In a way, World of Warcraft is a diverse place, with humans, orcs, elves and gnomes fraternizing on the digital battlefield. But the creatures in the video game’s fantasy world seem to all have one thing in common: absurdly proportioned females in tight-fitting clothing.
With World of Warcraft's 10th anniversary approaching, Activision Blizzard is promising to address some of the socially primitive aspects of its games. Mike Morhaime, the chief executive officer at developer Blizzard Entertainment, addressed these shortcomings in a letter to a fan published last week.
"Blizzard’s employees form a broad and diverse group that cares deeply about the experiences we are creating for our players,” Morhaime wrote. "We are challenging ourselves to draw from more diverse voices within and outside of the company and create more diverse heroes and content. We are also actively looking at our story development and other processes to ensure that our values are fully represented."
Blizzard confirmed the letter’s authenticity but declined to make Morhaime available for an interview. "Diversity" was the battle cry of the CEO's missive. Vagueness aside, he was responding to some pretty direct criticisms about World of Warcraft, which has attracted more than 100 million players in the last decade, making it Blizzard's most popular game. A woman calling herself Starcunning said she'd stopped playing the online PC game due to how female characters were presented and the dismissive comments from Blizzard employees when confronted with the issue.
Gender and racial portrayals in movies and television have been a point of contention for decades. Video games have fallen behind those media because they're still widely seen as a diversion for young men. But as more women and people of color play games, the industry is finding it tougher to ignore demands for change. Of U.S. gamers, 48 percent are women, according to an April study by the Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade group.
While the gender gap among players is closing, the games themselves don't always feel inclusive. For example, women who play World of Warcraft online say they often hide their gender for fear of being treated differently by their male teammates. Sometimes it's unavoidable, like during raid missions, which demand group collaboration using voice chat. In those cases, the males tend to make unwanted advances, catcall, shower them with gifts or dismiss their abilities, female players said in interviews.
"Probably the biggest response was, 'Oh, you don't really know how to play,'" said Veronica Belmont, who hosts a Web talk show called Sword and Laser. "People will send you messages. People will ask you to do a little dance. People will ask you to do all kinds of stuff."
Belmont would play as a female Tauren shaman, a cow-like character with a creepily feminine physique that she may have subconsciously gravitated toward because "they're kind of the least sexy portrayal." She quit playing World of Warcraft two years ago and said many of her female friends have also dropped out. Overall subscriptions to the game globally have fallen steadily to 7.6 million as of May, Activision said on its most recent earnings call.
Blizzard's efforts to create a wider variety of female characters has the potential to draw in more women to the game. Lara Arnason, a World of Warcraft player who's writing a Ph.D. thesis on video games at the University of Edinburgh, said Blizzard's characters are designed to fit masculine ideals. The guys look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the women bounce around in miniskirts. From a practical standpoint, the bikini armor presented to female warriors wouldn't be very effective in battle.
"When you play a video game, you’re creating this avatar, and it’s someone you want to be; it’s this fantasy of this superhero you want to be," Arnason said in an interview. "Think of what a female wants to imagine themselves as, and rarely is it a cheerleader with giant boobs.”
Dustin Browder, a game director at Blizzard, brushed off critiques about skimpy costume designs in an interview with an industry blog, saying people shouldn't look to the company's games for "a message." He later apologized for the comments in a posting on Blizzard's website. At a Massachusetts Institute of Technology event in May, Rob Pardo, Blizzard's then chief creative officer, said his mostly male design group draws "comic-book-looking women" because that's what they grew up reading.
"An example of where I think sometimes we struggle is our portrayal of women in the game," Browder said at the event. "One of the reasons that we do lots of fantasy and sci-fi is we're still like kids at heart. We're not trying to bring in serious stuff or socially relevant stuff or actively trying to preach for diversity."
We need to not make our women characters wear armor that look like Xena" -- Dustin Browder, a game director at Blizzard
Browder acknowledged that Blizzard's tendencies to design female characters that are almost exclusively busty and in short skirts "is offensive to, I think, some women." On July 3, Pardo said he was resigning after 17 years at the company to pursue other career opportunities.
"We need to not make our women characters wear armor that look like Xena," Browder said at MIT. "It's a struggle for us because the diversity within our workplace is unbalanced, and it's not because we don't want more women developers. It's just what the industry looks like."
The lack of women in game development is a real problem, as it is in the wider technology industry. Silicon Valley is currently grappling with the same issue, but it somehow manages to make products that are generally inclusive to both genders. Workforce diversity doesn't excuse game designers from acting like high-school boys doodling in their math notebooks.
"There is no reason why inclusivity should come at the expense of an amazing game experience,” Morhaime wrote in his letter. "This will be an ongoing process for us — it’s likely that we will make mistakes again in the future, but we will continue to listen, learn and grow."
Over the years, Blizzard has continually updated the game’s graphics and content through patches and four expansion packs. The gender and racially insensitivities of World of Warcraft, which turns 10 on Nov. 23, have survived and in some cases, gotten worse. A game update released in 2012 called Mists of Pandaria added a race of giant pandas trained in the art of acupressure. The panda women also have "comic-book-like" proportions.