What does it mean to write "I be a Troll in RL, Mon"?

I'm writing my dissertation on WoW, and my recent work has been on race in this game: both the ways the game's design depicts race, and the ways that players respond to that design. Right now I'm working on the latter, and I've noticed a funny trend in the way that WoW players talk about race: when they're talking about their own racial identities and bigotries, they tend to substitute in-game races for real-life races. Here are a couple of examples.

About a year ago, I witnessed the following conversation between two members of my guild:

Mehet: YOU dont EvEN know who I be
Killa: nope, u don't know who i be
Mehet: I KNOW who u be
Killa: who do I be?
Mehet: Zingo [the name of Killa's main character]

Intrigued by these players' use (or misuse) of African American English, I asked them if they'd mind telling me where they were from and what race they were in RL. Mehet got cagey – he suspected that I was criticizing him – but after a long pause, he wrote, "I be a Troll in RL, mon."

The other night, in the trade chat channel, about thirty players got into a heated discussion about illegal immigration. At a couple of points in the conversation, they started naming their RL races/ethnicities: "I'm like 14 different kinds of white," "I'm frickin' German," etc. Then one of them claims, "I'm Draenei." Later, another one writes, "I'm racist, I hate any undead," to which someone else replied, "I hate undead too, such asswipes."

So the questions I pose to the group are: what do I make of these substitutions of in-game races for out-game races? Are there any theories that might explain them? Have any of you noticed similar practices in the games you're studying?


This is the first blog entry from our newest contributor, Chris Ritter, a PhD student at Washington State University.

Welcome aboard, Chris!

Race Invaders

You may have heard that white kids of the Gen Y persuasion have (at one point, don't know if its still popular) casually called each other "nigger" as a sort of friendly greeting, co-oping it from the black community which, to a politically correct frame, have every right to use it, while white kids don't. The thing is, its generally used with a sort of ironic "racism doesn't matter" jingoism, which is distinct from a sentiment of "race doesn't matter" at least to the extent that these white kids would never say "whats up nigga" to a black guy, unless it was suitably prefaced with ironic detachment. So I think the real issue here is a non-issue, or rather, an issue of transcending the issue. We substitute these fictional tokens to highlight to arbitrary-ness of racial divides in the first place.

Illegal immigration is entirely an economic issue by the way, the xenophobia is a symptom of that.

I am happy to see some other

I am happy to see some other people working on these concerns. I organized a panel at UC Riverside last April about Race and Video Games and we discussed some similar issues in relation to WOW. I have an unpublished paper that deals with logics of race and character creation that may or may not be useful to you (it is unpublished after all).

One of the things I find interesting is how games use fantasy settings and races to, in some way, dodge messy issues of race. Even so, these fantastical races still rely heavily on forms of visual and cultural shorthand to correspond to "out-game" race as you phrase it. This has a long tradition all the way back to the very beginning of the genre.

It is obvious from your example that the players understand that the Troll race corresponds in many ways, and uses many familiar cues, of Jamaican and African identity, even if this is not explicit. These games very much rely on common sense notions of race in order to make their narratives and worlds coherent. In this way, the antagonism between the races in WOW does not need to be explained all that much, players automatically understand that there are biologically different factions which fight because of this difference. The problem is that these are reductive logics that do not communicate the reality of race as malleable, socially constructed, and politically motivated.

I also find the conversation you reference intriguing. Do both of these players play Troll characters? Is the language they are using supposed to be Troll-ese or are they using their own out-game voices?

The fact that this can be confusing is, in itself, fascinating.


I'm also working on a paper

I'm also working on a paper about the "cultural shorthands" involved in WoW's races, as well as the significance of the game's faction system w/r/t racism. I've sent it to Games and Culture and gotten revision suggestions, so I'm in the process of refocusing it. Maybe we should collaborate on this - what do you think?

Personally I think it's just

Personally I think it's just people having a laugh and lightening the tone by injecting some game references into a discussion that is too serious for them to feel comfortable participating in. Not to generalise, but a lot of people go into virtual environments (be they virtual worlds or mere forums) to escape the so called "real" world. It's incredibly common to see any serious discussion court such comments from people who would rather keep the chatter to the issues of a game, than risk being challenged when they commit a comment on a controversial matter outside of the game. Of course, any genuinely important issue is usually resistant to such derailing attempts.

Race vs. Species

This kind of conversation makes me wonder about the gamish tendency (in games I believe it started with D&D, though I suspect it goes back further into fantasy/sci-fi literature) of assigning the term "races" to what really should be different species.

Does anyone else find this conflation of terms a bit problematic? Aligning "species" with "race" suggests to me a xenophobia of sorts whereby our perception of racial differences is grossly enlarged to include entirely different physiologies and genetic makeup. It seems to push race further away into an inflated position of alterity.

Or maybe things are the other way around - can we read the species/race conflation as symptomatic of anxieties about the racial other? WoW seems particularly insidious in this respect, especially because their in-game cultures resemble a lot of real-world cultures, so the distinction between real and virtual is much less clear -- and results, I would imagine, in your trolls mimicking a very racialized vernacular.

As far as whether we can even make the technical distinction between race and species in a game, I realize that we don't really have the equivalent of genetic compatibility in the game world. However, it seems clear that people make the assumption that certain "races" can't/don't/won't interbreed with others.

Does anyone remember the discussion about this at the 2006 UF conference? I'm sketchy on the details.


This topic did indeed come up at the 2006 conference, albeit with a different focus. Mainly it was the topic of Mike Stanyer's presentation, which you can view here.

On Race vs. Species

Upon reflection, it makes me proud to be a sci-fi person, as (at least often enough) those stories and games do properly use the term "species" rather than "race." Not always, but often enough.

The (improper/inaccurate) use of "race" in fantasy, going back as it does at least to the D&D days, if not to Tolkien (which would make a difference - anyone have that info?), brings with it implications of racism based on appearance. Some games and stories actually make use of this as plot elements; I myself have run P&P games in settings like Dark Sun and explicitly included prejudices against "half-breeds" or greenskins and the like (either to make things difficult for PCs in the affected categories or to pose ethical dilemmas, both of which enhance play IMO). At a deeper level, though, the way WoW and some others systematically pit "races" or species against each other is not just xenophobia; it's tantamount to (as has been mentioned above) interspecies warfare.

But with the conflation of terms, this then becomes (implicitly, at least) "race warfare." Is that not disturbing?

In sci-fi, the "species" issue is (often enough) used not to dodge race-related questions but to address them thoughtfully in terms that are not as culturally loaded (especially for Americans) as "race" is. Fantasy's insistence on using the "wrong" term, and thereby reinserting inaccurate concepts into mainstream thinking, amounts to a major setback to this project.

It also feeds into an insidious tendency in the thinking in some parts of the US: the illegal immigration question is not entirely economic. In some parts of the country it is quasi-racist, in that it's at least as much (and my anecdotal experience tells me maybe it's more) about preserving the mythical "purity" of the American makeup. While this is just stupid in so very many ways, it's also very real. To this end, using the term "race" as a common-parlance signifier of "invaders who look and talk differently" - especially when they talk like people in RL - is a really, really bad social practice.

Not to mention offensive. How come the (stupid, barbaric, ungraceful, low-tech) trolls and orcs are the ones who usually talk like non-native speakers or speakers of color? (IMO, Games Workshop is particularly egregious in this vein, but we see it all over the place.)

I think it would be important to find out what the Tolkien scholars have to say about him and his universes in relation to the race question. It's quite possible, given the world he lived in, that he had some (more or less) racist views/attitudes that found their way into his writing, which then could have trickled down to or permeated the entire genre without much effort (or, without specific efforts to combat it). If that's the case, then the WoW (and generally fantasy) race question becomes an issue of legacy - and also much easier to combat and undo.

Mmmm, yummy research...

The race/species conflation

The race/species conflation is definitely a troubling convention of MMO design and, unfortunately, it seems that it won't be changing in the near future (at least from what I can tell).

I read an interesting article recently by Alexander Galloway that briefly touches on some of these concerns, it's called "Starcraft, or, Balance".

He addresses the problem that in most MMOs, such as WOW, character classes can be altered, manipulated, and modified throughout a character's lifespan where as the race/species selection is consistently fixed and permanent. This communicates to players certain reductive notions of identity.

His article echoes some thoughts I have been having recently about how to alter these trends. I would love to see a game that through its design comments on the political realities of racial identification and perhaps offers player's a chance to cross-identify and alter their racial identification as they progress.


Blizzard tends to inherit a

Blizzard tends to inherit a lot of things directly from literature - I would say the links between The Lord of the Rings and the Warcraft universe are just as obvious as the ties between Starship Troopers and Starcraft. Game designers love to throw bones at the fans (I recall particularly all the amazing Alien sound bytes in SC), but in this case it preserved a (possibly unintentional) problematic convention that pits the great white (/lavender) humanoids against the brown (/green) barbarians.

I did some very very rudimentary skimming online in regards to the Tolkien stuff, and there is (unsurprisingly) a great divide between academics and the fans. Whereas academics are trained to recognize how subtle signs like this function to a reader, the general public cries foul: "Of course, if you look hard enough at many great epics, you can extrapolate what you like, particularly if you have academic kudos behind you."

I would be willing to accept that the theme of racial warfare and the generally disturbing undertones of Tolkien's work were an unintentional byproduct of a greater, noble plan. But then again, most problematic representations are.