Myths of Neoconservatism and Privatization in World of Warcraft – Kyle Kontour

The Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) has over 11.5 million players worldwide and growing (Blizzard Entertainment, 2008), making it one of the most popular MMORPGs in the world. In MMORPGs, players purchase software and create a game character based on a limited range of preset options (their ‘role’ in the game), then use the character to explore and interact with hundreds of other players in a given server within a persistent virtual world, in which events continue to occur while the player is logged out of the game. In World of Warcraft, this persistent world takes the form of a fantasy realm of quest-exploration in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien as well as older European folk tales, and drawing particularly on the genre of the conflict-oriented, role playing game: warring factions, fantastical creatures, exotic natural landscapes, and basic differentiated character abilities and talents from which a player can select and then build upon in the course of his or her adventures.

What makes World of Warcraft so popular? How can we understand its global mass appeal? How do its ‘fantastical elements’ function to attract and sustain the intense interest of millions of users? In this article I argue that these elements overlay and cipher a gamic milieu that is infused with “social realism”— that is: “some kind of congruence, some type of fidelity of context… transliterates itself from the social reality of the gamer, through one’s thumbs, into the game environment and back again” (Galloway 2004, emphasis in original). This concept of social realism provides a crucial means of interpreting the gamic and thematic elements of World of Warcraft as artifacts arising from a post 9/11 zeitgeist in which corporate privatization accompanies renewed justifications for geopolitical conflict and concomitant concerns over development and security (both security states and states of security). I argue that this occurs in two ways:

(1) the game draws on generic and historical elements which reproduce ideologically loaded elements and themes that constitute a neoconservative allegory of international relations;
(2) the way in which these are employed, in conjunction with other gamic elements, suggests that the game operates through an unstated discourse of ‘development’ based largely around a logic of utility, consumption, and an idealized form of labour and free trade.

These features are legible in World of Warcraft’s depiction of the moral and developmental attributes of different races, the historically-derived aesthetics of the game, and the context of conflict play (irreconcilable conflict between two factions consisting of a handful of major civilizations with essentialized traits). It is also infused throughout every aspect of gameplay: how players select and deploy their avatars, how socio-economic interactions transpire, and what is required of players in order to advance in the game.

This theme has already been explored by a number of scholars. Langer (2008) argues that World of Warcraft’s iconography replicates a system of othering that draws on historic and contemporary discourses of race and subject-object positioning as they occur within a hegemonic Western (particularly American) social ideology. World of Warcraft can therefore be read as an allegory of contemporary real-world geopolitics. Similarly, the capitalistic aspects of World of Warcraft are addressed by the likes of Scott Rettburg (2008), who argues that the game is a functional simulacrum of corporate ideology which celebrates market capitalism as it trains its players to hone skills and behaviors necessary for a corporate economy. Küklich additionally analyzes World of Warcraft in terms of the way in which it is a virtual world which functions as a social factory, “in which all social life is part of economic production, and economic production is suffused by social life” (2009, 348). Seen in this way, World of Warcraft not only replicates a mode of governmentality in which the virtual world is ‘naturalized’, but also displays salient features of global capitalism as they have arisen in an era of neoliberal economic policies.

This article seeks to build on these observations by integrating such analyses with a more detailed account of other salient features of World of Warcraft. The iconography and gameplay of World of Warcraft are not only, respectively, representative of discourses of othering in the former, and advanced capitalism in the latter. The goals and gameplay of World of Warcraft render the virtual world of Azeroth akin to what Samuel P. Huntington (1996) has described as “a clash of civilizations”, and treat play, labour, resource use and performance in ways that are strikingly akin to the ideology of economic and subjective privatization. What this article will demonstrate is the way in which these discourses are enmeshed in the game, representing the specific points at which neoconservatism and privatization intersect, where the goals and features of these overlapping, yet not entirely cohesive discourses combine to form a powerful set of ideological claims in which encounters with others are defined by either competition or extermination. World of Warcraft, in other words, stands at the ideological nexus of neoconservatism and privatization in its post-9/11 moment.

Features of Neoconservatism and the Post 9/11 Zeitgeist

A complete survey of the philosophical and practical tenets of neoconservatism is obviously well beyond the scope or intent of this article, but we provide a brief sketch here. Although the term ‘neoconservatism’ is inherently contentious, it nonetheless has some features which are widely ageed-upon. Generally speaking, neoconservatism is rooted in classical liberalism insofar as its primary emphasis is on the promotion of individual rights and freedoms. The primary means of securing these rights is by pursuing neoliberal economic policies, as well as particularly through aggressive unilateralism to counteract ‘evil’ in the world, couched as violations of (liberal) human rights. Although there are myriad debates and examples to draw from here, a highly influential endeavor in this vein is Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), which could be said to epitomize contemporary neoconservatism. The basic premise of the book is that the primary generator of conflict in the new millennium is the religio-cultural differences between the world’s major civilizations, each vying for primacy: Western (Europe, Australasia and North America), Orthodox (the former Soviet bloc and Balkan peninsula), Latin American, Islamic, Hindu, Sinic (China and the Indo-Chinese diaspora), Japanese, and Buddhist (Mongolia, Tibet, and the rest of Indo-China) (possibly nine, as he tenuously includes Sub-Saharan Africa in the ‘African’ civilization). To this end, Huntington warned that some cultural and demographic features may be more likely to drive bloody conflict than others (particularly Islam). Understandably, this book was thrust into the limelight after 9/11, whereby the zeitgeist cast the emergence of radical Muslim terrorists and militant American unilateralism as a clash of civilizations (undoubtedly assisted by Chinese economic prowess and revamped authoritarianism in Russia). Indeed political rhetoric shortly after 9/11 often drew explicitly from the book’s terms, which are reputedly referred to with frequency in the halls of power—not only among neoconservative think-tanks in Washington, but also by Indonesian parliamentarians and Muslim clerics. Copies are reportedly even distributed among soldiers stationed in Iraq.

Here it is important to note that Huntington’s book is emblematic of the neoconservative rendering of global power blocs and conflicts, but neoconservatives were frequently divided over the extent to which liberalism should be promoted as a means to combat the potential rise of fundamentalism. This aspect was amplified in the neoconservatism of the George W. Bush Administration, which, although clearly drawing on Huntington’s rendering of the parameters of and impetus behind global conflict, recast the conflict in much starker terms—good and evil, with us or against us—although rarely followed through on the full implications of these absolute yet not entirely clarified differences (for example, clearly leveraging Islamaphobia for political purposes while also stating that war was not with Islam or Muslim cultures more generally). Rendering the world in such ways, particularly in times of war, necessarily entails othering, where cultural and racial traits may be conflated with an array of ethics such as ‘hard work’ and other forms of capitalistic discipline (cf. Nelson 1998). Such discourses are not entirely new, but the compression of individual discipline and American ‘civilization’, under a banner of tacit white hegemony and shaped for capitalistic interests, took on a new urgency and character with the advent of the War on Terror (Kusz 2007). Further, as Stempel (2006) argues, these qualities are placed within a fundamentally moral universe, whereby there is a sense of moral superiority based on American exceptionalism. This includes the uniqueness of American institutions, moral certitude, and economic and military power (which nonetheless is intimately linked with Judeo-Christian, European antecedents). In some senses, then, the discourses of 19th century imperialism are recast in the 21st century under the terms ‘globalization’ and ‘War on Terror’ (see Pilger 2002).

In this respect, neoconservatives of the post 9/11 era took to heart Huntington’s warnings about civilizational clash (particularly in the case of Islam), but rejected the notion that liberalism is not universal and may be inimical to certain cultures, pointing to examples like Japan—a culturally distinct nation which nonetheless harbors multiple features of Western liberalism in its economic and governmental institutions. In short: all civilizations have the equal right to exist and operate equally well on their own terms, so long as this is via universal democratic values (which implies liberal institutions and economics); but the West is the most powerful and advanced (in every respect) and must act in order to make the world a more just and peaceful place. In certain respects it is a teleological viewpoint: what makes the West ‘better’ is the stability and prosperity afforded to it by the full spectrum implementation of institutions and policies based on liberalism. To this end, neoconservatism might be summarized as relying on four related claims:

(1) each civilization has essential cultural traits;
(2) different civilizations have reached different levels of development, which in some renderings may have a moral quality;
(3) each civilization must deal with non-state actors who threaten the security and integrity of the state system (which may be another way of saying the security and integrity of business);
(4) since all civilizations are vying for primacy, we must know who ‘we’ are and which values should prevail in this struggle (meaning liberal values).

This article argues that these notions are incarnated and exemplified by World of Warcraft, on a number of levels.

Essentializing the Other in Azeroth

World of Warcraft is a game that draws heavily on elements that have come to be commonly understood as part of the fantasy genre. Significantly, this fantasy context “provides a rationale for the way that the player-character is assigned a particular, predetermined, morally and emotionally loaded history and identity” (Krzywinska 2005). As such, it portrays a world which closely resembles the technology and social order of medieval Europe, with a few elements of other times, peoples and locales mixed in (more of which below). There are more advanced technological items, like crude robots and firearms, but even these are affixed within the largely medieval look and feel of things.

Azeroth is a world populated by a huge array of creatures, both friendly and dangerous, and magic and enchantments and play an integral role. When the player first starts the game, they are asked to create a character, and must choose to belong to one of two factions, Alliance or Horde. A player can create many different characters, but can only play in the same server as a character in one faction or the other—if a player wishes to play a character from the other faction, they must play on a different server. Each faction consists of a number of ‘races’. For the Alliance, there are Humans, Gnomes, Dwarves, Night Elves, and Dranei (somewhat demon-ish looking creatures with more or less blue skin). For the Horde, there are Orcs, Trolls, Blood Elves, Undead, and Tauren (based somewhat on minotaurs).

In PvP (player versus player) servers, players who belong to different factions may kill each other on sight (and interestingly cannot understand each other as they speak different languages—or rather whatever is typed by a player from one faction comes out as gibberish to a player from the other faction). One can expect imminent death if one wanders into the heart of enemy territory: if an Orc comes within sight of the high level guards (non-player game characters) who patrol the Alliance city of Stormwind, that Orc will be pursued and probably killed. This is the overarching context of play: exploring a world full of friendly and hostile creatures/players, wherein the faction to which one belongs determines whether such figures are to be dealt with through cooperation or through combat.

The differentiations between the game’s races illustrates the ways in which, despite ostensible parity between race and class abilities, there is nonetheless an inferred hierarchy in the way Horde and Alliance races are depicted. Langer (2008) argues that the iconography of the races in World of Warcraft, drawing on referents to real-world cultures, replicate a ‘familiar’ versus ‘other’ dichotomy, in which Alliance is familiar and Horde is the other. First this is reflected in the extent to which each race resembles real-world peoples, via elements such as culture, accents, and other signifiers. The Tauren, for instance, have a cultural aesthetic that is clearly drawn from American Indian cultures: there are totem poles, dwellings that look somewhat like a cross between a teepee and a wigwam, and references to elders (as a druid, a player must also fulfill a quest in which s/he is given a ‘vision guide’ that resembles a wolf). In such ways the allegorical links become clear in all of the races:

[T]rolls correspond directly with black Caribbean folk, particularly but not exclusively Jamaican; tauren represent native North American people (specifically Native American and Canadian First Nations tribes); humans correspond with white British and white American people; and dwarves correlate to the Scottish… certain cues such as hairstyles and body shape suggest that orcs represent colonial depictions of black people in general, and the undead seem to represent a sort of ‘pure’. Otherness centered in Kristevan abjection… [while] Blood elves, the newest Horde race, seem on the surface to upset the familiar/foreign schema of the factions, but I would argue that they are portrayed largely as analogues to drug addicts, particularly narcotics addicts, a class of people who are marginalized within white Western society rather than locked outside of it. Gnomes, draenei and night elves have similar sliding significations, with the night elves in particular seeming at times to represent a stereotyped East Asianness, with their Japanese torii gates and their ‘Darnassus Kimchi’ (Langer 2008, 89).

More problematically, these allegorical links are accompanied by descriptions of racial traits in which Horde races are frequently described as being ‘savage’ or corrupted in some way, as well as being ostensibly ‘ugly’ in the case of Orcs, Trolls and the Tauren, who are large, animalistic creatures replete with tusks, horns, and famously among the Trolls, bad breath—meanwhile Alliance races are afforded the moral complexity to avoid such essentialism. Therefore the allegorical links are extended to every aspect of the depiction of each race, with the result of delineating ‘familiar’ from ‘other’ in ways that have real world referents. But of course this hierarchical delineation does not end with race-based subject-object positioning.

Hierarchies of Technological Advancement

The dichotomy between the races is not merely one of familiar versus other on racial/cultural terms. Alliance races also possess other artifacts which have been historically linked with advancement or development: Gnomes are brilliant engineers and are in the process of mechanizing their weapons as this edition of World of Warcraft begins (they have even built menial robots); Dwarves have crafted crude, but able guns; all three are clearly superior building engineers compared to their horde counterparts. In short, the Alliance (though possibly not the Night Elves) show all the signs of being on the verge of industrialization. The Horde races, meanwhile, possess no firearms, and have weapons that are sturdy but very crude. The game’s implicit backstory implies that the Horde have superior numbers and physical prowess on their side against their lack of technological wizardry—Tauren, Orcs and Trolls are all significantly larger in numbers than any of the Alliance races.

There seems to be a strategy in these passages to allow players to identify with the plight of these races while still acknowledging the way in which they were linked with savagery and evil both within the fantasy genre and with previous incarnations of Warcraft—a canon that one presumes this game may be trying to leave behind in the interest of cultural relativism. This sort of framing and use of language has a well-established history, akin to what Dickinson, et. al (2006) describe as “landscapes of looking”: the rhetoric and symbolism that is inscribed on historical and cultural sites, particularly in the (re)construction and representation of marginalized peoples. Further, museums and memorials for American Indians in particular invite a “respectful, but distanced observational gaze” (Dickinson et. al. 2006, 27), that frequently invokes a notion of ‘nobility’ as a means of assuaging white guilt over what many now believe to be genocide, and cannot help but be brought into a discourse of exoticism, memory and “technological looking” from the point of view of the majority (Dickinson et. al. 2006, 34-40). I am not suggesting here that Blizzard Entertainment looked to museum displays for inspiration, although that this discourse is well known and even taken for granted in the United States (where Blizzard Entertainment is based). Again, this persistent ‘museum display’ suggests that, while weighted with despair over the near (as well as successful) obliteration of whole cultures and peoples, also stresses the ‘nobility’ of these marginalized groups in the face of inevitable defeat at the hands of technological and economic superiority, and gives due credit to the achievements of less ‘advanced’ societies.

Thus there is a direct link made between ugliness, brutishness, etc. and a ‘lesser’ stage of technological development. The much more handsome, mannered, and good Alliance, by contrast, appear to be more ‘advanced’. Given the conflict-centered narrative of World of Warcraft and the game’s extensive homage to real world peoples in real history, establishes a clear hierarchy where the winner is—to some extent predetermined—and the ‘good guys’ wield superior technology, which the ‘bad guys’ can only combat through the superior power of their own brute force and morally questionable tactics and magic. Crucially, the conflict between the Alliance and the Horde is rooted in mutual mistrust. Open warfare is the only means through which differences can be resolved (there is little, if any, reference to diplomacy). It is the combination of these particular elements of the text that resembles the features of the clash of civilizations if read a certain way. Like the neoconservative world, World of Warcraft is divided between various cultural blocs, and there is an inferred hierarchy here that (perhaps unwittingly) resembles earlier Orientalist discourses and is bound up with a discourse of development.

All that said, to say that Humans or their Alliance counterparts are inherently the privileged or natural locus of identification is to oversimplify this text, as well as being a somewhat limited rendering of the way in which both the game and the genre allow for a multiply positioned stance. Certainly such motifs are problematic, but it should be noted that there is otherwise no ostensible difference in the relative power of either faction here: for players of the same level, they will have subtly different, but altogether comparable abilities, since all races have comparable levels of military might and magical powers. Most players tend to have characters who are both Alliance and Horde, and a well known truism among players is that although brand new players tend to gravitate toward human characters as their first character, experienced players tend to prefer to play (and identify with) Horde. What is in fact far more problematic is the manner in which the gameplay mechanics of World of Warcraft establish a particular relationship between race and Azeroth itself.

Race as Civilization and the Plight of Azeroth’s Indigenous Creatures

For all intents and purposes, each race is a state power: they have a ‘home’ territory and outposts in ‘contested’ territory, and crucially, they each have unwanted populations within their home territories, which include what are effectively either tribal populations or dangerous insurgents in the form of cults and crime syndicates. Numerous quests entail eliminating these groups, who occupy the hinterland. Barbarian creatures are intelligent enough to make weapons, construct villages, and have some understanding of magic, but who appear not to have a very advanced culture, economy or discernible language (or perhaps it is not worth knowing). Other organizations are powerful and ‘civilized’, but do not have resources comparable to the ‘state’ actors. Although there seems to be a development hierarchy among the races of Azeroth, each of the races matters in the outcome of the game’s storyline and as stated above are afforded some legitimacy in terms of their right to exist and their ability to wield significant power to such ends. In addition to holding territory, each race has a relatively complex history, social structure, and economy; in short, the races are not merely states, but civilizations.

No such privileges are afforded to other intelligent life in Azeroth: they have little say in world affairs, have little ability to protect themselves from the wanton incursions of ‘superior’ invaders, and there is little sign of anything more than either a subsistence or parasitic economy. Nor is it ever suggested that the state of things could or should be otherwise. This lack of agency therefore makes them little different from the ‘wild’ creatures and plants that populate Azeroth, to be exploited by the civilizations in whose territory they dare to exist. Indeed the relationship between such groups and the races is explicitly colonial: they are not there merely to be dominated and exploited, they are there to be repeatedly killed so that their killers can take their stuff. Indeed, as with all resources in Azeroth, their chief value is in their ability to endlessly regenerate—they are killed over and over in order to provide money and goods for players from each civilization. One gets the sense that the tribal groups are ancient and indigenous to the areas they occupy and have been colonized by one or more of the races, although this is not made explicitly clear. In most cases, in fact, it seems as if these groups share indigeneity with a race in their territory, but have ended up on the wrong end of ‘progress’ with lesser military and religio-magic power as well as lower population. This implicitly justifies a race’s domination of these groups: presumably they are intelligent and have had access to the same resources over the same time period, and they did not ‘do’ anything with it. So it is that the land and its inhabitants are used in a quasi-imperialistic manner, for the purposes of expanding the influence and self-preservation of the dominant culture.

Such themes are not without precedent. The entire notion of thinking of lands and peoples as resources to be exploited is of course a widely critiqued notion. In recounting the history and effects of (chiefly European) colonialism, theorists note that domination of colonized peoples was not merely military or economic, but also hegemonic and discursive. Discursive domination in particular dealt not only with the discourse of authority wielded by colonial administrators, but also in the very way in which the colonists conceptualized the world, be it according to a discourse of essentialized subject/object positioning (Said 1978), or the problems associated with attempting to undermine this sort of discourse while at the same time having to draw on it and work within and against its terms (Spivak 1988). Further, since the collapse of European empires, such discourses continue to be replicated through media and usually are wrought in conjunction with other discourses concerning notions of global development according to Western terms, and according to a teleological, evolutionary and rational techno-capitalist understanding of ‘modernization’ and ‘development’ (Rist 2002). Such notions are so ideologically ingrained as to be naturalized, to the extent that even ostensibly economic terms carry the weight of a culturally-derived notion of history and progress.

Intriguingly, there are aspects of the way the game configures the player that can at once undermine an overt reading of the text in this way and yet at the same time ingrain it further. That is to say, the player’s guilt can be assuaged, no matter how much genocidal and ecological havoc they raise: all creatures always respawn (that is, reappear) after a relatively short period of time, and thus they are ‘always’ there, and can never be wiped out. Naturally this has to be the case, as otherwise the first player to complete a quest wherein they must destroy a certain number of creatures or sentient cultures would denude the world, and nobody else would get to complete such a quest. However, we should not discount the underlying message here: that all creatures and resources in Azeroth are effectively limitless, exist solely for the players’ use (and ultimate gain), and that this is the natural order of things. To that end, whatever it is these creatures do, they will ‘always’ be doing it, as there is little if any sense that they are meaningfully caught up in the narrative of global struggle among the races, and are not brought along, technologically or narratively, into linear history—they are not only without a knowable history, but exist out of time.

The conceptual framework of World of Warcraft, therefore, reiterates that there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’, that there are inherent and seemingly irreconcilable cultural differences drive conflict, and participation in this by individuals is inevitable—a participation in which consumptive self-interest and the civilization’s survival are conflated. In short, ‘civilization’ is fused with race, centered in a particular geographic area, and linked to a particular (and somewhat essentialized, homogenized) rendering of religio-cultural symbolism, within which the individual must participate in particular normative ways. And as in Clash of Civilizations, the different civilizations in World of Warcraft are each afforded their own cultural uniqueness which is valued across the board—but in the end we know who the good guys are. But of course this theme of exploitation, utility and hierarchy is not merely a feature of the thematic elements of the game—it is a central feature of gameplay.

To be sure, these correspondences do not necessarily imply effects nor are they likely to be an interpretation that leaps to the fore of every player’s understanding of the game. Further, I do not wish to state that the game has been built from contemporary context—it is clearly a fantasy, set in a fantasy world. Nonetheless such correspondences are noteworthy, given possible interpretations under certain social and gamic auspices. King and Krzywinska (2006), for example, argue that on the one hand, such contextual elements may completely recede to the background, particularly during gamic activity in which play requires task-oriented concentration, or by contrast, when it is routinized. However, such contextual elements may have more resonance (in certain cases directly affecting interpretation, meaning-making and player performances) given different social contexts, the generic and political interests and knowledge of the player, and those aspects of “games-as-playable-texts” that bring this context to the fore (King and Kryzwinska 2006). It is in this manner that I suggest, World of Warcraft has a degree of “social realism” (Galloway, 2004), because it ideologically fits the cultural moment of post-9/11 discourses, while also drawing on discursive and historical allegories concerning culture and notions of development, technology, and the teleology of ‘progress’. It is the social realism of a virtual world that is an allegory for the ‘real’ world—not only in terms of allegories for contemporary cultures, but also (particularly) an allegory for how the world ‘works’. In fact it is a particularly distilled and enhanced allegory by virtue of being, as Aarseth (2008) argues, a playworld far more akin to a theme park than a fictive world—its relatively small size and highly evocative elements underscore its status as a representational rather than material space. Where the correspondences to neconservatism are merely interpretive, however, the vast bulk of gameplay—indeed the primary locus of gameplay—is a direct application of the ideals of privatization.

The Ethos of Privatization

First of all, when I say ‘privatization’ I am referring not only to the economic principles of privatization, but also the way in which the individual is privatized — the subject is separate from society and its structures, individual happiness and success is the goal of life, and this is achieved through individual merit. Therefore individuals must “seek individual solutions to socially created problems, and to implement such solutions individually, with the help of individual skills and resources,” and where the purpose of life “is presented as maximal consumer satisfaction, and life success [is] an increase in each individual’s own market value” (Bauman 2008, 20-21). Under this rubric, failed individuals have only themselves to blame for their own lack of achievement, and although happiness is defined through success and conflated with economic achievement, there can never be a maximum cap on this—a situation in which conspicuous consumption, one-upmanship and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ have tremendous social and ecological consequences. As Ann Rippin aptly puts it: “Consumption leads not to surety and satiety but to escalating anxiety. Enough can never be enough” (2007, 127).

Nonetheless this ideology is at its core idealistic and purports to emancipate and empower individuals: each person can succeed on the merits of his own labour, of which they are largely in control. This ideology is quite often tied to free market ideals in which governmental regulations, particularly via the welfare state, are seen to impinge on freedom insofar as they deplete the wealth of those who work hard and strive in life, redistributed to people who are not exercising their full human potential. Crucially, an individual’s participation in the marketplace, while encouraged, must not be coercive, and the fundamental impetus behind social interaction is free trade on a micro-scale: individuals entering into negotiations with each other with equal standing and for mutual benefit, based on supply and demand, and where governmental bodies do not interfere with the natural laws of the market. And of course ‘the market’ dictates prices only according to that which is marketized, meaning that values are set amorally: a situation in which there is no discrimination, but there may also be overlooked costs to things that are under-marketized or for which there is no set price (like the ‘cost’ to the environment of production). This is Ayn Rand’s universe of maximal freedom based on the application of individual capabilities, where individuals must bear the brunt of responsibility for both success and failure, social welfare and freedom is best sought and maintained through everyone applying themselves, and ‘safety net’ social structures not only encourage sloth, but actively inhibit the freedoms, destroy the wealth, and are parasitic of the labour of society’s most ambitious and talented contributors. The general ethos, therefore, is one in which individuals who apply their efforts and abilities are rewarded by an increase in economic and social capital. This ethos, interestingly, is foundational to gameplay in World of Warcraft.

Playing to Level, Leveling to Play

The ostensible point of World of Warcraft is to create a character which the player advances through the game, and in this advancement the player goes on adventures, explores the world, and meets other people. The activity anchoring this, around which most gameplay takes place, is going on quests. Quests typically ask players to acquire something (whether it is artifacts, information, or what have you) in exchange for a reward. These rewards can be in the form of compensating the player with gold (the currency of World of Warcraft) or artifacts that directly benefit the player (armor, weaponry, scrolls, and other valuable materials). It is in the player’s interest to go on quests partly in order to explore the world (and occasionally, in sharing quests with others, having the satisfaction of completing these tasks with other people), but mainly so that the player can improve oneself through the acquisition of goods and gold harvested from killed creatures (called ‘drops’) and ‘advance’ in the game by improving one’s character. Indeed rewards are almost entirely utilitarian, almost never altruistic—even in quests in which the player is being asked to ‘help out’ a character, the player is notified upfront that s/he will be rewarded in specific ways. The player also acquires experience points by completing quests as well as every time a player kills something, makes something, or finds something. Accumulating experience points is how players achieve higher levels, through which players become more powerful and are therefore able to explore more of the world and go on more quests. This practice of constant advancement is called ‘leveling’, and it ultimately becomes the primary fixation of most players.

Although to be sure a significant part of the appeal of World of Warcraft (in certain respects its primary appeal) is exploring a fantastical world and socializing with other people in/through it, the means of doing this is best achieved by leveling in some capacity—it is an activity that compels exploration, compels interaction, and compels most relations (social and transactional) with other players in the game. Indeed in the experience of most players (and certainly this author), most ‘friends’ in the game are acquired not by chatting up other characters in the game (which is borderline unacceptable behavior), but rather by sending out calls for assistance on a quest—once the other person proves to be a useful and amiable companion, friendships are frequently struck up. Similarly, although it is a common experience for people to join and remain in guilds for social reasons (the stream of green-coloured guild chat in one’s window is a constant source of entertainment and camaraderie), higher level players may find that their guild is much more akin to their workplace, where their labour is constantly required for the benefit of guild members interested in going on difficult quests and raids, and where operations are run by a hierarchy that resembles a corporate structure (Rettburg 2008).

I say ’labour’ here rather than play because for all intents and purposes this is what playing for leveling is: labour for which the reward is personal advancement, and through which a person acquires both social and economic capital. Indeed even for players who have ‘made it’ by attaining the highest possible level, there is the potential for constant advancement. Some high level players flaunt their wealth and status through the acquisition and display of the rarest and most expensive items, as well as donning items like ‘town clothes’ which are different from the battle attire their character would otherwise wear. Further, every so often Blizzard releases expansion packs and raises the level to which one can rise, setting the bar ever higher. But of course this is what players want—as leveling and new stuff forms the core of play, this is also what keeps people interested and part of what players find gratifying. But it is also clear that in this situation playing the game is engaging in a form of labour, through which one advances and improves one’s character. This can be rendered quite literally in the gamic function of World of Warcraft’s ‘professions’: skills that players can develop to compliment their game character, which include things like tailoring, blacksmithing, alchemy, jewelcrafting, and others. Using these professions, players can create their own material or render their services for other players, which can be used for specific instances of gameplay or result even in accumulating real-world capital (more on this below).

This point becomes particularly clear upon closer examination of the economic activity of Azeroth. Within the game there are numerous auction houses, where players can buy and sell goods. Such goods may include ingredients for spells and potions, raw materials such as leather, basic health necessities like food, worked or value-added goods such as weapons that players have made special powers for, extremely rare drops, and items like fine clothing that are mere status symbols. As with any market, items that are both rare and highly sought after fetch the highest prices, skewed in price only to the extent that items which can only be used by high level players fetch higher prices because it is assumed that high level players have more gold. Players may also trade with each other directly, in whatever arrangement they deem mutually beneficial. To this end Azeroth is a free market proponent’s ultimate fantasy: there is no regulation of trade, all individuals have equal standing in the market and can enter into economic relationships of their own volition, and the wealth and standing of each individual is almost directly proportionate to their labour.

Although the game does not force or even ask players to take part in this economy, most players will almost certainly find it necessary to do so because of the structure of the game. As one example, as a player advances, quests tend to require travel over longer distances. Therefore one can spend a very long time jogging across whole continents, often through dangerous or at times monotonous areas with which the player is already familiar. The solution to this irritating feature is to buy a mount, first a terrestrial creature and ultimately some type of flying creature, that permits the player to travel significantly faster than on foot—and these are not cheap. The quickest way to acquire the funds to do this is through a mixture of ‘grinding’ (accruing experience, artifacts, and gold by staying in one location and continually killing creatures as they respawn) and selling things at auction. Therefore in order to be able to go on greater quests, a player may have to put tremendous amounts of time and effort into accruing the necessary capital, items and experience that makes questing a less frustrating and onerous activity. So it is with many other near and long term goals within the game, whereby the player may be grinding in order to level up, which allows the player to complete one quest, the reward for which is an item of high value that can be sold at auction, the funds with which the player may purchase another item which the player needs in order to complete another quest—and so on and so forth.[1]

So just as in the real world labourers are confronted with a situation in which working to live becomes conflated with living to work, the player may find himself unable to discern the difference between leveling in order to improve one’s character and improving one’s character in order to achieve the next level. Indeed there is a kind of doubling effect here for some players, in that the demand for character building in World of Warcraft is great enough that World of Warcraft gold has become a real-world commodity, meaning that the outcome of their gaming labour can have real-world economic value. In extreme cases this has given rise to “gold farming” (more on this below) in which players or player bots grind or farm gold all day to sell on the black market (Dibbell 2007; Steinkuehler 2006; Taylor 2006a) and in one infamous instance a woman who sold her own body in exchange for 5,000 gold (Wachowski 2007). Of course, the irony here is that although labour in World of Warcraft could in theory have a set price, activities tend to transpire as if it does not or cannot. Since leveling up is a goal unto itself, and constitutes the main purpose and activity of the game, it is for all intents and purposes the only thing that the player can do. Gamic labour is what makes the game ‘fun’: the challenge, camaraderie, and aesthetic appeal of the tasks the game sets, to the extent that this compelling work may become addictive. Indeed, as Scott Rettburg argues, “the principle reason why Blizzard has been able to build such a large and devoted audience for their flagship product is in fact because it offers a convincing and detailed simulacrum of a process of ‘becoming a success’ in a capitalist societies”(2008, 20).

Here it is worth reiterating that this entire system is based on a world with effectively limitless resources. Miners, lumberjacks and hunters abound—but hillsides are not moved, trees never fall, and game is bountiful. Indeed, as noted above, creatures in Azeroth can be killed ad infinitum, since they and whatever resources they contain via drops continually respawn. In fact the only potentially exhaustible resource is labour—whether there are enough people in the server to make the in-game economy run smoothly, whereby goods can be acquired relatively cheaply and easily. And labour, as it turns out, is cheap and plentiful indeed. Of course, maintaining a game of this type would be impossible without this functional structure—a truly resource-depleted Azeroth is an unplayable Azeroth. However it is worth pausing to consider other ways the game could have been oriented, like for instance through resource acquisition and conflict-based play concerning these resources. Certainly in the original version of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment 1994), which was a strategy game, it was possible to denude a map of its resources. The role playing function therefore significantly alters the nature of resources in Azeroth.

The orientation toward role playing therefore has a (perhaps unwitting) politics. First, a character’s power and status is a function of level and the goods the character has acquired in the process—power and status is obtained through individual accumulation, and indeed constant acquisition and increased power and status amount to the same thing. This is of course a predominating feature of innumerable games, from the more literal suburban accumulation of The Sims (Maxis 2000), to the more abstract accumulation of power-ups, lives, points and coins in Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega 1991). But the features of the MMORPG go further, whereby the gamic structures and the concomitant community inculcate in individual players a constant need to advance in the game via leveling for the greater status and potency this affords, and that the economic basis for an individual’s success is based on a world of truly limitless resources, and on the ability of the player to exploit these resources without ecological or political consequences. Obviously this closely resembles the ideal form of the ideology of privatization, as rendered above: individual, autonomous, and self-directed labour yields rewards commensurate with one’s efforts, which results in increased power and status (measured by affluence), inculcates highly visible and competitive forms of accumulation to which there is no end, and is ultimately based on an amoral market in which nothing has value unless and until it is marketized, with the result that some social and ecological effects of capitalism are disconnected from the production process.

This is the social realism of privatization in World of Warcraft: it is not ‘realistic’ as such, but rather is a fantasy that replicates the dominant paradigmatic context of the vast majority of players, a political reality which they may buy into to varying degrees. The fantasy that players are engaging in is wielding magic or weapons is superficial, the gameplay is focused on the player’s capacity to become wealthy and achieve status purely as a function of the input of their labour—an ideologically resonant notion to which most players can probably relate. Rettburg (2008), suggests that World of Warcraft essentially a simulacrum of the corporate work environment. However, I suggest that the game also obscures and denies other realities of the corporate work environment—players cannot be laid off, mobs do not diminish in value or abundance, and so on. Any activities or situations that disrupt the positively resonant aspects of the game, therefore, are most unwelcome.

The Logic of Capital Reasserts Itself

Unfortunately, even in World of Warcraft the liberal ideals of privatization run into more sober economic realities, including the real-world socio-economic circumstances in which players are able to turn the system to their advantage. One example of this is power gaming: exploiting the rules and features of character traits as well as devoting untold hours to leveling as quickly as possible, which some players consider a form of cheating or, at least, that power gamers are a little too involved in the game, and thereby make things a little less fun for others (see Taylor, 2006b). There are social aspects of this, as well: not only are players encouraged to be competitive in their acquisition, they may find that they have to keep up with their peers in order to keep them: I have personally had the experience of losing touch with World of Warcraft ‘friends’ who progressed far enough ahead of my character that I could no longer be involved in the same quests, and therefore I was effectively barred from socializing with them because I could not go where they went—the level barrier functioned as a social barrier, replicating a humiliating feature of class and social position in the real world.

Perhaps the most striking example, however, is the practice of gold farming. As briefly alluded to above, gold farming is the nominally elicit practice of hiring players and/or creating bots to mine gold or grind in an area, and having accumulated this gold, sell it in the ‘real’ world marketplace to World of Warcraft players who do not wish to spend time doing this themselves. The practice represents an intrusion on the fantasy in the first instance because it means some players can become ‘wealthy’ within World of Warcraft without having ‘earned’ it—instead, they have used a priori superior capital to literally buy their way into high status. Moreover the process itself almost always relies on a means of production that is a common feature of advanced capitalism: Third (or Fourth) World labourers who must play the game purely instrumentally for long hours under poor conditions for poor pay, whose labour is exploited by the owners of the means of production, i.e. the owners of the computer ‘shop floor’ and their representatives to First World customers (see Dibbell 2007).

Meanwhile, beginning players therefore have a tougher time getting ahead and may find themselves having to solicit help in killing grinding bots or gold farmers in order to be able to do ‘legitimate’ grinding or gold farming themselves. Although Azeroth’s respawning creatures are never exhausted per se, the time it takes to await their regeneration effectively results in competition over limited resources, if one is to factor labour time as a limiting factor. Furthermore, gold farmers therefore present a challenge to autonomous labour in World of Warcraft, because, as Nakamura notes, “If late capitalism is characterized by the requirement for subjects to be possessive individuals, to make claims to citizenship based on ownership of property, then player workers are unnatural subjects in that they are unable to obtain avatarial self-possession”(2009, 141)—because the avatars on which they are working (and through which they labour) are not ‘theirs’, they are effectively alienated from their labour.

But not only are the injustices and inequalities of capitalism apparent in this respect, they are linked, both allegorically as well as literally, to racist discourses: resentment of gold farming quickly degenerates into racist disparagement of gold farmers, who are commonly thought to be (and not infrequently are) Chinese (Nakamura 2009; Brookey 2007; Steinkeuhler 2006). Effectively, they are the unwanted illegal workers who are ‘ruining’ the local economy and culture, but whose labour is in high demand—a striking, yet entirely predictable replication of the transference of the ‘unwanted’ aspects of late capitalism onto migrant labour. Some players have even taken to profiling and policing areas where gold farming is known to occur, Minuteman-style—surely it is only a matter of time, if it has not occurred already, before players are paid to do this on a permanent basis. And yet this resentment is understandable, since the practice directly affects skilled labour: it skews the market in which some players can lay claim to making a living off of the profession of one or more characters. This is in fact yet another facet of late capital, the collapse of play into labour, that in this case takes on the features of a Baudrillardian tragicomedy: “What do I do for a living? Well, I used to work as an alchemist in Azeroth, but the Chinese put me out of a job.” Therefore affects and effects of advanced capitalism (exploitation, inequality, resource scarcity, pitting workers against each other) and its concomitant discourses (racism, development, advancement, privatization) are replicated in World of Warcraft—the fantasy once again becomes an elusive illusion, dissipated by the harsh realities of the logic of capital. The game moves from simulation to simulacra.

Conclusion

World of Warcraft exhibits several features of a Western-oriented social ideology in its iconography and mode of gameplay. However this includes not merely salient features of an allegorical iteration of familiar and other (Langer, 2008), or aspects of corporate ideology (Rettburg, 2008) and governmentality (Küklich, 2009). Looked at in further detail, these and other elements of World of Warcraft resemble the claims and features neoconservatism and privatization: different race-cultures in Azeroth are essentialized, but perhaps even more problematically there seems to be a development-based hierarchy here that conflates primitivity with savagery and evil. Further, the depiction of the relationship between these races resembles aspects of a neoconservative understanding of global conflict. In all of these elements there is a conflation of a nominally imperialistic notion of global conflict on the macro level with the individual praxis of (lethal) martial power and accumulation on the micro level. The gamic elements, meanwhile, epitomize and inculcate an idealized form of privatization, whereby all of the promised myths of capitalism are delivered: individual, limitless advancement through one’s own labour, drawing on limitless resources and engaged in a truly free market. More to the point, the work of exploiting these resources is usually done by request (via a quest) and one’s domination of the subaltern creatures of Azeroth is therefore linked with the security of the race/faction to which one belongs. So there is a kind of doubling here: using the land and its inhabitants for one’s civilization is also using them for one’s own selfish, insatiable desire for accumulation and advancement. Moreover, violence against other groups is ideologically justified, whether because they present a threat or they are inherently inferior due to their state of development. In short: labour, consumption and what could be interpreted as imperialism are conflated in the same activity.

What the game highlights, therefore, is how certain aspects of neoconservatism and privatization have contrapuntal, if not wholly congruent, logics. What ties together neoconservatism and privatization is a firm belief not only in an Enlightenment view of the rational subject with inalienable human rights, but also the fact that humans act in self interest—in fact are selfish—and therefore commonly accepted values (based around a framework of classical liberalism) must be instilled and upheld in order to avoid violent chaos. Since such values rely on and are instilled by liberal systems, democratic freedom and economic freedom are frequently conflated. Obviously these are not wholly overlapping worldviews, but they have common adherents, most notoriously in George W. Bush’s administration, through which these adherents found common cause and application in a post-9/11 context. In this way civilizational essentialism, unilateralism, and the promotion of free trade (as well as, domestically, individualist rhetoric and attempts to deregulate and dismantle the welfare state) become enmeshed. World of Warcraft might therefore be read as a distillation of the point at which neoconservatism and privatization intersect in the post-9/11 moment. The game in fact exposes the ties between these notions: how certain aspects of their logics are congruent, and how these notions are in fact intertwined. To this end, the game intensifies the ideological features of both neoconservatism and privatization, and replicates real-world dichotomies between ‘competition’ (i.e. those we recognize as game competitors and who we wish to beat yet must engage with—meaning in the real world other civilizations and in World of Warcraft other races) and ‘extermination’ (i.e. those who cannot even be recognized as competitors and so may be destroyed—meaning in the real world terrorists and history’s ‘losers’, and in World of Warcraft both subaltern creatures and gold farmers).

Furthermore, the game’s aesthetics and mechanics indulge a form of social realism in which players act out the underlying logic of the neoconservative world order while at the same time labour in a simulacrum of idealized privatization (and having to confront the downsides of this ethos as they are made manifest in the virtual world). Perhaps most importantly, the locus of these ideological elements is the conflict play: the labour to which one commits is near constant killing. As one might cynically say about the twinning of neoconservatism with privatization in the real world, perpetual war is not a bug, it’s a feature—it is a means not only of exercising civilizational power, but also of perpetuating global capital. In fact, building up martial power and applying it to extract wealth (directly or indirectly) is the only way to do it. As mythologies of warcraft go, perhaps this is the biggest game of all.

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Notes

[1] See also Duchenaut et. al. (2006) on the spike in the amount of time players spend at the game near to when they have reached the level at which they can acquire a mount.

Author Bio

Kyle Kontour is a doctoral candidate in Media Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His current research concerns ideological notions of military service, simulation, and masculinity vis-à-vis the military entertainment complex, specifically regarding first person shooter combat games.

Comments

  1. Al Kesler says:

    Interesting discourse. Good luck on your quest as a doctoral candidate, I would have little doubt you will attain.

  2. Joe P says:

    Hi Kyle,

    You mention in paragraph 5 of “Playing to level” that “Although the game does not force or even ask players to take part in this economy, most players will almost certainly find it necessary to do so because of the structure of the game.”

    Can I ask your thinking with regard to gamers arriving at a point where they choose to resist / operate counter to the logic of the economy? Does this happen? eg: ‘giving up’ / self termination / sabotage. Is there any opportunity to be ‘playful’ in one’s labour? Does agency have a place within the dominating structure?
    Regards.
    Joe