Big Nosed Goblins and Green-Skinned Orcs: Racial Essentialism and Representing Race in World of Warcraft

This short analysis brings into discussion several commentators who have studied the popular massively multiplayer online (MMO) video game called World of Warcraft (WoW) on the theme of racial representation. This analysis indicates that race becomes embedded in human-created artifacts and that because video games are human artifacts they reflect human biases and perspectives.  

Racial Essentialism 

Motivating the study of racial representation in video games is the perceived racial essentialism. WoW, argues Melissa J. Monson, evidences racial essentialism. The game’s races are “hierarchical and immutable” and the world of Azeroth (a continent within the WoW universe) contains races that are physically distinct and readily identifiable (1). Racial identities and hierarchies are apparent in the level of technology, city development, and discourses of various societies.

As immutable, race determines temperament, intellect, occupation, strength, and technological aptitude. One member of a racialized group becomes indistinguishable from another. To use an analogy from The Lord of the Rings, “to know Gimli would be to know all dwarves’’ (2). Racial traits are predetermined and the player cannot forge a unique racial or unraced identity. In WoW, racial essentialism is immediately apparent when one begins playing. The race one selects will determine geographical starting point, skills, talents, intellect, temperament, physical appearance, language, technology, and culture.

WoW’s Races and Their Real-World Inspiration

When one begins to play WoW, he must create an avatar and choose a “race” to play as. One must also decide which of the two main factions to belong to, the Alliance or Horde. These two factions are at war with each other. The Alliance faction consists of several races including Humans, Gnomes, Dwarves, Night Elves, and Draenai. The Horde comprises Orcs, Taurens, Trolls, Forsaken, Pandaren, Goblins, and Blood Elves. Once this process is complete, the player must then choose a “class” of which there are several: Death Knight, Druid, Hunter, Paladin, Priest, Rogue, Shaman, Warlock, and Warrior. Each class has unique abilities, skills, and weapons to use.

A Horde orc (left); an Alliance human (right)

But WoW‘s various races were not created without inspiration from the real world. Many commentators notice a racial component and argue that WoW’s races are inspired by and drawn from real-world world cultures (3). Certain racial features such as dancing, bodily movements, language, voice acting, histories, and architecture are indicators of a race’s real-world equivalent (4).

The real-world cultural representations built into WoW have been identified as follows: Humans are American; Dwarves are Scottish; Gnomes are nerds from all the cultures; Night Elves are Eastern Asian; Draenei are Gypsies; Worgen are English; Orcs are African-American; Trolls are Jamaican; Tauren are Native American; Undead are French; Blood Elves are German; Goblins are Italian-American.

WoW is “rife with the semiotics of race” which seem “to exaggerate the markers of difference, and to make them the most defining characteristics of each race and land” (5). Racial stereotypes and representation are sometimes deemed offensive. For example, some claim that the Goblins and their big noses and obsession with making money stereotypically depict Jews (6). Several of the races, as we will shortly note, are very obvious concerning what real-world cultures they draw from. 

Alliance versus Horde

As noted, the Alliance and Horde, both consisting of various races, are at war with each other. Jessica Langer argues that the Alliance represents familiarity (7). The humans closely resemble Western Whites, Dwarfs are Scottish, and the Night Elves represent “model minority” Asians. The Horde races, however, represent Otherness: Orcs resemble blackness, Tauren signify Native Americans, Blood Elves homosexual drug addicts, and Trolls Jamaicans. The Trolls, for instance, play tribal music, dance in the style of Jamaican dancehall, practice Voodoo, and speak with distinctly Jamaican accents.

The Alliance is described as “Proud and noble, courageous and wise, these races work together to preserve order in Azeroth” and “driven by honor and tradition. Its rulers are champions of justice, hope, knowledge, and faith” (8). James Vlisides notices how the Alliance is represented as light and “must spread that light to all corners of darkness –where everything outside of the Alliance equates with darkness” (9). The Horde, however, is described as “Misunderstood and cast aside.” They consist of “diverse and powerful races strive to overcome their differences and unite as one in order to win freedom for their people and prosper in a land that has come to hate them. In the Horde, action and strength are valued above diplomacy, and its leaders earn respect by the blade, wasting no time with politics. The brutality of the Horde’s champions is focused, giving a voice to those who fight for survival” (10).

Tyler Pace notices oppositions between the Alliance and the Horde along the lines of good/evil, light/dark, beautiful/ugly, white/color, and human/animal (11). Similarly, Vlisides observes dichotomies between the “Good and the Bad,” “Hero and the Villain,” “Civilized and the Barbaric,” “White and the Black,” “Light and the Dark,” and “West and the East” (12). The Horde resembles brutality, backwardness, and barbaric militarism, are less organized, and have moral failings. For example, goblins are corrupt, greedy industrialists and trolls are bloodthirsty voodoo practitioners, etc. By contrast, the Alliance is associated with light and nobility. This is apparent in the banner of each faction. There is the blue banner of the Alliance associated with good and the sky in opposition to the red banner of the Horde associated with blood, evil, and hell beneath the Earth.

Leigh Schwartz views the Alliance as a “Western” faction who is “learned, sophisticated, and religious…” The Horde, however, “is tribal, spiritual, and struggles to overcome a dark cultural history.” Schwartz maintains that these representations run deeper than just being in WoW; rather, they reflect the designers’ views of their own cultures and those of others (13). The Horde consists of “savage” and “primitive” races who are explicitly non-human. This “mirrors the use of binaries we have traced in Western European racial theorizing—Christian/Saracen, good/bad” (14).

There are noticeable differences in body features between the Alliance and Horde. Most of the Alliance races are lean and proportional to our understanding of the human body. Their “Skin colors are pale blue or shades of white, and eyes are often brown or a whitish-blue” (15). The Horde races, however, are monstrous and dark-skinned with often green or grey tones. Horde races possess “giant proportions, and a body composed of human and bestial elements, a monstrous hybrid” (16). They have horns and yellow or red eyes. Daniel Grano identifies a “white brains/black brawn” narrative. Here the “White” approach focuses on mental abilities to discipline the body and achieve success, while non-White is physically superior but mentally inferior (17). 

A Horde Tauren character

This “civilized” versus “savage” dichotomy is visible in the settlements these factional races inhabit. The Alliance’s humans boast fortified structures, castles, horse stables, and cobble pathways (e.g. the city of Stormwind) whereas the Tauren of the Horde live in teepees and caves. This is also the case with weapons and technology, as we will shortly note.

Some critics maintain that this evidences a colonialist and racial supremacist ideology baked into WoW by its designers. It reveals much about the developers of the game and their many prejudices and biases on matters of race and culture.

White as Superior?

Is whiteness the “norm” in WoW? At the very least, the majority of players select to play mostly White-looking avatars (e.g Humans and Blood Elves) and some highlight the difficulty of creating non-White avatars (18). White human males are the dominant cybertype in the character creation process.

Whiteness as a racial marker is predominant within the Alliance faction in that of its six races, four found in the Eastern Kingdoms are White. Further, NPCs (non-playable characters) populating spaces in the WoW universe are predominantly lighter-skinned. In the human capital city of Stormwind, for example, only eleven of the 240 NPCs were found to have one of the four darker skin shades (19). All forty city guards are light-skinned and the racial variation in Northshire (the Human starting city) is lacking with only three of the twenty-eight NPCs being darker-skinned.

Stormwind city guards.

The Horde is Colored. The Horde races are often dark-skinned; the orcs, for example, are largely green or dark brown, dark gray, or red; the goblins range from green to a yellowish-brown; the trolls are bluish or purple, etc. Tyler Pace believes that “all other avatar types are treated as a deviation from this norm” of whiteness (20). The Horde is thought to be depicted negatively as brutal and primal races far removed from the pristine nature of White humanity. The Horde races are “generally based on minorities who are marginalised in American society, such as Mexicans and Native Americans, who have been appropriated in the creation of the Trolls and Taurens” (21).

Real-World Cultural Inspiration for the Troll and Tauren 

Of all the races, the Troll and Tauren are the clearest in their mimicking of real-life cultures (22).

The Troll is an amalgamation of cultures as indicated by their Jamaican accents, Voodoo religious practices, and Mesoamerican-styled architecture. They also have brightly colored mohawk hairstyles no doubt mimicking Native American tribes. They are depicted as primitive living in jungles in which contained are networks of huts and bridges constructed from simple materials (wood, straw, bone, and rope, although many Trolls also live in large stepped and tiered cities inspired by Mesoamerican architecture). The tropical jungle environments they inhabit are “primitive and untamed” and full of “raptors, tigers, and other dangerous predators” (23).

A Troll character

The Troll is described according to official game lore as “vicious,” “barbarous,” and “superstitious”, which are “characterizations [that] could well have been ripped directly from the pages of Western colonial history” (24). They also use primitive weapons such as spears and bows although the WoW universe contains firearms and their villages are decorated with skulls, spears, and African-styled masks. Taken together, the Troll is an amalgamation of Rastafarian, Jamaican, and African ethnic traditions.

The Tauren race, moreover, is distinctly Native American and believed to be portrayed as primitive (25). They have names such as Windhawk and Stonehoof, and their villages and cities contain tents resembling tepees, wooden structures resembling longhouses, “painted totem poles, dream catchers, stretched animal skins, canoes, kilns, hand-woven baskets, ceremonial drums, and tapestries” (26). They are described as nomadic hunters and their surrounding environments mirror that of the Plains Indian tribes. They are deeply spiritual people who call upon the power of the great spirits of their past as well as use Shamanistic powers (27).

The Horde overall uses unsophisticated, primitive war technology compared to the Alliance. Their main weapon is the catapult whereas the Alliance boasts steam-powered tanks, cannon towers, helicopters, and mortar teams. Some see a colonialist theme in WoW pitting the technologically superior Alliance against the “native” Horde (28). Levi Pressnell believes that such depictions of the Alliance and Horde re-inscribe “real-world prejudices into this fantasy” (29).

These details derived from racial representation in WoW raise interesting questions inviting further exploration. What does racial representation in WoW say about the real-life prejudices some of us, notably game designers, have and how we might perceive others who are culturally and racially different from ourselves? Further, does the representation of races in a video game say something about real-world states of affairs?

References

1. Monson, Melissa J. 2012. “Race-Based Fantasy Realm: Essentialism in the World of Warcraft.” Games and Culture 7(1):48-71.

2. Kim, Sue. 2004. “Beyond Black and White: Race and Postmodernism in The Lord of the Rings Films.” Modern Fiction Studies 50(4):875-907. p. 885.

3. Bernauer, Lauren. 2009. “Elune be praised!” World of Warcraft, its People and Religions, and Their Real World Inspiration.” Literature & Aesthetics 19(2):307-325. p. 323; Wowhead. 2010. Are Worgen English? Available; Monson, Melissa J. 2012. Ibid; Poor, Nathaniel. 2012. “Digital Elves as a Racial Other in Video Games: Acknowledgment and Avoidance.” Games and Culture 7(5):375-396; Packer, Joseph. 2013. “What Makes an Orc? Racial Cosmos and Emergent Narrative in World of Warcraft.” Games and Culture 9(2):83-101; Pressnell, Levi. 2013. “Building a World of Warcraft: Cyber-Colonialism Through “Othering” Strategies.” Dissertation, The University of Alabama; Ritter, Christopher. 2010. “Why the Humans are White: Fantasy, Modernity. And the Rhetorics of Racism in World of Warcraft.” Dissertation, Washington State University; Vlisides, James C. 2013. “Rendering the Other: Ideologies of the Neo-Oriental in World of Warcraft.” Dissertation, Graduate College of Bowling Green State University.

4. Pace, Tylor. 2008. “Can an Orc Catch a Cab in Stormwind? Cybertype Preference in the World of Warcraft Character Creation Interface.” Conference: Extended Abstracts Proceedings of the 2008 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. p. 2500..

5. Vlisides, James C. 2013. Ibid. p. 81.

6. MMO Champion. 2011. Goblins are.. stereotypical Jewish? Available.

7. Langer, Jessica. 2008. “Playing (Post)colonialism in World of Warcraft.” In Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft reader, edited by Hilde Corneliussen and Jill W. Rettberg, 87-108. Cambridge: MIT press.

8. Wowpedia. n.d. Alliance. Available.  

9. Vlisides, James C. 2013. Ibid. p. 78.

10. Wowpedia. n.d. Horde. Available.

11. Pace, Tylor. 2008. Ibid. p. 2500.

12. Vlisides, James C. 2013. Ibid. p. 79.

13. Schwartz, Leigh. 2006. “Fantasy, Realism, and the Other in Recent Video Games.” Space & Culture 9(3):313-324. p. 321. 

14. Sinex, Margaret. 2010. “‘Monsterized Saracens,’ Tolkien’s Haradrim, and Other Medieval ‘Fantasy Products.’” Tolkien Studies 7(1):175-196. p. 182.

15. Vlisides, James C. 2013. Ibid. p. 79.

16. Sinex, Margaret. 2010. Ibid. p. 186.

17. Grano, Daniel A. 2010. “Risky Dispositions: Thick Moral Description and Character-Talk in Sports Culture.” Southern Communication Journal 75(3): 255-276.

18. Pace, Tylor. 2008. Ibid. p. 2499-2500.

19. Monson, Melissa J. 2012. Ibid. p. 64.

20. Pace, Tylor. 2008. Ibid. p. 2501.

21. Bernauer, Lauren. 2009. Ibid. p. 324.

22. Higgin, Tanner. 2009. “Blackless Fantasy: The Disappearance of Race in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games.” Games and Culture 4(1):3-26.

23. Pressnell, Levi. 2013. Ibid. p. 80.

24. Monson, Melissa J. 2012. Ibid. p. 62.

25. Bernauer, Lauren. 2009. Ibid. p. 318.

26. Monson, Melissa J. 2012. Ibid. p. 63.

27. Monson, Melissa J. 2012. Ibid. p. 62.

28. Terra Nova. 2006. Cultural borrowing in WoW. Available.

29. Pressnell, Levi. 2013. Ibid. p. 71.

One comment

  1. Hi James i just read your article in the WOW europe facebook group and visited your profile at facebook to learn more about you….

    World of Warcraft is a fantasy game, leave that at peace is my advice, there are 16 million players who love an enjoy this game.

    I dont think you want to destroy a lot of peoples ingame fun.
    We already know what good is and what wrong…still like the game….

    If you want to make the world a better one, put some energy in saving our trees in the world.
    Without trees you cannot breath properly anymore….or help poor people in any way, donot destroy a fantasy game, pls look for some other targets, ofcourse its up to you. Glad you like tabletennis….its my favourite as well you need more practice i cant c you in the rankings…

    God bless you have a nice weekend….

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