One of the problems of designing a virtual world is drawing the balance between making it different enough to be interesting and being so alien and strange that people can't relate to it without making a huge investment of time and effort. This particularly applies to playable races - you can make alien NPCs mysterious and incomprehensible, because players don't have to be able to think like them to play the game, but player races have to be something that people can identify with.
The lazy default for fantasy MMOs is the Tolkein-lite world. Humans (white, european-looking ones, of course - in the clichéd world of the hack MMO, nobody looks african or asian), elves (beautiful but aloof ... yawn), dwarves (like a drink, grumpy ... seriously - what happened to sneezy, dopey, happy and bashful dwarves?), plus a smattering of ugly green-skinned races to be the bad guys.
It's to Blizzard's credit that they have managed to avoid the worst stereotypes of the fantasy world. Sure, they had to put in humans, elves, dwarves etc for commercial reasons, but many of the other races are a mile away from the usual fantasy cliché. Orcs, for example, aren't the monosyllabic grunting thugs you normally see (well, Garrosh is, but he's notable because he's an exception), they're a sophisticated tribal society with deep shamanic roots. They may not be as technologically advanced as the humans, but they have a rich culture.
How have Blizzard done this? Well, in loose terms they have taken cultural models from non-western civilisations and used them as inspiration for the other races. It certainly isn't a direct cultural copy (that would make it hard to fit those societies into Azeroth), but the similarities are there. Pewter over at The 'mental Shaman) (as part of a fascinating series on fanart portrayals of the females of different races) has described this as cultural appropriation, which feels more like a fragment of the truth than the whole story to me. Let's look at the alternatives to Blizzard's approach:
- Invent cultures for the non-human races that are unlike any on earth. First of all, this is a very hard thing for a human mind to do - where do you get your cultural models from if not human experience? Secondly, it's difficult for players to identify with a culture so far from their own experience. This means they'll either get ignored or pigeonholed into simple categories like "remorseless" or "good", which lapses back into cliché very rapidly.
- Don't have other races - just have different types of human. A world where the different "races" are simply different nations of people is superficially attractive. However, it would make "cultural appropriation" issues even more of a concern - at least it's clear that a Tauren is physically not the same as a Native American, so the expectations of a realistic cultural portrayal are minimised. Cultural nuances are hard to handle with the crude implements of an MMO, an effect which would only be magnified if the other "races" looked human. It would be very easy for such a game to descend into crude racial stereotyping.
- Make all the playable races variants on one culture. Whilst this would avoid the pitfalls of cultural stereotyping, the price is excluding those other cultures completely. Whilst I'm sure there must be some people for whom a culturally and racially pure game would be just the ticket, I'm not sure I'd want to share a space with them.
All of this is an incredibly long pre-cursor to actually answering the bloody question, which is "which of the various races in Azeroth is my favourite?".
Whilst I probably have most in common with the eccentric, geeky gnomes on a personal level, the race I come back to again and again is trolls. Dark and savage, yet once the most powerful group on Azeroth, the trolls draw on a range of cultural influences, from the meso-american style of the cities to the western myth of the primitive jungle-dweller that Conrad used as a device to expose the barbarism of european colonialism in The Heart of Darkness. The presence of the Kurzen quest-line, set deep in the troll-infested Stranglethorn Jungle suggests that this analogy is intentional on Blizzard's part.
So whilst trolls may, on the surface, may appear to be the worst kind of ja-fake-an stereotype, there's a lot more going on there. They're the mirror that the "civilised races" dare not look in. The one that exposes their own savagery. Trolls tell us things about ourselves that we'd rather not hear.
"The horror! The horror!"