Last quarter, in my cyborg anthropology class, I wrote a paper called “The Traffic of Virtual Bodies in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games.” I was nominated to share my paper in my university’s scholars week, and joined two of my classmates to present a fifty minute talk on World of Warcraft. To embody how ubiquitous World of Warcraft is, the classroom was standing-room-only. My first classmate showed us a slide show of the gamer’s architecture and talked about the ideas of real world cultures invoked by Blizzard. My second classmate logged in the game and showed us her tauren. She discussed how taking on a virtual avatar is a posthuman experience. I spoke last and discussed how I categorize the virtual bodies in MMORPGs by the individual, social, and political bodies and how they partake in the game’s economic body and are all trafficked for real world currency. Our presentation was a hit, and we had a great Q&A with the audience. I’m happy my first presentation to a big group (outside of the classroom) went so well. I closed by saying although I believe video games in many ways are sexist, racist, and classist, it’s okay to both critique and enjoy them, and that I’m optimistic people like us can demand games become more progressive.
As my classmate pointed out, Blizzard invokes what the (supposedly) mainstream male gamer wants. I left thinking about this, and wonder how much the audience becomes what the game designers think it is. Gamers may become the audience through a self-fulfilling prophesy when we either conform to their status quo or drop out when we’re told this game isn’t for us.
I personally find it racist for cultures to be appropriated and re-marketed as what the hegemonic white male gamer is told he should want (which gives the message that you’re the secondary audience if you’re a person of color and queer and a woman). I’ll use the tauren race as an example. As my classmate pointed out, tauren villages are decorated with long houses, teepees, totem poles, and a dream-catchers to represent a pan-Native American culture. Thousands of indigenous nations are lumped together, painted primitive, and sold to the Western gaze.
During my presentation, I brought up Ed Castronova’s finding that female avatars sell for 12% less than male avatars. I notice that because gender doesn’t affect the mechanics of gameplay, people are paying more for the desired social role in the game. I find this phenomenon fascinating, and I hope I have a chance to study it more in school and blogging.
I realize that cultures are appropriated and sold in video games, and gender influences the trafficking of virtual bodies (as feminist theorist Gayle Rubin points out, women are trafficked for gender alone), so I wonder… how is the traffic of virtual bodies racialized? I don’t have an answer yet. Your thoughts*?
*I expect you to respect my opinion that race is a social construct and racism is institutionalized when participating in discussions here. Do not derail the conversation to argue otherwise.