WoW Factor: World of Warcraft replacing sexualized artwork misses the point

Even though it's probably the right call

    
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Actually call it a comeback.

So World of Warcraft has been on a bit of a tear with replacing achievement names, artwork, and so forth recently. At the time I’m writing this, the latest changes are renaming the Twin Consorts to the Twin Empyreans and the Big Love Rocket being renamed to the X-45 Heartbreaker. This has, naturally, prompted a lot of discussion about whether or not this is a good thing, some hopefully well-intentioned but wildly misinformed bright sparks talking about censorship (which this isn’t), and a whole lot of discussion of whether or not this is a good thing or not.

The answer? Yes, it’s a good thing. Also, it’s a totally irrelevant thing that makes no difference whatsoever.

I realize that might sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, but in this case it really is an important distinction to make. The ongoing efforts to excise some of the juvenile elements of WoW are pretty decidedly a good thing and something that the game has long needed to take care of. At the same time, these efforts are wholly unrelated to the actual problem that’s provoking the clean-up in the first place, and it’s important not to lose sight of that, either.

Let’s start off by being clear about something: We all know that these changes are a response to the ongoing scandal wrapped around Blizzard’s culture of harassment. This is pretty obvious. Everything that goes into a video game costs money, in terms of time if nothing else, and renaming something means searching for a lot of instances of a text string and changing it, which is not arduous but still somewhat involved. These are changes being aimed specifically at a public image problem, an overt attempt to mollify fans.

That does not, however, mean that these things are just problems now.

It’s hard to be certain what people do and don’t take issue with in the entirety of WoW’s content because, well, there’s a lot of it, there are a lot of present and former players, and the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data.” We can’t know how many people walked into a random house and saw a picture of a woman wearing a robe with a neckline plunging down to her navel and rolled their eyes, for example. More than zero and less than all is about all we can say with certainty.

But that was still an issue no matter how many people noticed or complained about it. I’ve seen people claiming that no one was complaining about this stuff, but the thing about the permeating nature of male gaze is that a lot of WoW’s juvenalia probably just washed over people without anyone necessarily being all right with it. The game has always had a distinctly low-brow attitude to topics like sex and sexuality, and that has been in the game for a long time. It wasn’t fine before; it isn’t fine now. We are inured to it, trained to ignore it, but that doesn’t make it okay.

FRUIT. FRUIT. FRUIT.
via Wowhead

Replacing the aforementioned low-cut robe is thus a good thing and helps to make more gamers feel more comfortable in the game. You might not have ever been bothered by some of the things that are being changed; I personally think it’s hard to find much offense in the name “Twin Consorts” and think it’s possibly an oversensitive change. But erring on the side of sensitivity is better than erring on the side of not caring.

And none of this is censorship. This is not a governing entity telling Blizzard that its games cannot have this content in their game; these are voluntary changes being made without any sort of mandates around their presence. In other words, if you dislike the idea of censorship obstructing art, this is actually exactly what you want. Blizzard still has the option to change its art. It is not being censored; the developers are just changing their minds about what is and is not acceptable content.

The limits of your experiences (and mine) are not the limits of the human experience. I’m not about to say that there’s no reason behind these changes, and if the designers want to rename the Twin Consorts to the Twin Empyreans, then your fight with a pair of statues dressed in a bra and loincloth is the Twin Empyreans’ fight now.

You know, because the issue there was the implication of consorts.

I’m being snarky, of course, but I think this hints at one of the two issues at work in this particular case. The first is that the real problem runs deeper than just a few names and some icons or decoration. WoW having the attitude of a teenage boy toward women is not a new or nuanced point of view; it’s been demonstrated over years of the game. And if the developers really want to excise that from the game, it’s going to take a lot of effort beyond just some names and icons and meaningless background paintings.

But you know what’s a bigger deal? A woman is dead. And this is not a response to that. Not in the sense that it isn’t meant to be part of rehabilitating Blizzard’s image, but more that the problem the company has go far deeper than the aforementioned teenage male gaze infecting a lot of design. There’s a sickness at the heart of this studio, and a handful of name changes do not address it.

cha-cha-cha-cha-changes

Herein lies the real problem: It’s not that these changes are bad things in the abstract; it’s that they’re like trying to fix a broken engine in your car by slapping stickers on the hood. You might feel good about how they make the car look, they might be a marked aesthetic improvement, and they might even be something that expresses views that are commendable. But none of them is going to address the underlying problem that your car is broken.

Blizzard’s cultural issues are going to take time to work out. Thus far, it’s still unclear whether the studio is actually going to do what is necessary to navigate its legal battles and mature as a company; as with so many big corporate responses, the general strategy by Activision-Blizzard here seems to be to make a couple of little changes, wait to see if that works, then make a couple more little changes, and so forth. It’s not going very well, either in the court of public opinion or in the court of… uh… court. (You don’t get the SEC breathing down your neck when things are going well.)

But those structural and big-picture changes are the sort of thing that the game and the studio actually need to go through before players should start considering the game’s more egregious problems to actually be rectified. Anything less than that merely seems like an effort to win back goodwill without doing the hard work necessary to actually earn it again.

“Look! We respect women! You can’t say that we don’t! We’ve removed some of our juvenile references; that’s the same as addressing our actual harassment problem, right?”

The answer is no. And that’s why I consider these changes to be a good thing in the abstract and an utterly pointless thing in practice. Am I glad to see these changes? Yes, absolutely. But it was about seventh or eighth on the list of things I wanted to see change about how the game is developed right now, and the higher-ranked and more important ones still haven’t happened.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
Activision-Blizzard is considered a controversial company in the MMO and gaming space owing to a long string of scandals over the last few years, including the Blitzchung boycott, mass layoffs, labor disputes, and executive pay fiasco. In the summer of 2021, the company was sued by the state of California for fostering a work environment riddled with sexual harassment and discrimination, the disastrous corporate response to which has further compounded Blizzard’s ongoing pipeline issues and the widespread perception that its online games are in decline. As of fall 2021, multiple state and federal agencies are currently investigating the company.
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Andrew Clear

I don’t know if I would consider it censorship, as no one is censoring them, they are just making decisions to change their own art to something they feel will sell better (which, this isn’t going to really make a dent in their revenue, one way or the other).

I will say, this does highlight how the political sides do shift in this country. The liberals from the 60s to around the early 2000s were fighting to allow people to have the freedom to express themselves in these ways, and for these types of sexual representations to exist in the mainstream. This was a huge part of the culture war. The conservatives were the ones pushing back on it.

Now, it is the conservatives fighting to protect this sort of representation, and liberals who are fighting a war against it. To me, it just seems like the old liberals won that fight on the culture war, and have now become the conservatives (they are trying to conserve what they fought for), and the new liberals are just taking up where the old conservatives left off. It’s kind of like a circle, and it rotates every now and again, and maybe in 30 to 40 years the roles will be back to what they were in the 60s.

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L B

Uhh wut? None of what you said is correct. Literally 0 of it is correct. What liberals are advocating for today is essentially an end to the Mad Men style world of the workplace.

The problem, which you can’t see, is that women in WoW were only portrayed as sexual objects. You never saw the same balance with regards to men as in the Warcraft world they’re not seen as sexual objects, unlike the women, who are again are only portrayed as sexual objects.

The sexual revolution piece you’re commenting on was a break from the prudish style of society. Women essentially were expected to be housewives, and raise the families. That’s what the counter-cultural revolution of the 60s was against. It was against the monogamy of the nuclear family, where the women’s role was only home maker, and breeder. Free sex and increased sexual expression went directly against the good stepford wife image that so many fought against.

Now fast-forward to today; Women are still fighting that battle but what they’re fighting for now, is the ability to be treated as professionals, and not just sexual objects. For too long in male-dominated industries women have been taken a back seat because of their gender. Men could get away with sexual harassment with ease.

What WoW is trying to do here is create a game where everyone is in the welcome and where women aren’t just seen as sexual objects in game. The best observation about this was from a gay forum poster on the WoW forums. The argument went like this: The game is clearly oversexualizing women, I’m gay and I don’t feel the same type of sexual objectification of men as I see with women. There’s not juicy man cakes slapping around everywhere I look, why should women be the only ones portrayed like this.

That’s the point. It’s not equal. Women are the only ones who had to deal with this in game, because shocker, the game was developed and made by men for men.

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Utakata

I pretty much agree with you on every point there, Mr. Eliot. But I also can’t help their “clean-up” can stoke the fires of sex phobia. Which is entirely another set of problematic behavior that try to deny folks their sexuality…for reasons. And often ones that are based on zero evidence and what some deity supposedly told ’em. I see this being played out in Texas and other parts to nightmarish proportions…

…I think a healthy discussion is one that defines to balance what healthy sexuality is and what unwarranted sex is. We’re not going to get there though by painting over erotic poses with a bowls of fruit. Nor will that address the unwarranted sex part that’s plaguing Blzz currently. Instead, this all seems to comes off as an exercise of sex shaming at best, which isn’t helping matters at all, IMO.

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Bereman99

Pretty much agree with just about every point in the article.

The consort name change is the one I find puzzling, though. Obviously toning down juvenile sexualization is a positive…

One of the main uses of consort as a noun (which is what is here) was to mean the spouse of a monarch. It can also mean companion or partner. The late Prince Philip, for example, was the Queen’s consort, as husband to Queen Elizabeth II.

Nothing particularly sexual about it. Methinks someone thought it was similar to concubine and overreacted.

And Empyrean is, as a noun, just “heaven.”

So those bosses went from being the spouses of a monarch (unintended support for polyamory and polygamy, I guess) to being “Twin Heavens” or something to that effect. Effectively nonsense names.

All part of a bunch of moves that feel more like hollow virtue signaling in lieu of meaningful systemic changes to the company itself.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

Draw me like one of your French girls ...

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Vincent Clark

I was ok with this article until I read the comments section.

Somehow…we veered off into the changes George Lucas made to the original star wars movies being an act of censorship (clearly they were not) and now I feel like I need to wash my brain out with disinfectant.

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Ken from Chicago

FYI: Washing your brain out with disinfectant will not protect you from COVID-19. 🤣

Saluka
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Saluka

Pretty much doesn’t need replacing. It’s like replacing combat because killing is offensive.

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Bruno Brito

I’m not looking forward for this comment section, that’s for sure.

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TeoSC2

Why does anyone think this is some sort of statement? It’s PR damage control. They’re simply removing anything that could be seen as offensive to avoid any further fuel to the fire. That’s IT. It isn’t a movement, it isn’t a statement, it isn’t a social remedy. It isn’t about respecting women. It’s damage control. That’s all this is. So I have no idea why people are trying to compare it or contrast it to some sort of social movement, because it isn’t.

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Ken from Chicago

They have a track record of doing one thing in public and the polar opposite in private. And of doing the bare minimum to address people’s concerns, or the appearance of addressing their concerns.

People are concerned this might be another attempt to do that.

Otherwise, they could have said the most basic of PR speak, “This is far from over. There’s is much we need to improve on. This just the tiniest of good faith efforts to demonstrate we are listening and are working on making further improvement in WoW and the company.”

And I’m not even a professional PR rep but I thought of that in the spur of the moment. None of their paid professional PR reps couldn’t published something like that? Within the hours since it became news? Yeah, right.

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Ken from Chicago

Agreed. In isolation, there’s nothing wrong with their actions.

The catch is that it’s not in isolation, there is context in which this is happening. If it’s done to decoy critics from “misdeeds” or worse, as a substitute for making the substantive changes its critics have demanded, then that’s sad, aggravating and fools no one.

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Rndomuser

And none of this is censorship.

Of course it is.

This is not a governing entity telling Blizzard that its games cannot have this content in their game

That part is irrelevant and is not what defines “censorship”.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship