There was an interesting interview titled “The Hero Factory” on Eurogamer last week with Chris Metzen, otherwise known as the voice of countless Blizzard characters and the grand Loremaster of Blizzard’s fantasy worlds. It was illuminating stuff. Chief among its observations is that Metzen’s heroes are unambiguous, uncomplicated, chiselled ‘ideals’ embodied in the form of strong white men, exercising their virtuous power through application of force. What especially sprang out at me was this quote of his: “as a dumbass kid from California, I certainly am not cosmopolitan enough to know what all these paradigms are.” Paradigms, eh!
Because of my background, my context, as I’ve grown up I’ve had to confront and struggle with all sorts of issues relating to stuff like race, gender, social class, wealth, ability, sexuality and so on. And because of my field of study, I’ve had the opportunity to explore many such issues in some depth. Not everyone has these kinds of experiences, and not everyone who is offered the opportunities they represent acts on those opportunities. Maybe guys like Chris Metzen have never had to encounter or wrestle with these sorts of issues in a personal context. Maybe they have, and the childishly* simple representations of games like Warcraft are their way of dealing with them. There’s a certain appeal, in a confusingly complicated world, in creating an uncomplicated fantasy in which to escape.
Plus, I have to admit, even though I’ve had to wrestle with the issues described above, I’d seriously doubt my ability to create authentic, empowering or even helpfully escapist narratives involving those kind of themes. Even on issues where I have direct personal experience, any potential universality in that experience is mitigated by my circumstances of privilege and comfort. Including – even just mentioning or alluding to – these kinds of issues in one’s fiction can easily come off as clumsy or offensive, not least because of the incredibly wide diversity of experiences such labels represent, so I can quite understand why it may seem easier to simply ignore them in one’s fantasy.
Unfortunately, erasing something from a heavily idealised, escapist fantasy world heavily implies you’d rather it was erased in the real world too. It says “this reality is a problem, a problem I’d rather make go away”. Maybe that’s a fallacious implication, but it sits there awkwardly between the lines, uncomfortably meeting your gaze every time you look too close. Meanwhile, those of us whose life experience involves these erased categories find virtual worlds where their very form of existence or self-identity is unsettlingly absent, a sort of terrifying post-genocide fantasy where they’re not just a minority, but they don’t exist at all.
We tend to seek validation for our experiences by sharing them with others, and virtual worlds are an exciting way to do that – just look at all the geeky references which are packed into World of Warcraft to make geeky people feel at home and understood. More explicitly, check out Metzen’s “Geek Is” address from last year’s BlizzCon – it’s all about solidarity, understanding, and hilariously, identification with a group that has experience of being the picked-upon, disempowered minority**. Blizzard’s creative directors clearly understand this on some level***. But it’s also clear that these ‘geeky’ experiences are all they’re prepared to share, and that their worldview is so ignorant of the struggles faced by other marginalised groups that they don’t even realise that something like the ‘Corpsegrinder‘ video is likely to be massively hurtful to a large number of players and observers.
I think it’s always been pretty clear that Blizzard’s worlds are overtly sterilised and simplistic and that their creators think they’re like, really seriously cool, dudes. I don’t know to what extent that is A Problem, given Metzen’s self-confessed “dumbassery” and the fact that it’s a game sold to make money – there are far wider, far harder issues in there which the game industry as a whole is going to have to wrestle with pretty hard in the coming decades. But PR fiascos as diverse as last year’s Real ID furore, always-online Diablo 3 single-player and this business with Corpsegrinder provide a deeper insight into a company which simply doesn’t know or, I suppose, doesn’t care about the wider concerns and experiences of its own community. Somehow Blizzard’s games have attracted a very wide and diverse audience. Maybe the simplicity of their worlds contributes to that. But it seems increasingly clear to me that Blizzard themselves simply do not represent this audience – and just what that means for us is unclear.
Well, I say ‘us’, but I’m not really included; I’m done with Blizzard for a while, and stuff like this makes me glad that I am. That’s a less constructive contribution than I’d like, but I’m afraid it’s all I’ve got – a slightly abstract ramble peppered with cynicism and the sort of easy distaste which guys like me can indulge in from safe and comfy armchairs.
* I don’t use “childish” in a pejorative sense – maybe it’s a word I shouldn’t use at all given the risk of misunderstanding, but I hope it connotes neutral ideas like innocence and a lack of malice.
** Hilariously, nothing has made me feel more alienated from Blizzard than watching that address. I’ve never identified as a ‘geek’, and while I don’t have a problem with people who do, watching that address communicated to me one message: “this game is not for you”.
*** I’m assuming that “Geek Is” was actually effective at connecting with at least some self-confessed ‘geeks’. I have no idea if that was the case.