One French World of Warcraft player in Orgrimmar, who goes by the name of Morrhigan, is a rare breed: she plays with a female avatar and is a woman in real life. But if anyone asks while she’s playing she usually just says she’s a man.
It isn’t uncommon for men to play as women in World of Warcraft; even Morrhigan’s boyfriend played as one. Most people think that’s because men get to stare at a woman’s multicolored butt instead of a man’s. But Morrhigan thinks it's really because “girls are disrespected” by the denizens of Azeroth.
Morrihgan was speaking with Angela Washko, an artist who wears a “cool story babe, now get back in the kitchen” shirt. Washko was in the middle of a project where she asked World of Warcraft players what their definition of ‘feminism’ is while projecting her game session before a live audience in Toronto.
Soon after starting a website called The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft), Washko began her performance piece "Playing A Girl," in which she travels the highly-successful fantasy landscape, asking players what they think feminism is. She doesn’t lead discussions, she only starts them or seeks to maintain them. Nothing makes her feel the piece is going better than when orcs, trolls, blood elves and kung-fu pandas get into a group conversation about patriarchy.
One player with a mammoth for a mount said, “I suppose that I would consider any woman my equal.” One Pandaren said he “agrees on some points, but I feel it is used to dominate.” One player yelped “Feminazi” at Washko, while many cartoon avatars and their human controllers copy-paste the definition from Wikipedia verbatim.
While her discussions are digital, she feels they’re more revealing of the non-virtual reality. To her mind, people feel more comfortable being honest behind the guise of their Horde hero than in real life. I spoke with her about "Playing A Girl," the players she’s encountered in-game, and how this reflects on people’s ideology out-of-game.
Motherboard: When did you first start playing World of Warcraft?
Angela Washko: When it came out I was really excited about it. I really loved MUDS growing up, I really enjoyed text-based RPGS, and I played some really shitty multiplayer RPGs that I didn’t really like. I still like first person shooters.
I was only deterred by World of Warcraft’s monthly subscription model, so I resisted playing it, but my college boyfriend and housemates, who had also been against the idea of paying a monthly subscription fee, decided to try it for a month. So I joined. Then I was playing all the time. My boyfriend and I thought it was alright to keep playing it because it was like a recreation fee, “we don’t have to go to movies or buy booze or anything, we can just play World of Warcraft.”
When did you start to notice a pattern in the way people behaved?
The Barrens. In the Horde faction, there’s a section of jungle before you get to a major city, you end up in The Barrens, and they’re a notoriously bad chat zone. I think with the restructuring of the game people spawn in different zones, but in the beginning it was a place a lot of people had to go through. That was the first time I began to see people spamming racist, homophobic and misogynistic shit.
I was used to seeing that in Counter-Strike, but WoW is more time intensive, you commit to a server; in Counter-Strike you have someone spewing shit into the microphone, you mute them and you can leave that server and go to another one.
A lot of the speech is borrowed from other internet enclaves but, oh you know, “Get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich lol. Lol, sandwiches. GB2kitchen.” Shit like that.
I also started noticing that I was one of the only women in that guild. When we started talking on voice chats, I began to recognize that people would get really excited when they heard my voice. It was weird, I was treated a lot differently. But there was also a common language in the public chat spaces, I noticed that immediately, but it wasn’t until after six years of playing that I felt equipped to talk about it.
What sort of things would they be saying?
A lot of the speech is borrowed from other internet enclaves but, oh you know, “Get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich lol. Lol, sandwiches. GB2kitchen.” Shit like that. I also notice people in chat talking about fucking each other’s sister. And I’ll be like, “Oh, how interesting! How do you know his sister?”
What sort of character do you play as?
My favorite builds for races are female orcs and trolls, I like the ones that look kind of androgynous. I really like playing a bald female orc. That’s kind of my favorite, with really nice green skin.
The thing about being a woman in World of Warcraft is that, well, most female characters now are actually being played by men. Everybody assumes that everyone is a man, so you have to come out as a woman. In a way, in the social space of WoW, the way you physically look has very little impact on the social atmosphere. Dudes really like to play, in the horde especially, blood elf women and the newer panda race, Pandaren.
They tell me they like blood elves because they are human looking, they’re attractive, they’re skinny, they’re sexy. Talking to men who play as the panda class, they say it’s because the panda class is short and stacked, big ass and big boobs. That’s a weird thing. A lot of male players will tell me, “Oh, I’d rather look at a female’s butt than a guy’s butt. It would be gay to have a camera pointing at a guy all the time.”
When did the idea for these performances begin to take shape?
Well, I worked for The Yes Men for a while, and I was working as an administrator in non-profit art spaces, and in a lot of my professional roles I was working as a curator, a mediator, facilitator. In general the art world that I participate in is pretty comfortable talking about feminism. But then I was in my home town, rural Pennsylvania, and I was talking a bit about feminism, and someone came out and I asked what it meant to him
He was like, “Oh yeah, that's some dyke shit? Butch lesbians that nobody likes.” I thought I should be talking to him. Then I wondered, where else are these values expressed, and it hit me: World of Warcraft.
I thought that in the beginning people would, like, freak out and not want to talk to me, but instead it made a lot more people feel like what they were saying mattered.
In my daily life, when I was living in New York, I didn’t have access to ‘that guy,’ that person in Pennsylvania, because my spheres were limited to my urban environment. World of Warcraft is where lots of opinions exist. It’s geographically diverse, it has people of many different age groups. In my guild alone it ranges from 17-year-olds to 60-year-olds, people in the military, people who are college professors, people who work as nurses. I have access through World of Warcraft.
So it wasn’t even behavior in World of Warcraft that pushed you into the idea as much as just behavior in general?
I would say that the behavior in the physical world made me realize where else this is the common language, somewhere I participate in. I started thinking about the common language, the discrimination, the structuring of the game—by the community, not by the developers.
One of the benefits from WoW is the anonymity, because it makes people willing. They’re going to be more extreme, more jokey, but they’re going to be a lot more honest, there’s little accountability. It’s not like their name is attached directly to it, so people can say some pretty revealing shit.
Often I use the guise of doing it for a research project. I thought that in the beginning people would, like, freak out and not want to talk to me, but instead it made a lot more people feel like what they were saying mattered. People participated even more.
When did you begin to perform?
Well, a year before you saw it I was just performing it in my bedroom. I don’t always do it live, usually it’s my room or a studio somewhere, and I’ll just record the videos as documentation. The first time I did it live was at a gallery in Soho. It was just an experiment, showing people what it’s like, especially if they’ve never seen the game. I’ve done it three times in New York, once in Toronto, twice in Finland.
Anything that you lose in the live performance?
When I do them in my private studio, I can keep having the conversations all day long, trust is built. When I do it for a live audience, I have to try to be engaging right away, it’s kind of unnatural. Otherwise I could insert myself kind of seamlessly. Hopefully the future of the live performances involve two hours, instead of half an hour.
Were there any intense encounters?
The most intense moment I’ve ever had was an eight hour long, extreme discussion I had with this player, a blood elf named Chastity. She was a 19-year-old pregnant housewife living in the Midwest. She had extremely conservative views, said shit like, “Anybody who gets an abortion should be sterilized and killed.”
She admitted to being raped by a family member when she was younger, she talked about how her husband had a gun collection to protect her. She talked about men’s responsibilities to protect and work. She was set on letting me know that it's not ladylike to take out the trash.
She had such extremely different views, it gave a lot of people an outlet to argue with her, though a lot of men celebrated what a ‘good woman’ she was. “There’s a good woman.” Granted, she’s 19 and pregnant, but this is where this ideology thrives, because it’s not popular in physical public space. These views are suppressed in a way, this virtual space is where they flourish.
How do you plan to continue with these sessions?
I get a lot of emails saying, “Can you come into my server and talk about feminism? Because there’s a lot of problems in my server.” And I am so glad that this project means so much to them.
I think, hopefully, what this project will become is a prototype for other people to act. You can become a representative on your own server too. Realistically there are so many servers, I could never have a character on every one. Ultimately my hope is there are more people doing this on their own, without the pretense of being a crazy artist doing a crazy project.
You can see some of Washko’s World of Warcraft work live at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art through July 17th, she’ll also be perforating in Helsinki in August and is currently working on a collaborative performance with Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart.