why is their such a gender gap?

Yee’s interviewees offer some perspective:

“The only really off-putting detail is that it’s ludicrous that every time my elf fights, her breasts stick out to the side repeatedly. It is a constant reminder to me that this game is made for 13 year old boys, or men who still think like them. (World of Warcraft, female, 42)”

“But every ounce in a while, I seem to meet someone who wants to violently deny that I am who I am. And how am I supposed to respond to a charge of ‘You are not a girl!’ — I can’t flash ID or body parts to prove it. (World of Warcraft, female, 36)”

“There are things that happen in-game that make me embarrassed, as a woman and as a person who tries to be socially responsible, to be playing. For example, male players will talk about getting ‘raped’ without really thinking about it, things that happen will be referred to as ‘gay,’ which is offensive, people do crude things to player corpses in PvP [Player vs. Player settings], etc. (World of Warcraft, female, 29)”

With the exception of the first comment, all of these women have problems with the game’s community (and not the gameplay). Even then, the first comment could be considered a community issue as well, as the “community perspective” defines what parameters the game is developed to.

And so it is obvious then, what perhaps the largest “block” is on gender and MMOs (if not the whole of gaming).

But here’s my question — this article was written in 2008. The data is references was collected sometime during early vanilla World of Warcraft (as far as I know), with very few updates since then.

So… have things gotten better? Has the perspective changed?

Or, perhaps more to the point: has the recent (I’d argue 2010 and forward) surge of feminist (and queer) criticism directed at World of Warcraft impacted the diversity of the playerbase? Has it impacted developer dialog? Gameplay changes? Have advertising campaigns changed?

These aren’t questions that I can really answer yet — but they are certainly avenues for research later on in the semester. In the short-term, I’d like to interview a few WoW-based feminists to see what they think.

World of Warcraft is inherently queer

A note: the following article is a reduction of a reduction — it’s an article based on a conference paper based on a 30 page research paper. It took me 9,000 words to explain this concept to someone well-versed in the subject matter. I, um, have no idea how I’m going to do that in less than 2,000. My apologies if it is hard to read!

Sexuality, sex, and gender: all three of these subjects are infinitely complex. The reaches of each stretch way past their own borders, both in a literal sense and in a not-so-literal one. In contemporary society, we’re sort of cultured to believe a handful of things about them, but we also live in a time in which those boundaries are changing — if not being destroyed entirely. And really, that isn’t a bad thing. The ways in which they interact (and the ways in which they don’t) are expanding — and let’s not forget, the inherent binary nature I’m trying to prod them with here is essentially passé (once again — a good thing).

But that’s in our world. Our present. The real.

What about the virtual?

Earlier this year while playing World of Warcraft I had a bit of a revelation. Those same three things — sexuality, sex, and gender — existed in this virtual space. Likewise, they were frequently bound by the same social constructs. And yet… they weren’t. There were different rules. There were different limitations of what sex was, of what gender was, of what orientation was.

In this virtual space the biological is shattered and replaced by algorithms and pixels. The boundaries of gender are expanded, eviscerated, and recreated into something entirely new: a social construct (contract?) built entirely within the World of Warcraft.

The boundaries within World of Warcraft sometimes align with those in contemporary society, but for the most part they reach far beyond what is “acceptable” — or even possible — in the “real” world. What is other in the real is entirely normal in the virtual.

In terms of sexuality, in a “contemporary” space (for various reasons) we have certain expectations about sexuality, sex, and gender. We are cultured to expect that male bodies will perform male roles, and that they’ll align with their “proper” sexual role (that is, straight). Even further, we have expectations of what a male body looks like. The performance of “male” signifies both an aesthetic role and a psychological one. The same formula applies to female bodies.

When someone sits outside of this, they become the other. Even if the transgression is minimal, it is still seen as an aberration.

Even though (once again, in “contemporary society”) this is changing, bodies still tend to be defined by binary roles. You are straight or gay, you are male or female, you are feminine or masculine, you are or you aren’t.

Rigid categories — not fluid ones — are the current staples of culture. Society wants individuals that fit into its categories. To be different is to be anathema.

The virtual space, however, is not bound by the same rules. World of Warcraft does not impose such strict boundaries on its users, nor do the users impose those boundaries on themselves (that isn’t to say that they don’t exist entirely, though — they are just stretched — they are more liquid).

Of course, there’s sort of a missing step here. What is gender in World of Warcraft? What about sex?

So here’s something radical: those things don’t exist.

Well — okay — they do exist, actually, but they don’t exist in the same way as they do in the real world. Instead, they are spread out over three unique categories (spaces), each having its own identifying qualities.

These individually space all have their own markers — some for gender, some for sex, some both both. Each is its own complex entity, existing both within the influence of the others, and outside the influence of others. They can exist on their own (that is, without the presence of the other two), or they can coexist in a constant state of flux with the other spaces. Importantly, all of the spaces are also defined by the player. It is their filter that creates the image that others see.

A little confusing?

Maybe explaining the spaces will help!

First, there’s the roleplaying space. The roleplaying space is that of the player’s role: their class, their profession — not to mention the entire realm of “creative” roleplaying. The roleplaying space is, quite plainly, the role of the player.

Judith Butler would likely see the roleplaying space as the ultimate zone of gender performance.

But wait! Doesn’t that require these roles to be masculine and feminine? Wouldn’t that require a binary to be here?

Yup! And there is! Sort of.

A few years back researchers decided to study demographics and stereotypes within World of Warcraft. What they found was interesting: players clearly had defined social gender roles for players. Roles that involved healing or ranged damage were feminine, those that involved melee damage and tanking were masculine.

By picking a role (say, a tanking warrior or paladin) in World of Warcraft, you’re essentially taking on a gender performance in the most direct way.

Next up, there’s the avatar space.

The avatar space is the aesthetic, the visual. What can the player self-define that other players can see? Race, character gender, armor, and any other facets of appearance fall into the avatar space.

As these items are all visual (in one way or another), and as World of Warcraft is still an entity within “real” space, typical social rules apply. This means that avatars that look like male bodies will still invoke expectations of male roles within World of Warcraft.

This is where someone inevitably points out that there is no gradient in gender within World of Warcraft. Bodies are either male or female. They are binary. How can I have such a contentious title while ignoring such a blatant fact?

Simple: because aesthetics do not equal gender.

Wait, what, but you said–


To quote the same study I mentioned before:

In our sample of 1,084 participants, we had 281 women and 801 men. On average, they had 2.79 (SD = 1.51) characters. Among men, 53.3% had a character of the opposite gender. On average for men, 33.4% of their characters were of the opposite gender. Among women, 18.5% had at least one character of the opposite gender.

As every player of World of Warcraft knows, just because someone has a male avatar, that does not mean they identify as a male in “real life.” That’s precisely why this is called the avatar space: because your aesthetic appearance in the virtual is just an avatar of you. It is mean to best represent what you wish to be represented. It is not meant to be an identical copy… unless you wish it to be so.

This isn’t to say that the (binary) gender you pick within the virtual does not matter. While seasoned gamers will argue that there is no meaning at play here, it’s important to recognize that within an MMORPG you are not just picking something you like to look at: you are picking your avatar, your representation in a virtual space. You are not a disconnected entity in a cold digital world. You are part of it.

Finally, there’s the conversational space.

The conversational space is perhaps the easiest to define: any form of communication within World of Warcraft falls into the conversational space. Text and voice communication fit in here, naturally — but so do a few others.

Conversations simply require information transmitted between two players. Thus, other forms of “communication” count as well. If you see another player in World of Warcraft and they have a specific title over their head, that counts as communication. Likewise, even digital “body language” counts: “emotes,” after all, convey emotion.

So then, now that we have all the spaces… what do we do with them?

First, two quotes on queer theory, the first from Eve Kosofsky, the second from Kath Browne:

The question of gender and the question of sexuality, inextricable from one another though they are in that each can be expressed only in the terms of the other, are nonetheless not the same question, that in twentieth-century Western culture gender and sexuality represent two analytic axes that may productively be imagined as being as distinct from one another as, say, gender and class, or class and race.

And Browne:

Queer has been used as shorthand for an increasing list of sexual and gender diversity, but as authors beyond geographies have noted, this limits the possibilities of queer. I (and others) locate ‘queer’ in the radical requirement to question normativities and orthodoxies, in part now by rendering categories of sexualities, genders and spaces fluid.

Kosofsky’s quote shows one of the founding ideas of queer theory: the splitting of gender/sexuality. To “queer” in this sense is to split the idea that one needs the other. Do they interact? Yes! But they don’t require each other for identification.

Browne’s quote also sets the foundation for queer theory. To “queer” something isn’t just to discuss gender or sexuality, it’s to question the idea of normativities — it’s to try to make a space fluid.

To combine both of these ideas, any space that both:

  • a). splits prior identifying qualities that once stood together, and
  • b). is liquid

…can then be seen as a queer space.

By analyzing the above spaces, we can see World of Warcraft is doing both.

While it is possible to assign gender to each individual space (a male body is seen as male, a male voice is seen as male, and a masculine role is seen as male), the filter of a virtual world complicates things.

A practical example:

A player with a male character plays a healer (a feminine role) while communicating in a feminine voice.

The above row throws off identifiers across the spectrum in World of Warcraft: depending on the space you choose, they can be identified in many ways. Likewise, they have chosen to portray this liquidity.

Imagine what the real-life equivalent would be:

A human with an overtly masculine body wears full make-up and a dress while talking in a feminine voice.

In World of Warcraft, the player with the mixed identifiers is seen as normal, yet in the “real world” it’s safe to say that our example would be othered.

While the individual spaces within World of Warcraft might offer aspects of “identification,” when they’re all taken together, they suddenly become complex. Just as the case with queer theory’s view on gender/sexuality, the spaces of identification within World of Warcraft are both grouped and not — they can reflect on other aspects of an individual, but they also might not.

What makes World of Warcraft queer, then, is the simple fact that a normative identity does not exist — nor is identity meant to be fluid. In the realm of the identifying aspects of the game, there is no way to be “othered.” When your virtual sex/gender do not “line up” in an “acceptable” way within the World of Warcraft, you are not anathema: you are normal.

Queer is normal in World of Warcraft, and therefore World of Warcraft is a queer space.

(!) Minor note: additionally, it’s worth noting that while this is an obsession with identification in society, all of these facets cannot be used to adequately identify the player — only the player’s avatar. This can even be seen in the raw data. Remember the study about gender and role? While players believed that the stereotypes they were latching on to impacted “real” (player) gender, in reality those stereotypes were only true for character gender.