Problematically In The Voice Of A Night Elf Woman

I never did put much stock in the idea that video games were "just games."

Indeed it's an underlying thesis of this site's mission [Editor's note: Referring to Border House blog, where this post was originally published]that video games and other cultural properties can have a huge impact on how we see the world. Or ourselves. On a personal level, however, they are also more than just mere games.

When I last wrote for Border House I alluded to the powerful meaning that escapist anonymity has for trans people who are still discovering themselves, and I also hinted at returning to WoW. After Blizzard withdrew their frightening forum RealID scheme, I decided to return to the game with a few friends. It would mark the first time that I'd play an MMO as a fully self conscious woman in real life as well as in game. Like so much else over these last few years, my view of WoW changed significantly.

Transition is not simply a change of one's gender, it has the capacity to change nearly everything about your life, including your worldview. How I saw WoW, having lived as a woman in public now and not just online, changed with me. My view remains a more or less positive one. After all, the grandest change is that my relationship to World of Warcraft is now quite different. Rather than a desperate escape from a life I loathed, it has become an amusing aside to a life I love.

I had also learned a lot since I last played. I suddenly saw social ideas writ large in the game's concepts. The racial undertones that often gird roleplaying games where humans are coincidentally European and other real-world human cultures are given pigeon holed non-human races. The way even female heroes are shown wearing very revealing or skimpy "robes" and "armour," or the occasionally poor writing for female characters. All of that analysis became impossible for me to ignore because something dramatic had shifted in my life. I was now well outside the target demographic of games like WoW.

That fact made itself clear to me in the fact that the game's heteronormativity - a word I didn't even know three years ago - is as relentless as it is in many other games and media, and suddenly it was impossible for me to varnish or ignore. It was no longer ‘my' fantasy, a fact that intruded quite violently on my mind during the RealID crisis and in other recent events on the WoW forums where the mass of the game's population poured scorn on transgender people. What had made it clear to me was the fact that my own comfort in the game was now "political"- not in the classical sense of the personal being political, but in the sense of "politics doesn't belong in my game, so keep it out."

As I looked around, and even remembered some things I had dismissed in the old days I realised that ‘politics' meant:

-Treating women respectfully in game.

-Avoiding the use of uncreative insults like ‘retard', ‘fag', and ‘gay'.

-Having quests that showed any kind of LGBT character in a positive light.

Among other things. It was very strange how only those things were labelled as the toxic ‘politics' that more than a few players said they "had to deal with all the time" and "wanted to get away from." What suddenly dawned on me as surely as if I'd been struck by a max rank Holy Fire was that the fantasy of these people, many of whom (but certainly not all) were cis white boys and men was a world where gay, queer and trans people didn't exist, and where women were invisible except as objects. Last year's controversy over the idea that there were "no gays in Star Wars" was another powerful reminder of whose fantasy these games often constitute. As one commenter on io9 put it:

"hopefully they'll learn nothing and the loud minority will go into their perspective corners and remain silent and allow the silent majority to enjoy their worlds of fantasy without making it into something different.

For once StarWars got something right."

Even though I never felt like I fit in even before I came out, and my comity with heterosexual men was fairly minimal, only recently did statements like that really piece me very deeply and remind me that the fantasies of men like him involved a world in which I didn't exist. Aliens, moon-sized space stations, women with three breasts, physically impossible arachnids, magic users, faster than light speed travel, yes that could all exist. But a trans woman kissing another woman? Nope. Fantasy is free from ‘politics,' remember.

That realisation, that my entire life was now ‘politics' and something that certain people wanted to escape from, stung pretty hard. To keep the theme going, what from WoW could I compare that to… How about a Silithid Hive Queen impaling you with a crit?

The situation, however, is getting more and more deliciously complicated. There's also much to be hopeful about going forward. While many WoW players bashed trans people for bringing their specific concerns to the fore regarding real ID, many more mentioned us and linked to our blogs as part of the litany of reasons that the reform was a terrible one. Many male gamers also abrogated their privilege and wrote forcefully against the inherent misogyny in the proposed forum changes. There was a community united around this issue, and a community that saw all gamers as under the same gun when it came to Blizzard's proposed travesty.

As I returned to World of Warcraft, coming home to the cascading choruses of Stormwind, I had to come out to someone in my guild who had known my old gender identity. I told her that my gender identity had undergone… just the tiniest change since we'd last slain dragons together; she not only accepted me but treated me as if nothing had changed. We talk, we game, we enchant each other's armour, and just… have fun. Reactions like hers are no longer uncommon.

I also smiled warmly at WoW's female heroes in their better moments: Jaina's diplomatic courage, Alexstrasza's strength and wisdom, Confessor Paletress' mature dignity (if not her rather scant ‘vestments').

I no longer have the luxury of pretending that this world fully reflects me but it is still a world in which one can find a little home away from home. Even as we all struggle through the difficult MMO of Life Offline, we find our niches where we turn the elements of our world to good ends. That happens in WoW too. What hasn't changed is that, for all the realisations I've had, and for the multiple shifts in subject position I've undergone, RPGs remain a home away from home for me. The characters I roleplay, although quite different from me at times, are all often united in their attempts to bring sense to the worlds they play in.

So I suppose the personal does remain political. But I do know that come what may, I will not simply erase myself from the world of fantasy. I didn't come this far to simply retreat at the first sign of difficulty or bigotry.

The fear of accommodating troublesome media remains, but I do not feel I ever turn off my critical eye (of Kilrogg? Okay I'll stop), and at the end of the day, just by being there all sorts of gamers insist upon their existence, their fun, and their fantasy. The world (of Warcraft) isn't perfect by several million miles, but dollops of progress are being made that track the slow, agonising evolution of our own society.

Katherine Cross is a budding sociologist whose interests include gaming, gaming, pizza, gaming, politics, feminism, and cats. She currently writes for the social justice gaming website Border House and maintains her own blog, the Nuclear Unicorn, over in her Internet hidey hole. Her current foci in university are sociology and women's studies. ...Also, yes, she's trans.

Republished from the Border House blog with permission.


    Interesting article. It is an unfortunate that the biases of the gaming community reflect those of young white males.

    It's time to break that mould and for developers & publishers to show some spine in taking the initiative.

    Unfortunately shareholders couldn't care less and our gaming media runs scared of challenging their audience.

    I applaud Kotaku for running the article.

      It's simply a decision of survival for a company, when creating a product you want it to appeal to the sidest possible audience to reach an economy of scale that lets you proceed.

      Keeping the WoW as the example here it's not the game it was when it first launched. They appealed to the classic gamer, the young male, every person they picked up in addition to that was a bonus. Over time and through patches and expansions it's appeal has broadened to encompass a much wider audience.

      So it's not so much about challenging an audience for a shareholder as it is profit, and without appealing to majority it means the costs to the customer do increase. I do think though once that scale has been reached, transistioning to reach out to wider audiences is almost fundamental, but it takes time.

      And it's taken time to get perceptions to change in the public at large to where they are now, keep in mind at the heart of the WoW customer base is people, and people have a long way to go on this topic. Should a game be driving society or adjust inline with it?

    Well I can understand why a dramatic mental shift as changing gender would give you a stronger reaction to female issues. But I think it is important to mention, that it doesn't take such a step to take a female perspective in to consideration.

    That said, I also don't think that everything needs to be tasteful to both genders, there are clear and observable differences in the genders and they shouldn't be batted away in the name of equality, they should be embraced for what they are. Though I do agree the current divide of content is highly highly skewed :) The middle ground is even worse than content directed specifically at females. (Which tends to be for young girls and fucking terrible)

    And of course my typical response to "Everything is designed from a male perspective", is yes of course it is, not enough females seem to be interested or can get in to positions where there perspective is influential. I don't think hounding the current developers is the correct answer, I think promoting a more diverse development staff in the future is a gradual but more effective solution.

    Though again this comes down to pro-active female involvement, I studied Computer Science for a long time, I can count the females on my hands, of class sizes upwards of 200 students.

    As for the behaviour of gaming communities towards females, I don't think anybody can argue for this one with a straight face. It is admittedly disgusting.

    Yeah its politics and I would rather not have it in games I play. It seems GLBT people want their thing represented in games just because it seems fair and its apart of their world. If the GLBT community wants a friendly game where there are GLBT themes, raise money for one to get made.

    People seem to think that the dis-like only comes from "young white males". I am sure that there are other people of different ages and races who do not like the whole politics/PC in games. If somone wants to create a world where its full of GLBT themes and make a game out of it, go for it.

      hooooooo boy this is going to be an easy argument to shoot down. Let's play with some word substitution here we go...

      "It seems BLACK people want their thing represented in games just because it seems fair and its apart of their world. If the BLACK community wants a friendly game where there are BLACK themes, raise money for one to get made."

      See whether its racism or homophobia, its still ignorant, its still hurtful and its still discrimination.

        What if a GLBT doesn't want GLBT themes in their games, because the fantasy world is just that, a fantasy, where they don't have to worry about such things? Is that homophobic?

        “It seems WHITE people want their thing represented in games just because it seems fair and its apart of their world. If the WHITE community wants a friendly game where there are WHITE themes, raise money for one to get made.” One might argue that this is exactly what does already happen, is it still racist?

          It is not racist to suggest black people should make their own game. It *is* racist to suggest they are unwelcome in another. Unfortunately you cannot expect a product to be exactly what you want from it, only what the producer thinks most people will buy. If you can convince the producer to accommodate your wishes then you have scored a major coup. If you can't then you can either live with it or make your own product.

          I would say the best solution is not to suggest that black people make their own black game but to suggest that reasonable people to make a game where everyone is treated with respect. The goal is inclusion rather than segregation.

          Personally I think this article is less about saying WoW should be something different and more about saying what it is. Also that perhaps that it's sad that certain aspects of it are the way they are.

    Uh, am I the only one who sees diversity in most games? Including wow. It has people of all shapes and sizes and maybe some subtle racial stereotypes but that how people are brought together! Don't look to hard at things, you see want you want to ^_^


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