William Sims Bainbridge

World of Warcraft


1994:  Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, a strategy game in which two players could compete online, was released.

1995:  Warcraft II, an advanced version of the first game, was released, receiving an expansion the following year.

2002:  Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos was released, evolving toward a fully multiplayer, role-playing online version.

2004:  World of Warcraft was released, allowing thousands of players to interact within a vast virtual world called a “realm” and eventually having hundreds of realms for different areas of our world and languages.

2007:  World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade was released, an expansion that added an entire continent to the geography of the original version.

2008:  The first large scientific conference to be held inside a gameworld takes place, with encouragement from Science magazine, on three days at three locations in World of Warcraft.

2010:  World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, the third expansion, substantially modified the original geography and began to shift the focus of gameplay away from narrative and role-playing toward esports.

2016:  World of Warcraft: Legion, the sixth expansion, added the demon hunter class of heroic avatars.

2018:  World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, the seventh expansion, changed some of the rules governing combat between players.

2019:  World of Warcraft Classic was released in parallel with the regular WoW, duplicating the original game as it was immediately before the first expansion.


Since the Renaissance, some genres of art and literature in Western cultures have drawn upon ancient “Pagan” religions and imaginary religions created by modern authors. As secularization advances, it seems that increasing numbers of people seek to experience fictional religions without necessarily having faith in them. In 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge observed that the arts and literature require “suspension of disbelief.” However, outside monotheism and without strong institutions that enforce orthodoxy, the difference between belief and the suspension of disbelief may vanish. A major field of modern culture where this proposition may be explored is massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), notably World of Warcraft (WoW) that highlights a nature religion devoted to the Moon Goddess, Elune (Bainbridge 2010b).

The genre of MMOs derived from creative developments in the 1970s, most obviously the tabletop game, Dungeons and Dragons (Gygax 1979) and the MUDs or multi-user dungeons that were text-based online games that like D&D embedded the action in stories (Bartle 2004; Castronova 2005). Originally formed by three graduates of UCLA in 1991, rapid corporate development established Blizzard Entertainment as a major force in the game industry by the 1994 release of the first Warcraft game, as explained in the company’s Wikipedia page. Absent at first, the Elune religion emerged in preparation for the WoW MMO.

The developers of WoW did not have any apparent religious motive in creating their mythos, but drew upon the wider fantasy culture to which they belonged. However, they did occasionally express their own thoughts and feelings. One example is the novelette “Of Blood and Honor” by one of the chief designers, Chris Metzen (2002). It tells the deeply thoughtful story of Tirion Fordring, a Human aristocrat who by chance encountered an Orc hermit, which led to instantaneous battle given they were arch enemies, until by accident part of a ruined tower fell on Tirion, rendering him unconscious. The Orc considered it dishonorable to kill an accidentally incapacitated foe, so Tirion returned home safely with the challenge of deciding whether he should keep the Orc’s location secret, or let him be killed like all the others. In the title, “blood” represents particularistic morality, seeking benefit for one’s tribe alone, and “honor” represents universalistic adherence to an abstract set of ethnical principles. A very different example also involves an Orc, deceased and lying at the Shrine of the Fallen Warrior on a hilltop in the Barrens region of WoW, representing Michel Koiter, a leading creator of WoW’s art, who died unexpectedly at the age of nineteen shortly before the game’s release.

Warcraft: Orcs & Humans imagined that a Human civilization has just been attacked by barbarian invaders known as Orcs, probably inspired by the hostility between Humans and Orcs in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings mythos. As the virtual cultures developed, major religious differences emerged. In WoW, Humans have a well-organized religion with priests, while Orcs have semi-religious tribal magic performed by shamans. The two versions of Warcraft II added to the military history of these two hostile races, while Warcraft III added two other races, the Undead and the Night Elves, establishing the basis for the Elune religion of the Night Elves as the four races struggled to decide their relationships.

When a player developed a Night Elf character in the original version of World of Warcraft, one class must be selected from a list of five, two of which were religious specialists: priest and druid (Nardi 2010). The starting zone for Night Elves was the island of Teldrassil, which is actually a gigantic tree, undoubtedly named after Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Norse mythology. After a series of missions, many of which are oriented toward environmentalist protection of nature, the character would visit Darnassus, the Night Elf capital city, then voyage across the sea to one of the two original continents of the vast world of Azeroth.

Teldrassil is a short distance northwest of the Kalimdor continent, and the Night Elves held nearby territory on it. Much of Kalimdor was held by the Orcs and by a rather different tribe named Tauren, while a tiny area was held by humans around the beleaguered city of Theramore. The main Human city, Stormwind, is far across the sea in the Eastern Kingdoms, where they have an alliance with the Dwarves in Ironforge, and are opposed by the Undead Forsaken in Undercity. Two weaker races in the beginning were the Trolls and the Gnomes. The races collected into two competing and often combating factions. The Alliance originally combined Night Elves, Humans, Dwarves and Gnomes, while the Horde combined Orcs, Tauren, Forsaken and Trolls.

In 2007, The Burning Crusade expansion added a continent, as well as two races, the Draenei in the Alliance and the Blood Elves in the Horde. Several subsequent expansions added continents or groups of islands, plus Worgen in the Alliance, Goblins in the Horde, and Pandaren who could join either faction (Bainbridge 2016:237-60). By 2010, the original 2004 graphics seemed primitive to some potential players, so the Cataclysm revised the two original continents and the missions players would undertake on them. The 2018 Battle for Azeroth expansion added territory but also applied the same rules to all realms. From the beginning, some realms encouraged PvP or player-versus-player combat over wide territories, leaving weak characters vulnerable to attack. Other realms were “normal” and limited PvP to separate arenas and battlegrounds. The 2018 expansion rendered all realms normal. The 2019 World of Warcraft Classic release added many new PvP realms in the same style and structure as the original ones fifteen years earlier.

World of Warcraft has been the focus of much research and of much popular publishing. In May 2008, an academic conference was held in WoW that resulted in a conventional book of proceedings (Bainbridge 2010a). On each of three days, about 120 participants gathered at a different virtual location: the seacoast east of the Orc city of Orgrimmar, a cavern near the Forsaken capital of Undercity, and a ruined castle at the southern end of the Stranglethorn jungle. A panel led the discussion for each meeting, and each was followed by an expedition, including the simulated wedding of two avatars on the last day. The panel was organized inside Azeroth by setting up a guild named Science, with support from the already existing guild Alea Iacta Est, allowing the communications to be carried out in a private text chat channel, the content of which was automatically downloaded for subsequent publication.


Perhaps ironically, the gods and demigods in imaginary virtual worlds are true in a sense that real-world faiths may not be able to match: Their past deeds and current powers are literally realized through the graphics and software. A mage can fire a visible and very harmful ball of fire magic at an avatar, even as a priest can help the wounded avatar with a healing light. An avatar who has been killed becomes a colorless spirit at a graveyard, but can be resurrected either there at some cost, or more beneficially by running back to the location of its corpse. One of the races, called either the Undead or the Forsaken, had been fully dead but were restored to life by a plague, were exploited and then rebelled to establish their own society. Members of the Worgen race and the Death Knight class who arrived in expansions had a comparable history.

Across the vast geography, many non-player characters (NPCs) belong to radical cults, and each culture of avatars has some aspects of religion. However, the Night Elf and Tauren races share devotion to the most significant religion, Elune worship. The specialized wiki WoWpedia proclaims: “Elune is the primary goddess of the night elven pantheon. She is associated with the larger of Azeroth’s two moons, the White Lady, and is considered to be the mother of Cenarius, the forest lord and patron god of all druids. Elune is one of the few full deities of Azeroth. In Tauren culture, she is known as Mu’sha, the left eye of the Earthmother, with the right eye being the sun, An’she.” Unlike the Orc invaders, the Tauren were an indigenous race, apparently influenced by the Night Elf civilization, horned and rather bovine in appearance. They are a rather obvious metaphor for plains Native Americans, having totem poles, feather headdresses, and wigwams. Here we see a Tauren student sitting at the feet of arch druid Hamuul Runetotem, on the Elder Rise at the Tauren city of Thunder Bluff. [Image at right]

The Night Elves and Tauren share a fundamental value, considering nature to be sacred. They serve as environmentalists who cure pollution and defend the natural world against harm from the other races. Presumably, the Tauren always worshiped the Earthmother, but adopted Elune from the Night Elves, considering her to be a celestial manifestation of their traditional goddess. The Night Elves are a faction of an ancient civilization that endured a terrible war thousands of years earlier, as recounted in a trilogy of novels by Richard Knaak (2004a, 2004b, 2005).

Powerful magic, which may be conceptualized as a metaphor for advanced technology, was unleashed and shattered the continents of Azeroth. In reaction, the Night Elves sought salvation in the Elune nature religion. However, another faction rejected religion and formed the Blood Elves, who seek absolute power through magical technologies.

The intellectual sophistication of WoW is largely based on its depiction of a set of complex, competing cultures is a world ravaged by conflict, not merely between the races and factions, but also between nature (Night Elves) and technology (Blood Elves). So, one function of religion is to provide central principles that define some of the cultures, although the Lord of Light has some of the quality of a critique, given that the bureaucrats of the Cathedral of Light are corrupt in partnership with the rich Human elite. At a deeper level, where we can only hypothesize about the attitudes of players, World of Warcraft is a narrative about the collapse of civilizations, for which religion may be either a cause or a cure.


Both the Night Elves and the Tauren assign early-level players to undertake missions related to the religious significance of water, expressed more fully in the Classic version of WoW than the fully expanded version. In his office high in the sacred tree Aldrassil, the NPC Tenaron Stormgrip tells a student Night Elf: “It is time for you to set out to seek your destiny. But before you are ready to set out into the world beyond our enchanted forests, there is much you must learn about our recent history.” After brief instruction, the avatar must take an empty phial to a sacred moonwell to the north, and bring back some of its water. “While there is more I could speak to you of the moonwells and of Teldrassil, I must send you along. Corithras Moonrage will be expecting you. I have poured the phial of water you brought to me into this vessel to bring to him… You will find him at the moonwell in Dolanaar.” Corithras offers further instruction: [Image at right] “First, let me tell you more of the task you must complete. The druids in Darnassus use the water of the moonwells of Teldrassil, and their moonwell must be replenished from time to time. Using these specially crafted phials, you can collect the water of the moonwells.”

Missions send the student to gather water from moonwells outside of Starbreeze Village, on the shores of the Pools of Arlithrien, and in the Oracle Glade. Corithras explains that the world tree is in great danger:

Without the blessings of Alexstrasza the Life-Binder and Nozdormu the Timeless, Teldrassil’s growth has not been without flaw. Strange beasts have been reported arising from the very ground of the tree, and crazed furbolgs attack passing travelers. I can only hope that the solution the Arch Druid is looking for will be found quickly. I will pour all the phials you brought into this vessel, for you to deliver to Darnassus.

The Tauren series begins when an NPC named Mull Thunderhorn exclaims: “Goblins and their servants have tainted our sacred water wells! We cannot allow this. To cleanse each well, I must create a cleansing totem, then you must bring the totem to the well and perform a cleansing ritual.” The player’s avatar must obtain ritually required raw materials by hunting animals, because among the Tauren hunting is sacred. “Hunt prairie wolves for their paws and adult plainstriders for their talons.” The quest arc in is six parts, three of which gather ritual items from animals, and three of which take a totem made from them to sacred wells that have become surrounded by Goblins who must be killed to permit performing the ritual immediately at the well. Throughout Azeroth, the Goblins were the NPCs most harmful to nature, caring only for economic profit and technological innovation.

Although Night Elves and Tauren are enemies in secular terms, belonging to the hostile Alliance and Horde factions, they peacefully co-manage a sacred zone called Moonglade. Walled off by high mountains, this unusual area cannot easily be entered except by druids who can teleport there magically. Every year, however, a Lunar Festival is held there, and NPC druids can transport any avatar to Moonglade, effectively rendered peaceful by a holy truce. The rituals require formally honoring elders and ancestors.


The formal leaders of the virtual WoW religions are simulated people, non-player characters or NPCs. Among the Night Elves, the recognized church is the Sisterhood of Elune, headquartered in the Temple of the Moon on the south side of Darnassus, the Night Elf city. Tyrande Whisperwind is high priestess of the goddess Elune, and all the officers of the Sisterhood are female Night Elves. Arch Druid Fandral Staghelm resides in the Cenarion Enclave on the north side of Darnassus, a district named after Cenarius, Lord of the Forest and commander of the male leadership of the Cenarion Circle organization that guides all druids regardless of race, most visibly since the Cataclysm expansion. The image below [Image at right] shows an ordinary Night Elf standing on the balcony of the Temple of the Moon, between Malfurion Stormrage, the historic founder of the druids, and Tyrande Whisperwind, whom he married during the Cataclysm.

Avatars may become leaders of the voluntary organizations called “guilds,” but they cannot become officials of organizations like the Sisterhood of Elune or the Cenarion Circle. However, four different classes of avatars have religious significance and serve as clergy or magicians for secular avatars such as hunters or warriors. Some other classes have magical abilities, notably paladins and warlocks, but they do not seem fully religious. When a player is creating a new avatar, these descriptions of the four supernatural classes are offered, priest, druid, shaman and mage:

Priests guide the spiritual destiny of their people. Through their unique insight into the mind, they are able to shape an individual’s beliefs, whether to inspire or terrify, soothe or dominate, heal or harm. Just as the heart can hold both darkness and light, priests wield powers of creation and devastation by channeling the potent forces underlying faith.

Druids live in a state of unparalleled union with nature. Tightly bound to the plant and animal kingdoms, they are natural shapeshifters and so they know firsthand the abuse visited on their wild brethren. In Consequence, despite their numbers, druids tend to be wary, reclusive, and difficult to spot. Few outsiders have plumbed the depths of their secrets.

Shaman commune directly with the elements. Their combination of wisdom and resilience makes them ideal as tribal advisors and leaders. In battle the shaman use totems and spells to manipulate the elements and provoke other fighters to untold heights of rage and might. Shaman exemplify the primal bond between the savage races and their environment.

Magi are wizards of immense knowledge and skill. Their obvious physical frailty is deceptive, for they can call upon the cosmic energies of the Twisting Nether. Rarely do magi engage in melee combat. Instead, they prefer to attack from a distance, hurling powerful bolts of frost and flame at their unsuspecting enemies.

Depending upon the environment and the point in WoW’s history, avatars may combine in teams of various sizes for battles against a diversity of enemies. The most common teams are temporary groups of as many as five, one serving as organizer but all members cooperating in terms of a natural division of labor. For example, a warrior may attack an enemy directly in melee combat, while a mage hurts harmful spells against the enemy, and a priest hurls healing spells for the warrior. Classical raid groups could consist of as many as forty avatars, in eight groups of five, with the raid leader directing the action of all forty in direct communication with the leaders of the eight groups. Existing in the beginning but more common later in the history of WoW, many group battles took place in areas set aside for that purpose, while more legendary battles of the early years often involved attacking a town or city belonging to the enemy faction.

The Alea Iacta Est guild that assisted the 2008 scientific conference in WoW has demonstrated how extensive such a group can become. It originated from a WoW-related podcast in 2007 and grew to 6,600 members by the year 2000 when a technical limit of 1,000 was imposed on all guilds. So, AIE responded by splitting into multiple guilds and developing an add-on program called GreenWall that allowed members of all of them to communicate and team up in WoW. A decade later, AIE had guilds in seven other prominent MMOs as well, and a modest Facebook discussion group with 102 members. Many other groups oriented toward WoW are far more active in Facebook, including two bearing the same name, World of Warcraft, with 66,557 and 110,510 members, while two new groups for players of WoW Classic have 22,821 and 17,035 members.


The Cataclysm expansion of 2010 ignited forest fires in southern territories held by the Night Elves, and attempts to extinguish them have failed ever since. Elune worship faces many competitors among the other races, and the Night Elves tend to remain aloof and avoid proselytizing or being proselytized. However, the main challenges are religious in nature. As a sign of the weakening of the Elune faith, Cataclysm allowed Night Elves to be mages.

The somewhat amoral primary allies of the Night Elves are the Humans, who claim to worship the Lord of Light, except that they really do not personify this Lord as a deity. In Stormwind city, the Cathedral of Light was damaged, required rebuilding, and apparently the archbishop and other elites decided not to bother paying the workers they had hired, resulting in a minor rebellion. Just as Darnassus has both the Temple of the Moon for priestesses and the Cenarion Enclave for druids, Stormwind has the Cathedral of Light for priests, and the Mage Quarter for mages. Well may Night Elves wonder whether the religion of the humans is merely camouflage for economic and political repression, and they may worry that the priestesses of Elune could become tainted by any association with the priests of Light.

An extreme sect of the religion of Light is the Scarlet Crusade, that seeks to cleanse Azeroth of any beings that had returned from death, most notably the Forsaken race who belong to the Horde. Like the Humans, the Forsaken include both priests and mages, which suggests that their cultures are not really very different.

Within the Horde, the Tauren have the most purely traditional culture of the four original races, given that the Orcs are invaders, the Forsaken are Undead, and the Trolls have fallen into a primitive state after the destruction of much of their civilization. Tauren manage their ambivalent relationships with the Orcs and Night Elves reasonably well, and may be the only members of their faction with the practical ability to be conservative.

The 2016 Legion expansion of WoW revived the Burning Legion that had been largely responsible for the ancient sundering that devastated Elven civilization. It is an army of demons that seek to destroy all life, and a new class of avatar was thus created, called demon hunters, to combat their new invasion. Only Elves could play this role, Night Elves within the Alliance and Blood Elves among the Horde. The main WoW website describes them thus:

Demon hunters, disciples of Illidan Stormrage, uphold a dark legacy, one that frightens their allies and enemies alike. The Illidari embrace fel and chaotic magics – energies that have long threatened the world of Azeroth – believing them necessary to challenge the Burning Legion. Wielding the powers of demons they’ve slain, they develop demonic features that incite revulsion and dread in fellow elves.

Indeed, as a Night Elf demon hunter walks through a community of normal Night Elves, one or another of them may criticize the avatar’s choice of that abnormal class. Not so for demon hunters among the Blood Elves, one of whom is shown here [Image at right].

In the Classic version of WoW, an avatar would ascend a ladder of experience measured in sixty levels, and the maximum had become 110 with the Legion expansion. A demon knight did not need to work all the way up from level one, because they began at level ninety-eight, with a special set of adventures that would take them to level 100. A player could have only one demon hunter on a given realm, and must have already worked another character up to level seventy to have access to that option. Thus, other players need not envy or resent a player having a demon knight, but logically other avatars and NPCs would feel that the magical power of a demon hunter was unfair. Among faithful Night Elves, a demon hunter member of their own race may seem like sacrilege.

As fanciful as it may seem, World of Warcraft may have relevance for our “real” world, which seems to be slowly descending toward comparable chaos, splitting into hostile factions both nationally and internationally. It is worth remembering that both Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings were profound parables, not merely fantasy entertainments.


Image #1: A Tauren student sitting at the feet of arch druid Hamuul Runetotem, on the Elder Rise at the Tauren city of Thunder Bluff.
Image #2: A Night Elf priestess standing at one of the holy moonwells.
Image #3: An ordinary Night Elf standing on the balcony of the Temple of the Moon, between Malfurion Stormrage, the historic founder of the druids, and his wife, Tyrande Whisperwind, high priestess of the goddess Elune.
Image #4: A Blood Elf demon hunter.


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WoWpedia, “Elune.” Accessed from wow.gamepedia.com/Elune on 10 September 2019.

Publication Date:
23 September 2019