The game World of Warcraft (or WOW for short) has always meant a lot to me. I spent many hours of my teenage years playing it.
As a child, I was teased for having white skin and being Aboriginal, something that at the time very few people understood. This is something I have written about before because racism and skin colour have been consistent themes throughout my life.
While I’ve never experienced the overt and daily racism people of colour know, as an out gay man and a fair-skinned Aboriginal person I have experienced other types of prejudice. Like most teenage boys, playing WOW was a safe space for me. The characters were blue, green and purple and I could be anything I wanted.
I recently saw Warcraft: The Beginning (2016) at the cinema. I expected a strong dose of nostalgia to satisfy my inner child and to be (at best) mildly entertained by bright moving colours. What I didn’t anticipate was being confronted with real world racism.
The film, like the game, is essentially about the first encounter between the humans and orcs. There are overt expansionist, neo-colonial overtones from the very first scene. If I had to describe it, I would say it’s something like Avatar meets Pocahontas meets Lord of the Rings meets a broken iTunes visualiser.
When you play WOW you may not be aware that you’re an actor playing a role that’s all about race. When you’re inside the story, you aren’t watching – you’re doing, and in my experience you don’t have the same capacity to respond. It was only when I watching the film that I acquired the distance necessary to see that playing WOW means acting out a race war.
A major theme of fantasy is invasion and colonialism, and many fantasy texts perpetuate the racist stereotype of the exotic other. In WOW, different species fight, although species can be read as standing in for race.
What I noticed watching Warcraft: The Beginning was that by transferring a fantasy game into a fantasy film, it becomes apparent that the racism in the WOW universe mimics and highlights the racism in our own world. Green, in the WOW universe, stands in for black.
Director Duncan Jones is sensitive to the nuance of race and culture, and to his credit the film features two women of colour in its primary cast (one human and one orc), and a variety of gender and ethnic identities in the ancillary characters. However, Hollywood’s trend of casting women of colour as green skinned aliens has not gone unnoticed. The “exotic” non-white is readily transferred to the alien.
Despite Jones' consideration, the film is still riddled with racist tropes, from the indiscriminate brutality of the tribal orcs to the unquestioned intellectual superiority of the humans.
The current global anxieties of unchecked and uncontrolled immigration also play out, as a darker skinned, foreign horde threatens to overrun the predominantly white human realm.
In playing WOW, gamers are participating in a role-play about race. In that way, people can (and do) use WOW as a site to explore their own relationship with race and racism, even unconsciously.
Warcraft: The Beginning challenges racial stereotypes in some ways, and heavily reinforces them in other ways. Although there is an attempt to depict complexity and nuance on both sides of the conflict, the film does, ultimately, champion one side over another.
WOW the game features racist stereotypes as well but gives players the choice to play as either side in the conflict. Allowing people to play games on both sides of a conflict and to sympathise with both the invaders and the invaded, is a form of racial education.
Warcraft: The Beginning both holds a mirror up to the game and misinterprets it. Watching the conflict as a spectator, instead of being able to fully participate in it from either side, fundamentally changes the philosophy of WOW.
Still, the value of this film is that we’re now seeing on the big screen a more complex conversation about the relationship between race, games and reality.
Authors: Myles Russell Cook, Lecturer, Design Anthropology and Indigenous Studies, Swinburne University of Technology