Accessible Fan Art; or, PONYPONYOMGPONY
Work time productivity amongst the Warcraft Twitterverse took a nosedive on June 2nd, after the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Pony Creator flash program from GeneralZoi of DeviantArt was introduced to an unsuspecting local population. Dozens of ponies flooded the nets, almost clogging several crucial tubes usually reserved for news about Justin Beiber. The Twittersphere seems to have regained balance after its Equestria-infestation, but questions remain.
What is appealing about self-created fan art? How does reimaging one limited digital form into another, even more limited digital form, deepen our possession of a self-created digital identity? How does artistic accessibility reflect the appeal of World of Warcraft in general? Does magic really make friendship all complete? Most importantly, how cute are these ponies, guys? Oh-my-god, ponies!
Here’s a pony, there’s a pony. Everywhere a pony pony.
Customization, or What You See Is Probably Not What I Intended
Player characters in Warcraft are an odd mix. They have highly differentiated basic body types, but lack the micro-customization that has grown very common in modern video games. Each profile shape in Warcraft is visibly different, even at very small resolution – even “similar” body types are radically different in proportion, color, or profile. Across a battleground, there is no mistaking a gnome for a goblin, or a troll for a Draenai.
It’s a very different emphasis than a game like Rift, which has 6 races which are all rather humanoid, and come in interchangeable shapes and proportions. On a macro visual level, choosing High Elf versus Kalari is not nearly as clear cut as choosing between a Blood Elf or a Night Elf’s body in Warcraft. From a distance, I personally had a great deal of trouble differentiating the races in Rift. In World of Warcraft, the lack of customization in body features combined with cartoonishly differentiated profiles is a strong visual decision that positively impacts play style.
Yet within these 20 body types, there is limited customization available for facial features and no customization available for body shapes or sizes, often leading to justified critiques about visual monotony and normalizing “unrealistic” body types. This makes Warcraft feel mildly out of date, or cartoony, compared to modern games that offer custom options for everything from eyebrow tilt to a full million color palette for eye color. Even my cartoon Mii on the Wii has dozens more options than my Tauren.
This impacts players because there is no way in game to perfectly realize your vision for your character. In an RPG, your character has no concrete appearance except what is player generated. In Warcraft, you have a pretty basic template, that you share with millions of others. This is, I believe, a huge motivation for drawing or commissioning fan art of player characters, along with the relatively low-fidelity graphics. I am fascinated to see if there are equal quantities of out of game fan-art for games with more customization and higher graphical fidelity.
So I promised this would be about ponies, didn’t I?
In game, Catulla and Perculia are virtually identical. They have the same hair color, style, similar lips, and the same tattoos. In RP, they are highly differentiated by their traditional costume – glaives and a demon hunter’s blindfold versus a Shen’dralar’s robes and antler motifs. Given an endless array of choices, they would look nothing alike.
Yet using the pony generator, each player’s vision for how she sees her character is rendered differently, while maintaining similarities. Both share shaggy two-toned hair and identical tails, and soft night-elf colored pastel bodies. The taller Cat has softer hair colors where smaller Perculia is bold and neon. Reacting to the unknown, Perc is perhaps angry and quick to resort to violence when it suits her purpose, where Cat is more restful and contemplative of the changes wrought by the Cataclysm.
The Pony Generator takes the types of visual diversity available at character creation and the barber shop and flips them. Only one body shape or pose is available, instead of 20, but it can be muscular, large or small. There are very limited options for accessories, instead of literally thousands of pieces of armor available in Wow. Infinite colors are able to be generated, but there are no more hairstyles than are available to Goblins. As Perculia explained, “Having the few choices forces you to analyze how you frame your character–the sky isn’t the limit. Perc had no blindfold option, so instead of trying to literally copy how my in-game toon looked, I had to think about her personality.” At its heart, the Pony Generator is a very limited tool, which provides only a few elements for personal expression. Having to translate the things that make your character unique in game, both visually and personality-wise, into this new medium forces you to redefine your idea of why you chose the in-game model you did.
Here are two ponies from LadyLatias and Riththewarluid. Both have chosen the same elaborate style of pony mane for their equines, yet to one woman, the hair symbolized her blood elf’s elaborate twisted updo. For the other, it was visual shorthand for her human warlock’s prosaic top-knot bun. To reverse the idea, I think it’s fascinating to think that the same in-game hairstyles we choose may similarly represent vastly different platonic ideals of haircuts, let alone the things we cannot choose at all in game – a very tall dwarf, a muscular female blood elf, a Tauren with curly hair.
Another fascinating look at perceptions of in-game personality and physical appearance comes from multiple people generating art of the same toon. Cynwise, of Cynwise’s Battlefield Manual, has published many in game screenshots, and has shared several realistic pieces of fan art that portray Cynwise the character as the human female she is. His photo-realistic conception of his toon, as drawn by traditional fan artists, is public knowledge. Yet when three pony versions of Cynwise were made, all three were vastly different. I had no idea that in the player’s mind, Cynwise the warlock had thick wavy hair, and would never have asked if it weren’t for PonyChat2011. A community using this same new language to translate the appearance of characters might be a fun and illuminating way for say, an RP guild to learn more about the visage and personality of their players.
Accessibility; and Visual Art and Fiction in Fandom
Part of the reason that World of Warcraft is massively popular is that it is highly accessible to new players. The game does not assume great experience in video game navigation skills, honed reflexes, or an extremely expensive gaming system. For a beginner, it requires no peripheries like gaming mice or headsets, it requires no addons, it requires no manual or online database. Of course, as a player becomes more advanced, they can add to their experience in all these ways, but they are not necessary to play or enjoy the game.
Artistic endeavors are not necessarily the same. Some people do not have the hand-eye coordination to draw straight lines, or the training to accurately copy a complex shape like a body or face. Many people do not have the expensive devices needed to create or share digital art of high quality – art programs like Photoshop, drawing tablets, or high resolution scanners.
There is also a great deal of baggage in our culture that “art” is a thing that only a few select people with magical amounts of talent do, and the rest of us should not even attempt to copy. Young children do not have this impulse or training – all crayon drawings of mothers with no arms are treasured. We typically learn in adolescence that art is in a museum, and only some of us are “artistic”. The rest of us just doodle, or sketch, or hide our post-it note stacks when our boss comes into the office.
Fan fiction is a great democratizing force because it is understood to be written by “normal people” and not a separate species of “author”. People are reluctant to create, or share, their fiction but not because they feel fundamentally unable to create it. Yet far more people are afraid or uncertain how to go about representing their character visually. You see this affect in commissions – it’s very common to hire a paid artist to create visual art of your PC, but I’ve never seen someone pay an author to write fiction or poetry about player characters, in Warcraft, other MMOs, or in P&P RPGs. I’d love to see it if you know an exception, though! (It seems that in younger, especially female dominated, fan circles there is less taboo against producing and sharing non-professional quality art, though most of the examples are art of existing characters like Harry Potter or Twilight’s cast.)
The Pony Generator removes the barrier to entry in defining and sharing art in the same way appearing as a level 1 in Brill democratizes computer gaming. There is no way to create a “bad” pony, or a poorly constructed one, since the flash style ensures smooth lines, sensible proportions, and evenly distributed colors. There is no fear of your pony being substantially worse or more mockable than your guildmate’s or your fellow blogger’s.
But just like downloading Omen improves your playstyle, adding additional visual information to the ponies allows people to continue customizing their pony. It’s not necessary or superior, but it’s interesting (and adorable.)
Here are two ponies which represent female Draenei.
The first is @Outbirk’s pony portrait of Visper. Hi, Visper! Visper’s overly self deprecating player, Snack of The Dungeon Runner, portrays her excellently in fiction but hasn’t shared any self-generated visual creations. Meanwhile, Vidyala of Manalicious is not known for IC fiction but has decorated her blog with fantastic and adorable drawings. She has the talent, practice, proper tools, and the confidence required to produce high-end visual folkart. Also, WHELP ON HEAD.
Visper’s pony has obvious visual signifiers – the Draenaic colors, the horn, the dark straight hair. Meanwhile, Vidyala’s additions are able to customize the pony and make it obviously a Draenai, and fairly obviously a fire mage. But the most poignant differences are innate to the generator – the expressions on their faces reveal very different personalities in very different situations.
Contrast and Context Analysis
Many people were driven to create ponies, or scenes, which more accurately reflected their character’s nature or class. Rosaamarilla, of Heavy Wool Bandage,who plays a dwarven paladin, added holy sparkles to her cheerful,tiny pony. Miri’s male blood elf paladin Raziel chose a blue body color to symbolize his T11 gear, and stylized coiffure and smug grin to represent his vanity. Both are player/artist short hand for “paladin”, and reflect vastly different ideas of what being a paladin means to their character.
My Normpony reflects her tauren race through her coloration and her horn, and her druidic class through her orange accessories. She’s also personalized more specifically through her Cutie-mark, of the Restoration leaf, and an in-character joke. Elendryn, Sillermoon’s druid, used elongated ears, eyebrows, and custom eye-tattooing to signify “Kaldorei”, but used Mark of the Wild to symbolize her druidic roots.
Displayed together as examples of different races’ Druidism, both ponies become clearer examples than either would be alone.
Outside of the wow community, none of these ponies would be recognizable as Warcraft tributes, of course. Yet it’s through context that they become more unique and representative. Religious folk art, for example, is meaningful largely in the context of religious practice, common visual shorthand, and shared experiences. Native North American art lacks meaning unless one knows which animals tribes the creators revered. Medieval Christian art evolved a highly complex series of gestures and accessories to provide identification to various saints when artistic methods were never photorealistic and many of the people viewing the art would have been illiterate. The cycle of modern “Fine” art is incomprehensible without an understanding of the modes which came before it – Impressionism is only revolutionary when seen as a departure from the Romantic and Realist schools of the 19th century. Post-Modernism is literally meaningless without a functional understanding of Modernism. The limitations of a certain genre of folk art does not inherently make it meaningless to its creators.
Final thoughts: Ponies are really awesome and fun. Sparkle Ponies are $25 but these ponies are free. You should make some ponies. Warcraft is fun and community is fun, and sharing personal creations is part of what makes the Warcraft blogosphere so compelling and welcoming. The Warcraft universe is sometimes unsure what the place of Player Characters truly is, with us, at best, playing nameless backup to Lore figures or simultaneously and identically performing the same quests on rails. A tool which helps people feel ownership of their character’s appearance and personality, and further invests them in that story, is precious, and an easily accessible meme that gets people talking and sharing creativity is a valuable, if light-hearted, addition to the blogosphere.
Ponies? They’re awesome. Go ahead and post a pony if you feel like it. And check us out on twitter for more fun conversation at @FlavorTextLore, or Narci at @Druidis4Fite! Huge thanks to everyone who made ponies that didn’t get featured.