My first World of Warcraft character is still around, largely unchanged even after 13 years. WoW’s character creator, too, exists in nearly the same, unchanged state. But with the upcoming Shadowlands expansion, character creation is getting a long-overdue upgrade that’ll give me something I’ve been yearning for: a real afro.
This has been a long time coming. I’ve been playing World of Warcraft, which was my first MMORPG, for so long it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I started. My first character was a human warlock (Affliction forever!) and I distinctly remember why I chose that combo over playing a gnomish warlock or a blood elf warlock (which should date this as sometime in ‘07): It was the only faction/race combo that allowed me to play as a Black person.
As I scrolled through the options for skin and hair I remember choosing the darkest skin the game allowed, which was lighter than my own tone but at least dark enough to say “this character is unambiguously Black.” Hair was harder, as most character-creation engines, then and now, don’t offer much in the way of natural Black hairstyles. My choices were long and straight, short and straight, wavy but still, inevitably, straight. I chose the least-ugly option and my character, my only main, was born.
With Shadowlands that could have played out differently.
The first thing you’re asked to do before joining the Shadowlands alpha test server is create a character. Naturally, since I’ve been rolling with my main girl all these years, I remained true to the instinct that led to her initial creation: I wanted to play as me, a Black woman. But as Illidan yelled at me, all those years ago, from the ramparts of the Black Temple, I was not prepared. I gasped when I saw the wealth of skin tones, now ranging far darker than beige, light beige, and slightly failed paper bag test. The hair was also improved. Dreadlocks, cornrows, afros, afro puffs. Yes! Finally!
Customization improvements go beyond simple hairstyle and skin color choices, too. The addition of the Kul Tirans (an Alliance “allied race” you must unlock in Battle for Azeroth, but available from the start of Shadowlands) added more body diversity to the game—supplementing the Pandaren—with larger bodies for men and, crucially, women.
Further, disability is often forgotten about or implemented poorly in the diversity in video games conversation, but it’s just as important to feature disabled bodies as it is to feature Black and Brown ones. World of Warcraft will now let you choose milky-white irises for one or both eyes to represent blindness.
Shadowlands will also bring the ability to make changes to a character’s gender on the fly. As reported in Eurogamer, Blizzard intends to make gender changes free in Shadowlands. Before, one could customize face, skin color, hair, and eye color for a nominal sum of gold in one of the game’s many barber shops. Changing a character’s gender, though, required paying real money to do. “We felt like that’s not the right message,” according to WoW executive producer John Hight. “Unfortunately we can’t fix that right now,” he told Eurogamer. “But it is our intent with Shadowlands to take that out of being a paid service thing and [put it] in the barber shop.”
The changes and additions being made to Warcraft’s character creator seem to reflect a broader push for more diversity in the game. This initiative goes beyond the start screen and delves into the world of Azeroth itself. “We are planning on broadly incorporating the range of character customizations for NPCs just across the world,” said WoW game director Ion Hazzikostas during an event yesterday. “Walking through Stormwind, walking around other parts of the world, you will see guards and random civilians that have these looks as if they’ve been there all along. Frankly I think we see this as correcting an oversight on our part over the years. [We’re] trying to improve representation more broadly.”
(One of the more profound lore-related choices comes in Night Elf customization. One option for a scar is a burn mark designated as “Teldrassil”, alluding to the destruction of the Night Elf home by Sylvanas in Battle for Azeroth.)
While I’m pleased to see attempts to make World of Warcraft more diverse, it does bother me that only humans have access to the natural hairstyle choices. You can’t be a gnome with a big ole ‘fro, which seems tragic, at least from an equity standpoint. More than that, the Horde race that takes their influence from African and West Indian cultures—the Trolls—also do not have access to the hairstyles that would cement that cultural link. There’s an entire sub-race of Zandalari trolls steeped in Vodou and West Indian traditions (Bwonsamdi is literally the Haitian loa Baron Samedi), and yet dreadlocks, one of the hallmarks of that culture’s aesthetic, aren’t available to them.
Character creation is so important because, in games like WoW, it’s the only way we’re able to express our individuality as humans. We tell a bit of our stories in the flesh and fur and bone we shape to our liking. The story of World of Warcraft is one you experience. Sure, your actions drive the plot, but the story is largely not your own. This character creator and the other changes the development team are making allow the player a far greater ability to tell their own, personal, story. (At least outside of RP sessions at the Goldshire Inn...nasty asses.)
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands will hit sometime this fall.