My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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lessons from the WoW debacle

When i first heard of Blizzard conflating advertising queer-friendly guilds with sexual harassment, i was pretty upset and blogged about it. Since then, numerous groups have spoke eloquently about the issue, Lambda Legal got involved and Blizzard apologized. It is always good to see digital demonstrations work. Given this, i will re-order WoW and check it out shortly.

While i should celebrate this positive change of affairs, my sunny spirits have been dampened by the ways in which participants justified Blizzard’s decisions in the commentary of many blogs, on mailing lists, and in person. It has been a real eye-opener at how much unchecked homophobia swirls around me, both from within the queer community and from without. I’m not talking about the overt “faggot” homophobia; i’m talking about the homophobia that comes from failing to recognize systems of oppression and privilege. When i wrote my post, i made some assumptions about my readers, about the people around me. I feel the need to explain the assumptions under which i am operating.

Imagine a world where a woman is told that they can’t talk about being a female because that would be encouraging people to attack her and thus it would be not permitted and would be deemed sexism. My hope is that most people can recognize that this is absurd. Of course, the funny thing is that we live in that world anyhow. In technical fields, we are often told that if we talk about being women, we are complaining. We are told that we live in a meritocratic world where women are welcome so they should just stop complaining. Yet, the reality is that being female is not just about the XX chromosomes, the estrogen, the boobs and hips. It’s a situated identity that cannot be untangled from experience. Sure, we can try to out-male the men (and many of us do indeed try) but the standards are still separate. We are still read as women when we walk in the door, whether we like it or not. We live in a sexist culture and pretending sexism doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away. Tis the reason that i have much appreciation for Malcolm Gladwell for using narrative in explaining research to make this issue more visible – even when we think that we aren’t looking at race and gender, we are. If we said that we should not talk about being female, everyone would be assumed to be male and judged on that manner. You don’t create equality by removing the experiences that alters embodied identities… in those terms, the oppressed will always be oppressed, systemically. There’s a huge amount of sexism in WoW – even in watching over others’ shoulders, i’ve seen my fair share of “don’t be such a girl” and comments about the femininity/masculinity of particular characters’ representations. Would a sexism-free space be acceptable to the majority of users? I have to imagine that few people would say that is oppressing sexist bastards.

Sexuality has always been a more complicated picture because the debate is rooted in issues of morality. I will never forget the first time i was asked why gay people had to highlight their butt-fucking to everyone by marching down the streets. ::shudder:: This is when i realized that from a heterosexist point of view, “gay” is read as a set of practices, not an identity. It is assumed that when a group of queer people gather, they do so to fuck. This is just as stereotypically problematic as saying that when a group of women gather, they do so to bake. Sure, it does happen, but it is by no means the sole reason to gather… Gatherings happen based on identity, based on a set of shared values and views about how the world works. It’s about creating safe space where you don’t have to have your walls up high, have to be on constant guard for attacks, don’t have to constantly defend your view of the world. It’s a way to keep sane more than anything else. And it’s a way of being able to cope in a culture of oppression.

The problem i have with people saying it’s equivalent to a hetero-friendly guild is that hetero-friendly is the norm. Heterosexuals are not an oppressed population; they can walk proud on the street, show their love on TV without question, bring their partners to the company picnic without fear, have children without worrying how their love will affect their children. They don’t have to worry about feeling silenced by comments such as “you’re such a straightie.” It’s simply not the same.

Of course, i’m totally in favor of Blizzard keeping it a PG-13 (violence permitted) environment. I totally understand why watching two characters fuck would not be appropriate, but i don’t think that the gender of the characters matters. The thing is that is fundamentally different than eliminating identity. And queer is an identity first and foremost. Fantasy worlds may not need to have sex, but they do have to have identity. And people’s lived identities seep through whether we like it or not. To silence only the oppressed individuals in a system is beyond dangerous; it promotes a society that i can never support.

I also understand why some people are afraid to reveal their sexuality to young people for fear of being attacked, perceived as a pedophile (although more straight folks abuse children than gay folks), or thinking that sex should not be mentioned to children. The problem is that we’ve all been taught that to talk about our sexuality, our identity, is the same as bringing sex to the conversation. That’s a dangerous dangerous thing to internalize and i implore queer folks to stop doing that. No one should be talking about their sex life to children, but that doesn’t mean you should hide your identity because people have told you to be shameful of yourself. Young people need to know queer people as regular people – this is how tolerance is formed.

I respect that Blizzard has made the economically responsible decision to stop this tomfoolery. But i think that this issue is also critical for general societal reflection. Silencing people because of their identity is a dangerous proposition. We’ve done that a few times in our history to deadly ends. Let’s not do that again.

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14 comments to lessons from the WoW debacle

  • Jon Moter

    “This is when i realized that from a heterosexist point of view, “gay” is read as a set of practices, not an identity.”

    Funny, I didn’t realize how much I held that view until you pointed it out. As I was reading, I was imagining a gay-rights parade, and comparing it to the analogy of women baking. I thought “Well, no, since they’re declaring what they have in common is their sexuality, that automatically puts the issue of sex in question. It’s more akin to a group of Christians gathering, and assuming their gathering has to do with faith or praying.”

    But then I realized that I was, like you said, equating sexuality with sex. I imagined if a group of married heterosexual couples gathered, it wouldn’t automatically bring up the idea of them straight sex. I don’t consider myself at all homophobic, so it’s interesting (and uncomfortable) when I notice unconscious thoughts like that floating around.

    Thanks for bringing it up.

  • An honest question from an inquisitive straight guy: if the issue is because people are being oppressed for who they are – as you put it, their identity – can you elaborate a bit more about this identity for those of us who don’t quite understand what that identity is?

    Is it anything like the following:

    I grew up in a rural area that is very Protestant. Somewhere in my adolescence, I came to the personal conclusion that all this talk of God didn’t make much sense to me and I frankly didn’t buy it for lack of evidence. So, I while I was technically agnostic, I wasn’t afraid to say that I simply didn’t believe in a god.

    Over the years, it has put me in some awkward situations. I don’t think that my stepmother has admitted to herself that I don’t attend church. In high school, I got questions from classmates asking how it was possible that I didn’t believe. I got engaged recently and my fiancee and I decided to forgo a religious ceremony. This raised some eyebrows in both of our respective families. I’m certain that I have family that believe I’m going straight to hell for my (lack of) beliefs.

    Reading your post above, this is the situation that I’ve personally been in that seemed to best match what you were talking about with respect to identity. However, where I’m mentally hitting a wall is when I ask whether I was oppressed. I’ve never felt oppressed for holding the fundamental positions that I have. It’s put me in some awkward and uncomfortable situations where I know that everyone in the room disproves of this fundamental facet of who I am. But I’ve never consider myself oppressed when I visit family over the holiday or when I’m doing something in a group of devoutly religious folk.

    So, getting back to the point of my question, what’s so fundamentally different between being queer and atheistic that leads you to write about oppression while I would never think of it that way? Is it that easier to keep religious identity private than one’s sexual identity? Is it that the stigma attached to being queer is much more severe than not believing in a deity?

    I’d appreciate your thoughts and some further enlightenment.

  • sp

    Ok,

    So, to continue the discussion…Why do you feel the need to have a safe environment when playing war games? War games are not parlor games like bridge, where the point is socializing. Part of the exhilaration of playing a war game is that it is dangerous, your heart starts beating faster when you are at the peak of a battle and everyone has committed forces and there’s no prep time left and you’re done talking and you’re just hacking and slashing and it’s just whoever plays best wins.

    Why do people want to emasculate environments that channel male testosterone? Why not give up your ‘identity’ for a while and just play. Do you take issue with South Park? How are you going to do research on ‘youth’ if you’re nice? Kids are the most violent, viscious amongst us. And, girls do talk more than boys.

    All devil’s advocate,
    SP

  • SP – have you paid much attention to what actually occurs in WoW (or any MMORPG)? Most of it is about sociability, hanging out and completing tasks as a collective. Sure, there are some folks who take it to rrrawwrrr WAAAAAR! mode, but i would argue that that is not the reason that 40M+ people play WoW. Some of the most anti-war people i know are on the game because of the social infrastructure.

    Chris – there are two types of oppression that queer people face – individual and systemic. Individual oppression occurs when individuals demoralize the queer person on a regular basis. (Not surprisingly, the queer suicide rate is painfully high.) Individual oppression is experienced as ostracization, alienation… all of the worst of anomie. Systemic oppression is being barred from rights and privileges in society simply because of your identity. In this way, queer people are barred from the right to visit their partner in the hospital, the privilege of marriage, etc.

    What you experienced is certainly ostracization from your family, yet not from society as a whole. Of course, those same beliefs resulted in many people being drowned a few hundred years ago for being witches… we’ve come a long way wrt religious tolerance (and in some ways, we’re reverting).

    Does that make more sense?

  • It clarifies things up a bit. Am I understanding you correctly in thinking that you’re framing Blizzard’s actions as more systemic oppression than individual oppression? Whereas the original guild was being advertised as a way to avoid the individual oppression from other players?

  • jason

    hey i totally agree with your blog entry. it can be really hard in different social situations (in real life) and right now i’m dealing with so manyidentity issues as well.

    looking forward to more stuff in the future, good job

  • thrifty

    I am very happy to have discovered your site(s).

    You are very excited.

    I think there needs to be more space between the two sentences quoted below. It’s not right for one to follow the other. They are of different ilk.

    “We are still read as women when we walk in the door, whether we like it or not.”

    “We live in a sexist culture and pretending sexism doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away.”

  • Dan

    well, I agree with most of this. Just one thing – stop making it all about Blizzard! Have a look at some of the MMORPGs that are getting less attention from the crowd of social-software pundits, and you’ll find that (for the most part) they have equally inane policies in this area.

    And because most of the others are targetting a younger, less ‘PC’ (for want of a better term) market, they have even less clue about the social impact of their rules. So MMORPGs are now solidifying as yet another space with a pressure towards conformity and little acceptance for the odd kids.

    Now that Blizzard are doing the right thing, how about turning some of that anger and curiosity on the rest of the MMORPG world?

  • Thanks for helping me continue to grow as a person. The things you discuss here are important.

    And for the commentor who claims that war games are dangerous so why would someone want a safe environment in which to play them, even as a Devil’s Advocate-type statement, that is a completely inane statement. These are table and/or computer games, not rugby, and they should be accompanied by safe environments when and where desired. Just because they are “war games” is no excuse for the utter worst of testosterone-fueled behavior to emerge.

  • Anita

    So, I just thought I’d let you know that coincidentally last night I began my WOW induction. I’ve played a bit before [mostly really watching and observing], but I think it might be time for me to really dive in and see what this is all about first hand.

    … So, I’ll see you on level ONE!

    a.

  • Mike

    I’m surprised there hasn’t been a comparison between Blizzard’s original position and the military’s “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy that there was some hoopla about a few years back. In both cases is seems like it’s a somewhat misguided attempt to make the issue “go away”, thereby making everyone happy.

    I think you framed the reason it is misguided very well. Our sexual orientation is tied to our interactions with others, and it comes out in our day to day interactions with the opposite sex, or the same sex. The fact that I’m reduced to a blubbering idiot in front of a woman that I’m attracted to is an example of this. The end result then is that in order to conceal your orientation you have to all act the same way, namely heterosexual. You’re asking a subset of the population to conceal part of themselves, but not asking the same of everyone else.

    However misguided it may be I wouldn’t consider it malicious. The fact that Blizzard didn’t want its online game to frame a debate between people who want to pretend homosexuality doesn’t exist, or assert that it’s immoral, and people who don’t want to conceal an aspect of themselves is understandable. In the same vein doubt the military’s goal was specifically to oppress gay people, their position, as a whole, was probably more that they wanted to meet their recruiting numbers and didn’t really want to discuss sexuality.

    I wouldn’t necessarily take fact that Blizzard was willing to change its position, once the reasonable objections to their position were laid out before them, as a sign that they’re more liberal now than they were. Their goal with the original decision was probably to make the most people happy for most of the time, regardless of what the position. The fact that they changed it just shows that they felt a new decision was going to make more people happy.

    An interesting side-note: World of Warcraft currently has a “festival” of sorts going on in-game that equates to Valentines Day. If you wear perfume you can give “love tokens” to male non-player characters and get a gift, and if you wear cologne you can get gifts from female NPC’s. This is regardless of the sex of your character. That doesn’t sound to me like a game that is written by a company with something against same-sex romance.

  • In response to Chris’ question, I do not think trying to connect the experience of being an atheist and homosexual will give an accurate description of what it is like to be gay. Atheism can be an identity for some, although at the most basic level, atheism is a belief structure, a religion in itself, where science or some other ordering of the world sits at the focus rather than a godhead. Homosexuality has no associated belief structure- all that binds us together is that we sleep with the “wrong” sex. Republicans, Democrats, rich, poor, black, white, Jewish, Muslim, gay and content with it, gay and closeted- homosexuality is a place without boundaries. I steadfastly believe that if it were not for homophobia, the gay community as it exists now would disappear. The external pressure thus far has been able to maintain limited group cohesion.

    Have you ever had someone throw something at you and your wife while walking down the street for being atheists? Have you been sent to the hospital for being an atheist? This is not “raised eyebrows” and “uncomfortable situations.” We are talking about cut off from you family for the rest of your life, people showing up at your funeral to celebrate your death with placards, attacks, beatings, hatred, and murder. Imagine being told your love is the not the same, is not good enough, is sick. You may have forgone the religious ceremony, but you got married. Would you have forgone the religious ceremony if it meant that you would not have been able to get married at all (keeping in mind the legal benefits of being married)? Would you be open about being an atheist if it meant you would never visit your family again?

    My parents are loving people, politically liberal, and not religious. I was relatively lucky- my dad did not talk to me for six months when I came out, but ultimately, he moved on. My mother still makes jokes about breaking up my relationships, and sometimes she warns me that she has not told a friend of hers “about me.” I feel fortunate, because many people I know were not so lucky. This is not the 16th century, nor am I talking about people from pre-Stonewall era. People in their 20s from liberal towns. A good friend of mine was cut off financially while she was in school, even when she had a brain tumor and needed surgery because she was with a woman. I could list story after story after story. And it would be a drop in the ocean.

    Even when it is not so extreme, being gay is a daily fight that wears at your soul. Homophobes are not red-eyed monsters foaming at the mouth. They are your neighbors, your coworkers, and sometimes, your friends. Which is why being gay can be so frightening. I live in one of the most liberal and gay-friendly cities in the U.S. (Seattle), and we had a gay bashing on Pride two years ago. They tore into his torso with a vodka bottle. Why? Because they saw him as they drove by, and his was too gay. We are never safe. We have to fight constantly to retain and gain rights, because a large group wants us to be so afraid that we will simply go away. If you have felt anything like this being atheist, then perhaps I am wrong, and the two experiences are similar. Nevertheless, atheists tend not to stir up the same levels of hatred that homosexuals do- perhaps your soul is still worth saving.

    There are days when I read the news and see another state pass a law against homosexual marriage, a soldier is expelled from the military for being gay, or we loose another vote for equal rights, that I get so angry I cannot see through the tears. The body cannot sustain that level of rage for long. Most days I shake my head, and keep moving through my life. What choice do I have? What choice do any of us have?

    For a long time, I was actively atheist, and now I consider myself to be non-theistic, although I am a little obsessed with religions- my undergrad is in Religion, and I am preparing to jump into an M.A./Ph.D. in religion and cultural studies Honestly, being gay is nothing like being atheist. The reason why you cannot think of much oppression for being atheist is that there is relatively little, except in a few areas of the U.S., thanks to the First Amendment.

  • Hi there,

    I just stumbled across your site while looking up information about apophenia (I seem to hear music whenever a white-noise machine is turned on, strangely enough). As it happens, I play WoW as well, but hadn’t heard anything about this controversy, being several weeks behind in my quaint old-fashioned newspaper-reading. I’m still working on a definite opinion of my own, but in the meantwhile, thanks for the serendipitous information and analysis!