It’s a big word. It is, as per usual, a big subject. It’s long and rambling, and I’m certainly not an expert on the experiences of gay, lesbian or transexual gamers. This is not about calling anyone homophobic, or anything like that. This post is just about looking at these issues and questioning ourselves and our attitudes. I’m hoping I will have a guest poster soon who will be able to hold forth on this better than me. This post contains spoilers for the Goblin starter area.
Edit: It’s also been pointed out to me that ‘Heteronormativity’ is a rather big word that isn’t used commonly, so here is a link for you to read on that
Her still-beating heart
There is a quest in the Goblin starter area that culminates, for both male and female NPCs, in the player ripping the still-beating heart out of a cheating girlfriend or boyfriend. For the male goblin player character, first you kill Chip Endale for betraying you and dating your girl, and then you rip the heart out of her ‘fickle chest’. I can’t find the equivelants for the female characters in the wowhead or MMO Champion Cata databases, but I’ve been assure that there is a female equivelant which first has you killing your female rival, and then killing your ‘cheating ex’.
Problematic and violent quests in game are nothing new. We’ve had to torture, main, kill, poison, steal, desecrate; in short as part of computer games in general and as part of World of Warcraft, the game asks us to do some very unsavoury things. The original outrage about this quest, before it was confirmed that there was a female equivalent, is that it brings domestic violence into the game and makes a joke out of it in an environment which already has many tropes of female golddiggers, jokes with references to bondage, a joke that still hasn’t been cleared up as to whether it refers to rape or not. Etc.
However I’m not here to talk about the problems of bringing domestic violence, and whether it’s sexist or not, right at this very moment.
Is this the first time that Warcraft has defined the sexuality & personal relationships of the Player Character?
There is a lot of discussion in the LGBT gaming community about how sexuality is incorporated into modern adult games. How some games allow Lesbian relationships but not Gay relationships, or how such relationships are in danger of being tokenised rather than legitimate narrative components.
World of Warcraft has, to my knowledge, steered clear of prescribing players with romantic relationships until now. If player characters ‘fall in love’ or form attachments it has largely been at the player’s choice. If you don’t want to roleplay any romantic attachments, then that aspect of gaming never becomes part of your immersion. I fully accept that many people who game don’t really want to think about romantic attachments because they logged on to kill Internet Dragons (or zerglings, or whatever.)
However in Cataclysm, Blizzard has taken the step of putting the player in a romantic relationship as part of the Goblin Starter Zone. You do not get a choice to enter into this relationship, and you can’t chose to enter into it with an NPC of a different gender. As a female character you have your Personal Assistant and your Boyfriend. And that’s it. As part of the new, ‘immersive experience’ of the starter areas, we now play with preformed relationships. The worgen area, to my knowledge, lets you build the relationships (but doesn’t give you any choices as you go along) so that by the end of the starter zone your interactions have a history.
This linearity is turning WoW from RPG to Graphic Novel
Personally I would prefer not to have the faux-relationship with Chip Endale at all. I’d like to be able to avoid it. While the old quest hub system from Wrath has it’s problems with efficient questing, you can skip certain quests without locking out an entire zone of quests. Generally if you skip a quest line you can ignore it completely or come back to it later at your leisure. One of the problems with Vashj’ir and Mount Hyjal is that the number of quests you can skip is drastically reduced. Gazimoff spoke about this on the last episode of ObscureCast: there’s a bugged quest in Vashj’ir, and because you can’t complete it you can’t progress through the rest of the zone.
This is not locking you out of one story (e.g. Wrathgate, or some of the WotLK torture quests) this is locking you out of the rest of Dragonblight, for example. So I can’t help but feel the same is true for the Domestic Violence plot in the Goblin Starter area. I’ve compared the Worgen Starter Area to a moving Graphic Novel as well, although in a more positive sense, but it doesn’t start the player out with romantic attachments that will jar with their own sexuality, or simply be something that they don’t want in the first place (and then tie the plot up by murdering your traitorous, cheating partner and the person they cheated with.)
(And yes I’m aware that the Girlfriend/Boyfriend is supposed to be arm candy and not a ‘real’ relationship.)
But isn’t the point that you can’t change certain plot points? Shared narrative and all that?
Well, yes. I’ve always seen World of Warcraft a little bit like Doctor Who – you can change or chose to do many things, but there are fixed points in Time and Space where you can’t stop the Big Tragedy. You can’t stop or change Wrathgate, but you can participate in it. Along the way you can chose not to torture NPCs (except that wait, if you’re in Borean Tundra and you want to go to the Nexus 5 man and get the Wyrmrest Accord Dailies there, you couldn’t skip it!)
The Goblin Girl/Boyfriend crosses a line from participating in the world and making choices about it, to making choices for you. There isn’t much choice involved in questing or levelling to begin with, so for me this particular storyline was somewhat jarring. The reactions of some lesbian and gay players I know has been ‘gee, heteronormative much?’ There’s no real outcry about this, because it’s a small quest in a game where relationships and romance take a back seat in WoW (for players at least) compared to a game like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age where the relationships with your crew and team mates are part of the roleplaying experience (and you have some choice about how those go down.)
What are you saying Pewter?
I don’t quite know. I’m not comfortable with the line crossed by Blizzard in RPG terms. There is Lesbian and Gay subtext in the presentation of player characters and some NPCs, but it remains in subtext. At the same time I suspect that a lot of people don’t want anti-gay pundits crawling all over the game and lambasting it for including non-heteronormative quests in the gaming world. Yet the game is strongly heteronormative (in most of the presented relationships) and has now stepped into forcing goblin players into a relationship (even if it is just for show) in a time when RPGs are under greater scrutiny by the LGBT gaming community. This relationship also highlights how lack of choice impacts on the RPG component of World of Warcraft as a roleplaying game as well as an MMO.
I think it was a poor story choice on the part of Blizzard. It makes the player the centre of the events in the Starting Area, but at the same time it makes everyone else the centre of the same events. The Guild Wars 2 trailers talk about this issue – all of us doing the same thing, even when we are the centre of the story. I’m not sure that Guild Wars 2 will do any better with this (as the story of the player in GW2 seems to be a solo component of the game rather than a true MMORPG).
In an effort to escape the heteronormative assumptions and homophobic bullying present online, Sarah Andrews, a gamer who actively recruited members for her guild – a group or team that comes together to achieve game objectives – stated that her group was not “GLBT only” but “GLBT friendly.” Blizzard Entertainment, the owners of World of Warcraft, argued that Andrews’ recruitment inside the game was a violation of sexual harassment policies and policies protecting against sexual orientation discrimination. Blizzard threatened to ban her and her guild, dismantling the group before it began in an effort to protect online gamers, many of whom are adolescents, from harassment (Terdiman 2006). The heteronormative matrix became a filter through which preventing discrimination resulted in silencing the discourse on sexuality. Andrews was later allowed to reinstate her guild. If this action had occurred in an environment where there was little or no homophobia, heterosexism, sexism, racism, etc., then Blizzard Entertainment might have had an argument, however, a quick venture into this world proves otherwise. So in an alternate world to Second Life populated by many youth, any discussion of sexuality outside of the bounds of traditional heteronormative assumptions is eschewed, and sexually diverse users are acceptable if they silence themselves.
This article at Beyond Current Horizons is quite applicable here. I suspect any outcry from LGBT players (and I apologise for the acronym ) would be silenced by the player base at large, and the heteronormativey of the game explained away and excused by the heteronormativity of the world, genre, gaming culture and of the designers who created it. I am sure there are gay and lesbian gamers who are not at all bothered by this quest, because they (like many straight players) don’t play for romantic/relationship storylines, and also because they are used to seeing heteronormative relationships as the norm in traditional and new media. Blizzard doesn’t have many games in the stable, and none of them are really good with anything other than subtext (and sometimes not even that, apparently SC2 is completely lacking in it.)
I guess what I’m saying is that the quest is both problematic for it’s presumption of the sexual orientation of the player character, and because it highlights the lack of RPG in the starting areas, and the problems with zone wide linearity. There is a difference between an RPG where you control an established character (e.g. Link), and an RPG where your avatar is supposed to be grown out of your choices.
But a little discussion, a little noticing of these things doesn’t hurt, right?