Those of us who grew up in a time when memes were still part of the fringe and online trolling in its infancy probably played – or knew of someone who played – for the Horde or Alliance in the greatest MMORPG of all time: World of Warcraft (WoW). It was a game that gave the world a new culture, language and in-game/real-world economy to the detriment of millions of teenagers (myself included) who probably came close to failing high school because of it. It should then come as rather shocking that ‘Warchief of the True Horde’ and President Trump’s Chief Strategist, Stephen Bannon, knew of and even studied the game in order to better understand the foundational base for what would become known as Trump’s Troll Army.
For many of us twenty-somethings, WoW was much more than a game. It was a lifestyle, a drug and ultimately an addiction that has led to the rise of the basement-dwelling neckbeard stereotype and an array of support groups such as Wowaholics Anonymous.
Within a morally ambiguous world that rarely conformed to the narrative of choosing good or evil, the player would level up by killing monsters and completing quests to get experience points, ‘loot’ and gold (the highest form of in-game currency in the game). Although the game’s levelling system initially capped at 60 (and even this in itself took a good couple months of casual play), there was still endless possibilities and entertainment for cooperative raids and competitive Player versus Player battles usually done within in-game clubs called guilds.
During the games initial infancy, Bannon had a brief and little known stint in gold trading back in 2005 at a time when the game had amassed over 10 million subscribers – each paying a monthly subscription.
In an unauthorized biography titled Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, writer Joshua Green chronicles Bannon’s journey from Goldman Sachs banker to ‘Trump’s Brain’.
Working at Goldman Sachs just as WoW was on the rise, Bannon once convinced his bosses to make a 60 million dollar investment in a Hong-Kong based company generically called Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE). IGE employed legions of “low wage Chinese workers” to virtually ‘farm’ for gold that could be traded for virtual goods, which in turn could be sold to players for real money.
The life of a gold farmer was essentially dull. Workers usually played solo as an undead rogue, a character that was low maintenance as possible and just as efficient as it was boring that it might even hold some metaphorical familiarity to the lonely, ghoulish nature of their ‘avatars’ IRL (in real life).
Many players considered the business of buying characters and items cheating. It was a quick, easy way for rich kids to artificially slingshot their way to max level and high tier equipment.
One of the great things about WoW was that aside from built-in race and class mechanics, real world issues regarding race and class was generally absent. Everyone was dealt the same hand and was judged accordingly by their guild based off of their skill, merit and utility to the team.
Of course, this all changed once gold trading sites started to pop up and gain traction before becoming investment sinks for Wall Street. Every WoW player would come to know some scumbag who threw their parent’s money at third parties for gold so they could receive things they didn’t necessarily deserve.
IGE made hundreds of millions of dollars off of these kids, which propelled Bannon and Goldman to make an investment that would go horribly wrong. In 2007, a disgruntled WoW player slapped a massive class-action lawsuit on IGE for “substantially impairing” players’ enjoyment of the game. IGE sold off its marketplace to competitors, rebranded themselves as Affinity Media and made Bannon CEO.
It was here, in the mythical world and forums of Azeroth, where Bannon came to learn about the growing power of memes and trolling before taking the reins of the alt-right media giant Breitbart in 2012 and in 2016, activating his online army to help storm his candidate, Donald Trump, to the presidency.
In Devils Bargain, Green writes that Bannon’s time at IGE was:
“One that introduced him to a hidden world, burrowed deep into his psyche, and provided a kind of conceptual framework that he would later draw on to build up the audience for Breitbart News, and then to help marshal the online armies of trolls and activists that overran national politicians and helped give rise to Donald Trump.”
The rules of WoW and the ‘Rules of the Internet’ (the now outdated commandments dictated by 4chan’s legion of Anonymous users) are closely synonymous to each other. Rule 30 proclaims there are ‘no girls on the internet’. While roughly 8 percent of WoW’s players are female, males make up the majority and so it should come as no surprise that a typical WoW guild resembles an involuntary boys-only-club. Any guild chat or forum undoubtedly contained loads of shit-posting, guild hierarchies and machoism, often found today on sites like Reddit. Bannon saw these boyish clans a prototype for what would evolve into a radical political force.
In describing gamers, Bannon said, “These guys, these rootless white males, had monster power…It was the pre-Reddit. It’s the same guys on Thottbot who were [later] on reddit” and other online message boards where the alt-right flourished.
Through Breitbart, Bannon made the viral ground fertile for politically incorrect provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and contrarian, button-pushing articles bordering on racism, xenophobia and sexism. Perhaps the greatest rule Bannon internalized from this online culture was Rule 14: do not argue with trolls, they will win.
He learned of the cultural force of trolling most efficiently used in recent memory by 4chan’s /pol/ (containing probably some of the same people who grew up with WoW) who embraced the Pepe frog cartoon, even when given white supremacist connotations by the left, and more specifically, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as an actual Egyptian trickster god summoned by /pol/ to meme Trump into the presidency, an online ‘ironic’ religion colloquially called Esoteric Kekism or the Cult of Kek.
As another trolling blow to Clinton’s campaign, the alt-right embraced her term ‘Deplorables’ which caught on as a way to smugly give her the semantic finger, the most memorable being in the form of a modified Expendables movie poster containing the photo-shopped heads of Trump, Pepe, Milo, Roger Stone and Alex Jones, each having their own M.O. but still trolls nonetheless. “I realized Milo could connect with these kids right away,” Bannon told Green. “You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.”
After the initial shock of understanding Bannon’s online employment history, it seems rather fitting that a man with a deep passion for war; who once said, “Darkness is good… Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when [liberals] get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing,” it seems strangely fitting that the ‘Great Manipulator’ started out by taking notes in the Auction House or the raids in Zul’Gurub and saw the potential for what would metastasize into one of the New Right’s unstoppable forces.
Photo: Flicker painting of Time cover.