Image by Katherine Killeffer
"It facilitates something that's free of the fetters of sexual stigma, but it also lets loose certain sexual demons that take harassment to a new level."
"Can you have sex in World of Warcraft?", a question that has been asked several times on Yahoo! Answers, is not an easy one to answer.
Technically, I mean, no. The characters will not fornicate with each other for your viewing enjoyment--although one user helpfully suggested a way to visually approximate it, involving one avatar lying prone while a user manipulates another to simulate the rapid bobbing up-and-down of coitus: "One guy lays down and the other one (hopefully a female) spams sit/stand up (key x) and it looks awesome."
It does not, actually, look awesome. But in a world built on fantasy, why should the impossibility of in-game sex prevent it from happening? World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) with around 5 million subscribers. To play WoW is to inhabit a massive, complicated, interactive fantasy world in which characters travel through the immense geography of Azeroth by foot, beast, or boat, fighting various monsters and completing challenges in order to level up. Despite its reputation as a haven for nerds, WoW is a highly social endeavor: Most serious players will join a guild--a group with officers and its own chat channel that can range in size from a few to several hundred members--and participate in raids, which is when several players band together to combat a more difficult foe.
To enter into the game, players must select a server, each of which functions as its own distinct version of the game world. Servers can fall into four categories, which dictate the way that players interact with each other and the environment. In roleplay servers, players are encouraged to speak and act as the characters they're portraying; in serious roleplay communities, each member takes on an intricately crafted fantasy identity, and the interactions between them coalesce into a communal narrative. Obviously, some of these complex narratives involve sex--how could they not!--and others revolve around it entirely.
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"I would not necessarily claim that it's a majority of users by any stretch of the imagination," Katherine Cross, a feminist writer and WoW player, said in a phone interview. "But if you play World of Warcraft long enough, you're eventually going to stumble inadvertently onto two characters mysteriously facing each other undressed while in some corner somewhere."
To venture into Pornshire is to behold the trappings of a roleplay-based sex bacchanalia.
In fact, the game's ERPers have created their own veritable sex town, despite official disapproval: On the Moon Guard roleplaying server, the area of Goldshire is overrun with characters brazenly looking for erotic interaction. Many WoW players disparagingly, and not quite cleverly, refer to the area as "Pornshire." To venture into "Pornshire" is to behold the trappings of a roleplay-based sex bacchanalia that would make Georges Bataille blush, or at least stroke his chin pensively. "Goldshire has become this free-to-play adult sex chat friend finder," said Nico, a former WoW player and blogger who added, laughing, that many players occasionally drop by the tavern in order to "gawk."
"I have seen some things there that are chilling," she said. "I consider myself to have a pretty strong stomach, even if I don't particularly agree with any of it, but I have seen some things that would make the hair on your head curl."
Goldshire's Lion's Pride Inn is the epicenter of said hair-curling activity. Unlike the other taverns scattered throughout the game's geography--and unlike the numerous Lion's Pride Inns that exist in non-roleplaying servers--it's frequently packed with dozens, if not hundreds, of players. The virtually-assembled will loiter about, engaging in private conversations and/or public demands for attention. Some wiggle around seductively in various states of undress; others, more reserved, linger on the outskirts of the throng and observe.
If there's one thing that can be said for the denizens of Goldshire, it's that they know exactly what it is that they're into. In order to fully appreciate the scene, it's necessary to download an in-game add-on that lets you write and access extended roleplaying profiles. In them, players can provide background information about their physical appearance, personality, and history. Many of these are quite detailed and remarkably particular. In addition to an elaborate description of one's physical appearance, it's a common practice to have a bulleted list of fetishes, plus all the sexual practices that one deems unacceptable.
In an article for Paraphilia Magazine, writer dixe flatline observed and cataloged the contents of some of these profiles. "Humiliation was a common preference... Vore, short for vorarephilia--the act of eating or being eaten--was another popular kink," she noted. "Futa (futanari), FUTA (fucked up the ass), and hentai were also very popular with this raucous crowd. Incest, lactation, gaping, fisting, scat, watersports, forced sex/rape/non-consensual, ageplay, breeding, hotdogging, kidnapping, and corruption were other favorites."
As for the physical descriptions, they can range from concise--I saw one that simply read, "your run-of-the-mill cum dumpster"--to wildly verbose and, well, evocative. Dixe ran into one player who said she possessed "a horse cock that hangs down far, and nearly doubles in size when she got hard. Her balls were also massive, the size of large watermelons, and always made her cock drool out cum." The player also boasted "a massive ass that jiggled and swayed when she moved... It wobbled and jiggled wildly." In my travels through Goldshire, I, too, witnessed a watermelon-sized set of testicles attached to a drooling phallus, the owner of which firmly specified that she was fine with anal vore but no other type. I also saw fetish lists containing the following: degradation, gore, fear of impregnation, tentacles, bestiality, and, of all things, handjobs ("I'm perfectly fine with giving quick, or long winded tugjobs... having foreskin does give you more than a few brownie points").
In an email, dixe seemed fairly nonplussed by the massive and diverse litany of in-game sexual behavior. "I believe that extreme fetishism exists in every nook and cranny of our 21st century viral content-driven culture," she wrote, further arguing that the kink one sees in WoW is no different than the content that sites like PornHub and Xhamster offer to "the fetishistic altar of consumerism." She continued, nonchalantly, "Every woman goes ass-to-mouth on the first date now, so what's wrong with making a toon who likes to get trussed up like a cheap whore and fly down to Booty Bay to service goblin longshoremen?"
Her blasé attitude is not uncommon. According to Katherine Cross, "Self-consciously, ERP communities tend to accommodate a lot of extreme fetishes." This kind of overt open-mindedness, at its best, cultivates an environment in which sexual negotiations are remarkably frank and candid. In such cases, fetish lists outline clearly and concisely what each user consents to, reading like virtual versions of those hypothetical "sex contracts" that conservative commentators love to invoke with disdain.
Take, for instance, the Dark Nest forums, where users looking to meet up in-game for erotic experiences can post personal ads. One such ad, posted in March, was titled "Fart Worshipping Slut looking for mistress." Its body contained a lengthy list of kinks-including, as the title would imply, a lot of "toilet play." Other forum users' responses were all blithely nonjudgmental and supportive: "I wish you best of luck!" one replied. "Good luck in your quest for sordid butt adventures," encouraged another; a third warmly informed the poster that he had sent her a private message.
"Online fantasy realms and role-play, by definition, facilitate one's imagination, right?" Cross says. "You're already in this fantasy realm, where there are goblins and dragons and wizards... If you're going to erotically role-play, then there's this sense of, I can use this setting to do whatever I want. Some obvious, specific examples in fantasy games: Druids can summon vines-think of all the fun that you could have with those. Or warlocks can summon succubi or bind you with spell enchantments."
However, as a philosophy, I can use this setting to do whatever I want is not always all fun and consensual succubus-usage. Nor is it discretely confined to the realm of the fabricated and fantastical. "What happens in World of Warcraft is real because it's happening between two people--just in a different medium," said Nico. What happens in Azeroth, in other words, doesn't always stay in Azeroth. For example, Nico says she used to participate in an online community of women who play WoW. "There had to be at least one post a week from a wife who was like, 'My husband plays WoW too much,'" she recalled. "There were even a couple of posts from women who were like, 'Help, I've fallen in love with my guild leader, but I'm still married.'"
Even if the interaction in WoW is ostensibly virtual, the emotional fallout it can cause is unequivocally real. "You can easily find yourself in relationships that are, for all intents and purposes, deeply felt and genuine connections with people you may have never met or rarely interact with IRL," dixe said. "And these connections can be more binding than those we have with people we interact with on a daily basis."
Some of the relationships created and fostered in guilds can veer into the realm of the soap operatic; some can take on the dimensions of Shakespearean tragedies, complete with love triangles, heartbreak, and nefarious characters scheming and manipulating on the peripheries of various love geometric shapes. In one particularly notorious "guild drama," as they're commonly called, the prestigious Death and Taxes guild was rocked by a scandalous love triangle and subsequent nude photo leak that involved three guild members, one female and two male. On the Death and Taxes guild forums, the entire incident was catalogued at length and picked apart voyeuristically on various sites--"it's [loading] slow because theres [sic] 3000+ people reading it atm," someone remarked in a thread on another forum that linked to the original post.
"I remember I was raiding at the time, and my entire raid team would stop what they were doing in-game to go read about this love triangle on some forum," said Nico. "It was a big deal."
"Guild drama," as a concept, tends to isolate and punish women in particular. A 2013 study in Frontiers in Psychology found that male players use it as an excuse for excluding women; multiple women polled said they had "seen guild recruitment state that they do not recruit female players due to the drama that they may cause." And even though World of Warcraft can allow for an unfettered sexual imagination in some ways, in others it remains constrained by the banal double standards of the real world. "If you have a woman who's an officer in the guild or even a guild mistress, and it is revealed publicly that she has ERP'ed with someone who is male-identified, she will always be accused of having e-fucked her way to the top," said Cross. "That will become a public scandal. People will say that she's not someone to be trusted."
"It becomes very revenge porn-y, basically," said Nico. "Naked shots get posted. It's very much about taking a woman down a notch, and people definitely jump in to talk about it. I definitely remember several people--on my server and on other servers--going through that same process... Then there's just endless harassment. It's never warranted."
For someone who spends a significant amount of time playing World of Warcraft, it's often difficult to differentiate between harassment in-game and IRL.
Harassment is another area in which the boundary between real and virtual is easily and often blurred. Even outside ERP, heckling and intimidation are widespread. In the 2013 Frontiers in Psychology study, multiple female WoW players said they felt like they had to hide their gender to avoid harassment, and many of them said they would refuse to participate in voice chats for this reason. One of the women surveyed said that she agreed to instruct a group on a raid. Initially, she said, everyone in the group was "surprised by my voice." As the raid progressed, they began to make increasingly sexist remarks; eventually, "some jerk thought it would be funny to start moaning suggestively every time I talked. Then all the other guys joined in. After this I couldn't stand it anymore and I just turned the computer off. I don't speak in [the voice chatting service] anymore."
Another woman interviewed for the study said she and a friend had been aggressively e-catcalled after they chose to use female avatars:
A friend of mine, a girl, was new to the game and decided to play with me, also a girl. We made female blood elves together and played with no incident for around half an hour. We went back to the city for something, and then had a group of 4 guys following us around and not letting us quest in peace. After a lot of hounding and interfering with our quest mobs, they convinced her to go back to the city with them and offered to pay her 100 g to take off her character's clothes and dance in one of the inns. I suggested that we make male toons and she agreed. After making male characters, we encountered no more problems.
There's something slightly baffling about the idea that quotidian sexism continues to rear its head in a medium that, as its raison-d'être, shirks the ordinary rules of reality. In WoW, players flit about on the backs of dragons; they revive each other from the dead; they accept the presence of stocky humanoid-panda warriors in their midst as a chill and normal occurrence. But some still have a really, really hard time acknowledging that human women are their peers and equals.
Of course, in-game shittiness doesn't merely replicate that of external world. For someone who spends a significant amount of time playing World of Warcraft, it's often difficult to differentiate between harassment in-game and IRL. In some extreme cases, the former can transform into the latter. Nico has experienced this firsthand, when some guy she met in WoW stalked and harassed her for four years straight. "We didn't RP or anything, but he was a friend of mine," she said. "He got really upset that I wasn't, like, in love with him. When I started seeing my boyfriend (who I'm still seeing now), he got really mad about it and decided that I'm a liar and a slut and all of these things, and he basically went on this four-year crusade to make my life a living hell."
The harassment started in-game--the guy would chat her lewd, insulting things or have other players chat her lewd, insulting things--and on guild forums and social media. Eventually, it escalated. "He sent me death threats after a while. He sent me pictures of my house. He knew where I lived. He sent me death threats and rape threats and stomach-churningly awful stuff every single day for four years. It was a nightmare," said Nico. "I got a restraining order against him. I got the cops to go to his house several times, and that didn't stop him."
Eventually, he just gave up. Nico is still unsure why.
As is the case with most things on the internet, the freedom and relative anonymity of WoW function as a double-edged sword. "It facilitates the best kind of experimentation. It facilitates something that is free of the fetters of sexual stigma," said Cross. "But it also lets loose certain sexual demons that take harassment and so forth to a new level."
It's true: Although anonymity is a breeding swamp for various internet sociopaths, it does have its benefits. In 2014, Laura Kate Dale wrote a Guardian op-ed about how playing as a female WoW avatar helped her become comfortable with her gender identity; in high school, when she still presented as male, she began playing with a female avatar. "I found a place where I had friends that treated me as female, for better or for worse," she wrote. "A world where I felt happy with who I was. I didn't want to leave."
When she was outed after months of making excuses for why she couldn't Skype or voice chat, she lost "a lot of online friends." (WoW is, again, hardly the most progressive place in terms of sexual or gender politics.) But, for her, the experience was invaluable--during a period where she was struggling with her identity, World of Warcraft "taught me things about myself in an environment where, for a long time, I felt safe."
Cross more or less agrees with this characterization. She, too, used a female avatar while she still presented as male. A 2014 study finds that most men who choose to play MMORPGs as female characters do so because they enjoy looking at butts, as men do. When I mentioned these heterosexual butt-related findings to her, she laughed. "I'm a trans woman, and, let me tell you, when I was 17, I used that excuse as a way of fitting in, of excusing it to my male peers at the time."
She went on, "There are maybe a lot of gender non-conforming men who do it, or men who are trying to--to use that hackneyed old phrase--get in touch with their feminine side but are afraid to own up to that publicly."
What's most unique about WoW is the fact that it allows users the opportunity to find a judgment-free space to experiment with whatever they'd like--be it gender identity or a particular fetish or harassing women aggressively with relative impunity--as long as they're secretive enough. According to Nico, some more serious WoW players will make side accounts to visit Goldshire "and not sully your main account with people seeing that you're in Goldshire for long periods of time."
Cross has become an expert at subterfuge during her time ERPing in-game. She described to me, nostalgically and at length, the best locations for disrobing and private sex-chatting. "You can actually just go into dungeons, and no one's going to bother you, because that's how dungeons work," she said. "You know the Floating Islands in Nagrand? There are so many of them so the odds of somebody stumbling onto yours is relatively low. There's a waterfall outside of Stormwind... That was another lovely place. I went there a couple of times with people."
As for all the magic-aided fetish stuff, the wildly explicit and verbose elf-on-elf erotica, the vore and the myriad horse cocks? "It's geek kink," said dixe". "If we have to explain it, forget it."
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