In preparation for the expansion Battle for Azeroth, I subscribed to World of Warcraft for the first time in over 10 years. I’ve grown a lot since then, but WoW has not.
You probably know about Warcraft. It’s one of the few video games to have bled into the mainstream. You probably don’t know about me though, and for the purpose of this article, a little context is needed. I am a Native American. A member of the Tlingit tribe, one of the many coastal peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Our land is traditionally in Southeast Alaska and the Yukon Territory in Canada. My grandmother was sent to one of those infamous boarding schools (called “residential schools” in Canada) where they very successfully robbed her of her heritage. The natural transfer of cultural information between generations was interrupted. Recently though, I feel like there has been an awakening among indigenous people of my generation. Cultural identity and pride are being reinforced and encouraged. Native kids that came up playing video games like me are realizing we have a voice that is valid and important. If you read this and wonder why the problems I mention weren’t problems when the game released in 2004, I can tell you they were then too. Back then I wasn’t as confident in my identity. I was willing to ignore the problems and play the game. I’m not willing to anymore, and where there is a problem for one minority group, there’s bound to be problems for others as well.
I love Warcraft. My very first experience with online multiplayer was me and my friends tying up our parent’s phone lines so we could battle each other in Warcraft II over dial up internet connections. For a couple years, World of Warcraft was the only video game I played. I had come back to WoW in order to be able to play the new content with a new group of friends. As I went about the business of levelling a new character, I quickly noticed the racial caricatures Blizzard has been happy to rely on. The trolls were the first to grab my attention. They speak with a Jamaican or West Indies accent and their lore is full of “voodoo” type magics. I knew this was problematic back when I originally played, but in 2018 it struck me hard. The game freely gives other races the cultural textures of other real world ethnic groups. See the obvious Chinese character of the Pandaren, for example. As I unpacked my feelings on the issue, I decided to finally make a Tauren character. The one race I had always avoided and ignored. The one that was personal.
When you grow up as a Native American, you grow up seeing your culture used as a plaything by the mainstream. We are constantly reduced to a caricature and commodified. Blizzard has perpetuated this history in American media with their massively successful and long-running MMORPG. In their game, players can choose to create and play as a Tauren character. The Tauren are basically Minotaurs of Greek myth in their physical form. When creating a culture around the Tauren, Blizzard chose to borrow liberally from Native American imagery from across the continent. Their developers gave the borrowed elements a fantasy paint job and stripped them of their real world cultural identifiers. In doing so they created a race that is instantly identifiable as Native American to its users, while retaining nothing directly belonging to an actual tribe. The Tauren are thus doubly offensive to me for being blatant cultural appropriation for the express purpose of commercial gain, while also continuing the erasure of actual real life natives in the popular consciousness. Hundreds of distinct cultures amalgamated into one group of bull people and their “braves”.
While loading into the game with my new character, I started to doubt myself. Was this really going to be as bad as I thought? Maybe I was blowing this out of proportion. All of the voices of the white majority culture I had been submerged in my whole life were telling me to not make a big deal out of it. Those doubts were obliterated when I loaded into the game. Cue the flute music. Bring out the war bonnets and teepees. It’s all there. During my tour of the Tauren starting area, I maintained a low level of irritation, bordering on anger. It was mostly what I expected to find though, we’ve been desensitized to centuries of “noble savage” tropes. Being from a totem pole carving tribe, my eyes were immediately drawn to the distorted cartoon version on display here. They are painted in geometrical patterns so nearly like the formline art of my people in some cases, but usually stretched into something just barely outside of the traditional, so as to create a sense of originality. Windmills are placed atop some to them as if to say, “Hey it’s just goofy fantasy! We’re just having some fun here.” The rest of the village consists of leather walled tent buildings, not quite a teepee, but close enough to evoke them. They are painted and adorned in a fashion clearly inspired by southwestern peoples such as the Navajo and Hopi. I’m sure the loremasters at Blizzard have an explanation for why the Tauren live in temporary buildings, like nomadic peoples, while also having erected totem poles like my permanently settled ancestors.
The imagery used is rarely shown to be understood by the people appropriating it. As an example, I return to the totem poles. White America has never understood them. Christian missionaries that would influence the direction of colonization in the Pacific Northwest assumed they were religious in nature, and that the coastal tribes worshiped them. This led to their destruction in many places, the rationale being that their Christian god would be jealous of their divided attention, offended by “false idols”. Conveniently for the settlers and their goal of “assimilation” the totem poles really served as records of our cultural memory. Tlingit stories and traditions are passed on through generations orally, but they are also portrayed on the carved totem poles. The poles actually read as narratives, the myth history of my people made physical. They made easy targets for the colonizers, they were able to annihilate a part of our memory and identity. Even today America displays its ignorance of them by using the phrase “low man on the totem pole.” to denote low status in a hierarchy. In reality, the inverse is true. The lowest figures are the most important and most finely carved of the figures on the pole. Blizzard tosses totem poles into their game as mere decoration and as a focus for magical energy, thereby appropriating the imagery while discarding its meaning. Cynically using it to make money, while contributing to the erasure of a people’s identity.
The questline language in this early area is filled with the stereotypes that a Native person would expect to see from the media. It’s all about proving yourself as a Tauren “brave”, a term loaded with the baggage of generations of appropriation. You are tasked with completing a rite of passage that involves hunting animals and fighting a neighboring band of primitives, while listening to quest givers decry violations against the earth. These actions check off all the boxes required for setting up the “noble savage” trope that have charmed Europeans for centuries. It’s not elegant, it’s not nuanced, but it is very efficient at letting the player know that hey, these are “Indians”. At this point, a little exhausted, I figured I had gotten what I came for, and did one last round of the village before wrapping up. Then I realized what all the NPCs were gathered around. It was a funeral for a tribal elder, a female mystic, their “Greatmother”. The spiritual center of their group. The body was placed on a platform held up by four poles. A burial scaffold. This mimics the way that indigenous peoples of the more eastern and southern parts of the continent traditionally treated their dead. Blizzard had robbed marginalized people of one of their most intimate and sacred acts, and put it on sale for $14.99 a month.
The game isn’t racist because it paints Native Americans in a negative light. World of Warcraft is racist because it perpetuates a narrative created and controlled by the group traditionally in a majority position of power about a minority oppressed group. What does it say about the developer’s view of minority groups when Humans are portrayed as having essentially whitebread American/European cultural characteristics while the races copied from minority groups are monstrous or animalistic? To me it says that to have those characteristics is considered as “other” or unamerican. It is exclusive, not inclusive. Rather than occupying distinct cultural groups within the Human race, other cultures are depicted as being completely different species. Literally dehumanized.
You might ask: “It’s just a game, why do you have to be so angry?” Having characters identifiable as Native is not enough. Representation is not an end-all to the complaints of minority groups. Representation when poorly researched or based on stereotypes is more harmful than no representation at all. It perpetuates harmful stereotypes, and erases the fact that we exist now, not just in a museum diorama. Misrepresentation in video games is just another of the myriad aggressions taken against us. When totalled these aggressions can seem overwhelming. Native Americans are always present, but rarely respectfully or accurately portrayed. We love games just like everyone else.
So, what should Blizzard do about it? I think they should scrap all of the Tauren lore and start over. That’s unlikely to happen, as even gamers friendly to the idea of proper representation in video games are loath to give up their treasured properties. Developers can definitely be more sensitive going forward. When creating a new property in a fantastic setting, don’t write peoples and characters that are based off tired archetypes of real world ethnic minorities. If you absolutely must incorporate the culture of an extant minority group into your fictional game universe, hire writers from that group to do it for you. They exist, I guarantee it. Finding people wanting to tell the story of their marginalized group is one of the easiest things possible. We are desperate to do it.