Thursday, October 17, 2013

Witch Doctor Woes

So I wrote the following piece for class about two weeks ago. I’m opting to post it now because I think the basic concepts in it are important. You’re likely to hear me talk about symbolic annihilation in future musings and it’s a concept I feel applies a lot to not only the game in question but to a lot of nerd culture.

So sit back and enjoy.

The Witch Doctor or Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.

Male Witch Doctor
            For those who haven’t left the World of Warcraft in awhile (and I mean a long while), Diablo 3 is the third game in a franchise that Blizzard Entertainment had allowed to go dormant for far too long. I would blame Warcraft, but that would be a digression I’m sure I shouldn’t take. Instead I want to talk about the Witch Doctor from Diablo 3.

            The Witch Doctor is one of five playable classes in this game. His power set is similar to the Necromancer from Diablo 2, in that he raises things from the dead, summons helpers and has a magic hue of sickly green. Though Blizzard claims he’s not the Necromancer. The main difference between the two appears to be that the Necromancer was white, meanwhile the Witch Doctor is black. And herein lies the problem.

            The problem isn’t so much that the character is black. It’s that the portrayal of the only black character in the game is that of a savage primitive. The voice acting for the character has that old school authentic African touch. He wears big voodoo mask that look more like Zulu warrior mask. Oh and don’t forget the bone jewelry, the icing on the cake.

            To explain why this is all wrong I would like to first introduce a sociological theory called symbolic annihilation. This occurs when a minority group is marginalized or trivialized in a media portrayal. This occurs when negative stereotypes are reinforced. Or when the only thing we see of a minority group is not positive. Good examples of this is when lesbians are shown only as butch. Or gay men only shown as flaming. Jewish accountant, Asian drycleaners and even only athletic black men are also all examples of symbolic annihilation as it regulates those minority groups to these very specific and often times negative roles. When you’re only exposure to a sub group is through video games, movies and tv shows these portrayals become very problematic as it forms your only idea of what that group or minority is like.  

Female Witch Doctor
Black people are not seen in fantasy games very often. And it’s been over a decade since Blizzard’s more positive portrayals from Diablo (the black character was a wizard) and Diablo 2 (the black character was a paladin). So for many players their only exposure to a black man in a fantasy setting is that of a primitive savage, which reinforces the subtle idea that black people are more primitive than white people (the other four classes are all white).

            Now Diablo 3 is an otherwise fun game. And I don’t think that when Blizzard set out to create the Witch Doctor they were plotting and planning and intending to portray black people in such a negative way. I’m pretty sure that when the idea of the Witch Doctor came up it was thought to be a fun addition to the game. So I by no means mean to imply that Blizzard is being malicious in it’s portrayal here. But that’s the insidious part of symbolic annihilation. The in group is, in some cases, unknowingly marginalizing a minority group. The in group (in this case white males) are deciding for their audience how a minority group is going to be portrayed and be told what is “cool” for them. That’s a powerful thing. And it’s something that as gamers we all need to watch out for. Because in the end if we remain silent then we allow these images to continue and these idea’s to spread.


If you’re interested in what the Witch Doctor looks like and what the class entails here’s Blizzards page on the class.

For a really good read on symbolic annihilation check out this article.

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