Virtual Race Relations Part 1: Elves

Virtual Race Relations Part 1: Elves

So, why is it that World of Warcraft players love elves so much? What is the mysterious attraction of these slender, blank-eyed character models? Whether we’re playing the characters ourselves, or just watching level one Night Elf chicks dance naked on the mailbox, World of Warcraft players seem extraordinarily little resistance to the charms of pointy-eared humanoids.

This post is the first in a series of features on the different playable races of World of Warcraft. In each post, I speculate about why we make the choices we make, and what social meanings our preferences might have. After all, I’m not the first to suggest that our actions in the virtual world reflect our real-life identities.

The Elves of Warcraft

Elven-folk in the World of Warcraft divide into two playable categories, Night Elves and Blood Elves. Even though their artistic style and character models differ somewhat, I find it most convenient to talk about them together. In the end of the article, I will speculate about the reasoning behind the difference in look, but first I’d like to talk about elves–and their magical appeal–more generally.

Elves in folklore

The elves, like many other stock personae of folklore, vary greatly from culture to culture. Generally of northern and western European extraction, the elves of folklore can be very small or human-sized, good or evil, ugly or beautiful. Elves are, at times, indistinguishable from fairies or other strange, supernatural creatures. All tales of elves have a common thread–their difference from humans. While they to some degree look and act human, and can even interbreed with them, elves have a different psychological makeup, different capabilities, and different values. To the ordinary human being, elves are all but unfathomable.

The debt to Tolkien

Most players of World of Warcraft could probably tell you that elves in-game descend more or less directly from J.R.R Tolkien’s elves. The elves of Middle-Earth are beautiful, powerful, benevolent beings, who despite their wisdom and good intentions, never seem to fully engage in the actions of the plot. The elves of Middle Earth–as both the book and the film poignantly depict–progressively abandon the continent in the midst of the conflict over the ring. As a first-time Tolkien reader, at age 16 or so, I was fascinated by Elrond, Galadriel, and Arwen. The sense of melancholy, of loss that haunts the elves is rather poignant, especially to the overly emotional teenage mind. However, ten years later, re-reading the novels makes me want to shake the elves for being so passive.

I think Peter Jackson must have agreed with me. In his film, the elves are much more involved in the conflict. My favorite moment in the films departs entirely from the books–Galadriel sends a company of elves to help defend Helm’s Deep. Tolkien’s Galadriel never would have done so, because Tolkien’s elves are always constrained by tradition and practice. An elf-queen would never have done anything out of the ordinary. With a few exceptions, Tolkien’s elves simply lack the passions that would drive them to action. These exceptions almost certainly include tragic princesses Luthien and Arwen. However, I will say that I’ve never found Arwen a compelling character–in fact, as a longtime reader (and Eowyn fan), I find her love for Aragorn to be rather shallow. She and Aragorn allow themselves to be caught up in the imitation of legendary figures–Luthien and Beren–and in my mind, their love affair is more about copying their ancestor’s actions than following their own desires. In short, Tolkien’s elves experience emotion differently than human beings. Nostalgia and melancholy permeate their personalities, but their passivity constantly frustrates the (human) readers.

Elves in contemporary fantasy

Of course, the developers of World of Warcraft weren’t necessarily reading Tolkien directly–or at least, not just Tolkien. I am a fairly avid consumer of fantasy novels, and elves, while infrequent, do appear from time to time. Most authors consciously imitate or parody Tolkien–such is the appeal of the master. On my elf reading list are Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, and relatively unknown Australian author Cecilia Dart-Thorton’s The Ill-Made Mute. The common thread of all of these works? To quote Pratchett: “Elves are bad.” I love the contrast with Tolkien, achieved in all of these cases through a return to folklore.

Back to Warcraft–Night Elves

What can literature teach us about video game elves, you ask? Plenty. Elves in WoW, most particularly the Night Elves, borrow liberally from Tolkien. Most of the Night Elf art was probably created before Peter Jackson’s film trilogy The Lord of the Rings was released, and it represents an independent rendering of some of Tolkien’s motifs. Darnassus might be one design team’s version of Lothlorien–the Night Elf city has a ruined, decadent feel, and it denizens live and work in buildings carved from enormous trees. Moreover, their spiritual leader is Tyrande, a distant, odd priestess. However, some of the Night Elf mannerisms indicate that the elves of WoW take themselves a little less seriously than Elrond and Galadriel do. Have you seen Night Elf women bouncing, and Night Elf men shrugging their overly-developed shoulders? Don’t even get me started on the dances–but seriously, do you think Arwen would have the moves to work in a strip club? Moreover, WoW has done a skillful job of blending the European elf with elements of Asian culture. The Lunar festival and the vaguely Japanese style of some of the buildings in Darnassus are my favorite aspects of Night Elf life. They bring something unique to the otherwise stylized image of the elf.

Blood Elves

Blood Elves to me do not seem to be a distinct culture of their own, but rather a version of the Night Elves adapted to Peter Jackson’s vision. Their models are the most beautiful in the game, but I miss the strangeness of the green-and-purple Night Elves. In addition, Blood Elves are really, really white. It’s hard to find any non-European references in their culture. Rather, most people compare Silvermoon City to Disney World. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the art–I envy the beauty of all of the blood elf mobs even as I destroy them.

Why Play an Elf?

Elves are extraordinarily popular player races, particularly among female gamers. To me, their appeal goes beyond their beauty. Elves are everything that gamers are not. Their appeal is the pull of the strange, the unknown, and the unfathomable. Who knows what emotions lie hidden behind their blank, glowing eyes? Elves are friends of wild things, at home with nature. Gamers, on the other hand, have what Tolkien would call minds of metal–we are civilized folk, city-dwellers who are dependent on technology for our fun. In addition, elves are placid, even passive, and they measure time in centuries. For gamers, passions run high (hence all the drama!), and the constantly-shifting game environment seems to compress time itself. Elves are solitary–they can wander the woods and wilds, the forgotten places of the earth, for centuries at a time. Gamers, on the other hand, are forced into alliances of either friendship or convenience–in the competitive world of the MMO, it’s almost impossible to achieve much on your own. Elves are scholarly–they have the span of many human lifetimes in which to read, write poetry, play music, and learn impossibly sad ballads by heart. Gamers, on the other hand, rarely have time between work or school and their online hobby to read a magazine every week.

The basic principle here is that we all want what we cannot have, and we all want to be what we are not. Maybe what we desire, truly, is not to be a supernatural being, but to imitate them–to be closer to nature, to read more, or to simply be more calm. So, the next time you /pant at a player named Leafspindle, Moondancer, or even HotBludElfChik, take a moment to think about all the things you might be missing in your own life.

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  1. Insightful post! To be honest, I have always disliked elves. They remind me of aloof, cliquish high school girls. Particularly blood elves I can’t stand. All the other races seem to have more heart. I am willing to play one to min/max, however.

    Gnomes are my favorite race! I guess this shows that I am happy with my city-dwelling high strung life.

  2. I have played an elf on both sides NE for racial ability to use in pvp along side the pet prowl, and BE because they were new.. my hunter is 70 and my lock is 70, but i dont think i chose them because they are not what i am, but because they are what i commonly relate to fantacy based characters… note that my first character ever in EverQuest was a Troll, and my main character currently is my Troll shammy.

  3. Also, i am speaking from a D&D background where trolls were greatly feared for their brutal Str.

  4. Allindra - Smolderthorn - Alliance says:

    This was a well written insightful post.

    While my own first character was indeed a female night elf, I chose mine because she was the only alliance class that could play a druid. 😛

    My priest and warlock are humans, and my shaman is obviously, a draenei.

    I have always said if I chose to play a horde though it would have to be a blood elf.

  5. speaking from a tactics point the Racial for blood elves can be very good if used correctly especially pvp or pve for pulling casters.

  6. Boondockst says:

    I think that the reason most people play elves is how attractive they are, especially for the Horde.
    When I first started to play Wow, I rolled a Nightelf just because it was the first thing that popped up on my screen. It wasnt until later that I realized that had a dwarf, gnome, human, or Squid-face had popped up, I still would have rolled an elf b/c its easy on the eyes.
    When I rerolled as Horde on a different server, I did it with the mindset of being competitive in PVP, and so I went with the less apealing, but racially powerful, Forsaken.
    When I rerolled my warrior, I wanted something that looked powerful, because I had the intention of tanking. I ended up choosing a male Tauren, not only for the racials, but b/c of the fact that Orc was my only other choice (wanted to be big and beefy) and I found the orcs to be hideous.
    With Wrath fast approching, I have started to plan out my DK, and I think that I am going to choose a female BE. Not only for enjoyment of laughing at the pervs out there that would flirt with me (its so fun to watch them run away apologizing when I tell them that I’m a guy!) but because they are the most attractive race in the game.
    Why play a toon that is ugly to you? If I have to stare at something for hours and hours, it better be something that I enjoy looking at!

  7. My first character was a Night Elf. I will definitely agree that the “difference” factor was why I didn’t roll a Human (and never have), although I have rolled a character of every other race at some point or another. The reason for the Nelf being first is that I wanted to play a Druid, and the lore involved really resembled an old favorite RP game of the tabletop variety- Werewolf: the Apocalypse.

    Shapeshifting, worshipping the moon, protecting the natural world, etc. also featured heavily in that game. Plus, they resembled the Dunmer (Dark Elves) from The Elder Scrolls video game series, which I was pretty devoted to before WoW (Morrowind is still my fave, although Oblivion is a close competitor). In fact, if they ever make a MMO based on Elder Scrolls that was any good, I’d be inclined to give it a go over WoW.

    I also dug the mysterious, aloof, and generally-not-trusted-by-the-other-races thing. I even liked the way when I first started playing that I almost never saw Humans, Dwarves, or Gnomes (there were no Dranei). It made them a curiosity whenever 1 would happen to appear in Darkshore, particularly Warlocks, Mages, or Paladins, especially while I was a new player. Now, of course, not so much.

  8. I currently play two trolls, an orc, and an undead. The only reason I have a BE is I wanted to roll paladin, and that’s my only choice.

    Maybe it’s because I’m so stunningly good looking in real life, that I don’t feel the need to be beautiful in the game. ( I kid, I kid…) And actually, my undead priest is actually pretty good looking, as long as you can get past the exposed skeletal parts.. LOL

  9. Interesting post, I think it’s important that you state that this is your subjective opinion though if you are going to talk about the representation of elves in fantasy fiction and Warcraft.

    I would certainly disagree with your opinion on elves being passive in Tolkien. Sure in Lord of the Rings they are at the end of their time in Middle Earth and are slowly leaving via the Grey Havens but consider that they spent thousands of years previously fighting against evil and were major participants in the war where Isildur slew Sauron and gained the one ring. Can you blame them for being disillusioned in the face of that great mistake of man in keeping the ring?

    In WoW elves are certainly not presented as passive – indeed they are quite martial when you consider factions like the Silverwing Sentinels and the fact that you can play classes such as Hunters and Warriors as a Night Elf. While the Blood Elf character model may depict a more ‘Jacksonesque’ interpretation of elven appearance that is where I would argue the similarity ends. Although I suppose you could consider the Blood elves as some kind of relation to Sauron who was once an elf himself until his lust for power corrupted him.

    I am glad at least that you did not depict elves as ‘tree hugging hippies’ based on the fluffy fairy-like elves of Disney.

    Jezraels last blog post..On Spiders, pet special ability issues and macros

  10. @ Jezrael

    I’m going to repeat to you here something you already know and realize if you are a student (or even just a fan) of literature.

    There are many different ways to read a work. Believe me, as a literature teacher-scholar by profession, I know this. My readings are never “100% correct”–they can’t be. My students often astound me with totally original readings of works–they’re not wrong (well, sometimes they are). If they’ve supported their ideas with evidence, they’re not wrong. If works could only be read one way, no one would need to write essays in literature class. Instead, we’d be doing multiple-choice tests.

    My reading of Lord of the Rings is highly individual but also supported by text detail. I agree that Tolkien’s elves are compelling. I don’t agree with you that they are active, or even martial. They were warlike 3,000 years ago. Even in elf-time, that’s a significant span. What they were, in the past, is very different from what they are at the time that the events of the trilogy unfold. After all, Elrond, Galadriel, and company have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo–their own magic rings will cease to work once the one ring is destroyed.

    If you compare elf society up to, say, Rohan (represented in an extremely positive light), the elves are less willing to fight, to take risks. That’s not to say they are cowardly or uninterested–just that their response to current events is somewhat isolationist. For me, personally, as a reader, that makes me want to shake them and say look! you could help! why are you sitting in Rivendell!

    But sitting and contemplating (and singing about it) is what Tolkien’s elves do best.

    Some might say there’s a veiled political argument here, but if I went down the allegorial path, Tolkien himself wouldn’t like it much. I will say that there’s a good reason that the age after the ring is destroyed is the age of men. It’s their world, and it’s up to them to act in it, without the interference or help of elves who, instead, carry forward their fond memories of the way things were into the elf-afterlife of the West.

  11. Thanks for the response Sydera, I absolutely agree that a reading of any kind of text is highly personal, which is why I suggested it’s important that you make that clear in your post. You’ll note that I state in my own response that ‘I would argue’ – I’m clearly writing based on my own interpretation. An authoritative voice is a plus when writing but I think it’s important to temper that with an acknowledgment of subjectivity.

    That said, you make excellent points which will now augment my own reading, I guess it didn’t come across in your post that you were talking about the elves at that particular period in their history. I’ve certainly felt the urge to shake Elrond everytime I’ve read LotR. He could be the poster boy for grumpy pessimistic isolationist attitudes 😉

    Jezraels last blog post..On Spiders, pet special ability issues and macros

  12. Heya, interesting post 🙂

    I totally agree on the subject of the secretive, sensual Night Elfs. I never liked Blood Elfs a lot.. Either is it the clinical design of Silvermoon city or maybe the music of Isle of Q’uel Danas – to me its nothing compared to the lush forests of Teldrassil (lol!). And the B-elfs seem to have an ignorant appearance and bad attitude, whilst Night Elfs seem to be one of a kind in a loving kind of way.

    Nothing can be as lovely as hunting in these surroundings (with in game music and all) as a night lef with your beloved. Or by your own in fact. Strangely enough, these surroundings make you feel part of the uttermost source of my love for nightelfs – the bond with nature.

    If you haven’t done it yet, try it 🙂 <3 <3 <3

  13. Btw BloodElfs are not pretty at all in my opinion compared to NightElfs…!?

  14. Personally, I chose a Night Elf for their ability to be a Druid. I wanted to play a druidic character in WOW and they are the only ones besides the hulking, freakish, masses called “Tauren”. I started with only a 12.1 in. screen, so unless I felt like zooming out a lot, the Tauren just took up too much space.
    I found that I really enjoyed the N. Elves’ starting area on Teldrassil, and how they’re played out to be so close to nature (remember me saying I wanted a druid?); something I personally dream about.
    All the things you mention that elves do (specifically being outside and such), I can do. Growing up I have been known to be outside wandering around through the woods and fields (I grew up on a farm) perfectly content to be by myself all day. I still do that sometimes.
    All in all, you’ve done really well with this article. I like it.

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