Gamers commonly seem to be fans of roleplaying, fantasy, mythology and sci fi, and they're attracted to game worlds and genres that explore common themes and elements in these genres. What are your thoughts on WoW's thematic underpinnings?
WoW is am amazing postmodern patchwork of mythologies. What I like about it is that players can take part in more or less any folkloric or mythological system they want to, from the Tolkien-esque tribes of Elves to the more classical Dwarves and Humans and Paladins. Then you add in the Draenei and Outland, and it's all happening in the same universe. It's as though all the walls that separate culture and magical systems and pantheons have fallen down in this one place, and they're interacting in ways they couldn't anywhere else. I think of Azeroth as a nexus, a meeting place at the center of all those possible worlds.
The division into Alliance and Horde is very Yin/Yang to me (though it's more complex than that, since both engage in violence and aggression, essentially Yang activities). I think it's more accurate to say the Horde struggles with darkness, with chthonic impulses and demonic magic, with their past, with dark, underbelly powers that in older mythologies spring from the night, the feminine, the secretive, the dead. The Alliance struggles with light, with pride and prejudice, overweening belief in their own righteousness, full of paladins and puffed-up self involvement - in older stories, these would be the traits of the bright and cruel and masculine, the daytime world. Even in their righteousness, they touch the same dark impulses as their enemy.
All creatures strive towards light and darkness, first the one, then the other. Though it's never so simple in the real world - especially the gender issues that get attached to such alignments - in narrative constructs like WoW, everything gets boiled down to essences, and elemental battles can be played out, over and over. Perhaps there is some dim echo of Shiva to be seen there - every step an avatar takes in his or her eternal battle resonating both elementally, archetypically, and actually, part of the great dance that every tale chronicles, one way or another.
Even the word avatar never seemed random to me. It means incarnation, specifically of a god. We play our god-figures on a broad board, and every step in their dance says something about the person pulling the strings. It's only that gaming culture hasn't met its one true critic yet, who can interpret all these seemingly silly things in light of a world's worth of stories and need and desire.
The Burning Crusade expansion threw many players thrown off-kilter with the so-called sci-fi flair of the Draenei, the Exodar and interstellar travel themes. You yourself joust with the boundaries of science fiction versus fantasy. What do you think is behind all the resistance to cross the lines drawn in the sand?
Oh, god, this is such an issue in my field! First of all, the Draenei rule. If I were still playing, they'd definitely be my guys. But then, I love it when a little SF gets mixed in with my fantasy. I want everything to mix, and subdivide, and more amazing things to come out of the mating of fantasy and science fiction.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don't. I think it comes in part from a sort of monkey-level desire to ally oneself with a team, and once you've allied, it's hard to condone the other team's antics. (Shades of Horde and Alliance! Which one are we fantasists, I wonder?) Part of it comes from a very real desire of some fans to stick with technology as their literary, gaming or otherwise crack of choice, and others to stick to magic.
A lot of popular SF/F products supply comfort - it's a big part of their appeal, knowing the rules of a fantasy world, how things ought to play out. Now a lot of writers, including myself, like to subvert that, but that doesn't change the fact that comfort is a big selling point. If an alien planet lands in one's happy Tolkien universe, I can understand anxiety.
But in the end, I say get over it. Play in the ruins of the rules. So many bizarre and awesome things can come when the rules are broken down and ray guns get to play with Elf maidens, when AI and trolls cross-breed - stories that can be so much better and richer than either alone. Branching off into writing SF has been hard for me but incredibly rewarding. As a human, I always want something new. I want the saffron-black pepper ice cream I've never tried before. This is where I get it - in the places where worlds meet. I hope that MMORPGs will continue to cross genres, so that eventually it won't be such a strange thing to do.
Do you think gaming, sci fi, fantasy – or all three – are in danger of being stunted by the insistence of hardcore influences on sticking to certain conventions and expectations?
I think anything is stunted by insisting on conventions and previous expectations. That's not what revolutions are about, kids - and let's not forget, WoW was once the raw new kid out there that nobody knew. I'm a child of postmodernism. I want all the walls to come down, I want everything to be permitted, so that I can both create and consume any kind of story or game I want (and many I didn't even know I wanted). I want rich and brilliant choices - not the same old thing. I want to be surprised. I want to be excited by games and books - and the more genres collide and recombine, the more that will happen.
Some publications such as Massively.com have even been talking about redefining the terminology we use to refer to MMOs. Where do you think game worlds are, and could be, headed?
I think the obvious answer is that they will become more and more immersive, with more and more connection to the real world. It won't be too long before we hit the upper ceiling of graphical ability - it can only look so much like the real world before it's indistinguishable. I think MMORPGs may evolve into something of a combination of Second Life, Twitter and WoW, where people live a significant portion of their lives in-game, the way they do with SL, but that the division between the ersatz realism of the blogosphere and the fantasy/SF tones of the games has disappeared. Players might live two lives, but they could become less and less separate, with avatars keeping blogs and the real-world money even now available in MMORPGs creating genuine in-game economies, with recessions and booms, just like the real world.
Obviously this is just speculation, but it seems to be where it's headed. If true VR technology is developed anywhere along the line, the division between games and the real world will completely blur. I don't necessarily view this as a bad thing. Life is life; there is no intrinsic value to a non-simulated world. Love and greed and desire and death, it will all still happen, no matter how many bells and whistles we can hang on it.
We're in Catherynne M. Valente's MMORPG game world. Where are we, and what are we seeing and doing?
Ooh, fun! Well, first off, we have a variety of real-folklore races, like Spriggans, Rusalka, Kappa, Firebirds. The world has a combination of technology and magic, where each fuels the other, a kind of dieselpunk, New Weird aesthetic. In addition to quests and combat, there are substantive mysteries about the history of the world to solve and maybe even the opportunity to build part of the world (as in the Civilization). I love the guild system and how it builds online tribes, so that would definitely have to be a part of it. I'd love to have an SF element, where really bizarre flying machines could be assembled by players to travel to other planets, and long-term side quests, like the Chocobo-breeding of the FF franchise.
Oh, man, I can't talk about this! It makes me want to live another life so I can invent it!
You've talked about how the blogging, art and other activities surrounding Palimpsest helped bring the novel into the real world. Do you think a similar force may lie behind some of the attraction and success of persistent game worlds and MMORPGs like WoW?
I certainly do. I think the drive is always to bring the fictional world into the real world, to make these things we love so much real and tangible, not just in our heads and on our screens. When you add to that the tribe-building aspects of WoW and other online communities, you could hardly have a more powerful force for creativity.
I can't wait to see what the world looks like in 40 years, when a whole generation has grown up playing MMORPGs. What we will be like, what we will want. What kind of books and music we will create. What our awesome, broadsword-swingin' retirement will be like. The games we play and the stories we tell change the way we see the world - we are human, we are affected by everything we touch.
It's natural, to look up from a book and ache because you can't live in that world. To look away from a screen, movie or game, and wish you could pull that place out of the computer or television and into your life or pull yourself through the screen and into another place. People have been writing about wanting to stay in stories forever, just about as long as they've been writing stories - and as I said, a game is just another way of telling a story. WoW and other MMORPGs allow people to tell and be told stories simultaneously, and to continue those stories functionally all their lives, and so the attachment to those worlds is incredibly intense. I don't think we should be ashamed of those attachments. They make us who we are, and enrich us, every day. We all just want to hold a little bit of our favorite stories in our hand.
Read Valente's book-within-a-book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, published in installments online. Learn more about the author's work and world at CatherynneMValente.com.
"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" - neither did we, until we talked with these players. From an Oscar-winning 3-D effects director to a custom action figure artist and even a bunch of guys who get together for dinner and group raiding in person every week, catch it on 15 Minutes of Fame.