Monday, February 9, 2009

Playing the Enemy

Two factions dominate in W0W:  the Alliance and the Horde.  When you create a character you have to decide to which faction you want to belong.  On some level, the Alliance are the "good guys."  They include the beautiful-bodied humans and cerebral night elves, as opposed to the broken and bestial looking trolls, orcs and "undead" of the Horde, who seemed to me, at least initially, to clearly be the "bad guys."   Even the names of the two factions, Alliance and  Horde suggest that one is more organized than the other, the Alliance a group of like-minded, rational creatures, the Horde a swarm of less organized, warring factions.  If we were to make a comparison to real life, the Alliance might be seen as like the European Union or the United States, and the Horde might be interestingly compared to terrorist groups from Iraq, Afghanistan and the like.

Of course, good girl that I am, I wanted to play the Alliance.  I couldn't imagine at first why anyone would want to play the Horde.  Why would anyone intentionally want to play the "bad guys?"  I mumbled something about this to my step son, who looked at me quizzically, said "That's not what it's about at all," but wouldn't elaborate.  Later, when I suggested we do some questing together in the game he said "I'm Horde."  Alliance and Horde cannot quest together and indeed cannot even speak to each other in the game.  

It struck me then as an interesting way to think about teenage sons and the way they sometimes perceive their relationship with their parents:  we are the Alliance, they are the Horde.   Of course they would be interested in any kind of creature that fights viciously and passionately against the rules and limitations of society.  This is why the Hulk is so attractive, and many of the orcs in WoW, to pick one race resemble the Hulk:  their skin is dark green, their bodies stocky.  In addition they have fangs and wide, grimacing smiles, not unlike a Gorgon mask.

But there's more to than that.  After having played an Alliance character to a high level, I started the game over, this time playing a Horde character, a troll.  While the other Alliance characters I had played were beautiful in a Barbie-doll sort of way, there was no way to create a troll character that is anything but hideous.  Big-footed, big-nosed with tusks of varying sizes, they have blue or green skin and a pronounced slouch (humans and elves never slouch).  They don't run in loping, balanced cadence like humans or elves but rather have an awkward, lopsided gait.  Their speech and culture in the game mimic that of black Jamaican culture, which is a whole other subject I'll talk about another time.

Playing a troll character means transforming my mind set so that all the characters in the game I am used to seeing as enemies (and I killed lots of trolls as an elf) I now recognize as friends.  I am now able to enter all the enemy camps and home cities that I could not enter when I was identified as an Alliance character.  I hear different narratives--the other side of the story--if you will, from the Horde quest givers that justify whatever actions I might be asked to take against Alliance characters.  I find myself feeling compassion for this wounded, demonized group of characters.  I see things in the landscape that I hadn't seen before:  how most of the Alliance groups live in traditionally idyllic environment with trees and lakes and rivers, whereas the Horde lives in barren and wounded and destroyed environments.  Esther MacCallum-Stewart has pointed out in her excellent essay "War and Histories in World of Warcraft" (in Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader), the Horde "worship nature in all its forms" while the Alliance "are only happy with a conventional, fertile landscape that they have quickly industrialized." (43)  MacCallum-Stewart presents a nice analysis of the environments of the two groups and how those environments shape our perception of the two groups, pointing out that the Horde's cities reflect an "ability to creatively remodel terrain," while the Alliance cities are modeled after long established types of cities such as medieval castles and mountainside fortresses.

Many years ago I wrote my PhD dissertation on the figure of Medusa.  I was attracted to her because of the paradox inherent in the many versions of her stories: in one version it was her beauty that turned men to stone, in another it was the horror of her horrifying Gorgon face.  In yet another version it wasn't snakes but dreadlocks that crowned her head and she was the head of a tribe of Libyan female warriors.  I was also interested in thinking about why so many American female poets (like Sylvia Plath, May Sarton and Rachel Blau DuPlessis to name only a few) had written poems in the persona of Medusa and seemed to be attracted to her as a muse. As creative relief while writing the dissertation I began writing poems in the voice of Medusa. She became an actual muse for me, drawing me eventually away from the critical writing I would do in the dissertation and into another world:  the world of poetry.  I began to see something in her character that had the kind of creative agency that I can also see at work in some of the Horde races from WoW.  When you are not given the blessing (or curse) of a beautiful body and face you must rely on imagination and creativity to move successfully through the world.  It is the difference between the passive and beautiful Snow White, and the endlessly inventive and creative witch of a stepmother, as Gilbert and Guber point out in their classic work Madwoman in the Attic.

Free from any semblance of beauty or need to attract, on a physical level, a male, my Horde troll character lumbers through her destroyed environment, making things up as she goes along, first trying this and then that before succeeding.  Her cities feel more like communities and families than the Alliance cities do.  Merchants and quest givers call me "child" and dance when I come to them with a question.  When they speak they speak in an informal Jamaican dialect.  

At the very least playing the enemy has taught me once again that things are not always as they seem and that there are always two sides to a story, that truth is always complicated, and that the way we see the world is colored by our race and our assumed place in the world. It's not that I didn't know these things before, but I knew them intellectually, not in my body. Playing the game has allowed me to experience two sides of a conflict in a very physical way.  Getting a poem by heart, memorizing it, teaches us so much more about the bones and spirit of the poem than simply reading or analyzing it on the page does.  Same thing for playing music. You can read the notes or you can internalize a song or piece and play out of that internalization. So too does enacting, physically, the other teach us something that is perhaps more lasting about cultural understanding than simply reading about it.  

A group of American, Palestinian and Israeli students at Carnegie Mellon designed a serious video game called Peace Maker that is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is available commercially from the independent games publisher Manifesto Games.  The game allows you to play the leader of the either the Israelis or the Palestinians as you make decisions about situations that are taken from real-life events.  I've ordered the game but have yet to receive it. This is just one example of a serious game that could have extraordinary educational impact that has come out of the entertainment gaming industry.  For anyone interested in peace and video games, I'd recommend attending the upcoming CMU conference, 'The Future of Interactive Technology for Peace" April 2-3.  Google it.

For the Horde.


  1. Medusa--I was called this in highschool. My locks flowed down my back or sometimes tangled into wild vines around my head. But I didn't know who she was at the time, and then I saw a painting of her and was instantly drawn into those snakes, thohse eyes. And then, when my friends called me Medusa, I responded to it as if it were my own name...some of my friends would bow to me while saying, "I am not worthy, I am not worthy." I think I am going to write a piece about that, it's very interesting.

    The Horde with the Jamaican dialect is very inetresting as well--I don't know how I feel about it. My emotions are bubbling up from a deep place, and all I can think is that I always want to speak that way. Always.

    Alliance and Iraq--very, very interesting thoughts about that Sheryl. I could see a longer piece about that and how Americans and Iraqis blindly join Alliances to be the good guys, while becoming Hordes to one another.

  2. a world i know nothing about except through your detailed and descriptive posts. It is so cool how you weave it all in there. the game-> you and your son -> mythology -> the middle east. fascinating.

    Me? i am still resistant to valuing "the other side of the story” when it comes to my own life, well, some parts of my life … OK, one part of my life. But, since this is the third time i've heard the message, i'm moving from pre-contemplation to contemplation (stages of change). So, that’s something.