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‘Are Blue Posts a Primary Source?’: Progress Notes on the Real Warcraft Thesis

January 22, 2012
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New year, new post, new project. Some of you may remember my post about being asked to deliver a paper on WoW in a formal academic setting a few months back. I’ve made a resolution to be accountable for this project in the new year, after the wild two months that was BlizzCon + my international holiday travel wound down. To that end, I’m hoping to regularly update Flavor Text with how my work is going, similar to the Thesis Thursday feature at Got Medieval. [If any of you share my interest in marginalia (which is a sort of flavor text in its own right!) I highly recommend that blog.]  These posts will be more informal and free-flowing in nature — and more importantly — NOT IN ANY WAY A FINISHED PRODUCT OR CONCLUSIVE. I put that in capslock for a reason.  These are, essentially, my process notes and thoughtdumps on the project.

So far, I’ve found that working as an independent scholar who’s been out of the pool of academia for a few years can be a bit isolating, and I miss the exchange of  ideas I once had over delirious tea breaks at ungodly hours with fellow grad students while working on my own research. I’m hoping to re-create that sense of dialogue here with this post; comments are not only welcome but actively encouraged. Even if you disagree with me. Actually, particularly if you disagree with me.

Before I dive into telling you more about the topic I’m going to tackle, I feel I should probably give you a bit of insight into the area of research my MA covered, so you have a better sense of my background and how it’s informed the way I’m going to approach this project. About this time six years ago, I was researching depictions of scenes from Norse sagas that occurred on medieval Manx grave markers. The carving in the photograph below is one of my favorites from the corpus of these sculptures; known as Sigurd’s Cross or Fafni’s Bane,  this stone depicts some of the exploits of the Norse hero Sigurd that would later be codified in prose as part of the Völsunga Saga.

Cross No. 121, Kirk Andreas, Isle of Man. (Sigurd says: "DRAGONFLESH! OM NOM NOM.")

What made this stone –and others like it–so interesting to me was that they demonstrated the important role that Norse myth and folklore played in medieval Manx culture. For those of you who aren’t up on the history of  the minor islands that make up Great Britain, the population of the Isle of Man through most of the first millenium CE was of Celtic extraction. At the time this stone was carved, settlers from Scandinavia had begun to arrive on the Isle of Man in droves, resulting in a cultural melding between them and the established Celtic (and Christian) population. Think about that for a moment — these are non-Christian stories about heroes and deities that have managed not only to persist within a Christian culture, but also to permeate that culture so deeply that their iconography is directly represented in the sacred context of a memorial or grave. In medieval Europe, that’s worth noting. Why do these stories persist across cultures, across media, across millennia?

I’ll be up front: my academic training was largely in the fields of history and art history, and I don’t have a scholarly background in the field of game studies. I’m trying to put my MLIS to good use by trying to track down relevant and useful texts: Homo Ludens is winging its way here courtesy of Amazon, and Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality arrived the other day, but I also welcome any recommendations you may have. (Bonus points if there’s an ebook version available.) I suggest picking up Eco’s book if you find that this post interests you–I’ve not gotten to my ‘close reading’ phase of it yet, but I already find myself stunned by how fresh and relevant its content is.

It's a start.

Returning to the project at hand, the panel I’m presenting on will be focusing on medievalism in video games and new media. Flavor Text’s inaugural post by Lani dealt with the concept of the MMO as an emergent storytelling medium, and indeed here we are, using this relatively new medium to tell very old stories.  While nearly all of WoW is rife with aspects of medievalism and neomedievalism,  I’ve chosen to focus on the heavily Nordic-influenced Wrath of the Lich King expansion for the scope of this paper; it’s where my research background is the strongest. The references are obvious; for example, anyone who has quested in Storm Peaks will remember the Thorim/Loken/Sif questline. This appearance of Norse myth in WoW isn’t at all unique, either, as the Vrykul installment in Perc’s archaeology series indicates. (I have to confess to having a lot of fun behind the scenes with her on that one — any excuse to get the Urnes Stave Church and Sutton Hoo find into the WoW blogosphere is a good one.) In addition, the fantasy genre–regardless of medium–has been drawing on these influences long before the world tree Yggdrasil Nordrassil was ever planted.

I REMEMBER YOU . . . from the Edda.

So, why investigate the topic further if the presence of these stories, particularly in terms of  ‘geek culture’,  isn’t anything new? For me, it comes down to a desire to examine what WoW’s specific re-interpretation of Norse mythos represents for us. In an earlier post, I looked at how fanart and machinima created in response to the events of 4.0.3 acted as representations of the playerbase’s collective memory. Now, I want to take some of those points one step further: what is it about this body of myth that not just suits this medium, but this particular storyworld? How do we engage with it to make sense of our relationship with Azeroth (and possibly even ourselves)? What, if anything, can we learn from that?

There’s a quote from a recent post over at Brainy Gamer where Abbott discusses the four pillars of video game storytelling that’s stuck with me as I’ve started to sink my teeth into researching for this project. In part of the post, Abbott utilizes aspects of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword to formulate his critique:

Zelda narratives are rituals, with each game re-telling the same essential story, set in a familiar universe with recurring motifs. Exploration and puzzle-solving are similarly ritualized, with iteration gently rounding the edges of the series.

I’m fascinated by this concept of narrative and ritual in games.  If you’re familiar with Skyward Sword (or any of the Zelda series, really), you’re aware of how oral tradition factors into how the game unfolds, and the development of Link’s identity as the long-awaited mythic hero.  In many Zelda titles, even the act of Link receiving his trademark green outfit has become an action of ritual significance in its own right. Skyward Sword actually makes this point about oral tradition fairly explicitly–and for any player who is familiar with the series, this reveleation is hardly breaking news. The question is, can we find similar instances where ritual and narrative intertwine in WoW?

Let’s go back to the earlier example of the Thorim/Sif/Loken arc for a moment; in addition to witnessing cutscenes and NPC dialogue, players are asked to carry out the task of cutting out Loken’s Tongue.  As with the mythological figure of Loki himself, Loken has committed several acts of trickery and deceit against both his brethren and the order of the world itself through his lies, and so the punishment is a poetic fit for his crimes. Outside of this particular questline, adventuring in Wrath of the Lich King allows us to do other Norse-inspired things, such as asking the Bone Witch to cast her runes and determine our fate, or examining artifacts from the grave hoards of noted Vrykul. All of these actions serve as flavor that further immerses us in Northrend’s Nordic playground.

In Zelda, new iterations of motifs (such as Link’s green tunic) often derive their significance from earlier titles that are ultimately still set in the same universe, whereas in the case of the Thorim/Loken/Sif story, we are participating in a retelling pre-existing ‘real-world’ myth which has been transposed from its original setting into Blizzard’s constructed one with mostly superficial alterations. (I don’t want to give the impression that WoW lacks Zelda’s self-referential aspect, however — there are many instances of it ingame.) ‘Participating’ is the key word here; we are not simply reading about these actions, but are able to feel as if we are contributing to the story’s progression in an active way. (Some parts of WoW are more successful at achieving this sense of ‘active participation’ than others, and the fact that the ‘quest on rails’ debate persists is testament to that fact.) This point in particular is something I want to focus on in my research — what experiences, if any, are shared by a player questing in Northrend and a medieval Manx person listening to someone narrate Sigurd’s destruction of Fafnir? I believe that there are indeed commonalities here, and thus a game like World of Warcraft allows us to synthesize at least part of the medieval mindset.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@catulla) have  probably seen me singing the praises of this collection of essays: Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, published by the MIT Press. The chapter entitled World Creation and Lore: World of Warcraft as Rich Text (by Tanya Krzywinska) gives support to this idea. She writes:

Because a player is an active choice-making agent within a gameworld, narrative becomes in this context more structurally complex. Unlike stand-alone games, or other media, World of Warcraft offers a persistent world in temporal terms that exists whether or not an individual player is playing. In this, the gameworld has a material presence beyond the sphere of the player that resembles in some respects the way that a so-called primitive mythologically based worldview functioned . . . Nonlinearity and player agency therefore make for a significant material difference to myth-based narratives found in other arenas. (Krzywinska, 2008)

Where did these stories originate from, if not ‘mythologically based worldviews’? (I know I’m asking a lot of questions in this post, but for the sake of clarity, I’ll note that this one is rhetorical.) Do games like World of Warcraft help to fill some sort of latent desire on our part to re-create this worldview? To wrap this litany of questions up, I’ll leave you with a quote from Eddo Stern’s 2002 articleA Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games:

One could say that technology operates to realize what was previously in the hypothetical realm of magic. There is definitely some connection in the way both magic and technology create a sense of wonder as they seem to expand upon the notions of what is or has been feasible in the realm of the real. The assessment that they are part of one and the same wonder is quite pervasive; just remember Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Stern, 2002)

Is this what we’re trying to formulate, this sense of awe and fear of the unknown? That’s a a concept which is integral to the ‘mythologically-based worldview’ that our friend sitting by the hearth and listening to the exploits of Sigurd a millennium ago would have held. And with that, I’m off to log into the game myself. One must always keep up on one’s research.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2012 6:52 pm

    Lots of questions. Not sure where to start, so you get a fragmented comment in response. :)

    I found this one interesting:

    “Do games like World of Warcraft help to fill some sort of latent desire on our part to re-create this worldview?”

    Which worldview – the anglo-nordic mythos, or the sense of being present /in/ the story, of being part of a shared mythos? Maybe that’s three different views. While the presentation of medieval themes is generally interesting to an audience of medievalists, there are other mythologies and stories which WoW allows players to participate in, to be supporting actors or major players in their retelling. I hit STV and I’m in Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now. Redridge, Rambo. Storm Peaks is interesting and possibly unique in WoW because it’s one of the most pure retellings of an actual mythology, unfettered by pop culture references (I’m looking at YOU, Uldum), but there are other zones where you experience the same sense of participatory storytelling. It’s not collaborative storytelling – that’s more for a traditional RPG/LARP form – but it’s at least participatory, where the audience is invited to take part in the action, if not actually be the main figure.

    As I went through that Loken questline, I found myself wondering – this is pretty neat, but I’m getting all the references. This is kind of an in-joke for me. What is it like for people who don’t know anything about Norse mythos? Was it interesting? Was it engaging? Is it like kids who pick up a Thor comic book for the first time (not that that’s bad, it’s a gateway to the mythos!)

    Spouse and I were discussing … something related in the car today. I frankly just blanked on it. She turned to me and said, “yes, but King Arthur is the oldest mythos we still retell as a culture.” (This is somewhat ignoring Biblical stories, we chatted about that too.) But as a popular culture, what are the tales we remake over and over again? Which one gets a movie every 10 years or so?

    King Arthur
    Robin Hood
    Jane Austen
    Zorro
    Wyatt Earp (general wild west themes)

    (fill in the list)

    Other stories come up – Julius Caesar, Shakespeare – but which ones do we actively celebrate with our children? We tell a bunch of tales from the late medieval period, not Beowulf. (Oh god, Beowulf would terrorize/fascinate my son.) We hold up a set of examples which are harmonious to our modern sensibilities – chivalry, codes of honor, egalitarianism, piety – instead of going after those mythos which dig deep into the weird underbellies of our psyches. We don’t retell Gilgamesh and Enkidu. We don’t retell the Odyssey or the Illiad.

    When we DO retell those stories, they’re niche. They’re in-jokes. They’re not cultural touchstones.

    Or are they?

    What *is* the Loken story, exactly?

    “what is it about this body of myth that not just suits this medium, but this particular storyworld?”

    How did the use of this myth tie into the Ulduar raid, and more specifically, the response which Ulduar generated – one of the top two raid tiers of all time? Does the use of historical archetypes and mythologies *improve* game content, like in Karazhan (which is a series of old fairy tales come to nightmarish life) and Ulduar?

    What happens when we tap into the Hero of a Thousand Faces?

    Run out of things to say. Your turn. :)

  2. January 24, 2012 6:23 am

    Fragmented is fine! Responses are lovely.

    “Which worldview – the anglo-nordic mythos, or the sense of being present /in/ the story, of being part of a shared mythos?”

    The latter two, which I think are probably distinct but complementary. concepts. And I agree about the aspects of it drawing on other mythos which may have a similar effect. I was saying to Narci earlier that this could become a PhD topic if I let it and did a comparative study of all that’s present in WoW. But sadly I’ve got 20 minutes, 30 tops to talk about this, so I’m going to discuss what I know best. ;) It’s definitely something that’s occurred to me, though.

    It’s interesting — we feel as if it’s participatory, but that’s ultimately illusory. There’s a defined line, determined by Blizzard, along which the story must progress. Even in a game like Dragon Age or Chrono Trigger, where your experience in the game is altered by the choices you make, it’s still a static framework at the end of the day. And yet that’s still something the player finds satisfying and is drawn to (which is why I think there was such an outcry over the ‘quest on rails’ issue, because that veil felt a bit more shattered and questing felt less exploratory for a lot of people).

    It’s just fascinating to think about how flexible these stories are, and how they can shift themselves to suit so many different media. It’s just interesting to me to think about whether the experience we have in questing through Storm Peaks (or elsewhere, really!) is in any way akin to means in which stories were told in the medieval period.

    “This is kind of an in-joke for me. What is it like for people who don’t know anything about Norse mythos? Was it interesting? Was it engaging?”

    This point’s actually addressed in one of the articles I’ve read in that MIT book up there! Unfortunately, I don’t have it to hand at the moment, but much of the article discusses how a game like WoW (and really, other things in the fantasy genre) are rich texts that invite us to do ‘close reading’ (the article’s words!) of the content. One of the ways WoW does that is by making references that it knows will appeal to most of its playerbase (what the author calls the ‘geek aesthetic’). In doing so, we feel that the storyteller (Blizzard/the game) is someone “like us”, and we’re both in on something. “It’s like hey! We have interests in common! I should invest more time in this.”

    “They’re not cultural touchstones.”

    Mmm, I think they might be. :)

    “Does the use of historical archetypes and mythologies *improve* game content, like in Karazhan (which is a series of old fairy tales come to nightmarish life) and Ulduar?”

    I think so, and I wish my lunch break weren’t about to be over. Perhaps this is another post I ought to write sometime.

    “What happens when we tap into the Hero of a Thousand Faces?”

    Strange things. That’s why, like Lani, I’m excited to see what’s possible in this medium. We’re still just figuring it out–and I’m glad to be witnessing the ride.

  3. January 24, 2012 7:04 am

    Consider also: by using the Norse mythos, Blizzard was able to transform an entire zone into one massive storyline WITHOUT putting it on rails. Multiple quest lines moved us from goblins and Vyrk’ul to Titans. Because there were two 5-mans, they could expand on the quest lines further. Then they led into Ulduar, which ties the norse mythos into WoW’s metamythos (old gods old gods old gods).

    It’s quite a feat.

    Related: how much do you know about Stargate SG-1 and the Asgard?

  4. January 24, 2012 7:06 am

    I hadn’t thought of that, but DAMN. Well pointed out.

    I know enough. Daniel Jackson is my sci-fi boyfriend, go on.

  5. January 24, 2012 7:12 am

    SG1 is basically a sci-fi story that grounds human mythos in alien cultures which had contact with us over the years. The Asgard are a benevolent race of grey aliens who watch over the universe but are overwhelmed, eventually, by the replicators (but with human assistance we wipe them out too.)

    NORSE GODS AND GIANTS/BIG SCARY SERPENTS
    TITANS AND OLD GODS
    ASGARD AND REPLICATORS

    The story is a simple one, but a good one.

    The northern ethos – have I talked to you about the northern ethos – the northern ethos is really fucking compelling. WE FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT THOUGH WE KNOW WE ARE DOOMED.

    Tom Shippey at my university, about a bazillion years ago, talking about Tolkien.

  6. January 24, 2012 7:20 am

    Ah yes, I’m familiar with the plot arcs but hah! I do see similarities. Nice.

    Re: northern ethos–No, you haven’t, please do! I mean, I understand it conceptually. I have always been a sucker for the epic and heroically tragic. I listened to the LOTR soundtracks basically on loop while I wrote my MA thesis. It was fitting.

    Volsunga Saga–>Nibelungenlied–>Lord of the Rings (I’m so oversimplifying.)

  7. January 24, 2012 7:38 am

    Ok. Tom Shippey is a medievalist from SLU who has written about the works of Tolkien and argues that Tolkien was actually reacting against the co-opting of the Norse mythology by the Germans in putting forward his mythology for England via the Lord of the Rings. He came to my school – one of the first to offer a class on Tolkien, there’s your clue about my alma mater – and talked about the northern ethos – sometimes called a theory of courage (http://valarguild.org/varda/Tolkien/encyc/papers/dreamlord/stages/courage.htm).

    It’s a simple ethos – it doesn’t matter what the odds are, you fight the good fight and don’t give in to despair. The Norse gods know that they are going to lose Ragnarok. It doesn’t matter, they will go into battle anyways. The Battle of Maldon – it’s hopeless after Beortnoth stupidly yields the river, but his men show their virtue and courage by fighting to the end. Beowulf? A man cannot escape his weird/fate/doom, but that doesn’t allow him to lie down and not try. God smiles on those who try.

    Don’t give up, Mr. Frodo.

    Tuor, atop the battle of the slain in the Nírnaeth Arnoediad – 80 times he raised his axe, 80 times the cry LIGHT SHALL COME AGAIN rang out over the battlefield, before he was overcome and taken to the feet of Morgoth.

    Aragorn and the Captains of the West in front of the Black Gate.

    The strains of the Ainur competing in the Music of Illuvatar – the first two themes strive against Melkor, but the third theme (mortals) takes the highest triumphs of the Melkor’s music and weaves it into it’s own sad melody, finding victory out of tragedy.

    Despair is the only sin in this ethos – cowardice, giving up, abandoning your task, just because the odds are against you.

    This is (obviously) a fundamental part of my own belief system. It’s why I say that Tolkien really is my bible – the Music of the Ainur is what I cling to for guidance, for saying: no matter how bad things get, don’t give up, make it through, and the song that will be sung at the end of my days might be a sad one – but it will be a triumphant one, too.

    There’s a lot in here – virtuous pagans is an unexplored direction to go in – but the northern european ethos/theory of courage is embodied in the Storm Peaks/Ulduar storyline. If you give up and give in to despair (and then later, madness) – the world ends. GONE.

    It’s couched in WoW terms, with a lot of mechanical elements, but it’s Ragnarok all over again.

  8. January 24, 2012 7:57 am

    Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics:

    It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honor, and found a potent and terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded forever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, as it did even with the goðlauss Viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end.[6]

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