Code Switch
8:55 am
Mon March 10, 2014

Our Conversation On Race In 'World of Warcraft,' Unabridged

World of Warcraft is trying to reduce racial inequality. Don't worry, this isn't about racial disparities between black, Latino and Asian players — we're talking about gnomes and trolls and orcs here.

Last week, Blizzard Entertainment, the developers behind the hugely popular role-playing game, tweaked some of the racial attributes in World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenor, the game's latest expansion. With the new changes, night elves have gotten quicker and humans are less adept with maces. There's a whole lot more, but the upshot is that almost every race in the game is now more versatile than they were before — making for more equal geek opportunity, if not exactly equal geek outcomes.

WoW's millions of online subscribers interact in a shared, ever-expanding world. Players can make the characters they create farm or hunt or team up on missions and raids. But before you do any of that, you have to pick a race.

Because I'm not too familiar with WoW, I reached out to some former diehard players to help me work through what this all might mean.

Mink Choi is a book publisher for Thought Catalog. She lives in Astoria. Guillermo Hernandez Martinez works in the photo department at Sports Illustrated in New York City. Alex Schelldorf works here at NPR in the marketing department.

Our conversation was edited for clarity.


DEMBY: First things first. In your experience. How does the way race operates in the real world affect the way race plays out in WoW?

SCHELLDORF: It's all about identity, I think. I relate it to being sort of an innate thing. When you first boot up WoW, you're given the option of good versus evil (Alliance v. Horde), and then given the option of what character class/type you want to be. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it's a gut choice. Walking into WoW for the first time, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but once I read the descriptions of being given the choice of nobility versus committing potentially heinous acts, I totally wanted to commit heinous acts. If you identify with 'zombie culture', there's an option to be an Undead. If you want to be a Hunter/Gatherer, you can do that as well - but you can either do it as a Human, Troll, Draenei, Night Elf, etc, Tauren, etc.

HERNANDEZ: I think once you start spending more and more time in the game you can start seeing repetitive stereotypes, both positive and negative, among racial factions that sometimes may mirror real world stereotypes, which I guess is not all that surprising.

There are also reflections of real-world attitudes that you can see in the game, like the lack of darker-skinned human characters. There are a wide range of skin tones available in character creation, but you always tend to see the lighter shades in-game.

CHOI: I never thought of it in that context, but now I'm questioning why, when I first started playing, I chose a blue female Draenei instead of a human. But I think it's probably because being Korean-American, I'd have felt misrepresented by a female human character without having the option of really changing her facial features/skin tone/etc. And maybe it also means I felt closer to a cloven-hooved, goat-like character?

SCHELLDORF: You know, that's an excellent point. Now, when I look back at it, I rarely saw darker skin types. Even when I was a Troll, I tried to be the 'least green' or brown possible. But I think that also speaks to the graphics of the game - Like, it's more difficult to see facial features of certain races because of how dark certain tones are in the game.

DEMBY: Which races in the game are loose stereotypes of real-world racial groups?

SCHELLDORF: There's a sect called the Sen'jin that HAS to be the stereotypical Jamaican. The vocal patterns/inflections are similar, the garb is very colorful (a la the Jamaican flag), etc.

CHOI: Adding onto what Alex said, the races also have different accents that sort of identify what "region" they could possibly be from in the real world. To be completely honest, I don't know what Blizzard was thinking when they announced the new Pandaren race and having them be known for their "Art of Acupressure"? Laughable.

HERNANDEZ: With the sheer number of quests, storylines and non-playable characters Blizzard had to create, they used pretty much every pop-culture/movie/historical/music reference they could think of, among them being stuff like the Jamaican trolls mentioned by Alex. Old English and Irish stereotypes are also pretty alive in the Dwarves, and I'm sure there are a lot more out there I can't remember.

SCHELLDORF: Yeah, I totally forgot about those! The Gnomes! I didn't ever play that class because they're treated like a total joke.

HERNANDEZ: Ugh, I just remembered there was a human character with a sarape and a sombrero who was really irritating. I wish I could remember the name and look him up.

DEMBY: Wait, really? Giant Panda warriors that are good at aupressure?

SCHELLDORF: I haven't played the latest expansion (Mists of Pandaria), but this doesn't surprise me at all. The game can be very macho at times. Look at the Warrior class. It's, in so many words and excuse my French, something of a pissing contest at times.

CHOI: Yes, giant pandas that belong to clans with Chinese-sounding names and lands filled with "Asian" architecture.

DEMBY: That's kind of hilarious. But you still played it pretty hardcore, Mink — which speaks to how complicated fandom can be.

SCHELLDORF: For me, I wasn't really 'offended' by the inclusion of the Pandaren, until I learned more about what they wanted to do with it. There's a completely different WoW rip-off in China, and I'm not sure if this was ever explored in their version of the game. I think it was somehow Blizzard's twisted way of paying homage to the goldfarmers in Asia.

CHOI: Haha, I was just thinking that Alex. Like what was Blizzard trying to do?? Get MORE Asians to play the game? Trying to make them feel at home with pandas? By the way, my account was hacked by a goldfarmer — sold all my stuff, but when I got my account back, I had 115k gold or something.

And Gene, I only leveled a panda to 15, and then felt so ridiculous playing it, I gave up. Also, I'm pretend planning my trip to the WoW theme park in China, but shhh, we're not supposed to say it's based off WoW.

DEMBY: So this is a total n00b question, but can you design the look of your individual elf/gnome/orc character, or are they sort of templated?

SCHELLDORF: Mostly templated, but there's plenty of variables. Like you can change their tone, their hair, their ears, certain facial features, etc. You can also customize what they wear in game.

CHOI: I'd spend way too much time on changing how my toon looked...hairstyle, earrings or no earrings? How many earrings and where? What about face tattoos for my druid nightelf? Okay, I'm done.

DEMBY: So just how big a deal are the new racial traits to the mechanics of the gameplay?

HERNANDEZ: Racial traits are pretty important, particularly in the end game where you may need that 1% of extra critical chance of Arcane Acuity, or the 5% of Mana given by Expansive Mind. Which traits are most convenient to you depends on the class and role you're playing.

SCHELLDORF: It's of the utmost importance, because like Guillermo said, you have to be very forward thinking in your approach. A complete newbie to WoW will no doubt be overwhelmed — I was. ESPECIALLY considering how many expansions are out there now. I had the benefit of following along right from the second expansion, but in doing so, I felt like I missed out on a lot of the fun of 'Vanilla' (or O.G.) WoW. There was so much I had missed.

DEMBY: So do the new racial traits change which characters you would have played with if you were a newbie today?

SCHELLDORF: I played a Troll Hunter, and I would have been seriously pissed off at the Dead Eye removal. Hunters are a purely damage-driven class, and they're constantly getting "nerfed" — major changes made in the sake of "parity."

HERNANDEZ: I played a Dwarf hunter, and would be pissed off by the removal of Crack Shot, but the addition of Might of the Mountain would have more than made up for it. If you play for a long time you end up getting used to the constant tweaking and changing of stats. The best part of the game for me was always playing with the different numbers in order to get the maximum amount of damage out of my character, and every tweak/nerf/whatever meant being able to work around it and still top the charts.

DEMBY: I was doing some reading to get up to speed on this and found a message board with of pro/con list for different races. One of the cons for the Drainei was that they're the subjects of racism from human-raced characters. ("Your numbers are very few, and for some reason you're the target of racism by humans despite humans being, y'know, open to other races," the poster wrote.) Wait, word? "Racism"? Is that a thing?

SCHELLDORF: There is an incredibly deep backstory to WoW. We're talking thousands of years of lore, which is the basis for all of the quests in game. To level up, you have to do the tedious thing and 'grind' — You have to gather certain flowers for quests, kill a certain number of minions, etc. Some of these quests are very mundane and just designed to boost the amount of experience you gather to get to the next level. However, the quests that progress the story of your race or class are the ones that really make the game stand out. They play intensely on the emotions of your character: themes of betrayal, love, death, even sex. Many players completely ignore these stories. I know that at times, I did as well — I couldn't understand exactly why I needed to go retrieve an emblem from this tomb that had a bunch of baddies in it, but I did it because I wanted the sweet gear that came from the reward of doing so. The allure of doing these quests is different for each player. Hilariously (to me, anyway), there are Roleplay specific-realms, wherein players who know the backstory and history and lore interact with each other in this way, continuing the story or forging their own. It's almost like in-game fan fiction.

HERNANDEZ: I've forgotten a lot of the lore already, but, as Alex said, through thousands of years deep conflicts between races have developed for some reason or another. The Draenei, for example, were almost completely eliminated by neighboring Orcs and had to flee in order to survive. Like Alex said, a lot of players role-play within the context of this history, and that's where your link seems to be coming from.

CHOI: I'm not well-versed enough in the lore to even attempt to answer this question, but I played a Draenei hunter from day 1 in Burning Crusade and I remember the beginning story being a bit devastating. And there being a lot of destruction, wreckage. Clearly a ruined race trying to recover.

SCHELLDORF: Look at the story of Cataclysm. It was a complete overhaul of the world, pretty much the first of its kind in an expansion. New areas were made, entire swaths of the map outside Orgrimmar (home base for the Horde) were completely destroyed. Before the release of the game, players visited certain areas that were announced to be imminently destroyed. It was emotional because some of those areas were the starter areas for different classes of the Horde.

DEMBY: So the people who do roleplay are adopting the fictive racial divides in the game?

SCHELLDORF: Yeah, in a way. I can't speak to those RP-specific realms because I was more interested in taming rare beasts as a hunter than I was in why Deathwing had come back from her multi-thousand year slumber to destroy the land (the Cataclysm, as it were). But there are those type of people — the same type that love and follow comic books and are able to call out errors or harken back to a bygone era wherein such-and-such did whatever, and that doesn't mesh with the new direction of the yadda yadda yadda.

Truth be told, I didn't pay attention to a lot of the story, but there were moments that were jarring and made me want to pay attention to the storyline. The themes of slavery throughout the game were really terrifying.

HERNANDEZ: I played the rts Warcraft games when I was younger, so I was familiar with some of the lore beforehand. When I leveled my Hunter I actually paid attention to the lore behind the class and race quests so I always had a fair understanding of stuff, but I could never RP without feeling lost in the knowledge of everyone else.

SCHELLDORF: See, that's what I missed. I wish I could have caught up on more of what the game was meant to accomplish story-wise, but I was too busy sometimes hooked in the experience grind to notice what was going on around me. Often times, I wouldn't even look at what was being asked of me, sort of zombie-like in my quests to gather, etc.

HERNANDEZ: When I was a n00b I would read every single quest, but then you get to find out which ones are just farming quests and which ones you actually should pay attention to. I thought it was super cool to find the quirky quests like Harrison Jones and others, and then the stuff that actually mattered to Dwarves.

Going back to Gene's question, a lot of people do adopt the conflicts between in-game races pretty seriously, but in my experience it was only when they were in character. They would have a completely different set of hatred when they were in another character.

DEMBY: That's fascinating.

SCHELLDORF: Agreed on reading every single quest originally — but when you play through either as the same character class or the same side (Alliance/Horde), a lot of the quests overlap and you tune them out. Plus it became incredibly repetitive: Go this area, slay some swine, collect their hides, don't let a more powerful character merk you. Finished with that? Cool, go to this water area, fish some until you've gotten enough of this certain type of fish, turn those in, move on, etc.

Harrison Jones quests were my jam. Those were so much fun. Blizzard was always SO good at incorporating pop culture into their quests. The random references to movies, music, etc., always made me smile as someone who enjoys trivia.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah! They have references for everyone, you're very likely to find some of your favorite things involved in a quest. My absolute favorite was Hemet Nesingwary, so much that I wasn't bothered by the wholesale killing of fauna!

DEMBY: Does race in the real world or in-game affect the way guilds are formed? (Guilds are real-world groups that organize, formally and informally, to complete some kind of in-game task. They can communicate via text in the game or by voice over headsets.)

SCHELLDORF: I don't think it does directly, but there might be something to be said about classism, and the personality types of people. It might be more subversive than an overt decision to not include certain "races" in the guild. I think it extends more to their character class than it does to the race. The hive mind of the guild is to achieve a certain goal: If they like raiding, it's that, if they want to run through achievements, that's something different. But because you can't have both Horde and Alliance in a guild (They can't communicate to each other in game, either), I don't think there's the level of racism that you might be trying to identify.

CHOI: Agreed. It was more about finding the specific class that was needed for whatever raids. But the guild I played with for 2 years was a hodgepodge of people from different backgrounds. Guild leader was Korean-American, and then we had a mix of everything else.

HERNANDEZ: I actually had pretty bad experiences joining guilds with my friends. We are all Mexican and had really strong accents. One of my friends couldn't quite speak much English at all. We got a lot of bad responses from guilds and got kicked out or resigned because of reactions to our accents and stuff like that. Eventually we found one that was really awesome about it and we would even feel comfortable talking to each other in Spanish during raids in order to not distract anyone else.

DEMBY: So there were no, like, guilds full of young Latino kids?

SCHELLDORF: I never met a single person with a "Hispanic-sounding" accent on the game. But I can say that those who sounded Asian or black were less welcomed.

CHOI: I ran into guilds that were all Portuguese players — couldn't ever play with them because they didn't speak English that well. But I remember one of them trying to be super helpful during some quest (but that might have been because he assumed I was a female gamer). I dunno, Alex, we had an awesome player that was very clearly Chinese (thick accent)--his skills in game outweighed anything else.

SCHELLDORF: Might have just been my realm. Could also have been the direct influence of my friend, who was a known racist (to me, anyway) being uncomfortable with having anyone who didn't speak English in the guild. God, these are some rough memories.

HERNANDEZ: I wish I had found a Latino guild! It would have made things way easier. A friend actually joined an Australian guild one time on accident, so there are definitely some guilds with national or racial identity out there. For us it was about finding a good raiding guild, and eventually a good raiding guild that didn't hate on our accent.

DEMBY: Guillermo...Easier how? And Mink...what was it ike to be a owman in that space? The stereotype is that it's all lonely, nerdy dudes. (Uh, no offense to Alex and Guillermo.)

HERNANDEZ: As I said before, we had a hard time joining guild because of our strong accents, so I think finding a Latino guild would have decreased the terrible responses we got from some guilds.

CHOI: Sometimes it was funny, most of the time it was annoying. Receiving whispers from guys like, "Do you have bewbs?" I mean, come on, have some tact at least. The worst was when I would join a channel on Ventrilo and say one word to the immediate response of "OMG GIRL IS IN VENT." Great for female gamers who love that sort of attention, but I'm not about receiving favoritism because I have a vagina. Also, it was just automatically assumed that I sucked at the game and was only invited to raids because, girl.

SCHELLDORF: I can concur with this. Female players had to prove themselves WAY more than male players to be accepted to raid, and they were treated/disciplined like children when they messed up.

HERNANDEZ: My guild leader was a Texas woman who was always great at telling people in raids to be more respectful towards her and other female players. It was always disconcerting when she would be the only voice for reason and have five different guys shout her down on vent. Fortunately those experiences were not super often since you end up learning which guilds have douchebags in them.

SCHELLDORF: Women were revered in our guild. They were treated like gold. Every single person wanted to help them. And if you PLAYED a female character, you were treated better. It was astounding.

CHOI: Alex, I strongly want to tell you to shut up (because what you say IS true), but I'm laughing at your response. [SCHELLDORF: thanks for clarifying :)]

SCHELLDORF: Hey, I played as a female Night Elf to see how much better I would be received in-game, and it was terrifying how much other people wanted to help me. but I can totally understand the level of sexism in the game in that aspect — the anonymity, as everyone knows with YouTube comments, was the equalizer. Like alcohol for social lubricant.

CHOI: "Terrifying" is the proper word there.

SCHELLDORF: I will say this: I very very rarely ran into douchebag players. It's just like in real life- the bad eggs are more memorable. Tons of people in-game were more than willing to help me. Complete strangers trying to help me along to achieve a common goal. Sure, there were assholes who wouldn't stop ganking lower level players, but more often than not, it was a friendly experience PRE-raiding. Raiders take on a different, more mature, more 'professional' (at times) persona. They get all uber-serious because they want to see the end-game cinematics or gear up or w/e. Pissing contest. Those were not my people, which is why it was hard for me to want to raid more.

HERNANDEZ: I agree, I never had a problem with the super hardcore raiding guilds. They wanted you to do the job and then they'd go on to the next raid. During raids they wouldn't be quite friendly, if they saw you were incompetent they would just kick you out and that was that, but outside of the raiding environment they would actually be really helpful and nice. In general I agree with Alex, most people are willing to either ignore you or help you. Outright douchebags are rare.

SCHELLDORF: All of this WoW talk is making me want to play again, lol.

HERNANDEZ: lol, I'm glad I can't afford it anymore or I wouldn't have a life.

SCHELLDORF: Also, I want you guys to know that I listened to the entire Lich King soundtrack while we did this chat.

CHOI: Judging you Alex.

SCHELLDORF: Whatever dude, Lich King 4e. You can't sit there and tell me that the Stormwind theme doesn't still give you goosebumps.

HERNANDEZ: I grew so tired of the music in the cities. Being in front of the training dummy for so long made it really repetitive.

CHOI: Haha. I don't remember what it sounds like! Also, I played Burning Crusade more regularly than I did Lich King.

SCHELLDORF: YouTube it. I remember going through the portal to BC the first time and like... almost legitimately tearing up. It was insane, and I'm embarrassed to admit that.

HERNANDEZ: It was so epic, finally making it to 70 after having to level up all over again and going through the new areas was beautiful.

SCHELLDORF: And flying for the first time?! Shut up. Shut it down. It was incredible.

HERNANDEZ: I went on an obsessive hunt for all the flying mounts. I got so much joy out of flying over lower level people...

CHOI: What was your favorite raid? I miss SSC the most.

HERNANDEZ: Ugh, I love/hate ZG. I went every week to try to get the stupid tiger mount and it never dropped for me. Onyxia was a sentimental favorite because it was the first one I could solo.

SCHELLDORF: Ulduar. I never got to see a lot of the BC content because by the time I was raiding, LK was already out. But some of the visuals in Ulduar... wow.

HERNANDEZ: Ulduar was so cool! The relief when you actually get to finish it is awesome.

SCHELLDORF: Agreed. Finally battle with Arthas was sick too.

HERNANDEZ: I only made it once and we wiped :/ never beat the stupid Lich King. My glory days were definitely BC.

SCHELLDORF: OMG, I just read that a Triceratops is a new pet for Hunters in Mists. I'm re-upping when I get home.

HERNANDEZ: That's so cool. I would never betray my spotted leopard though.

CHOI: I've been playing Diablo only recently. New xpac comes out on 3/25...

SCHELLDORF: I've been playing a LOT of Hearthstone. It's so much fun and not nearly as time-consuming (in theory).

CHOI: I keep hearing good things about Hearthstone.

SCHELLDORF: I can't say enough good about it. But it gets stale rather quickly. They won't be able to keep up with expansions, but I'm glad I got in on the ground floor so I can say "Back in my beta days..."

HERNANDEZ: I wonder how many people from vanilla are still playing WoW.

SCHELLDORF: I'm reading right now about Guardian Druids who can SOLO Karazhan. That's so freakin' wild to me.

HERNANDEZ: I used to solo stuff with my Hunter. I could do most raids from vanilla at 80, and was working my way into BC content. It was hard to convince my raids and parties that I really needed that tank gear though.

CHOI: I miss Kara.

DEMBY: Um. Y'all are speaking another language right now. Before we go, I wanted to ask you about how long you were playing, and what made you decide to stop. You each mentioned that it eventually got to be too much; Mink, you even wrote about how it took over your life to the point where you dropped out of college. (Stony Brook! I went to Hofstra, btw.)

SCHELLDORF: I played twice for a period of 2 ½ (or so) months at a time, once in the period after the release of Burning Crusade and before Rise of the Lich King, then again in the month prior to the release of Cataclysm, and for about 2 months after its release. I was convinced to play by co-workers, and then continued to play even when they weren't on. Or, if we are having an argument, I'd go play on a completely different realm. I gave it all up when I recognized that it wasn't a constructive aspect of my life. I was dumping money into the games, expansions, the subscription fee, upgrades to my computer, and for what? It cost me some social time, but not nearly as much as others. I don't regret it, because there were moments in those games that easily rival my favorite movies and books. There were so many unforgettable moments, and I felt like I was able to accomplish a lot of what I wanted in terms of constructing a character. But it's a time-suck. In my opinion, I don't think there's such a thing as a casual WoW player. I can say I'm a casual Hearthstone player because I don't log on every night, and because it's free. But WoW is a different beast entirely.

CHOI: I played from 2007-2009 — playing almost every day for a 6-month period during that time. Never went to class, didn't sleep that much, had 16-17 hour gaming sessions. So I dropped out of Stony Brook (before they kicked me out) and gave up WoW to get my life back on track, but reinstalled the game shortly thereafter (I'm weak!). I stopped playing altogether more than a year ago. I think I could go back to playing now without being so crazy addicted to it (I think). [Gene, I could have gone to Hofstra on a golf scholarship :)]

HERNANDEZ: I quit for the first time in my sophomore year of college, in 2009. I started back up in 2010 and the last time I played was in 2011 I think. I don't even remember exactly when I started playing — freshman year in high school?

I originally quit because I needed to not fail out of college, and raiding 4 or 5 nights a week was kind of not helping me out academically. A year later a friend offered me about a year of free playing time so of course I couldn't say no and got hooked again. I eventually gave it up to focus on actual life. I agree with Alex that the money and time spent was probably excessive looking back, but I loved it and made me keep in contact with some of my friends in Mexico that I probably wouldn't have otherwise. Unlike Mink, I think if I started playing again I would be just as intense and consumed by it as I always was so now I stay far far away from it. I actually see a lot of parallels to my cigarette addiction. It's hard quitting something you really enjoy doing, you know?

CHOI: Agreed, Guillermo. I will say, though, when I tried to go back and play again, none of my old guildies were still playing so it was like starting an entirely new game that was a lot less fun.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah I had a lot of trouble finding a new guild that fit my raiding schedule, it was a drag at first but eventually I would just get invited by people who remembered me from previous raids.

SCHELLDORF: If I had the proper gaming rig right now, I think I might play it again. Thankfully, I don't.

CHOI: Have we been talking about WoW for an hour and a half?

SCHELLDORF: Yup. And Guillermo, I'm totally on board with that. I loved WoW in the same way that I loved another human who was completely wrong and bad for me. But rediscovering her would be so easy and treacherous. (In a related story, I'm seeing that human this weekend. Haha.)

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.