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