As part of the pre-launch hype for World of Warcraft’s Battle for Azeroth expansion, Blizzard has announced Warbringers – a series of animated shorts featuring its three protagonists, each one a character who’s been around since practically the beginning of the game’s lore books. The trailers brought up a range of emotions. Sylvanas fans are worried that Blizzard is committed to turning her into another Garrosh, making her more and more cartoonishly evil every day. Jaina fans are worried that players, especially the Horde, will never acknowledge that her trauma and reaction to that trauma is understandable, and will double down on the Jaina-is-crazy-now hate. Azshara fans are – well they’re just excited that we’re finally going to see a character as powerful, important, and legendary as Azshara in all her glory.
And then there are those who are Very Concerned that, by selecting three female characters to focus on in these shorts, Blizzard is going full “SJW” and making a point of pushing a “feminist agenda”.
Now, I want to be clear. I don’t think people crying “feminist agenda” represent a majority of players. I don’t even think they represent a significant enough amount of players to merit a response. I think this is a loud minority with, I suspect, an agenda of their very own. But the whole idea that World of Warcraft is “suddenly” getting feminist “lately” made me laugh. As far as I’m concerned, World of Warcraft has always been at least just a little bit feminist.
Let me explain.
I’ve been playing games since I was a child. When I was younger, I found I just gravitated towards certain games more than others. I never really thought about why. It was only recently that I realised I had a certain bias – I liked games that made me, as a girl, feel welcomed and included. This didn’t take a lot – sometimes all this meant was the game gave me the option to play a female character, like Elder Scrolls Arena. Other times, the game’s story just happened to include a woman I liked, for example Tanya in Red Alert 2. My preference for these games was never a conscious thing, so it never had to be a big deal – or even perfectly executed. I never needed a game to be a feminist manifesto, but just for it to be at least acknowledge of the existence of women.
Needless to say, I loved Warcraft 3.
While World of Warcraft is based on a game series that began with Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, most of its rich and complicated lore really began in earnest with Warcraft 3 and its expansions – the same game that introduced characters like Illidan, Thrall, Arthas , Vol’jin, Rexxar, Chen Stormstout, Cairne Bloodhoof, Muradin Bronzebeard, Malfurion Stormrage – and, yes, Jaina Proudmoore and Sylvanas Windrunner. These aren’t new characters. They’re as old and important as Thrall. They’re also not “suddenly” important, or even suddenly feminist.
Let’s first take a look at Jaina. She may be Arthas’s love interest, but she’s not meekly following him around, or even waiting in a tower for his attention. When we meet her, she’s the apprentice to the leader of the powerful mage faction known as the Kirin Tor, and she’s put in charge of investigating the plague of undeath. When Arthas makes a move she can’t agree with, she refuses to stand by him. She leads her people to safety, accepts working with Thrall and his orcs, even though a human/orc alliance was previously unheard of, and ultimately, through her leadership skills, personal ability, choices, and strength of character, helps save Azeroth itself.
There’s even a whole bit where Arthas and his men see Jaina fighting an enemy, and one of his men shouts “We must help her!” and Arthas replies, “Stay your blade, Captain. She can take care of herself.” The message that Jaina is fully competent, equal to any of the men around her, is actually almost heavy-handed in its feminism.
As for Sylvanas, there’s a reason why she has such a loyal fanbase. She begins as a military leader – the Ranger-General of the high elf nation of Quel-Thalas. When Arthas and his undead army attacks, she defends her homeland to the death. She makes things so difficult for Arthas that, when he finally does manage to kill her, he decides to raise her as a banshee as punishment, forcing her to help him kill her own people. Eventually, she manages to break free of his will, she gets back her body, and she becomes leader to those undead who have also regained their free-will, starting a faction known as the Forsaken. Sylvanas quickly proves herself to be a capable, if ruthless leader.
One of my favourite moments in the game involves her betrayal of Grand Marshal Garithos – a human leader who helped her defeat the dreadlord Belnazzar in exchange for her help in taking back the human city of Lordaeron. Garithos is an insufferably arrogant xenophobe throughout the story – first towards the Blood Elves and later towards the undead. When Belnazzar is killed, Garithos says, “Now, I want you wretched animals out of my city before I -” and Sylvanas, clearly sick of his attitude, has him killed as well, taking the city for her Forsaken instead. It’s a ruthless move, but one that you can’t help cheer. A morally pure character like Thrall or Jaina could never have someone like Garithos killed, but Sylvanas doesn’t have to be nice. It makes her character interesting.
One of the greatest things about the whole World of Warcraft universe, especially since Warcraft 3, is it’s seldom presented as a story of pure good versus pure evil. Even though Orcs used to be pretty much the baddies, Thrall’s Horde is introduced as sympathetic underdogs. Even though Arthas and his undead army are evil, the undead faction that is the Forsaken is more morally ambiguous. Sylvanas has always been a great representation of some of the most important themes in World of Warcraft. She’s always been key to the story. And having a woman be the ruthless, scheming leader, is, you know, just a biiiiit feminist (even if they do seem to be ruining all that by making her more cartoonishly evil these days).
All this said, I’m not calling World of Warcraft some perfectly written, female-empowering wokefest. It’s a fantasy RPG, a pretty old one, and as such tends to have a lot of clumsy writing, caricatures, tropes, and all the problems that come along with that. There are moments in the lore that make me cringe. Some of the writing, especially of female characters, has been terrible (cough-Knaak-cough). But World of Warcraft does have this whole thing where it’s filled with characters who have a strong presence, who can be complicated and incredibly human – even when they’re not actually human – who are generally well-written, and who are easy to love. Characters who speak to people, who mean something to people. The fact that many of those characters are women really isn’t news.
And, as a gamer who happens to be female, I’ve always felt welcomed by the World of Warcraft for that exact reason. I really can’t understand why anyone would have a problem with that.