Opinion, WoW

Corpsegrinder and Metzen’s worlds

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.


11 thoughts on “Corpsegrinder and Metzen’s worlds

  1. “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”. ”

    Thank you thank you thank you. It scares me how few people understand this distinction.

    Posted by Pewter | October 28, 2011, 1:46 pm
    • I don’t think that’s such an easy implication to draw, but maybe that’s just me. To me there seems to be no real reason why you wouldn’t be able to make an escapist fantasy which is far easier to deal with and more comforming to your ideals than the real world, without that necessarily meaning you’re not comfortable dealing with the complexity reality actually has to offer. Similarly, I find it very easy to indulge in the fairytale simplicity of something like WoW, while still being very much aware and sensitive to our reality’s complexities by actively trying to unravel those through reading philosophy and the like.

      Also I don’t even see it as a real issue. Do fairytales or other idealist fictional storylines suddenly have to account for ethnic (or whatever) minorities just so everyone’ll feel their own particular niche is being accounted for? Isn’t that in itself an unrealistic ideal? Fantasy shouldn’t form an exact representation of reality, that’s why it’s fantasy. If people stemming from minorities seriously want to identify with fictional characters, wouldn’t it be wiser to look for slightly more explicit attempts at mirroring the real world (say, tv series actually based in current-day reality)? You can’t honestly expect Blizzard to shoehorn in a gay relationship in their main storyline just so the LGBT community can identify, right? Same for the racial minorities – this is a game where you play as orcs, night elves and gnomes. Does the hispanic community need their representative? Sorry if that sounds silly or like I’m trivialising the issue, but I don’t really see how this would work in the concrete reality of WoW’s universe.

      Posted by Razz | November 9, 2011, 7:32 pm
      • Did I say fairytales had to account for ethnic minorities? No. What I mean was that the argument ‘it is a fantasy’ as an answer to every critique along racial, sexuality or gender lines is deeply deeply flawed. When people reply using phrases like ‘shoehorn’ it just shows me how deeply they misunderstand the problem. If you think someone needs to ‘shoehorn’ in a character that isn’t straight, then you’re rather blinded by what it means to simply start including such characters in ways that aren’t appropriative stereotypes (e.g. tauren.)

        And yes, you’re being dismissive and trivializing the issue.

        Posted by Pewter | November 9, 2011, 8:03 pm
      • See, in isolation, I would agree to an extent, which is why I labelled the implication as potentially fallacious. But when the context in which fantasy worlds exist, and – especially in the case of something like WoW – continue to evolve is factored in, things can start to look a bit different.

        Which is to say, I think that the BlizzCon “Corpsegrinder” thing and that interview with Mr Metzen suggests two possible reasons for WoW’s blandness with regard to marginalised groups: it’s either blissful – or even, willful – ignorance that these issues even exist; or, it’s because Metzen’s idea of a hero is a muscle-y macho straight white guy. Or both – they’re not mutually exclusive.

        Added to that, Blizzard’s first “apology” on this basically said “lol why is anyone even upset?”, denying there was even a genuine reason for anyone to be concerned or upset.

        It’s these factors which, for me, take it beyond mere naive fantasy laziness and into the realm of something rather more upsetting and sinister. I’m not suggesting that Blizzard should put token gay people, or any other minority/marginalised group for that matter, into WoW – actually, that’d be worse, because it’d trivialise and misrepresent the matter even further.

        EDIT: Having said that, I’d love to see a world like WoW start to seriously make an effort to push the boundaries with its fantasy a bit. Fantasy is such a rich and potent medium for exploring contemporary life, and even for trying to show how things could be better or different. So yeah, it’s disappointing to me even when WoW is merely innocently exclusive, simply because of its potential. On the other hand, it’d be fairly amazing if they were able to be inclusive in a way which wasn’t embarrassingly or even offensively clumsy.

        Posted by Sihmm | November 9, 2011, 8:08 pm
      • @Pewter: I’m sorry if I appeared dismissive or derailing, it really wasn’t my intention. Mainly what I wanted to do was understand what the issue was in the first place, as honestly, I can very frankly say that I didn’t get it. So I wanted someone to explain to me what the real issue actually was, if it WASN’T what I described in my comment. I thought the whole idea was that Sihmm wanted the game or the story to account for minorities and the like through the game itself. And as such I was asking how you’d concretely go about catering to all these different categories of people, because I couldn’t see how it’d be translated in practice. I just couldn’t (and still can’t, really) see how Blizzard’d genuinely accomplish that through the game itself without making it feel really clumsy or.. well, shoehorned.

        But I’ve talked it over with Sihmm and consider myself slightly more enlightened and slightly less ignorant. Sorry again if I was being dismissive, my reply was mainly directed to Sihmm’s piece (not your comment specifically) and I just wanted to chip in :[

        Posted by Razz | November 9, 2011, 10:16 pm
  2. All protagonists, (in our fictionalized or otherwise versions of us and others) on their journeys, at one point or another, become the thing they hate, what they set out to destroy, and in turn, lose a piece of their own soul in the bargain. Then they choose: continue on the journey a tiny bit broken, or go all-out and destroy their worlds and those around them with collateral damage. This “geeks unite” hue and cry may be an example. Hate, racism, homophobia, and cultural insensitivity has been hugely disappointing for me to witness while playing WoW–but is that what you mean by “rather it go away?”–That perhaps–it’s a good thing it does rear its nasty, foul head during game time so we can never comfortably or apathetically forget that there are those out there who are harmful, dangerous humans? It does require vigilance, this life of ours.

    Keep fighting the good fight, wherever it leads you, brave one. I’m out there, too.

    Posted by Matty | October 28, 2011, 3:55 pm
  3. *damn grammar: “have been”

    I need to go back to sleep.

    Posted by Matty | October 28, 2011, 3:56 pm
  4. I think it’s.. dangerous to assume that Blizzard “doesn’t care” about their community based on a few PR mishaps. Firstly because it’s generalising Blizzard as one single entity, which I think is unfair – judging from interviews with some of the WoW devs or forum posts by the community managers, it’s quite clear you’re dealing with a team of really passionate, genuinely CARING people. So applying a single moniker to them, effectively personifying them into a single being by saying they don’t “care”, seems to ignore some complexities.

    Secondly and relatedly, I’m pretty sure things like the RealID business or the always-online Diablo 3 decisions weren’t made by lower-end Blizzard employees (ie the dudes actually developing the game). So again, saying Blizzard doesn’t know or doesn’t care about their community based on that doesn’t seem fair to me, as again from various sources it seems pretty clear that a lot of the actual development teams DO care about their community, and are very much in tune with them. I can scarcely name a development team who is as open about upcoming decisions and as interactive with their community and as receptive to feedback as Blizzard has been over the years, particularly the last couple of years. Especially considering the sheer size, vocal..ness and variety of playstyles they have to take into account.

    Thirdly, you also can’t ignore how they actually dealt with the community aftermath of something like RealID or Corpsegrinder. At the end of the day, their responses showed some pretty great respect for their community’s wishes. And sure, a strong reaction was required to evoke that kind of response from them, but I think it’s a stretch to say that they don’t care taking all that into account.

    Furthermore I thought the Corpsegrinder business was EPICALLY blown out of all reasonable proportion, but that’s a different story.

    Posted by Razz | November 9, 2011, 7:46 pm
    • I think you’re splitting hairs by trying to define who I mean by “Blizzard”. I think I was quite clear in focusing the post on Chris Metzen in particular, and the vague group of movers and shakers who control the creative direction of their worlds and have the final say on story decisions. And even then, it’s not my intention to demonise those folks, let alone Joe Blogs Blizzard Employee #746.

      Blizzard have very vocally prided themselves on understanding their community, on essentially being a part of it because they come from the same roots or however they’d describe it. That’s what all those geeky references in WoW, Metzen’s Geek Is speech, and so forth are about – identification with their audience. So no, I’m not saying that Blizzard doesn’t know or care about their community. But I think it’s pretty clear from this sort of incident that they don’t know about *all* their community. As they pride themselves on that aspect of their business, that strikes me as something they’d probably like to rectify if they could, yes?

      Both RealID and Corpsegrinder were initially reacted to very badly by Blizzard. Which I can only assume was a result of lower-downs towing the given company line until instructions came in to do otherwise. Which is fair enough because that’s how companies work. Yeah, I credit them with changing tack, but they still made the original decisions in the first place. And those decisions illustrate how out of touch Blizzard is with a (large? vocal?) section of their playerbase. You are perhaps not one of them. That’s fine! Just try not to assume that because this stuff hasn’t been an issue for you, that it’s not important to anyone else :]

      Posted by Sihmm | November 9, 2011, 8:17 pm


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