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Rules of Engagement – A Primer for Discussing Sexism in WoW

November 20, 2013
Jaina does her best Cheris Kramarae impression.

Jaina does her best Cheris Kramarae impression.

Part of being a community is sharing a common interest, language, set of ideals, and at least a basic understanding of how the community communicates.  To be a part of the Warcraft community, you probably need to know something about World of Warcraft.  If someone were to write a blog post discussing “those hobbits that live in Silverforge” or “that soothsayer who played a support role in our 35 man mission last night,” it would be immediately clear to the Warcraft community that the blogger doesn’t actually understand that much about WoW.  We speak the same language and we have a common set of rules for engagement with one another.

Because the WoW community is so large and so expansive after 9 years, it has naturally developed some subgroups along the way.  Theorycrafters, RPers,and PvPers have specific language and tools that they use.  If you are not initiated into or familiar with these communities, you probably aren’t going to have the language or tools you need to engage in a meaningful conversation with them.  Imagine attempting to dispute a theorycrafter who has done extensive math to figure out whether one trinket is better than another trinket in a certain fight for certain classes, but not actually understanding any of the underlying math that supports their conclusion.  Most people wouldn’t do it, and those who would are either trolls or well aware that their path was fraught with peril.  A pretty basic rule of any communication, particularly any type of critique, is to know where the conversation stands and how we got to where we are now.  Rule #1 before writing any sort of research paper or critical analysis is to “know the conversation.”

If one wants to join an existing conversation but has not yet been “initiated” into that particular subgroup’s existing language and framework, that’s Ok!  We need more theorycrafters.  We need more RPers.  We need more PvPers.  AND we need more people who want to talk about sexism as it pertains to World of Warcraft.  But to step into a conversation with no knowledge of its history or the rules that frame it is a bit like walking into a room where a bunch of people have been talking long before you got there and saying, “Yeah, but here’s what I think.”  Without having heard the parts of the conversation that came before, and without asking anyone to help you get caught up, you are speaking with a complete lack of context and perspective on what’s going on.  It’s uninformed at best and rude at worst.

As a woman and a feminist who loves to play World of Warcraft, I’m really happy to see so many people taking this opportunity to voice their thoughts on character representation in WoW.  Unfortunately, I am also incredibly disheartened to see so many voices joining the conversation without having the respect to learn some of the rules of the engagement for feminist discourse first, and even lobbing some criticism at the feminist movement in general that hasn’t been relevant in at least 20 or 30 years now.  You wouldn’t go to Icy Veins and tell them that their understanding of how to gem and enchant a resto shaman is wrong without knowing a good deal about resto shaman.  You wouldn’t tell an experienced RPer that their character’s backstory breaks lore without knowing something about lore.  You wouldn’t tell a ranked arena player that they should use their trinket at a different point in the match unless you had done quite a lot of PvP yourself.  Likewise, it is unreasonable and unfair to attempt to refute a feminist critical analysis of WoW without actually understanding that analysis.  Nor are discussions of sexism in WoW an excuse to declare open season on all feminist discourse throughout history.

People like Apple Cider Mage, who discuss sexism in WoW regularly, are often good enough to provide newcomers with a list of resources to get them started in the conversation.  If you want to talk about sexism in WoW, you should at least know what things like derailment, privilege, and internalized sexism are.  There are plenty of internet resources out there that will provide you with a basic knowledge of these concepts, and attempting to enter into a feminist discussion without that knowledge is very much like stepping into a raid instance with ungemmed and unenchanted gear.  You don’t do it.

All of this is not meant to sound overly academic or time-consuming.  You can have great conversations about sexism even if you’ve never taken a course on the subject or written a paper from a feminist perspective.  But if you respect the people in the conversation and respect the work that they have already done up to this point, it is absolutely your job to understand the basics before you decide to add in your own thoughts.  Go ahead, read the resources on Apple Cider Mage’s blog, at the very least the Feminism 101 post.

Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

So now that you have an understanding of the basics, we can talk about the problems with the counterarguments being thrown around.  I’ll get the easy ones out of the way first.

If your first reaction to a woman who sends out an alarm on Twitter asking other women to be careful because a few of her friends were roofied at a bar near the con is to call this an “unsubstantiated twitter accusation,”  you are participating in rape culture.  You are insisting that it makes more sense to assume that the woman on Twitter is lying or exaggerating what happened to her friends rather than being willing to believe that the use of drugs like GHB is perfectly common and likely during a gathering where many inebriated strangers are hanging around near plenty of hotel rooms.  Don’t do that!

If you believe that feminists should refer to themselves as “equalists” because you believe this better conveys the desire for equality between the sexes (rather than – I don’t even know what you’re going for here – assuming that all feminists are man-hating, misandrist, feminazis?), then what are you actually describing is not a feminist, but a “straw feminist.”  Describing feminists as universally man-hating, angry, and wanting to put women above men is a form of derailment.  The notion that “equalist” wouldn’t be a redundant term for most feminists demonstrates a willingness to make judgments about the community without actually getting to know it at all.

(Additionally, suggesting that it’s silly to insist on women’s representation in WoW because Garona was a product of rape and we should really want to change her story first ignores plenty of discussions the community has already had about the prominence of rape in WoW’s story up to this point.  Bringing up the problematic aspects of Garona’s history is a good thing!  Assuming that no one else is talking about it and holding it against the community – not so good.)

If your entire post consistently refers to women as “females” (or worse, “girls”) then just know that we’re probably going to read the word “females” in the Ferengi voice and assume that you mean it with the same disdain they did.  Generally in feminist discourse, “female” is used as an adjective and “women” is used as either a noun or an adjective.  “Girls” is used when you are talking about very young women, and it should really be used sparingly if at all.

If you evaluate another person’s argument based upon their tone (a tone which is entirely your own inference because you are reading text from the internet and not actually hearing their voice in person), you are participating in yet another type of derailment called tone argument.  You are refusing to engage with the actual critical argument of the post because your perception is that the writer’s tone was too hostile for her argument to be valid.  Similarly, praising a blog post for being exceptionally “calm” or “reasonable,” while ignoring the content of the post itself, is essentially a backhanded compliment for the same reason.

If you tell feminists that they should quit “bitching, pissing and moaning” because it is not our right as players to tell the game’s creators what direction the story should take, well that’s a pretty giant dose of tone argument + you being Just Plain Wrong.  Blizzard consistently asks and seeks out feedback about every aspect of their games, up to and including story, and Blizzard employees have actively engaged in this conversation pretty much since it began.  Not to mention that the idea of “wait and see” because we are still in the early stages of the expansion ignores that Blizzard’s history with women characters is not especially stellar, so we have no reason to believe there will be representation based upon what we’ve seen in the past.

If you truly believe, particularly if you are a woman, that having diverse and interesting women characters in game is not something that is especially important to you, that’s Ok.  But to insist that because you do not find this important means no one else should either, or to attempt to silence a conversation about representation with this statement is more derailment, and probably some internalized sexism too.  Worse still, telling women that they should be “strong” enough not to need women characters, or claiming that it is bad parenting to want positive role models for your children rather than being that positive role model yourself is deeply insulting.  Women can be “strong” and also want to see that strength echoed in the characters presented to us in game.  Mothers can be “strong” role models for their daughters and also appreciate the value of additional women role models in media.  Asking for these things does not mean that we necessarily need media to teach us how to be strong women or mothers – it means we are asking media to properly represent the wide spectrum of who women are and what matters to us.

While we’re at it, let’s take Narci’s suggestion and just toss out the notion of “strong” women being the thing that we really want.  It’s not just about representing women who exemplify traditional (often masculine) values of physical strength, perseverance, and stoicism, but about giving us a diversity of women characters who are more truly representative of the diversity of women in real life.

If you think a lot of the feminist WoW usual suspects are sounding a bit frustrated or tired recently, you’re probably right.  Many of us are frustrated and tired, as Mushan so aptly pointed out, simply because we still have to have this conversation.  But also we are frustrated because rather than getting a chance to really engage and “do work” with the very real examples of sexism in WoW, we are instead being challenged with criticisms of the feminist movement in general – criticisms which have been answered again and again by the feminist movement itself.

Statements like “I’m a woman and this doesn’t bother me,” or “Stop being so angry and people will listen to you,” or “You should really focus on equality instead of trying to make women seem better than men,” do not add to a conversation.  These are not challenges that invite further discussion about the topic at hand, but rather challenges as to whether feminism as a viewpoint is valid (and also gross misunderstandings of exactly what a feminist viewpoint is).  If you don’t think a feminist viewpoint is valid, well that’s a different argument and one that I’m not at all willing to have with you – especially if you don’t know anything at all about the history or current state of feminism.

Still more concerning are attempts to engage feminist criticism without acknowledging or accepting its fundamental premise – that gender inequality is a fact, that it remains a fact, and that we do not live in a society that treats men and women equally.  To quote Apple Cider Mage on this:  “If you can’t accept that basic axis, then you’re not going to be coming into a feminist-minded conversation on the same page.”  To have an honest conversation about sexism in WoW, you must first accept that sexism does exist.

So yeah, we probably are a little tired.  Just as it can be a little tiring to attempt to explain to a non-WoW player why exactly you’re trying to napkin math about whether your 4 piece bonus is better than that Warforged helm you have, it’s pretty exhausting to read repeated criticisms from people who don’t even have enough respect for the topic to get the 101 basics down first.  Dialogue is great.  Communication is amazing.  But please come to the table with a knowledge of your surroundings and “know the conversation.”

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2013 10:07 pm

    Thank you for this post. I support feminism but consider myself out of the loop on a lot of feminist issues. You not only provided education on the core issues and terminology of feminism but provided excellent examples of how they relate to the issue of feminism in WoW. Misogyny is detrimental to both sexes and thrives on confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and painful double standards. I’m often confronted about being a man and a feminist as if I’m some sort of gender traitor by thinking women deserve equal treatment, but many are incapable of grasping that however much one gender is oppressed the other is too.

    It pains me that Warcraft has many “strong” (by which I mean positive) female characters who simply aren’t having their stories told. As a writer I initially saw the problem as being that the writing of Warcraft 3 had really only developed two characters in a meaningful way: Arthas and Thrall… which made their stories much easier to expound on in the RPG format… but now, with the amount that the world and the (back then) supporting characters of Jaina, Sylvanas, Tyrande, and Shandris have been expanded upon makes their lack of involvement downright shameful. (I refer to the later two as supporting characters because, let’s face it, the entire Night Elf campaign was just a set up for WoW and neither of them had any meaningful character development.)

    It’s also egregious that Moira, the closest thing WoW has to a feminist, is relegated to being a villain and saddled with so many negative feminist stereo types. And that Aggra, a fresh character they literally could have done anything with, is being given the “you’re married now so go be pregnant in the kitchen” treatment.

    Either Blizzard’s writers are too lazy to properly write women, or they don’t care about their poor representation in WoW. Neither is a good thing.

    • November 21, 2013 1:26 pm

      “Either Blizzard’s writers are too lazy to properly write women, or they don’t care about their poor representation in WoW. Neither is a good thing.”

      I sometimes suspect that “the norm” is not often challenged when they’re planning these things out. From what I understand, the core development teams are still very male-heavy. The absence of different kinds people can result in a limited perspective that only gets harder and harder to change as the development process continues.

      This is not a good thing, and I am in no way condoning it – but that’s the feeling I often get.

  2. Keeva permalink
    November 21, 2013 5:00 am

    Paraphrased:

    “According to feminists, leaving women out of games means Blizzard hates women. But Blizzard makes all of the raid bosses and warlords male, and we end up killing them in the game, so I guess Blizzard actually hates men, because killing them is WAY worse than omitting them. Your argument is dumb!”

    /weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeary

  3. Dahakha permalink
    November 21, 2013 10:37 am

    Agreed, Tzufit, brilliant post. Thank you for the heads-up on the use of “woman/women” vs “female(s)”, I don’t know whether I fall into that trap but I suspect it has happened in the past. I tend to use fairly formal language when I write about topics like this and so I might default to “female” because of that. It is good to know that some readers might construe it as disdain or derogatory.

  4. November 21, 2013 1:07 pm

    If I ever hear this phrase, it will be at least 10 times a day, “who are you kidding, women don’t play WOW.” [tearing out chunks of hair again]

  5. Bimini Asheye permalink
    November 21, 2013 1:41 pm

    This is a wonderfully written article! It reinforces my framework of thoughts on feminism and being a feminist, so that I may better withstand the backlash of those who feel threatened by feminism and are fearful to discover the sexism within themselves. You and ACM have done a lot that has helped me to develop as a feminist, such as education like this post.

    As a Twitter follower and JP podcast listener, I realize that you have so much more to say on the matter but didn’t for the sake of blog post brevity. Other dismissive remarks that we’ve seen thrown about are “it’s only a game/entertainment” and “if you don’t like it, don’t play.” It really is frustating to be met with such responses; it’s tiresome and wearying, to say the least!

    One would hope that we could pull together as a community on this, that the common interest in the game would be unifying. These are high hopes, I’m seeing, but it’s better to have hope than to give in to despair. (Thanks, Chi-ji!)

  6. November 21, 2013 5:08 pm

    Loved the post! However, one of the arguments I see far too often but I didn’t see addressed here (albeit I might have missed it) is the “Why are you worried about this when there is far worse in the world?” or the Fallacy of relative privation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_relative_privation). Even allies can occasionally make this error and it’s a pure silencing tactic because it essentially forces a top-down hierarchy to combating any sort of sexism.

  7. November 22, 2013 7:30 pm

    Several parts of this post, however well written, I can’t agree with.

    “Statements like ‘I’m a woman and this doesn’t bother me’ [...] do not add to a conversation”.

    So, just because you don’t think what an (my) opinion is ‘adds’ to your conversation, you don’t want to hear it? Or are you going to state that the ‘tone argument’ is prevalent here? Or even worse, you don’t think this opinion is valid at all – when you yourself are stating that I’m invalidating your own opinion?

    I AM a woman. Let me make this extremely clear. Portraying women (and GIRLS) as prostitutes in video games bothers me. Children that I work with only thinking they’re good enough to be a “mummy” bothers me. Girls not having a strong, yes STRONG, female role model in their lives, bothers me. A man saying I couldn’t do his job bothers me.

    A female character in a fictional game not having a major storyline in this particular expansion (or indeed, instead being left to take care of a child) or not being on the promo material of the new expansion, however, does not bother me. There are plenty of other women in WoW who are there as fictional role models if you wish, but there’s also a fantastically capable woman raising a child. Any (non-illegal) path in life that a child chooses to follow is as valid as any other, be it a full-time mother, in the army or even, working in the local shop. Have you ever considered that the many young women who may have the same job as Aggra, might feel insulted that you are portraying them as something… lacking?

    Is my opinion invalidated because I haven’t done huge amounts of research on feminism? Absolutely not. Should this opinion be degraded and shot down with academia? No. Would I dare say that your opinions (because they are just that) “deeply insulting” or “rude” because they don’t echo my own? Of course not.

    In fact, if we could all just accept each others opinions with grace, this world would be a much happier place.

    • November 22, 2013 11:55 pm

      “Have you ever considered that the many young women who may have the same job as Aggra, might feel insulted that you are portraying them as something… lacking?”

      I have not mentioned Aggra here, so I am not certain what specifically this comment refers to. However, I do not think there is anything wrong or lacking with the idea that Aggra may want to stay out of battle to raise her child, which I assume is what you mean. If that choice means that she then completely drops out of the narrative of WoW, I *do* think that is a problem. Aggra’s story shouldn’t end because she has become a mother – regardless of whether she chooses to continue to participate in the fight for Azeroth after her child’s birth or not.

    • November 23, 2013 12:20 am

      Reading your comment once again, I wonder if perhaps we aren’t on quite the same page and are inadvertently confusing one another as a result? It sounds like when you hear people saying they want Aggra to continue to be a part of the story, you believe they mean that she must be riding off to war in Draenor. Granted, many people have made that assertion and it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve heard of a mama orc doing something like that. Personally (and I think this would be true for a good number of people), what is essential to me is that Aggra remains a part of the story. Maybe she becomes a warrior mom and goes back through the Dark Portal, but maybe she doesn’t and sticks around Azeroth to take care of the baby. I’m not making a judgment about which of these choices is more valuable because I don’t think that either could be more valuable than the other. What I am saying is that whatever choice she does make, we should get to see that.

      Metzen’s “boys’ trip” comment that fueled a lot of the start of the conversation was aggravating not only because it suggested that Aggra could not continue to be a warrior mom if that’s what she wanted, but also because it suggested that her story was no longer relevant at all after the birth of her child. It conveyed that mothers’ stories aren’t important or interesting. It came across as if no one had given a thought to her whatsoever or what she’d been doing in the future, meaning that she had really only served as a plot device to make Thrall have more responsibilities or “grow up.”

      I hope that clarifies my position somewhat. Again, it doesn’t especially matter to me what choice Aggra makes as to how she will live her life now that she is a mother – it matters that we get to see her making that choice and living it out rather than allowing her to be forgotten.

    • Dahakha permalink
      November 23, 2013 6:00 pm

      I think the point that Tzufit was trying to make (and correct me if I’m wrong here Tzufit) with that “Statements like ‘I’m a woman and this doesn’t bother me’ [...] do not add to a conversation” line was that there is nowhere to go after such a statement. There is really nothing else to explore. Thus, it doesn’t actually help to continue a conversation, in fact it simply shuts it down.

      It’s similar to me saying “I’m a man and this bothers me!”. Uh….great? What now? Either the conversation stops right there, or it is forced to continue as if I didn’t say anything.

      Statements of aggressive neutrality are certainly valid opinions, I don’t think anyone is trying to deny that. If it doesn’t bother you, then nobody can or should try to force you to be bothered by it. However, the only responses available to such statements are to let it go (as in, just acknowledge it and move on), which can seem like you are being dismissed or ignored; or to treat it as an attempt to silence (i.e. it comes across as “I’m a woman, and I’M not bothered, so you shouldn’t be either!”). Since I honestly believe that a lot of women making the “I’m not bothered” statements don’t actually mean it as an attempt to silence, how else are we to react? When we are trying to discuss a topic, and you are effectively saying “leave me out of this, you aren’t speaking for me”, then you are not adding to the discussion.

    • November 23, 2013 7:04 pm

      You could always say something along the lines of: “can you elaborate as to why?” In which case, I’d be delighted to enlighten you.

    • Dahakha permalink
      November 24, 2013 7:42 am

      True, and if you’ve said “I’m a woman and this doesn’t bother me because xyz” then that certainly adds to the conversation. But I’m not sure Tzufit is including that in her statement. Too often the input is simply “I’m a woman and this doesn’t bother me.” That isn’t helpful. It doesn’t encourage interaction, and gives the impression that you don’t want to be a part of the conversation, which is confusing since you *did* say something rather than staying out of it altogether.

      I don’t think it should be up to those already in the conversation to have to draw people in who seem to have expressed a desire to be left alone on the topic. If you have good reasons for your stance, then by all means let’s hear them. But you have to realise that they will be challenged, and I suspect that more than a few people who say “I’m a woman and this doesn’t bother me” are not willing to be challenged on those reasons, in the same way that many people don’t like being challenged on their political or religious views. Thus, they leave it at that.

      Anyway, I just wanted to address why Tzufit’s claim – that “I’m a woman and this doesn’t bother me” doesn’t add to a conversation – is a) correct, and b) doesn’t invalidate your opinion or stance. It is kind of a different situation than the other statements she listed as not adding to the conversation – those are way more inflammatory. It’s probable that she included “I’m a woman and this doesn’t bother me” because, while taken at face value it is a simple statement of neutrality and isn’t inflammatory, it can all too easily be read as implying “so you shouldn’t either” or “so it isn’t a problem”, which *does* lump it in with the other statements.

  8. November 23, 2013 8:29 am

    Perhaps I should have made it clearer. I am drawing upon *many* blogs I have read on this very subject in order to express my point and reply to this specific one… which is what you wanted me to do, no?

    “What I am saying is that whatever choice she does make, we should get to see that.” – This is exactly what people seem to have a problem with. These fictional women are being written to have made this choice and you appear to be cross that this isn’t good enough because they aren’t being represented in the story how you want them to be.

    “It came across [...] that she had only served as a plot device”.

    I fail to see how it is possible to take it personally that Blizzard didn’t write women into this and that, especially as women have been ‘plot devices’ in the games of men for generations. Just because it isn’t “right” in modern ideals, doesn’t mean it doesn’t – or didn’t – happen fictionally or factually. Would you rather them change their story just to please people? Have Aggra, for example, going off to war just to silence people who seem to have a problem with her staying at home? She can’t and won’t be forgotten, she’s Thrall’s mum!

    Ultimately, this debate will continue going round in circles. It is interesting to read types of opinion that follow this thread. I do, however, hope that you will be more forgiving of people who don’t have the same opinion as you. Or perhaps who aren’t as well versed in lore as you. Who are even, God forgive, women who *really* aren’t bothered by the fact Blizzard hasn’t yet written an iconic female into the storyline.

    Yet.

    • November 23, 2013 8:59 am

      “Would you rather them change their story just to please people? Have Aggra, for example, going off to war just to silence people who seem to have a problem with her staying at home?”

      But that’s just it – Aggra’s story hasn’t been written yet. Where we are in WoW’s story right now is totally new for her. Blizzard could do anything with the character that they choose to. Where you see their silence on the matter as confirmation that they have decided she will stay at home to raise her child, I see that silence as them having given no thought whatsoever as to what she’s been doing next. Your approach is more optimistic, to be sure, and obviously since we are coming at it from two different ways we probably won’t be able to convince each other of much on this point.

      Also, I honestly wouldn’t have a problem with them changing their story, with regards to the aspects that truly are part of Blizzard “history.” In an expansion where we are going to a second timeline to meet a version of the Horde that is like the one we know but also extremely different from it in many ways, they can do whatever they want! This willingness to experiment with their past lore demonstrates that they do not feel beholden to what we thought was written in stone about Azeroth’s past. Every aspect of storytelling is absolutely a choice, and even more so when the writers throw supposedly established history out the window.

  9. December 3, 2013 7:46 am

    Please don’t claim to know what *I* think feminism is and paint that very ugly picture around a link back to my blog. You made my statement out to be something it isn’t when I never said nor hinted at anything you’ve made it out to be.

    This is what I said: “On that note, I think if you’re going to call yourself a feminist and say you stand for equality, you should maybe refer to yourself as an equalist instead of defining your beliefs by a gender-specific connotation.”

    The fact that you even felt the need to explain what feminism is in this post is the exact reason why I think there should be a different term.

    I figured the topic of Garona’s history would have come up when they announced she would be in this expansion. I have yet to see anyone talk about it. That doesn’t mean people aren’t talking about it and it doesn’t mean that I’m ignoring it, it just means *I* have not read anything about it. I have the right to my opinion and my sarcastic nature; the tone I used to throw it in the face of people who are wanting to change a fictional story in a video game due to their personal belief of how the world should be.

    “So, just because you don’t think what an (my) opinion is ‘adds’ to your conversation, you don’t want to hear it? Or are you going to state that the ‘tone argument’ is prevalent here? Or even worse, you don’t think this opinion is valid at all – when you yourself are stating that I’m invalidating your own opinion?” This.

  10. Alison permalink
    December 29, 2013 10:08 am

    That is one of the best, most informative blog posts on sexism in gaming that I’ve ever read. Thank you. +1 in every way.

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