Via Fred, I see Matt Ruff talks about racism in World of Warcraft.
For my first World of Warcraft character, I decided to play a troll of the hunter class. About an hour into the game I got sent on a quest to a seaside village called Sen’Jin, populated by my fellow trolls, and while interacting with the non-player characters I realized that we were all speaking with Haitian accents. A particular shade of Haitian accent, seemed like: repeatedly, as I finished an exchange with a quest-giver or a shopkeeper, I was warned to “Stay away from the voodoo, mon.” Gee, I thought, that’s odd. Why would trolls talk like black people?
Seeking answers, I turned to the racial history section of the WoW manual, and read the following: “The vicious trolls that populate the numerous jungle isles of the South Seas are renowned for their cruelty and dark mysticism. Barbarous and superstitious, they carry a seething hatred for all other races…” Ah, I thought, of course. That explains it. Trolls talk like black people because they’re superstitious jungle savages.
[ * * * ]
Taurens, as their name suggests, are a minotaur-like species (although my female druid looks more like a bipedal dairy cow). But they really should have been modeled on bison rather than cattle, because it turns out Taurens are actually 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!”, an expression I haven’t heard since the days of F-Troop. [ WoW ]
A couple of simple things. Trolls are not superstitious because they believe in voodoo. I’ve killed plenty of monsters in-game with my own voodoo to know that magic is real. At least in Azeroth. Secondly, male minotaurs are humanoid bulls. Which are male cattle. What do you expect a female minotaur to look like? Now, to the deeper argument.
Thinking accents and cultural accouterments are offensive in and of themselves is a common mistake. But if you treat other accents and cultures as too potentially embarrassing to represent, what you’re really saying is that these things are handicaps and it’s not polite to point them out. The trolls don’t speak in broken, pidgin English. They just speak with an accent. And they tell you to “stay away from the voodoo” not because they’re superstitious savages but because they know what they’re talking about.
Fantasy in large part depends on appropriating human culture and that means building off of human stereotypes. And that means working with racial stereotypes. The question is this: do you treat those racial stereotypes with respect, or do you turn them into rac_ist_ stereotypes by using them to mock different cultures?
I get more deeply into this after the jump.
When it comes to the appropriation of accent and culture in a fantasy realm, the concern is not “do the trolls sound black” but “does it sound like we’re making fun of black people when a troll speaks.” Or, for that matter, when a tauren speaks. I don’t have the player demographics here — can’t find ‘em — so I can’t say whether or not black players are staying away in droves because they’re offended by the use of something other than white people’s accents. But I don’t get the sense that racism is intended, and Blizzard seems to have treated the development of content for all races with quite a bit of respect — especially those like the orc, tauren, and troll that are based on tribal cultures. The trolls may be black, but they don’t jump Jim Crow. And the taurens may say “how,” but their similarity to F-Troop indians pretty much ends there.
Since reading The Horde is Evil I’ve been paying close attention the narrative of the Horde vs. Alliance story in World of Warcraft. I’m impressed by how complicated it is. In addition to good vs. evil, we also seem to have a civilization vs. indigenous culture arc. The taurens, trolls, and orcs are indigenous cultures who oppose the Alliance races because they feel the Alliance is taking their territory and does not honor their culture. The mostly hierarchical Alliance fear the tribal Horde races because the Horde races resist being absorbed and made subservient to the human and night elf notions of civilization.
There are two evil races in the Horde — the Forsaken (or zombies) and the Blood Elves. Both of these use the tribal cultures and their oppression by the Alliance of the Horde to their own advantage. I do not know if the story will be around long enough to see this played out, but already I see signs of a fracture between the more human-like races of the Horde and the tribal cultures; also, connections are being made between the two factions. It’s not uncommon, for example, to see Tauren and Night Elf NPCs working together in protection of the natural world of Azeroth.
My point is this: the races of World of Warcraft represent many diverse cultures which might seem racist at the first and briefest of glosses. But there is a depth and complexity here that suggests the use and appropriation of different ethnic groups represent a serious attempt at theme that goes beyond good versus evil. 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.
Blizzard may have said that the Trolls are savage and live in the jungle, but it was Matt — not Blizzard — who reduced that in his mind to nothing more than “superstitious jungle-dwelling savages.”
Now, as I said: I’m not black. I think if I were black I’d be pleased to see that I can play a character who comes from my own tribal background instead of pretending that black people rode around killing Saxons with King Arthur — as long as I’m not reduced to being Sambo in the process. I think Blizzard has done a fine job of this, and it’s only a cursory look at the game combined with an assumption that using any non-white accent is racist that lends itself to any other interpretation.
That said, the comments are open. Am I off-base here? Is Blizzard’s use offensive to you?