Warcraft: The Problems with Azeroth

Sexism and queerphobia is a huge problem in fantasy settings, Warcraft is unfortunately no different.

Fiction is one of life’s great joys — it not only allows us to escape from out own realities for a time, but it also lets us examine the flaws in ourselves and the world around us from the comfort of another person’s shoes.

Speculative fiction is particular good at this, it is as a broad genre any work of fiction that moves away from the real world to incorporate elements of unreality, and because of that we get to live some remarkable and often impossible experiences.

But as good as speculative fiction is, it doesn’t always bring everyone along for the journey — some aren’t given the chance to step into another person’s shoes because that person, or the place they are going, is not only not for them but is actively against who they are as a person.

There are two major categories of speculative fiction; fantasy and science fiction. Both change the world by adding unrealness to it, but science fiction bases this unrealness on the hopes of the future and fantasy bases this on the critique of the past. Science fiction looks forward, fantasy looks back.

As a result science fiction tends to be fairly progressively minded in its handling of politics, and fantasy… well fantasy has a lot of problems in adjusting to the modern world. Countless articles have been written about the racism and sexism in Dungeons and Dragons, but what of the biggest fantasy setting in video games? What about Warcraft?

The latest expansion of World of Warcraft was marketed as centering the stories of its women. Here, Jaina Proudmoore and Princess Talanji face off.

Warcraft is a franchise that is near and dear to my heart, but even a cursory glance will show some really glaring problems. Just for brevity’s sake let’s focus on the story, and let’s focus on the sexism and queerphobia. Maybe in the future we can also talk about its pro-colonialist sentiments, and its cavalier attitudes to war and war crimes.

We’ll begin with the basics — Warcraft establishes both a gender binary and a gendered hierarchy for the characters in its setting to adhere to. When they don’t adhere to it, they are typically either evil or irrelevant.

The gender binary is male (man) and female (woman). There is no representation of non-binary or trans individuals in Azeroth, the setting of the franchise, at least none confirmed.

The closest we in fact have is a dragon character who uses a male sounding name while presenting themselves as a female gnome — Chronormu, or Chromie as she calls herself, has the male suffix -mu instead of the female suffix -mi. This led to speculation that the devs of the game ended up quashing by admitting it was a mistake on their part.

All other characters fall into either the category of “masculine” or “feminine”, with masculine characters being aggressive and independent, and with female characters being passive and supportive.

Two exemplary examples of these categories actually come from the character arc of a single character — Anduin Wrynn. Anduin starts off his story as a child who constantly calls for caution in others and plays nothing more than a support role for those around him. As he grows he sheds these qualities as he literally begins to be portrayed as an adult to become a strong, action-oriented leader.

This epitomises what Warcraft says about the gender binary — the masculine is adult, the feminine is childlike.

This is the gender hierarchy in the franchise, a very typical recreation of the patriarchal hierarchy we have in the real world — men are above women, the feminine is malformed or incomplete while the masculine is the epitome of what it means to be human.

This is highly problematic when simply recreated at face value, it perpetuates a whole host of prejudices existent in the real world. Any work of fiction worth its salt would either work to deconstruct that, or they would use it as a chance to critique these problems.

Unfortunately, Warcraft goes a step further than that. It actively enforces this hierarchy by making any character that doesn’t abide by it either villainous if they’re female or irrelevant if they’re men. This takes on a very sinister undertone when you realise that, almost all of the characters who are relevant to the story on a whole are men and when male characters who are too feminine become irrelevant to the story it sends the clear message that the reason they are irrelevant is because they’re feminine.

To use Anduin as an example again, despite being the ruler of his people for several years as a child, a skilled diplomat, and the voice of reason for an entire player faction, he was considered irrelevant because he was not masculine enough. When he was forced to become relevant again he literally had to become a man.

For female characters it is far more difficult to be relevant because in the context of Azeroth their position in the gender hierarchy is always going to be below that of men. While male characters are almost universally depicted as important in whatever given task they are pushing for, female characters can only be important if they either serve conform to the hierarchy or they step outside it. Those who do are universally going to become villains.

This dichotomy is perfectly illustrated in World of Warcraft’s latest expansion because it focuses on the only important female characters left in the franchise — there are three of them; Jaina Proudmoore, Sylvanas Windrunner, and Queen Azshara.

Lady Jaina Proudmoore.

Jaina represents the ideal woman in the Warcraft franchise; she has always played a supporting role to the men surrounding her. Her introduction into the franchise was her playing the supporting role to her former lover — Arthas (a man, because there are no important queer characters in Warcraft), and when he turned evil she took in refugees to help them escape to another continent instead of challenging him. On the new continent she meets another man who, despite the history of bad blood between her people she immediately tries to make peace with and ends up helping him kill her own father in order to preserve that peace. She then becomes irrelevant for quite some time before returning briefly in the expansion of World of Warcraft to help others challenge her former lover, then becomes irrelevant again until her city is destroyed — at that point in her story breaks from the gender hierarchy and is immediately painted as insane.

Please take a moment to let that sink in. The moment she becomes justifiably angry that someone committed a war crime against her people, she is depicted as having lost her mind. She becomes aggressive, and she is portrayed as becoming evil. She is no longer a passive waif there to support the men in her life, and she becomes a villain who wants to destroy everything. Her entire city, the one that she sacrificed her own father’s life to preserve was annihilated from the face of the planet and she is immediately classified as insane, evil, villainous. She broke from the gender hierarchy, so she had to be pulled back into line or destroyed. Luckily for her she met a man who fixed her and now she’s fine again after disappearing for several more years. Her reintroduction has her agreeing to be punished for killing her father, one of the few aggressive decisions she has made in her entire story, in order for her to be redeemed so that she can be given leadership over her own people so that she can serve a man.

Sylvanas Windrunner, the Banshee Queen.

Then we have Sylvanas Windrunner. Her first appearance comes around the same time as Jaina’s, but Sylvanas in terms of the franchise’s view on women and gender is almost completely the opposite. She is introduced as the opposition of Arthas, she is a veteran of several wars and an accomplished military commander in service of her nation, Arthas is an apprentice with a magical sword who is depicted as her equal in ability. When he kills her, he raises her as an undead minion to his own master and he becomes her superior in every way. We can ignore how this makes no sense for the sake of narrative, but honestly you shouldn’t — it is poor writing, and its incompetence illustrates my point, one that I’ll come back to.

Sylvanas eventually rebels against Arthas and his master to become her own independent leader. This is the most empowered a female character in Warcraft will ever become, so enjoy it while it lasts. Her rebellion quickly defeats all opposition and dominates the region to the point that her former masters no longer have any real power on the continent. Or in other words, she is allowed to show off her skill as a commander and leader. When World of Warcraft begins we then discover that she has joined an alliance called the Horde and that doesn’t serve much purpose until the second expansion. In the second expansion her people are rightfully spearheading part of the assault on Arthas’ empire, and Sylvanas arrives to lead. What happens however is, an excuse to remove her from the story of the expansion so that a man can step up and take what should have been her and Jaina’s place as the direct opposition to Arthas.

Sylvanas’ role in the expansion is removed by plot contrivance where two of her most loyal subjects suddenly and without any real indication betray her and start a rebellion. It is such a flimsy excuse that they later remove it from the game for poorly defined reasons and its impact is negligible aside from some cosmetic changes. In fact, it was originally used as justification for a war between the two player factions but even that was essentially ignored when a new and completely unjustified leader called Garrosh Hellscream is plucked from thin air… and we will get to him, oh boy will we get to him.

In the place of Jaina and Sylvanas, Arthas is killed by a man who was largely irrelevant before and during the expansion who then disappeared immediately following the expansion only to return four expansions later to be immediately killed. Her role as leader of the Horde forces fighting against Arthas is taken over by Garrosh. Two completely random men as chosen to be more important, more relevant to the story than two women whose stories are intricately woven into the backstory for the expansion.

Sylvanas Windrunner, Ranger Captain, leading her forces against Arthas.

Unfortunately for Sylvanas, she doesn’t get to be as irrelevant as Jaina, primarily because she is the most competent of the Horde leaders. This is where we start to talk about why Sylvanas is Jaina’s opposite. She is depicted from the very beginning as aggressive, ruthless, strong willed, an incredibly capable leader and someone who will not adhere to a set of rules — including the gender hierarchy — and for that reason she must be brought into line or crushed without mercy.

They first try to bring her into line and this is where Garrosh unfortunately comes into things. Garrosh is a blank slate character who gets dragged into power by another man due to his father’s legacy. Garrosh is a privileged little snot-nosed brat who trips upwards into power and immediately falls into fascism. He fires the first shots of the war between the two player factions — the Horde and the Alliance — and threatens Sylvanas with the genocide of her entire nation if she doesn’t invade a neutral territory, then is outraged when she uses underhanded tactics to win. For this, Sylvanas is painted as evil and Garrosh is painted as aggressive.

Garrosh is objectively an evil character who commits multiple acts of genocide including; forcing Sylvanas’ people to fight a war in the hopes of annihilating both them and a neutral nation, forcibly relocating and even ghettoizing populations to keep them controlled, and dropping the setting’s equivalent of a nuclear weapon on Jaina’s city, as well as assassinating his political adversaries. The assassinations are what ultimately crosses the line for the other Horde leaders — this is despite the fact that immediately after Garrosh came to power he killed another Horde leader in a duel.

Eventually, one of the people (a man) that Garrosh tried and failed to assassinate leads a rebellion against him. That rebellion does not prominently feature either Jaina or Sylvanas despite both being the most obvious victims of Garrosh’s actions. They only appear in the aftermath to bear witness at his trial for war crimes. Garrosh’s replacement is irrelevant despite being a major figure in the story because he only shows up twice before being killed off.

So, we reach the current story arc for Sylvanas, and just like Jaina she must atone for her sins against the gender hierarchy. The biggest problem to that is, she doesn’t and would never be willing to submit to her punishment without breaking character. What has to happen to her then, in order to maintain the hierarchy, is that she must become the only other thing a female character in Warcraft is allowed to be.

If Sylvanas is not going to become a passive support character, she must become a villain. Either you submit, or you become a monster. She begins this transition by starting a war and burning down a city, and immediately following this half of the Horde leaders who were under her command decided she has gone mad and must be stopped. Cool…

On the realistic evil scale, she doesn’t register because the Horde is literally founded upon the legacy of a bunch of men doing just that. But on the story evil scale she is already a monster who is going to destroy them all, and that only continues when she sacrifices her own capital and thus most of her own people’s power to try and destroy the Alliance in a single battle — something she nearly does. Her sacrifice isn’t shown as noble, it is shown as wicked — that she would evacuate her capital city and use chemical weapons to destroy an Alliance army is such a dishonourable act to the male Horde leaders that one of them storms off to let himself be captured by the people who are actively trying to destroy his nation.

Sylvanas is routinely compared to Garrosh, not only in the game but by the fans of the game, and there are some real troubling implications there. Sylvanas’ descent into evil is the kind of milquetoast evil that gets justified when men do it. She doesn’t burn down a city because she wants to commit carnage but because she is too slow to capture it, which the writers then retroactively justify her doing because she was emotional — something she has never been up until this point. She doesn’t start the war out of revanchism like Garrosh or his human counterpart does, but because she sees it as necessary for the survival of the Horde, which the writers then retroactively justify her as wanting to cause carnage for some ill-defined evil.

Sylvanas becomes evil almost after the fact, to the point that all of her actions up until the end of the current expansion’s story were justifiable if not completely in character. It could be argued that this was mismanagement of the story, laziness or incompetence but the fact that characters who have stood back and allowed a man do worse than what she has done, suddenly view her as — in their own words — a threat to the entire planet, speaks louder than that.

If it were incompetence, it wouldn’t be such a clear-cut pattern.

Queen Azshara, making her pact with a dark god.

The only other important female character in Warcraft is Queen Azshara, and her story is incredibly simple by comparison. She too is depicted as evil, despite not having done all that much to prove it. She was one the ruler of a world spanning empire before, for some ill-defined reason, she chose to side with demons under the promise of even more power. When the world was destroyed because of her and the pangaea like continent split into smaller ones, she and her supporters sank below the seas where she made a pact with an eldritch god to save them — but only because she wanted to hold onto power. She and her people were mutated into part-snake, part-fish monsters and have been slowing trying to take over the world ever since. Azshara is depicted as an aggressive and competent leader, who lusted after power from demons and so is clearly evil.

There is a male character who has a similar story, his name is Illidan Stormrage. If I had to describe him in a phrase, I would call him a “half-demon terrorist.” Like Azshara he was born with immense natural power, both of them were adept magic-wielders and were marked as destined to greatness by the colour of their eyes. He too was power hungry and courted power from demons — to the point he was considered a traitor like Azshara and imprisoned for it. Then he was released, and perhaps in an odd bit of clarity he allied himself with one of Azshara’s handmaidens and a man with a similar lust for power. Together they conquered an entire world, then ruled over it until all three were defeated or killed. Illidan would return far later on to be redeemed into a messianic figure to eventually defeat the demons and ascend to a state of godhood despite not changing at all — he was apparently right all along.

The double standards at play are incredible. For a male character the only thing that he can do wrong is to want so much power that he threatens other men, while female characters with any amount of power are by default a threat to men. To survive as a female character in Warcraft is to be subservient to men, or not stand out as not being subservient to men.

It is a similar pattern in minor female characters as well. In the current expansion the two most prominent female characters aside from Jaina, Sylvanas, and Azshara are Katherine Proudmoore, Priscilla Ashvane, and Talanji.

Katherine Proudmoore is Jaina’s mother and she rules her people through a tenuous alliance that starts off with Priscilla Ashvane as one of her biggest supporters. Priscilla Ashvane is the matriarch of a major house and is a life-long friend of Katherine. Out of a lust for power Priscilla decides to try and usurp Katherine’s throne, while Katherine steps down so that her daughter can become leader. Over the course of the expansion the only actions Katherine takes is to punish Jaina, and reward her for accepting her punishment, Priscilla meanwhile is not only shown as a capable and cunning leader, but she is also the primary antagonist that Alliance players face. The conflict between the two of them is a microcosm of the stories of Jaina and Sylvanas.

Meanwhile Talanji’s story is a microcosm of women’s role in Warcraft’s writing on a whole. Talanji is a princess of an empire and she serves her empire, leading an expedition against a matriarchal society that is depicted as savage, monstrous and in all ways pure evil. The story of that society is effectively that they were once part of Talanji’s people before they went away from them, developed a society where women ruled, and fell into the service of an eldritch blood god. After Talanji conquers that society, she returns to her own and is made queen upon her father’s death, and immediately must perform a complex series of rituals to honour the gods and prove she will serve her people. Or to state it more directly — the woman in Warcraft must serve even when she leads, and must fight to uphold the gender hierarchy that she finds herself under.

The patterns displayed are troubling to say the least.

So, it’s safe to say, Warcraft is sexist — and if I haven’t convinced you of that yet, then I’ll probably never convince you, so let’s move on to talk about the important queer characters that don’t exist in Warcraft. Here is the problem, it isn’t just that they aren’t confirmed to be queer, it is that there isn’t any. Until very recently, as in until the expansion prior to the current one, same-sex relationships were either left ambiguous or played for comedic effect — often using campness as coding. This is in spite of the fact that canonically an entire nation of people, the Night Elves, are depicted as having been gender segregated for ten thousand years.

As might be expected given the analysis of the gender binary and hierarchy above, there is even less to be said about gender non-conforming individuals in the franchise — they simply don’t exist. At least in terms of same-sex attraction and bisexuality there is some level of acknowledgement it exists — a lot of it through jokes, some of it earnest, but none of it important to the overall story of the franchise. If you’re non-binary or transgender, don’t expect to be acknowledged because the closest you have is Chromie.

Chromie is an incredibly cool character, and she’s actually important, but until they decide to lean in on their naming mistake and make her trans — she isn’t representation.

But why do I say it is queerphobic? I mean, I did just explain there are queer characters. Frankly, it is because of how much effort they go to in order to make their important characters not queer. For this I’d like to examine two characters in particular; Lady Liadrin, and Sylvanas once more.

Sylvanas is very simply depicted as above all dedicated to her work, uninterested in others from a romantic standpoint and has been alone for the entire franchise — until very recently. There is a character called Nathanos who for the entire history of the franchise was a nothing slated for irrelevance with no purpose but to act as a mini-boss for Alliance to kill while questing. He has a bit of interesting backstory about being trained by Sylvanas and that eventually got spun into a love story so that Sylvanas would have someone lusting after her.

It is incredibly tiring. Not only is there some strange need for the writers to pair off all the eligible characters to opposite sex partners, but Sylvanas was probably the closest that the franchise will have to an important asexual, and/or aromantic character. She was single minded about her job, she has never been shown as having an interest in men or women despite it being pointed out that there was interest in her, and now all of a sudden they must erase that to pair her off with a character whose relevance is entirely manufactured because they had to contrive a reason for Sylvanas to be removed from her own story dealing with Arthas.

Lady Liadrin, Matriarch of the Blood Knights, in only slightly more detailed armour than her in game depiction.

Liadrin is at least not yet erased. She occupies an important role as recurring general for the Horde and one of the most important non-faction leaders, and she is routinely paired up in her campaigns alongside other women who she is often very friendly with. Over the course of the last few expansions she has been shown as being one of the main reasons why an entire nation joined the Horde, and whose female leader she has a close relationship with. She is in a word, queer-bait. Never openly acknowledged as gay, but could easily be revealed to be without much about her character changing. Similarly she is an oddity in the gender hierarchy without outright defying it — she’s depicted as being rather masculine, strong and competent, aggressive, forthright, somewhat arrogant at times, but because she does it in service of the hierarchy she’s never made to look villainous or troublesome. She even dresses like a male character, always in armour with her hair up and only once in a dress. She isn’t gender non-conforming by any stretch, but she is allowed the practicality of a man’s attire because her role is masculine in spite of her being a female character.

She is coded as butch, and paired with her close relationships with other women, it is easy to see why she might be queer-bait for parts of the fan base. The fans of Warcraft have largely had to make do on queer-bait, Liadrin was quite popularly paired with another female character, Yrel, until Yrel was turned into an insane theocrat lusting for domination of her home world. Another popular pairing was Anduin and Wrathion, largely because of their close friendship.

I bring them up now, and not alongside Liadrin as an example of queer baiting, because the lead writer has gone on the record as saying that Anduin and Wrathion will never be a thing. Apparently the mere mention of Anduin, one of the primary characters of the franchise, being paired up in fan-fiction with another man is grounds for the lead writer to go on twitter to scold people. The writers would like you to know, very clearly, that Anduin has a thing for alien women — presumably because he is very straight — and that is why they explicitly state that in a book written by the current lead writer for the game.

If I’m starting to sound bitter, there is a good reason. There is no excuse for the degree to which the writers have failed to examine their own universe outside of being unthinking and uncaring or actively malicious. That they seem to mindlessly reinforce this status quo of binary gender, gender hierarchy and ignorance of or even erasure of potential queer characters is harmful. It is harmful.

It is harmful to create a world where characters are punished for not conforming to a gender. It is harmful to erase the identities of your players by refusing them representation. It is harmful to unthinkingly parrot the mistakes of the past without critically examining them.

Warcraft is fantasy yes, but it is fantasy for straight men. It espouses the same kinds of ideologies as you’d expect to hear from actual bigots when it comes to gender identity and the place of women in a society. And it neglects to accept that non-binary, and trans individuals exist, and that gender itself is not and never will be a binary.

It is a fantasy for those who do not need fantasy, and I would like that to change.

Writings about philosophy, video games, and philosophy in video games.

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