I As Another In World of Warcraft: Art : How the Cyborg Myth, W/woma/en, and an Elf Met
par Hilde Corneliussen
When I was asked to write about “I as Another” in relation to a computer game character, the obvious question was what a feminist technology researcher could contribute with, and of course it had to be grounded within research in technology, computer games, and feminist theory. Two texts immediately came to mind: “The Cyborg Manifesto”, by Donna Haraway (1991) 1and Am I that Name? Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History by Denise Riley (1988)2, two texts that in each their ways point to some important questions of feminist theory, techno-science and politics, and two texts that here will be plunged into an exploration of becoming an elf in the game universe of World of Warcraft.
The ironic political myth of the cyborg, the human-machine, put to work to transgressing boundaries and create “potent fusions” 3– “a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience” 4, a “translation of the world into a problem of coding” 5, in which “[m]icroelectronics is the technical basis of simulacra; that is, of copies without originals”, and where “the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred” 6, in a “high-tech culture” where it is no longer clear “who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine”, neither what is “mind and body”7. The cyborg myth is challenging “female” as a “complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices” 8– practices and discourses in which also computer games enter the debate, and finally, it suggests “the possibilities for our reconstruction” that includes “the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender” 9. Before starting to think about “I as Another”, one obvious question for a feminist technology researcher would be to ask what it is that the “I” is, or, what is a woman? The question of defining W/wome/an – “Woman” and “woman” with capital letter or lower case, as well as “women”, has haunted feminist research just as much as monsters like ghosts, ghouls and golems haunts the World of Warcraft, although for different reasons, maybe with similar consequences. While the challenge of W/wome/an to feminism has been a question of women’s experience, uniqueness, the possibility of representation, political force and being real, true or faithful to all or specific and contextualized women’s experiences at the same time 10, the monsters of the Warcraft universe are there to preserve or to conquer, most often to attack, but sometimes to protect. The challenge of both monsters and W/wome/an is that they are both easily understood in the most readily available meaning. They are both easily understood, but also easily misunderstood. They can work both or different sides; they can help you or harm you, and you cannot avoid them. Thus, they both require to be contextualized if we want a more precise meaning.
And finally, on becoming an elf in World of Warcraft, a game universe, where you first become by choosing character. I chose night elf because she looked nice and the night elves’ natureculture seemed friendly (a choice I share with many newcomers to the game, according to Ducheneaut et al.11). Then you become by being told what your role is in the gameworld – to defend the home of the night elves, the children of the stars, against further corruption of evil forces, and by walking around in the elven landscape you realize that you are in fact an elf among others who greet you in elven ways with a warm “Elune-adore” and hail you into being an elf. When you tell jokes it is on behalf of gnomes, not elves (“I don't mind the Gnomes, but I'm always worried about tripping over one”, World of Warcraft), and when you dance you have the seductive movements of an elf, not the cheerful stocky movements of a dwarf. The world has a role for you; you walk like it and talk like it, and the character has a mission of her own, ignorant to my human self’s workload, appointments or restless dogs.
This world is not ridden by the dilemma of feminism, of women being one group or several groups. And neither is it ridden by messy identities or blurred boundaries. Instead, this is a neatly ordered world. There are many races in World of Warcraft, but no messy identities (provided you accept that this is a world inhabited by other creatures than our own world). There are no in-betweens, no elf-orc offspring, but instead races acting more like different species 12, living in separate areas, with their own language and culture. It is a perfectly static world with all characters ordered neatly in males and females – the long haunting dichotomy so problematic to feminism. There are no in-between genders either, and no way of making your character turn into neither a Hic Mulier (female transvestites) nor a Haec Vir (womanish man), and whatever you dress up in it remains faithful to the racial images of male and female. The nigh elves’ world is truly a world constructed on the technical basis of simulacra ... of copies without originals, and where you might meet your identical twins, all in perfect harmony with the image of night elves’ bodily beauty. But it is also a world in which capacity is more important than both gender and race; you are warrior first and race second, and gender does not mean anything: whatever your female elf does, a male elf might do just as well, and the monsters who slay you don’t care which gender you are. Gender is mostly saved for linguistic and visual features 13. It is a world in which gender does not mean anything, but not a world without gender. My prosthetic elf provides me with a body that my human self can only dream about, however, the difference between us is at no point fuzzy. But boundaries are also blurred in Wow – leave alone for the moment the existential questions of what is me and what is the elf when I am the one steering the character – but in much more mundane ways, like when me-the-elf met two good-looking elven boys whistling, shouting and teasing, clearly flirting, and we decided to slay a few monsters together (which means to ‘hang out’ in the game). Hunting monsters together was fun for all of us, I think, until they started asking the questions so common in online communities: ASL – age, sex, location – not of the elf, but of the human-me. Avoiding the questions was no use, and eventually, they found out that I was twice their (human) age, could have been their mother, and was probably a bit weird (aren’t middle aged women playing computer games weird?). My human identity forced its entry into my elven identity, blurring the borders, adding and taking away at the same time, leaving the experience of playing together another flavour than if simply three elves had been hanging out.
I found my night elf that I hadn’t seen for a couple of months when I went back to visit the world of Warcraft to write this piece, and I found some of my old elven friends. But I’m not sure that I found “Another” me. Instead I found an “I” catching up and talking about human stuff; a cyborg, disguised as “Another”, walking as “Another”, but talking as “I”.
And that is how a night elf - a “child of the stars” (World of Warcraft), the cyborg - an “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism"14 ”, and W/woma/en - progeny of decades of feminist debate15, met, sent on a collision course by a feminist technology researcher exploring the three figurations through a diffractive optic of reading them through each other 16, observing the diffractive pattern17 created when they met and collided.
1 Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto" In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, edited by D. Haraway. London, Free Association Books, 1991, 149-181.
2 Denise Riley, Am I that name? Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History, Macmillan, 1998.
3 Haraway, p.
4 Haraway, p.
5 Haraway, p.
6 Haraway, p.
7 Haraway, p.
8 Haraway, p.
9 Haraway, p.
10 Riley, Ibid.
11 Nicolas Ducheneault, Nick Yee, Eric Nickell, & Robert J. Moore. "Building an MMO With Mass Appeal. A Look at Gameplay in World of Warcraft." Games and Culture 1 (4), 2006, pp. 281-317.
12 Jessica Langer, The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post)Colonialism in World of Warcraft, In Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, edited by H. G. Corneliussen & J. W. Rettberg: MIT Press,
13 Hilde G. Corneliussen, " World of Warcraft as a Playground for Feminism", In Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, edited by H. G. Corneliussen & J. W. Rettberg: MIT Press, 2008.
14 Haraway, p.151.
15 Riley, Ibid.
16 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway.Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London, Duke University Press, 2007.
17 Haraway, p.