Is there anything worse in the realm of fandom than the rampant fear and hatred that gets thrown in the face of change? Well, obviously there is, but for the sake of this article, let’s pretend there is not.
Style changes by popular bands, oh how the fans start to rage! Style changes in popular comics, oh the rage! Changing writers of television shows that don’t care for the fanbase’s sacred cows? Rage like nothing before. And then there is this: Late last year, Blizzard announced the next expansion of their industry dominating (or industry establishing?) MMO to end all MMOs World of Warcraft would be titled “Mists of Pandaria”, an expansion that opens up a new part on the world of Azeroth, a part that is stylistically heavily influenced by orientalist depictions of ancient China, populated by the creatively named “Pandaren” people of anthropomorphic pandas—who know a lot of Kung Fu.
Is it too colorful? To cheery? Not grim and gritty enough? But isn’t the point of World of Warcraft to be stylized comic book-ish in appearance?
Oh the outrage. “Enough!” the fanbase said. “This is not World of Warcraft!” they said. As an outsider, this seemed bit silly to me. What is World of Warcraft? It’s a fantasy MMO that takes each and every available concept from half a century of the fantasy genre, throws it into a wall, and keeps whatever sticks. That wall is mightily smeared already, sticky enough that pretty much anything seems to remain firmly stuck in there. There’s your usual elves, orcs and dwarves, there’s dragons and dungeons, there’s undead and were creatures, goblins and steampunk elements. There are even rocket-flying gnomes with ray guns. And now kung fu pandas. And those don’t stick?
Let’s take a look at where those pandas are coming from. They first appeared in the Warcraft 3 expansion “The Frozen Throne”, where they were sort of an off hand joke. The very concept of the Shaolin panda in Warcraft even outdates that of the successful animated movies. Though those movies certainly left their mark on the execution of “Mists”. But I digress. The Warcraft universe isn’t coherent. It’s not a serious world. It’s a collection of fantasy cliches that get mixed up and blended in that giant cartoon graphic art style Blizzard employs for this game.
Of course there are some aspects of it that maybe are more serious than others, but as a whole, Blizzard’s game is one where the player can pretty much pick and choose which fantasy cliche to indulge in today. From werecreatures to steam powered mechs, anything can be had. How do orientalised anthropomorphic pandas not fit the picture? Is this the usual “I don’t like it, it’s too Manga!” thing that western geek-dom hasn’t overcome yet? It sure is not the aversion to “Mists” being borderline racist, which is one of the rarer arguments heard when condemning the colorful panda expansion. Is it too colorful? To cheery? Not grim and gritty enough? But isn’t the point of World of Warcraft to be stylized comic book-ish in appearance?
Pandaria sure isn’t the first non-western element in World of Warcraft. But it is the first non-western part that is featured so prominently. Why it seems unacceptable to so many fans is a question I won’t be able to answer, other than with the usual “it’s a fandom thing where too much change is perceived as a threat to what’s dear to the individual. Then there’s probably a certain amount of xenophobia involved, as this expansion not only represents non-white people (in a problematic way, but that’s not today’s topic), but will certainly also draw in new players that identify with those furry fuzzy warrior monks more than with the furry fuzzy minotaur creatures, and thereby threaten to take what World of Warcraft is all about out of the hands of the old fans. Which might be the core reasoning for this outrage. The old guard of fans sees their prerogative of interpretation challenged. And that can’t be. That brings forth the worst in any old fan in any fandom.