World of Warcraft, Street Harrassment, and Depicting vs. Condoning

[Thanks to Misanthropology 101 for first bringing this topic to my attention.]

World of Warcraft landed itself in some minor controversy yesterday. Some of the idle NPC dialogue in their latest patch features two male orcs discussing the attractiveness of a particular female orc in a way that is…let’s say “less than sophisticated.” The exact dialogue in question is as follows:

“Oh, look at her over there. She’s be- beautiful. A perfect 10!”
“A 10? Ha! Maybe in Razor Hill. In Orgrimmar she’d only be a 6.”

Unsurprisingly, several people took issue with this, several other people took issue with them, and the whole thing resulted in a ten-page-long forum thread discussing and arguing about the issue. Blizzard’s forum mods then fanned the flames further by deleting the entire thread without explanation, which is just below “actively support SOPA” in terms of ways to antagonize the internet. Fortunately, some of the actual devs were contacted by a few prominent community members via Twitter, and quickly hotfixed the dialogue out. As internet fights go, it was a relatively fast and amicable resolution. And by that I mean, “only a few people had their mothers insulted.”

But I must admit, I’m kind of ambivalent about this situation. From a practical standpoint, removing the dialogue was probably the best thing for Blizzard to do (or at least the safest, from a PR standpoint). Street harrassment is, by most indications, a very real problem.  But the whole situation raises the question; at what point does depicting a situation become condoning a situation?

To illustrate what I mean, let’s consider an extreme example; if the female orc in question had promptly marched over and given the two of them a five-minute-long lecture straight from the front page of Jezebel, no one would likely have objected on social justice grounds. But while that might be good for spreading awareness, it would be pretty bad storytelling, since a) the idea of the orcs of Orgrimmar having access to the works of Gloria Steinem is just not credible, and b) it hijacks the narrative to use as a soapbox and the message is so heavy-handed that it seriously hurts immersion. But clearly many people found the lack of a reaction objectionable, and would be even less happy if she’d responded positively.

So where does the line lie? At what point does the game stop depicting bad ideas and start condoning or normalizing them? Would it have been okay if she’d told them “buzz off”? What if she’d just looked annoyed and walked out? I highly doubt that either of these would have contributed much of value — depictions of women being nonspecifically annoyed at attention from men are remarkably common. If they were going to seriously reduce harrassment, I think we’d have seen the effect by now, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. Mainly they just seem to promote the idea that female sexuality is nonexistent, an idea which is both bad and widespread.

And despite what several people have said, I can definitely see how that set of dialogue adds to the setting and could constitute good flavor text. It shows that this society, like ours, has some rather backward ideas about gender and sexuality, and thus makes the setting more believable and credible. And the idea that Orgrimmar wouldn’t have those problems at all is not really feasible.

So my concern is that the message given to Blizzard and other companies by this PR bump is “don’t talk about gender and sexuality in your games, unless you make your position on it so extreme that no one could mistake it for anything else.” And they will not pick that second one, because a) it’s bad storytelling, and b) promoting gender equality is not their top priority — making a good videogame is. So really, the message they hear is “don’t talk about gender and sexuality in your games”. And this is not a good thing to tell them, because it just makes the problem invisible.

So, what’s the ideal solution here? Fuck if I know. But it seems like a good first step would be to acknowledge that this probably isn’t it. Maybe that will inspire someone smarter than me to come up with something.

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3 Responses to World of Warcraft, Street Harrassment, and Depicting vs. Condoning

  1. A Voice says:

    First and foremost, the integrity of the narrative must be preserved. This is normally where a conversation on storytelling in RPGs begins, however from my vantage point of playing WoW from 2008-2011 Blizzard well and truly abandoned not just coherent storytelling but the idea of Word of Warcraft being anything other than a mere ‘mmo’. Not the virtual world that is a mmorpg and with no real emphasis or support of what made the game a rpg in the first place. The proof of this is so great that offering it will look like I am belabouring the point and, ultimately, those who know…well, they know, and those who don’t know either don’t care to know or refuse to accept reality.

    But let’s take the point of your post outside the world of Azeroth and the vitriol that World of Warcraft and Blizzard tend to evoke.

    Questions/issues of sexuality and gender do not necessarily belong in video games but, at the same time, they don’t necessarily need to be excluded from video games. It’s ultimately a question of whether or not (1) those topics are in some way relevant to the game’s narrative and (2) exploration of those topics must conform to a prescribed standard. Since examples of (1) are obvious I won’t entertain them here, instead I’ll move to (2).

    In Splatterhouse (PS3/Xbox 360) we see an example of the ‘damsel in distress’ trope and we may be moved to consider whether or not the depiction of Jen as a helpless female needing rescuing is supporting the notion that females are inherently weak and needing rescuing. But doing that would be stupid. Jen is helpless to the machinations of Dr. West and Rick was just as helpless initially, as it wasn’t until the Terror Mask spoke to him and he put it on that he had a chance to save Jen. We could also raise questions as to the ‘women as sex objects’ trope by looking at the picture pieces that you pick up throughout the game, some of them forming very revealing and intentionally erotic pictures of Jen. Again, we could do this but we would be stupid. Following the game’s narrative, those particular pictures were undoubtedly taken at the behest Jen because she wanted Rick to see her, in those moments, that way. There is no indication that Rick sees her as merely a sex object and that’s all there is to it.

    Storytelling devices are what they are, storytelling devices. Sometimes they are relevant and sometimes they are completely irrelevant and do damage to the narrative. Take for example being able to have your character fuck in a game. In God of War it was not just amusing to see a QTE for Kratos’s threesome but it made a point: this man is suffering beyond belief and looking for even a momentary distraction from the pain of killing his family. Clearly sex isn’t enough. In Dragon Age: Origins the sex, not the sexual overtones but the actual sex itself, is so poorly done that it stands in stark contrast to everything that came before it and looks like a parody of what it should have been.

    Developers must have options and for anyone to dictate what they should or should not depict in video games constrains narratives unduly. In a game world calls for X then X must be there and only afterwards should a discussion should be had about it. That discussion must not be about the fact that they included X but what X means for the game’s narrative and gameplay, what it says about that particular world. To do anything else would be to deny that video games can be a mature artistic medium.

    • A Voice says:

      “In a game world calls for X then X must be there and only afterwards should a discussion should be had about it.”

      Should read as:

      If a game world calls for X then X must be there and only afterwards should a discussion be had about it.

  2. “But the whole situation raises the question; at what point does depicting a situation become condoning a situation?”

    “Condoning” sequences or dialog like the one that was removed isn’t quite the right term for it – no sensible company would condone activity like harassment. Rather, the problem is when things like this pass unnoticed, because eventually, they become accepted as the norm.

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