I started this project in January of 2012. I was interested in the unusual political space that evolves within World of Warcraft. It takes quite a lot of effort to break into the social aspects of the game. One has to make a fairly serious commitment to the game (undergoing lengthy tutorials, innumerable quests, training professions, learning their characters’ skills, equipping the character so it can survive in inevitable combat) to make it to the point where they are in a guild and regularly communicating with large groups of people. Because of that barrier between the committed and the dabblers, a unique social community is created in each realm of World of Warcraft that few know about, despite the game’s widespread popularity. As a player and participant in the community, I experienced frustration with the blatant discrimination, homophobia, and extreme sexism that persist in WoW’s many communication channels. The common language established is not a result of the developers’ aesthetics, but the community of avatar-hidden individuals that play it.
I decided to go into the game and do some experiential research – perhaps create a council of feminists to protest these misogynistic methods of communicating. I called this “The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness In World of Warcraft.” I started the project by employing the strategies of a performative intervention I would do in any public space. I headed to the Horde faction capitol, Orgrimmar, and introduced myself to everyone as someone doing a research project on definitions of feminism. I researched/performed on several different avatars – a level 75 troll hunter heroically equipped, a level 60 orc warrior regularly equipped, and a level 14 troll shaman in a ridiculous female tuxedo outfit. I recorded the videos in-game, and sometimes performed this hands-on in-game research process live in art galleries (Flux Factory NYC, Spattered Columns NYC, Gowanus Studio Space NYC). I thought that doing this would allow me to institute a system in which players are forced to take responsibility for their oppressive behavior- creating an environment that encourages women gamers to participate without the stigma that comes along with being female inside a video game.
As I continued to talk to players about feminism and the role women play within the WoW community, I realized that the community inside WoW is incredibly varied despite their adopted misogynistic language. World of Warcraft is its own form of public space realized virtually- that mimics the physicality of public space outside of the screen. And as such, adapting to the codes and norms of this space is quite essential to participating in it. Walking into Orgrimmar’s central area (near the bank, auction house, inn etc.) and talking to people I do not know (who are busy buying items, managing their gold, selling what they don’t need) is not unlike walking into the main street of any city and addressing the busy individuals therein. I expected to arouse suspicion with my questions, and did subject myself to some harassment by opting to hack the accepted language. But it became quite easy for me to discern between whether someone is speaking to me with sincerity or when I am being trolled. The average age of the player base is around 29. Over 85% of players are male. 55% of female character avatars are played by men. During the many hours of “performing” this procedure of discussing feminism in a space that doesn’t welcome such behavior, I spoke mostly to men. Many of the women willing to respond to me told me that they weren’t feminists because women are already equal to men. Throughout my conversations I was repeatedly told to get back into the kitchen (or asked if I had a laptop and was playing from the kitchen) and often to make the male characters present some sandwiches or “sammies.” I was told definitions of feminism like “not waxing your granny mustache,” “big titties,” “naked and pregnant,” “wanting to be able to pee standing up,” “are the dishes done and my laundry folded?,” “hairy armpits,” “a word with too many connotations to be worth defining,” “equal rights for women,” “the ability to have children,” “man-hating whores,” and “two ears…two boobs…bacon cheddar cheese thighs” to name a few. These are pretty expected in a way, given the constructs of internet and particularly massively-multiplayer gaming language.
It has become important for me to argue that this is not just a space for fantasy. WoW is a space in which the suppressed ideologies of a politically correct global society flourishes. The common language is a result not of pure imagination – but of a resistance to imposed cultural rules outside of the anonymity and autonomy of this virtual space. As women gain freedoms to pursue occupations free from the pressures of having children and “settling down” those that still hold onto another generation’s morals enact them here stating loudly that women should not work, drive, do manual labor, or have careers that keep them from having/taking care of children. Feminism is still a scary word with incredibly negative connotations. Though many players are hesitant or unable to define it, they are angered or annoyed by whatever-it-is.
However, I was quite surprised when I had an incredibly sincere 5 hour long discussion with a self proclaimed 19 year old pregnant woman named Chastity (along with several other players). Because of Chastity’s strong views, the other players took my questions and her responses and ran with them, soon fiercely debating and conducting the discussion without me – several players ruthlessly arguing their personal stances on issues including gender discrimination, reproductive rights, economic inequality, racism, same-sex couples, and ultimately what it means to be female in today’s global internet culture. It has been months since I last communicated with her, and I am writing a letter to her to check back in and speak with her about motherhood – a topic which (as you will see in the video displayed on this site) she revered and lives for. As a feminist, a community leader, someone struggling to stay afloat economically in NYC, and an emerging artist trying to find some context for myself in the art world – motherhood is absolutely out of the question to me. I forget that it is something that many women live for. Chastity’s views are incredibly problematic-at one point she proclaims “Abortion is wrong and any woman who gets one should be sterilized for life.” She speaks in manifestos that are immature, a bit erratic, overly romanticized, and full of martyrdom – but there is something about the long late-night discussion with her that stuck with me. Here is someone who so desperately needed a community to discuss her experience with…she spoke with such confidence and candor that I cannot help but admire her despite the fact that nearly all of her arguments and statements seem quite insane to me. I think there is room for sincerity inside World of Warcraft – and I will continue to “hack” the game by facilitating the introduction of this into the common language of the game….one discussion about feminism at a time.