Warcraft goes from Pygmies to Sherpa

The original version of this post appeared at Decoding Dragons.

This is a difficult post. Not because it’s personal for me, but I feel like someone should say something. The casual cultural appropriation that Blizzard continues to practise is tiring, dated, and makes me very uneasy about Mists of Pandaria. I am western european and I am white. I don’t feel comfortable pointing this out, as it is not my culture that Mists of Pandaria is appropriating in a disneyfied orientalist fashion.

Think back to the pygmies

In Cataclysm we saw the introduction of the Pygmy model. A brown-skinned race depicted as savage – supposedly based on heavy metal characters, but in actuality echoing the colonialist stereotype of the peoples of North Africa. The very name taken from real cultures in Africa. During the course of questing through Uldum, players would kill and cage the pygmies, hit them with mallots etc. WoW Insider did a great post-mortem of Cataclysm, and I’m going to quote from them here

The things that disgusted me about Uldum don’t end there, either. Uldum is what, to me, solidified the pygmy race is a racist caricature. I didn’t mind them in the goblin starting area. They were a little weird, but they fit exactly what Blizzard described them as; they’re modeled after classic rock roadies. Their tribe is even called the Oomlot Tribe, which if you haven’t figured it out, is a nod to the umlaut. They fit that in the goblin starting zone. In Uldum, that goes out the window. Blizzard took this thing that was already racially charged and, instead of taking the high road and doing something cool with them, stayed right down there with everybody’s worst expectations and made them a really insensitive thing.

Now considering that the orcs, trolls, goblins and tauren are codified as people of colour (as opposed to the very westernised cultures of the humans and dwarves particularly) Blizzard’s track record on sensitivity to racial issues and cultural appropriation is already bad. I’ve seen posts on various forums from Native Americans lamenting and wincing at the broad strokes used to define the Tauren. Sadly I’ve not seen any Chinese (or asian) reactions to Mists of Pandaria, only ‘my friend is ____’ type comments from westerners.

That said – it is Warcraft and I’m not surprised or rending my clothes over the continued lack of subtlety on the grand scale of things. Pandaria fits in with Thunderbluff. There are many talented artists, animators and writers working at Blizzard and they continue to do grand work within the schemes laid out for them by the needs of the game, the theme and the overarching story. Much of the artwork for Mists is breathtaking, and I do think they’ll tell some interesting stories.

From Pygmies to Sherpa

Well, now. Sherpa. One of the latest updates at WoWhead has included a character model codenamed ‘sherpa’. Take a look at him on wowhead, or just click the image below for a bigger one.



A small humanoid carries a massive pack that is bigger than he is. Image via WoWhead

Well. First of all there are the Sherpa People, of the Kingdom of Nepal. The stereotypes surrounding this group of people in general are relatively benign – they have some renown for physical superiority. The term ‘sherpa’ is also often applied to local mountain/climbing guides of other ethnicities. The image of the western holiday-maker or explorer surrounded by locals carrying their belongings is the image that the above model invokes. As the model uses the pygmy model, this makes me distinctly uncomfortable and I’m not at all of the mind that this was in any way appropriate for Blizzard to include. Please note that I’m not certain if ‘Sherpa’ is simply a code name or the actual model name, we’ll have to wait until later to find out.

They have made an efford to make the model less humanoid via the skin texture and fingers, but I’m really not convinced that it’s enough. They could easily have done something different to fill this NPC niche. It makes me wonder if we’ll see more development of the in-game pygmy race in lore, or if they will forever remain a one-off joke, based on colonialist views of people that are ‘other’ to the western experience. Including non-western cultures in a nuanced, imaginative and sensitive fashion is a good thing, but I don’t think Blizzard have managed that here.

This isn’t about racial slurs

I’m not saying that ‘pygmy’ or ‘sherpa’ are offensive terms in and of themselves. They are perfectly legitimate, correct terms for two peoples. Blizzard hasn’t been offensive by using those terms, but in the way they are applied and the characters depicted. With regards to the Sherpa ‘model’, perhaps this is just temporary name and the NPC will appear with a more appropriate name. I hope so, but the ‘sherpa’ model is not ranked with humanoids which suggests that, like the pygmies, they’ll be seen as sub-human and┬ásubservient, echoing those colonialist attitudes that took the Oomlot tribe of the Lost Isles from heavy metal to racially charged by placing the npcs in an environment that invokes the stereotypes. I have no idea if any of the Sherpa people play Warcraft, or even care about stereotypes in a video game, but it’s indicative of a larger problem within world building.

Benign but ignorant

It’s all packaged up as entertainment, but it’s a bit like reducing the British to tea, crumpets, the Queen and Sherlock Holmes. Except it isn’t at all. This is mostly western entertainment, devised for westerners. Occidentalism, that is the negative stereotypes of westerners, doesn’t really have the same power in games developed by westerners for westerners. I really think Blizzard needs to sit down and think about it’s continued use of cultural shorthand in world building and culture creation. ┬áNon-western (and non-white coded) cultures and NPCs don’t have to be the sole province of anthropromorphic races or secondary NPCs, or even enemies. They don’t have to be coded as exotic, or other.

About Pewter

Pewter mainly blogs at Decoding Dragons when she isn't busy play World of Warcraft or watching Doctor Who.
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28 Responses to Warcraft goes from Pygmies to Sherpa

  1. SurprisedUnDead says:

    The mintaur was a singular monster of myth without a culture. Take a look at the Tauren city of Thunderbluff (with all its feathers, spirits, and respect for nature) and you wont be able to deny that they are a Native American appropriation.

    Its fine to reference other cultures in western RPGs but why do they have to be so patronising and one dimentional?

    Also why should it be left to offended and oppressed peoples to defend themselves? Shouldnt the onus be on the offenders to change rather than the receivers?

    • SurprisedUnDead says:

      Racism and racial insensitivity should offend you as a HUMAN. Not just if you are directly affected.

      • SurprisedUnDead says:

        You make an excellent point as to why we should discus and debate these things and not just ignore them.

        The point of the original post was to bring this topic to light for discussion which isn’t being overly sensitive or reading too deeply.

        Its unbeleivable that the concept of being “too racially sensitive” can exist in a world that still has slavery, genocide, and suppression of human rights based on race (a topic revelant to the region depicted in the game).

        Personally I am not offended on anyone’s behalf but my own. As a Blizzard consumer I don’t want to witness these lazy, colonial era characterisations which, quite frankly, belong in a museum.

  2. I think you’re missing the point here- you say that you “don’t play World of Warcraft,” so you seem to be unaware that the entire Tauren culture- everything from their armor to their architecture- is based heavily on stereotypical plains regalia a la: http://pcmedia.gamespy.com/pc/image/article/122/1220678/WoW3_1331676463.jpg

    …And so on and so forth. It’s not that the models of the non-human characters are based in racial stereotypes, but that their actions, dialogue and settings are codified as non-western.

  3. Charlie says:

    I think that a pretty strong case can be made for the Tauren race borrowing heavily from Native American culture and not generally fantasy characteristics about Minotaur. Their homes in Thunderbluff and Thousand Needles are very much modeled on totem polls, Teepees and that sort of thing. Also they have more than a few “vision quest” questlines.

    The Trolls have an exaggerated Jamaican accent but the rest of their culture comes more from the Tikki Room in Disneyland than it does from the Caribbean. I have heard people try to relate the Orcs to other races but I don’t see as strong a connection to it; that one has always struck me as reading too heavily into the material.

    • Corbiu Geisha says:

      Although, if you consider how Orcs have a history of embodying fears about Africans in Western Fantasy…

      • Corbiu Geisha says:

        And Tolkien is a racist shithead. Let’s see, they were described as “black-skinned” thought that is the only one, I admit, which allow them to be read as African analogues. Tenuous. However, Tokien obviously intended for them to be read as Mongol Horde analogues seeing how he saw fit to describe them as “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types” in one of his letters.

        Not so fast if you think that invalidates what I’m saying. Take a quick look and you’ll find examples of African sterotypes embodied in orcs.

        As for the Warcraft universe, my only frame of reference is Warcraft 3 so I’ll be using that as my case. During the orc campaign, you get troll headhunters (headhunting yay!) who practice voodoo. Oh, and they look like this: http://classic.battle.net/war3/images/orc/units/portraits/headhunter.gif
        Why, those tusks almost look like nose-bones! Granted, they’re not the orc race exclusively but it is clear that the design of the orcs, trolls, and taurens are based on sterotypes of shamanistic tribal peoples.

        • KA101 says:

          Re: “not our place” to judge JRRT (can’t directly reply to Cerbereth)

          Strongly reject. If anyone or anything becomes non-judgable, that’s a clear sign of its corrupting those who are declaring it so. JRRT’s experiences doubtless inform his work and may be worth considering, but in no way do they earn him some sort of freedom from judgment.

        • Matt says:

          Secondking KA101. Anytime someone tries to assert “not our place” to criticize someone or something, we’re drifting towards a bad place we should never be.

          That said, I’m hardly here to defend the “racist shithead” comment but I am willing to read about Middle-Earth while having to adjust mentally to the unfortunate racisti tropes, and at the same time discouraging anyone trying to take inspiration from him from accepting the work uncritically and putting the bathwater in the crib with the baby.

  4. KA101 says:

    Huh. Those hands look like combat claws rather than manipulators suitable for (say) weaving cloth, stitching bags, or crafting tools. Not to mention that the legs/ankles really don’t seem suitable for supporting that load or moving at any significant speed. That body design, to be charitable, would not have evolved naturally. To be less charitable, it seems a caricature to me. The OP’s use of “Disneyfied” seems about right.

    Cf. the actual Sherpa pictured here:
    or perhaps some of these people:
    [Though the founder–apparently one of the few women Sherpas to make it up Everest, twice–is rather low on the page, I suspect that’s because a mountaineering-guide company probably doesn’t want to lead with the fact that its founder died descending a mountain. That she seems to be the only woman pictured is problematic, though.]

    who, though dressed like they are some sort of mountain climber*, as opposed to some porter for a player character, look pretty similar to any other human one might encounter. Though I realize that this theoretically isn’t a finished design, code names can still be problematic, people.

    *because they ARE mountain climbers, and not some nondescript NPC from a race created to fill a niche. That said: not every Sherpa climbs mountains or should be expected to do so.

    • Jean-Paul says:

      Judging by how the world still is, I think it’d be perfectly reasonable for people in the future to look back and point this out.

    • Matt says:

      Are you really proposing a totally neutral moral relativism here? Or this is just tone argument?

      If the former, I don’t think we can engage in a mature dialogue until you’ve been around for a few more years and actually seen for yourself what good and bad people are actually capable of in the real world.

      If the latter, I’ll address one specific part of it: to judge someone’s works and flaws therein is an exercise in trying not to repeat them, a danger which is especially clear and present when those flaws are found in and inseparable from works of famous historical figures held in high esteem.

      As a non-race-related example, I can say that G.K. Chesterton was a wonderful writer and that his theological arguments were full of holes and false equivocations, and earnestly believe both without the slighest contradiction – and if I borrow from his writing style I’ll have to skip over those parts that I would rather not emulate. Back to this particular tangent, however, I can take inspiration from Tolkien with his deliberately slow and meandering pacing, contrasts of human and superhuman scales and tones of things, and the fleeting glimpses of bygone things that suggests much but reveals little about a much greater world than even the big setting-plot driving the story, but I can do that without making the monsters slant-eyed little yellow men from the East.

      Conversely: Many years ago I posted some fantasy fiction online where one of the setting elements was an alien race that was manipulating the world through faceless megacorps. The only arm’s-length feedback I ever got was some praise from a guy with a white supremacist metal band’s site in his signature. It wasn’t until years later that I learned just how many old anti-Semitic tropes I was unwittingly using in my description of the aliens. I’ve removed the story for other reasons (i.e., it sucked), but I would like to think I’ve been more careful about this sort of thing since.

      • KA101 says:

        Matt’s statement directly hits the “why” and the “how” of judging: that we seek to improve ourselves and our work–by identifying what works, what doesn’t, and seeking to increase the former and remove the latter. Support.

        As for the injustices you raise, you’re quite right. Your example of poor Sam Clemens’ treatment at the hands of someone not familiar with 19th century social norms seems roughly a mirror image of what I’ve typically encountered with JRRT discussion, namely that his work is really great and shouldn’t be challenged.

        Both cases are an injustice, because there’s a judgment without sufficient facts: Sam Clemens was perhaps enlightened for his time, but his work still reflects the social norms of when he wrote it, and is not something that should pass without comment or discussion. The adventures of Huck Finn, nor Tom Sawyer for that matter, are not something I’d want the youngling I’m mentoring to emulate.

        Likewise, JRRT does well at world-building. Problem is, he populated his world in a way that–even if he didn’t consciously intend so–looks like racist stereotyping. So, readers need to be able to take that into consideration.

        Third illustration: Larry Niven’s Ringworld is an excellent example of conceptual SF…just don’t let him do racial or character development. Teela, Prill, and the kzinti culture, off top/head, are–to say it charitably–somewhat misogynist.

        (I wasn’t quite aware of that when I started reading the series as a youngling. I hope reading them didn’t skew my worldview, but it probably did. Working to mitigate, in any event.)

        Bottom line: it’s fair to judge authors’ work by the standards of morality we have now. Failing to so judge constitutes abandoning those standards. Judging an author, xyrself, strictly by xyr work does ourselves and the author an injustice, because we’re not working with the full context.

        Bringing it back to the original topic: Codenaming the pictured character as “Sherpa”, despite the name change, indicates some level of racism on the part of the relevant designers. It’s good that they changed the name, but that doesn’t undo the original stereotyping. Less caricaturing in future, please, Blizzard.

  5. Francis York Morgan says:

    Fantasy: Reducing Non-European Cultures To Monsters And “Demi-Humans” Since 1954

    I hate this genre so much.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I apologise for going a little off-topic, but the last paragraph got me thinking about negative stereotyping as a whole. If we accept that negative stereotypes are bad, should we protest all negative stereotyping, even if we belong to the group that is being stereotyped and don’t personally have a problem with it? It’s kind of like a twisted version of the concept that supporting the right to free speech means supporting the right of people to say stuff you disagree with.

    • Corbiu Geisha says:

      Just because someone doesn’t personally have a problem with a sterotype directed at them doesn’t mean that the sterotype doesn’t exist nor that it isn’t harmful.

      • Korva says:

        While it’s true that it can go badly when “outsiders” appoint themselves as the voice of marginalized or hated people, it’s still extremely important to have visible “allies” — especially in cases where the marginalized person has or people have been effectively silenced through threats, abuse and the longtime experience that they are completely alone and no one gives a dead rat’s last shit about them.

        A single straight person stepping in to stop bullying may save a gay kid’s life. A single man not looking away may stop sexual assault. Now you might say there’s a big difference between an actual criminal act and “mere” offensive portrayals of someone, but how many times is a criminal act preceded by systematic degradation that isolates and paralyzes the intended victim and afterwards blames them for what was done to them?

        • zooey says:

          You’re diverting. Your ‘heroes’ conflict with your argument that “It needs to be on the shoulders of the supposedly offended to complain about stereotypes and unfair treatment.”

          Marginalized groups do not need to be *saved*. But there is a huge difference between some privileged person stepping up and saying “hey, maybe there’s something wrong with this,” and the ‘White Man’s Burden.’

          To do anything less then consider that something is problematic is to be an enabler, and give tacit consent to whatever is going on.

  7. IIRC, they’re called “grummles” in-game.  Not sure of how much of a difference that makes.

    • The screen name is actually meant as a Warcraft reference.  Sorry.

    • Matt says:

      On the one hand, that does mean that someone who isn’t paying attention to anything other than the end product on its face would not actually see this name.

      On the other, this isn’t like interpreting a contract where only the final draft counts and we have to ignore the stuff that went on before, so I don’t think such a narrow view should be the expected norm.

      For what it’s worth, IMXP there are still folks out there who call the Q1 vore the shalrath and the Q1 protag Quake, and folks who debate what kind of zombies those are in the original Doom and point out they’ve got to be demon-possessed because of POSS in the sprite name.

      Then again, I have no recollection how much flack Id got for naming the spawn “tarbaby”…

  8. Maverynthia says:

    Hrmm I smell a troll in the dungeon with the first sentence.

    “Your reading too much into it” Gods people why can’t we all just sit back and enjoy the game for being a game! Why do we always have to point out shit that *I* can’t see and thus it doesn’t exist! Seriously!!111

    • Korva says:

      If not a troll, then definitely someone close to being one for coming here with, apparently, little interest in what the site is about.

    • zooey says:

      …pretty sure that Maverynthia was aiming that at you (unless of course the commenter was referring to “this is a difficult post” as raising troll flags).

      • zooey says:

        Not so much babbling, as calling you on trying to refute the OP by saying “you’re reading too much into this.” Though, I suppose getting defensive and calling valid complaints ‘babbling’ is at least consistent with your other posts.

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