Someone just asked me on Twitter if I thought humans in World of Warcraft are boring. I don’t think that at all. I have several reasons for not thinking humans are boring, which I’ll lay out for you now:
Humans had/have the most elaborate and interesting political backstory in the game. The conflict between the House of Nobles, the stonemasons and craftsmen, and the House of Wrynn over Stormwind’s rebuilding has led to the existence of the Defias Brotherhood, the machinations of the Black Dragonflight and the collapse of Stormwind’s outlying territories. Westfall, Darkshire and Redridge are all cut off and fractured, and the aftermath of the war with the Lich King and the Cataclysm only kept the pressure on. Stormwind, as the last remaining human kingdom now that Theramore and Gilneas are effectively gone and Kul Tiras is missing, totters on the edge.
Humans have a great tradition of loss and perseverance. The orcs lost a world, but they’re the ones who destroyed it, so it’s hard to sympathize with them. The humans rose from scattered refugees on an alien shore to seven mighty kingdoms that ruled much of the Eastern continent, and the loss of those kingdoms after the coming of the Burning Legion and the Scourge is a story of loss piled on loss, heartbreak piled on heartbreak. The refugees from Lordaeron that survived came to Stormwind, and it is that nation which has the lion’s share of the burden of rebuilding from this staggering loss.
Every other race in World of Warcraft is just a metaphor for humanity.
I’ll expand on point three now.
That’s right. That blood elf warlock you love to play is just a metaphor for humanity. Those orc warriors with their fierce bloodlust and honor code? Based on humans. The forsaken, with their almost inhuman drive to survive even when pushed past the boundaries of death? Based on actual human experiences and ideas about what a human would do in that situation. Heck, the majority of them used to be humans even in the game’s fictional construction. Forsaken are just dead humans. Goblin merchants? A parody of human greed and mercantilism. Worgen? A way to explore the beast that dwells in the breast of all humans. (And again, they even basically are humans, just as forsaken were.) Draenei with their exile from a hostile force seeking their destruction are playing out a story many humans could find familiar. That night elf sentinel trying to preserve her lands from ruthless exploitation? A story as old as humanity.
This is to be expected, after all – World of Warcraft was created by and is played by humans. As a fantasy RPG it’s following in the footsteps of many writers of the genre who, understandably, used it to explore aspects of the human condition through fantastic races that could be used to highlight specific ideals, beliefs and behaviors. As World of Warcraft borrows from a great many works in this genre and also dabbles in borrowings from horror and science fiction/space fantasy, it is almost unavoidable that it would borrow the ‘aliens are just humans with weird ears/skin color’ method of storytelling. Whether it’s a tauren driven past the point of patience and into violent action by the genocidal attacks of the centaur or a gnome seeking to take back a lost home, these are stories that could just as easily be told in a world where everyone was human. We’d lose a good chunk of the flavor of the setting, of course. But in a way that’s all it is: spice, a means to give a sense of diversity.
To a degree this can be argued to lead to the idea that humans in WoW are boring, since by definition they stand as representatives of the aspects of ourselves that didn’t get carved off and given to some other race to represent. With orcs out there acting like Mongols, humans don’t get to be semi-nomadic warriors. Tauren provide the animistic earth-reverence, so humans don’t get to display that side of our nature either. In essence, the metaphor eclipses the original, and humans in game end up looking flatter and more unrealized because they’ve lost so many aspects of what it is to be human to fictional portrayals. All these faux-humans with the serial numbers filed off and some ear extensions or body paint play up one of humanity’s aspects, and therefore what’s left behind tends to be a more generic fantasy of what humans are like.
World of Warcraft actually fights this trend in a variety of ways. Humans are shown fighting over money, in conflict over ideology, bickering over religion and even betraying their own people for wealth or survival. Humans do offer savage violence to their enemies, humans are often noble and venal depending on the individual. Humanity birthed both the Scarlet Crusade and the Argent Dawn. While I would argue that there’s more work that can be done to highlight the diversity and complexity of the human people in the game, for a story with so many different metaphors for this complexity walking around WoW does all right with just plain old humans. The trip to Pandaria, especially in the Alliance starting questline in the Jade Forest and the unfolding of Operation Shieldwall, did a lot to show humanity as a prickly, arrogant, combative, charitable, helpful, aggressive, friendly people. Yes, some of that is contradictory – to paraphrase Whitman, we are large, we contain multitudes.