This is a difficult post. Not because it’s personal for me, but I feel like someone should say something. The casual cultural appropriation that Blizzard continues to practise is tiring, dated, and makes me very uneasy about Mists of Pandaria. I am western european and I am white. I don’t feel comfortable pointing this out, as it is not my culture that Mists of Pandaria is appropriating in a disneyfied orientalist fashion.
Think back to the pygmies
In Cataclysm we saw the introduction of the Pygmy model. A brown-skinned race depicted as savage – supposedly based on heavy metal characters, but in actuality echoing the colonialist stereotype of the peoples of North Africa. The very name taken from real cultures in Africa. During the course of questing through Uldum, players would kill and cage the pygmies, hit them with mallots etc. WoW Insider did a great post-mortem of Cataclysm, and I’m going to quote from them here
The things that disgusted me about Uldum don’t end there, either. Uldum is what, to me, solidified the pygmy race is a racist caricature. I didn’t mind them in the goblin starting area. They were a little weird, but they fit exactly what Blizzard described them as; they’re modeled after classic rock roadies. Their tribe is even called the Oomlot Tribe, which if you haven’t figured it out, is a nod to the umlaut. They fit that in the goblin starting zone. In Uldum, that goes out the window. Blizzard took this thing that was already racially charged and, instead of taking the high road and doing something cool with them, stayed right down there with everybody’s worst expectations and made them a really insensitive thing.
Now considering that the orcs, trolls, goblins and tauren are codified as people of colour (as opposed to the very westernised cultures of the humans and dwarves particularly) Blizzard’s track record on sensitivity to racial issues and cultural appropriation is already bad. I’ve seen posts on various forums from Native Americans lamenting and wincing at the broad strokes used to define the Tauren. Sadly I’ve not seen any Chinese (or asian) reactions to Mists of Pandaria, only ‘my friend is ____’ type comments from westerners.
That said – it is Warcraft and I’m not surprised or rending my clothes over the continued lack of subtlety on the grand scale of things. Pandaria fits in with Thunderbluff. There are many talented artists, animators and writers working at Blizzard and they continue to do grand work within the schemes laid out for them by the needs of the game, the theme and the overarching story. Much of the artwork for Mists is breathtaking, and I do think they’ll tell some interesting stories.
From Pygmies to Sherpa
Well, now. Sherpa. One of the latest updates at WoWhead has included a character model codenamed ‘sherpa’. Take a look at him on wowhead, or just click the image below for a bigger one.
Well. First of all there are the Sherpa People, of the Kingdom of Nepal. The stereotypes surrounding this group of people in general are relatively benign – they have some renown for physical superiority. The term ‘sherpa’ is also often applied to local mountain/climbing guides of other ethnicities. The image of the western holiday-maker or explorer surrounded by locals carrying their belongings is the image that the above model invokes. As the model uses the pygmy model, this makes me distinctly uncomfortable and I’m not at all of the mind that this was in any way appropriate for Blizzard to include. Please note that I’m not certain if ‘Sherpa’ is simply a code name or the actual model name, we’ll have to wait until later to find out.
They have made an efford to make the model less humanoid via the skin texture and fingers, but I’m really not convinced that it’s enough. They could easily have done something different to fill this NPC niche. It makes me wonder if we’ll see more development of the in-game pygmy race in lore, or if they will forever remain a one-off joke, based on colonialist views of people that are ‘other’ to the western experience. Including non-western cultures in a nuanced, imaginative and sensitive fashion is a good thing, but I don’t think Blizzard have managed that here.
This isn’t about racial slurs
I’m not saying that ‘pygmy’ or ‘sherpa’ are offensive terms in and of themselves. They are perfectly legitimate, correct terms for two peoples. Blizzard hasn’t been offensive by using those terms, but in the way they are applied and the characters depicted. With regards to the Sherpa ‘model’, perhaps this is just temporary name and the NPC will appear with a more appropriate name. I hope so, but the ‘sherpa’ model is not ranked with humanoids which suggests that, like the pygmies, they’ll be seen as sub-human and subservient, echoing those colonialist attitudes that took the Oomlot tribe of the Lost Isles from heavy metal to racially charged by placing the npcs in an environment that invokes the stereotypes. I have no idea if any of the Sherpa people play Warcraft, or even care about stereotypes in a video game, but it’s indicative of a larger problem within world building.
Benign but ignorant
It’s all packaged up as entertainment, but it’s a bit like reducing the British to tea, crumpets, the Queen and Sherlock Holmes. Except it isn’t at all. This is mostly western entertainment, devised for westerners. Occidentalism, that is the negative stereotypes of westerners, doesn’t really have the same power in games developed by westerners for westerners. I really think Blizzard needs to sit down and think about it’s continued use of cultural shorthand in world building and culture creation. Non-western (and non-white coded) cultures and NPCs don’t have to be the sole province of anthropromorphic races or secondary NPCs, or even enemies. They don’t have to be coded as exotic, or other.