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Blizzard > Editorial > WoWAug 13, 2020 10:00 am CT

Now more than ever, Blizzard needs to rethink WoW’s race war

One of the reasons Mists of Pandaria is my favorite expansion in terms of lore and story is because it’s Blizzard’s Platoon. That’s an old 80s reference, because by gaming standards I’m an old man now. So for those who haven’t seen it, Platoon was Oliver Stone’s take on the Vietnam War, based on his own experiences serving in the infantry there. “I came back from Vietnam a different person,” he said in a recent interview. “You see the worst of things. The lie was big over there.”

Stone’s film was memorable and important because it showed that war is never strictly good versus evil. It exacts a terrible price from both the soldiers who fight it and the people who live in that war’s theater. Sometimes the people in charge don’t always do the right thing. Platoon put itself in opposition to most war films of the preceding decades that glorified combat, put bravery rather than empathy as the highest virtue, and made every death seem like a noble sacrifice for God and country.

jade serpent statue

Pandaria offered an outside impression of the faction war

Mists of Pandaria struck a similar, refreshing chord. Instead of glorifying the faction war that breaks out on that newly-discovered continent, Blizzard chose to show us the war’s awful costs. Both sides are invaders so focused on winning that they fail to fully consider the consequences of their actions on the local population and their land. We turn a peaceful country into a war-torn wasteland. The natural splendor of the Krasarang Wilds shores becomes a despoiled, bombed-out no man’s land. The gorgeous and historic Vale of Eternal Blossoms is all but annihilated.

We had hints of this early on: when the serpent statue crashes to the ground at the climax of the Jade Forest questline, we see that this is not a typical Blizzard story. This is about the very real aftermath of conflict.

Even the psychological effects of war are given their due in Mists, embodied literally in the ferocious sha. Garrosh himself gave in to the sha’s influence, spawned from the Old God Y’shaarj. His transformation from arrogant warchief to mass-murdering maniac is a tragedy for both his enemies and his own people. However, no one suffers more than the Pandaren, who see their villages and cultural sites destroyed, loved ones killed, and entire landscapes devastated.

Early in the story, Taran Zhu berates us for participating in a “race war.” This is exactly what the war is, and Blizzard acknowledges that in no uncertain terms.

In the story’s finale, the two factions — and by extension all of Azeroth’s main races — come together to defeat Garrosh. Bit this conclusion could have been even more powerful: it could have been the end of race-based factions. There have been plenty of moments in WoW’s history where the races of each faction worked together to overcome a great evil. This was one of the most poignant, bringing the world together to fight side by side in the heart of the Horde’s territory.

Blizzard instead opted for the status quo to remain, the lessons learned from Pandaria’s despoiling swiftly forgotten.

It’s time to move past fantasy tropes

Race-based conflict goes back to the very origins of fantasy. Lord of the Rings presents its own race war. Aside from humans and the demigod-like Maiar who fight on both sides, the War of the Ring is divided strictly along racial lines: hobbits, elves, dwarves, ents, and Great Eagles on one side, with orcs, trolls, and formerly human Nazgul on the other. Just as Platoon ushered in a more nuanced version of storytelling about war in films, fantasy literature has also largely moved past the idea that all members of a fantastical race share the exact same beliefs and values, that in any war all members of a given race would naturally be allies against other “enemy” races.

It’s time for WoW to do the same. The lore that WoW is based on was created long ago in a different era. It’s not a valid excuse anymore.

More recently Blizzard had another opportunity to change things at the end of Battle for Azeroth‘s war campaign, when Saurfang confronts Sylvanas. Supported by both Horde and Alliance armies, Saurfang manages to free the Horde from Sylvanas’s genocidal influence. At the same time, the Azeroth is confronted with the monumental threat of N’zoth’s reemergence.

Once again, Blizzard could have chosen to end the race war, to dissolve the factions entirely, to unite the races in order to fight the last remaining Old God and cleanse Azeroth of their corruption. Blizzard was so close to doing this. Watching Thrall and Anduin carry Saurfang’s body through the gates of Orgrimmar, it honestly seemed inevitable. When they didn’t follow through, I was surprised.

Instead, Blizzard opted to keep the world’s races locked in neverending conflict with one another. When asked about it, they doubled down on the factions as integral to the game world. I can see where they’re coming from in a certain sense. But I also think it’s a mistake, if they’re going to keep those factions, to maintain the premise that these are first and foremost racially motivated constructs.

Racism in the modern political spotlight

The massive worldwide Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd on May 25 have put a spotlight on racial injustice throughout the United States and elsewhere. Many changes, big and small, have come about as a result.

Now, more than ever before, it’s time to end WoW’s race war. It’s time to let factions be factions, not racial segregation. Let faction pride be pride in a set of beliefs, not prejudice. “For the Horde” and “For the Alliance” are the two opposing rallying cries of WoW. But when you think about it, are these cries really any different from shouting “white power” in America today?

You are espousing a subset of races as superior to others, as your “team.” You, as a character in Azeroth, are fighting for the dominance of those races over the “enemy” races. This never felt completely OK, and it’s becoming less and less OK as the years pass. This year in particular, it feels downright icky.

I know that many of you will say, “Scott, this is a fantasy world. You can’t draw those parallels.”

Maybe there’s some truth to that. But I would argue that if Blizzard can do better than this tired trope of racial conflict in fantasy, then shouldn’t they? If they won’t do it to appease those who are offended by it, Blizzard should do it anyway simply to tell a better, more nuanced story.

Blizzard has been accused of insensitivity on a number of fronts, gender bias perhaps most of all. The company has taken steps to address such shortcomings. I applaud those attempts, even if they sometimes fall short. Most recently, they’ve added WoW’s first transgender character to the Shadowlands beta.

They are aware that the game promotes a race war, and they are aware, as we all are, about this powerful moment in history. I urge Blizzard to seize this moment and make changes.

The game can still be about Horde versus Alliance, if that’s what Blizzard wants to do. But in that case, these factions should no longer be defined first and foremost by their races.

How could the game change?

The actual game mechanics could go several different ways. Dissolution of the factions altogether might be difficult to pull off and still provide a framework for the game’s PVP. It also seems like Blizzard just doesn’t want to, ever.

Instead, following a significant lore moment that explains why it’s now possible, you could be able to create a character of any race for either faction. If this is too tough to work plausibly into the story, as a compromise, Blizzard could assign Allied Races for every race available to the opposite faction. A group of selfless, union-loving goblins wants to join the Alliance, a band of outlaw worgen wants to join the Horde, and so on.

If Blizzard won’t allow this, we could get the option to “defect” with a one-time questline to leave our faction and join the other one. This isn’t a bold new concept: it’s been done in other MMOs in the past. The Shadowlands beta already has such a quest when you want to quit one Covenant and join another.

Others have floated the idea of a third faction. As cool as this would be, I think it’s too much work in terms of lore, art, game mechanics, and the sheer amount of quest design involved. Blizzard already has to create assets, quests, and lore moments that are unique to each faction. Adding a third set of those could be asking too much from the developers. (Dissolving the factions, on the other hand, would actually be less work for Blizzard in the long run.)

A final option would actually be something like the Covenants: a set of voluntary choices that are more about the player’s own philosophy and values than anything overtly racial. Blizzard could retain the Horde and the Alliance as political structures, but make future Azerothian conflicts spring from unaffiliated factions like the Covenants.

Maybe Blizzard already has a plan for something like this. They do tend to map out major storylines pretty far in advance these days.

pandarens facing off

Let players choose their place in Warcraft

In the Mists expansion, every Pandaren was given a choice to side with the Horde or the Alliance. Our characters deserve that same choice regardless of their race. Characters like Saurfang and Vol’jin have proven that characters can think for themselves and go against their own racial faction when they disagree with its leadership. Allied Races like the Void Elves and Nightborne have already partially eroded the restrictions. Let’s just get rid of them.

There will always be conflict in the game. It’s World of Warcraft, after all, not World of Handshakes. But the only thing stopping Blizzard from removing race as the principal driver of those conflicts is their own story decisions. Like Saurfang, they can choose to break the cycle.

Would it be weird to see humans hitting target dummies in Orgrimmar or Orcs shopping in Stormwind? Sure, at first, but no more so than any historical example of racial segregation: first it becomes routine, then people realize that’s the way it should have been all along.

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